Early Australian Gold Finds

The beginnings and first discovery

Although gold had been rumoured to have been found in Australia as early as 1814, the first gold fields did not appear until thirty years later. Gold discoveries were not considered blessings in the pre 1850’s Australian convict society as the authorities believed gold fever could potentially cause anarchy in the small fledgling British colonies.

Most finds were kept very quiet as most ‘finders’ soon found themselves accused of theft and punished violently for their trouble. As the society was predominantly criminals and convicts, this story was easier to believe than the idea that these people were just picking it up in the bush.

However, many of these people were hushed up and punished for another reason. Farmers, wealthy land owners and the authorities were afraid that if word got around that gold had been found then many of their lowly paid workers and labourers would leave their jobs.

That all ended when the ‘Wild West’ gold rush of California began to really heat up. Workers from all over the world migrated to the United States to strike it rich. Australia was no exception and when this ‘labour drain’ began to impact the local economy, Australia’s governors began to look at gold differently.

Gold in Australia was first ‘officially’ discovered in 1851 by one Edward Hargraves. Hargraves had just returned empty-handed from the already under-way Californian Gold Rush and had a theory that the Australian and Californian terrains had many similarities.

Hargraves hit the road and travelled west of Sydney towards the Bathurst plains. There he met a local man named John Lister who had already found gold in the region. Lister led Hargraves to a place known as Summerhill Creek.

It was here that the first publicized gold was found. The place was named Ophir by Hargraves and would become Australia’s earliest gold field. The government officially declared the gold discovery on the 22nd of May 1851 and thousands flocked to the Bathurst plains. This was known as the first gold rush.

Hargraves would later ‘downplay’ the fact that John Lister led him to the place of discovery and ‘neglected’ to mention this fact in his autobiography. He also neglected to state that his initial trip back to Sydney was based on a few worthless specs of gold or that the first payable gold (two nuggets) was subsequently found on April 7th 1851 by John Listed and William Tom.

Jealousy and hidden treasure

The first gold rush was well and truly on in New South Wales but far more was yet to come. The Victorian Authorities in Melbourne grew anxious as many of their population made their way north towards Bathurst to try their luck. As labour started to become scarcer, Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe offered a ₤200 reward for any gold found within a 200 mile radius of Melbourne.

Gold had already been found at a sheep station named Clunes (meaning “pleasant place” in Gaelic) by a farmer named Donald Cameron. Donald had kept it quiet however, like many before him. However, word got out and an experienced prospector named James Esmond rushed out there to verify the rumours

James Esmond had actually travelled on the same ship as Edward Hargraves on his return to Australia from California. He also did indeed find gold at Clunes, announcing it on the 7th of July 1851, making him one of the early finders of gold in Victoria.

Soon after, gold was found at Warrandyte (now a suburb of Melbourne) by Louis Michel. This started an early mini gold rush. But these finds were not large enough to spark a state-wide gold frenzy. Incredibly rich gold fields were on the horizon however. Ones that would change the new colony of Victoria forever.

These gigantic finds were at Ballarat and Bendigo which are now recognised as part of Victoria’s Golden Triangle.

A blacksmith discovered gold a few kilometres north of Buninyong (a small farming village west of Melbourne). This was to be one of the richest gold fields the world has ever seen.

The area had been named Ballaarat (of Aboriginal descent, meaning ‘resting place’) but was shortened to Ballarat as 10,000 miners arrived in less than a year and turned this once sleepy region to Victoria’s largest settlement.

Miners and prospectors who were originally heading to Clunes now turned towards Ballarat instead. As big as it was though, Ballarat was not the only major find for Victoria.

Further north, two women whose husbands worked on the Ravenswood sheep run found gold in an area of Bendigo Creek known as ‘The Rocks’. Their discovery was published in late 1851 and the Bendigo rush began.

These major finds in Victoria would set in motion the famous ‘Great Australian Gold Rush’.

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