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Gold rushes

Defining Moments in Australian History

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Gold rushes

1851: Gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria begin


1851: Gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria begin

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.


More on the gold rushes

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.

A hand-coloured lithographic playing board made of eight paper sections mounted on linen.
'Race to the gold diggings of Australia' board game, about 1855. Interest in the gold rush extended to this 19th century game, which invited middle class children to imagine the excitement and wealth promised by a journey to the far reaches of the British Empire. National Museum of Australia. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Transformation of the Australian colonies

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

Between 1851 and 1871, the Australian population trebled as thousands of migrants – from Britain, China, America, France, Italy, Germany and Poland – arrived in search of gold. The first discoveries of payable gold were at Ophir in New South Wales and then at Ballarat and Bendigo Creek in Victoria.

Significant deposits were progressively discovered around Australia: in New South Wales and Victoria, in Queensland, in what is now the Northern Territory and in Tasmania, and then the huge fields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie in Western Australia were identified in the 1890s. Only South Australia missed out on major gold rushes and the social and economic boom they delivered.

Edward Hargraves

A portrait of Edward Hargraves with a horse.
Mr E.H. Hargraves, the gold discoverer of Australia, Feb 12th 1851 returning the salute of the gold miners, 1875, oil painting by TT Balcombe. State Library of New South Wales.

A key figure in the discovery of gold in Australia was Edward Hammond Hargraves. Hargraves returned to Australia after working on the California goldfields determined to find gold in New South Wales. He travelled to Bathurst where local men John Lister and William, James and Henry Tom showed him sites where they had found gold specks.

Hargraves taught the Toms how to build a gold washing cradle and then returned to Sydney. He soon received news that the brothers had washed a payable amount of gold from Summer Hill Creek. Hargraves announced the find, claimed a £10,000 reward and named the field Ophir. By 15 May, more than 300 diggers were at Ophir, all seeking their fortune.

While Hargraves did well from the find Lister and the Tom brothers received no reward until 1853, when the New South Wales parliament granted them £1000 each. Almost 40 years later, the parliament officially credited them as ‘the first discoverers of gold obtained in Australia in payable quantity’.

Drawing showing men working by a creek, with tall trees on both sides of the creek.
Gold washing, Fitzroy Bar, Ophir diggings, 1851, print from a drawing by George French Angas. National Library of Australia.

Bealiba gold nugget

Mikey Robins discusses the Bealiba gold nugget found near the Victorian town of Bendigo, which was at the heart of the 1850s gold rushes.

You can find more object stories on the Defining Moments videos page 

Further reading

Edward Hargraves in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

SBS Gold website

Eureka! The rush for gold on the State Library of New South Wales website

Sovereign Hill Gold Museum website

Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia, Ian McCalman, Alexander Cook and Andrew Reeves (eds), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852, Robyn Annear, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999.

Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, David Goodman, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994.

The Rush That Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining, Geoffrey Blainey, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1969.

From our collection

To win at this game you will need to think clearly and strategically.
An 1850s children's game produced in England after gold was discovered in Australia.
Snapshots of mining and life in 1860s Queensland from geologist and photographer Richard Daintree.
Popular sketches of life in the 1860s by artist Samuel Thomas Gill.
The story of the Bealiba gold nugget, found near the town of Bealiba (near Bendigo, Victoria) in 1957.
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Other featured moments from this period

1859: Rabbits successfully introduced into Australia
1830: The ‘Black Line’ – settler force attempts to corral Aboriginal people on the Tasman Peninsula
1858: First organised game of Australian Rules football
1836: Governor Richard Bourke funds Protestant and Catholic churches in New South Wales on equal basis
1813: Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth cross the Blue Mountains
1804: Convict uprising known as the Castle Hill Rebellion (or the Battle of Vinegar Hill) put down by New South Wales Corps

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Topics:GoldIndustry and workMigration Places:New South WalesVictoria Curriculum subjects:Economics and BusinessGeographyHistory School years:Year 5Year 9Year 10