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A series of huts with gerry-rigged frames from which are suspended what appear to be canvas chutes extending down into holes in the ground. In the foreground three men are working around a pony and cart, which is filled with soil.
‘Deep Sinking’, Bakery Hill, Ballarat, 1853 by ST Gill. National Museum of Australia

The discovery of gold in the 1850s started a series of rushes that transformed the Australian colonies.

The first discoveries of payable gold were at Ophir in New South Wales and then at Ballarat and Bendigo Creek in Victoria.

In 1851, gold-seekers from around the world began pouring into the colonies, changing the course of Australian history.

The gold rushes greatly expanded Australia’s population, boosted its economy, and led to the emergence of a new national identity.

Geelong Advertiser, 14 October 1851:

There are, we should say, about a thousand cradles at work, within a mile of the Golden Point, at Ballarat. There are about fifty near the Black Hill, about a mile and a half distant, and at the Brown Hill Diggings there are about three or four hundred more; to say nothing of hundreds on the ground not yet set at work. Allowing five for each cradle, the population within a radius of five miles must be a population of about seven thousand men.
5:35

The gold rush in live-sketch animation, as told by historian David Hunt.

Studio photo of a simple contraption made of timber. It appears to be essentially a box with a tray extending from one side, and a handle from the other. On the top surface of the box is a metal sheet punctuated with holes. - click to view larger image
Gold mining cradle, National Museum of Australia

Discovery of gold in Australia

There had been multiple gold finds in New South Wales (Bathurst and Monaro), Tasmania and what would become Victoria prior to the ‘official’ discovery of the precious metal by Edward Hargraves near Orange in 1851.

In 1841 Reverend William Branwhite Clarke, one of the earliest geologists in the colony, came across particles of gold near Hartley in the Blue Mountains.

In 1844 he mentioned it to Governor Gipps who reportedly said: ‘Put it away Mr Clarke or we shall all have our throats cut’.

Gipps feared that mutiny would result if the people of New South Wales, the majority of whom were convicts or ex-convicts, found that gold was within easy reach.

The government’s attitude to gold discoveries changed in 1848 with news of the California gold rush. The promise of fortunes to be had across the Pacific led thousands of men to leave the colony, creating labour shortages and economic depression.

Governor Charles FitzRoy had heard rumours of the gold to be found in New South Wales and believed a mineral discovery in the colony could reverse the economic downturn. He convinced the British government in 1849 to appoint a government geologist, Samuel Stutchbury, and offered a reward to anyone who found a commercially viable amount of gold.

Three men stand by a stream. Two are looking into a gold pan. In the background is a hole with a shovel in it, and a man carrying a hoe.
'Prospectors' by ST Gill. National Museum of Australia
A bearded man wearing a bright red jacket and holding his top aloft stands on a rocky outcrop holding the reins of his horse. - click to view larger image
Mr E.H. Hargraves, the Gold Discoverer of Australia, Feb 12th 1851 Returning the Salute of the Gold Miners, by TT Balcombe, 1875. State Library of New South Wales

Edward Hargraves

Edward Hargraves was a jack of all trades: farmer, storekeeper, publican, pearl-sheller and sailor. In 1849 he sailed for the Californian gold rush. He failed to find his fortune but was struck by the topographical and geological similarities between California and the interior of New South Wales.

In January 1851 he returned to the colony and immediately headed inland, convinced he would find gold and, more importantly, claim the government reward.

Near Bathurst, Hargraves enlisted the support of John Lister and brothers William and James Tom. Within weeks they had discovered a small amount of gold at a site Hargraves named Ophir, after a port city of great wealth mentioned in the Old Testament.

Hargraves returned to Sydney in March 1851 and presented his samples to the government. Samuel Stutchbury was sent to confirm the strike, which he did.

Hargraves was eventually awarded the £10,000 prize, which he refused to share with Lister or the Tom brothers.

News of the find was promptly published in the Sydney Morning Herald and by 15 May 1851, 300 diggers had arrived in Ophir. The rush was on.

Colour illustration of several men using gold mining cradles to wash for gold by a narrow river. They are surrounded by trees and in the background a small settlement is visible.
'Gold washing, Fitzroy Bar, Ophir diggings', 1851, print from a drawing by George French Angas. National Library of Australia

Victorian gold rush

In the newly established colony of Victoria, men began to flood north to the New South Wales goldfields. The Victorian government responded with the offer of a reward of £200 to anyone finding gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. Within six months, gold was discovered in Clunes, and then Ballarat, Castlemaine and Bendigo.

The Victorian rush would dwarf the finds in New South Wales, accounting for more than a third of the world’s gold production in the 1850s.

Studio photo of a game board with three pieces, an instruction manual and the box they came in. the box has a colourful illustration showing men holding a flag pointing at ships at sea. The pieces on the game board are ships and the board itself suggests that the game involves moving around an oval sea with an illustration of gold diggings in the centre.
‘Race to the gold diggings of Australia’ board game, about 1855. National Museum of Australia

Migration boom

The discovery of gold started a series of rushes that transformed the other Australian colonies. Significant deposits were discovered in Tasmania from 1852, in Queensland from 1857 and in the Northern Territory from 1871. In the 1890s a new series of rushes were triggered by the discovery of huge gold fields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie in Western Australia.

Between 1851 and 1871 the Australian population quadrupled from 430,000 people to 1.7 million as migrants from Britain, China, North America and across continental Europe arrived in search of gold.

Among these were men and women bringing new political ideas to the young colonies.

Initially, the colonial establishment resisted such progressive thinking as a threat to their authority and the resulting tensions culminated in the Eureka Stockade. But a groundswell of public opinion brought about a series of world-leading social experiments, such as the secret ballot, the eight-hour day and the formation of the Labor Party.

Australia’s huge reserves of gold made the country a destination for people from around the globe and by the end of the 19th century the rushes had helped create a wealthy, liberal society with a standard of living that was the envy of the world.

Defining Moments: Gold rushes and the Bealiba nugget 5:16

Curator Stephen Munro on the significance of the Bealiba gold nugget found near Bendigo.

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In our collection

Ambrotype of Alexander Mussen 1854A leather covered case with a metal clasp on one side which opens to reveal an oval glass ambrotype photograph of a man wearing a suit and cravat. The image is contained within a gold frame which bears a maker's imprint "BRADY / 1854". The case is lined on both sides with black velvet which provides a background against which b...

Further reading

Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold: the diggers of 1852, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999

David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, USA, 1994

Weston Bate, Victorian Gold Rushes, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Fitzroy, Victoria, 1988

Geoffrey Serle, Golden Age: a history of the colony of Victoria, 1851–1861, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1977

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