On 12 February 1851, a prospector discovered small fragments of gold in a waterhole near Bathurst in New South Wales, Australia. This discovery opened the floodgates to migration and enterprise which soon spread across the continent, from Victoria and News South Wales to Tasmania, Queensland and beyond.
‘Gold fever’ seemed to have infected the world and brought prospectors from Europe, America and Asia to Australia. Alongside gold, what many of them found was a new sense of identity that challenged British colonial society and changed the course of Australian history.
Here are 10 facts about the Australian gold rush.
1. Edward Hargraves was hailed as the ‘Gold Discoverer of Australia’
Hargraves had left Britain aged 14 to make a life for himself in Australia. A jack of all trades, he worked as a farmer, storekeeper, pearl- and tortoise-sheller and sailor.
In July 1849, Hargraves ventured to America to take part in the Californian gold rush where he gained valuable knowledge in how to prospect. Although he did not make his fortune in California, Hargraves returned to Bathurst in January 1851 determined to put his new skills to good use.
2. The first gold discovery was made on 12 February 1851
Hargraves was working along Lewis Pond Creek near Bathurst in February 1851 when his instincts told him gold was close by. He filled a pan with gravelly soil and drained it into the water when he saw a glimmer. Within the dirt lay small flecks of gold.
Hargraves sped to Sydney in March 1851 to present soil samples to the government who confirmed he had indeed struck gold. He was rewarded with £10,000 which he refused to split with his companions John Lister and the Tom Brothers.
3. The gold discovery was publicly announced on 14 May 1851
The confirmation of Hargraves’ discovery, announced in the Sydney Morning Herald, began New South Wales’ gold rush, the first in Australia. Yet gold was already flowing from Bathurst to Sydney before the Herald‘s announcement.
By 15 May, 300 diggers were already on site and ready to mine. The rush had begun.
4. Gold was found in Australia before 1851
Reverend William Branwhite Clarke, also a geologist, found gold in the soil of the Blue Mountains in 1841. However, his discovery was quickly hushed by colonial Governor Gipps, who reportedly told him, “put it away Mr Clarke or we shall all have our throats cut”.
The British colonial government feared that people would abandon their work believing they could make their fortune in the goldfields, shrinking the workforce and destabilising the economy. Gipps was also afraid that the people of New South Wales, the majority of whom were convicts or ex-convicts, would rebel once they had found gold.
5. The Victorian gold rush dwarfed the rush in New South Wales
The colony of Victoria, founded in July 1851, began haemorrhaging inhabitants as people flocked to neighbouring New South Wales in search of gold. Therefore, Victoria’s government offered £200 to anyone who found gold 200 miles within Melbourne.
Before the end of the year, impressive gold deposits had been found in Castlemaine, Buninyong, Ballarat and Bendigo, overtaking the goldfields of New South Wales. By the end of the decade, Victoria was responsible for over a third of the world’s gold findings.
6. Yet the biggest single mass of gold was found in New South Wales
Weighing in at 92.5kg of gold stuck within quartz and rock, the enormous ‘Holtermann Nugget’ was discovered in the Star of Hope mine by Bernhardt Otto Holtermann on 19 October 1872.
The nugget made Holtermann a very rich man once it had been melted down. Today, the value of the gold would be worth 5.2 million Australian dollars.
7. The gold rush brought an influx of migrants to Australia
Some 500,000 ‘diggers’ flocked to Australia from far and wide in search of treasure. Many prospectors came from within Australia, while others travelled from Britain, the United States, China, Poland and Germany.
Between 1851 and 1871, the Australian population exploded from 430,000 people to 1.7 million, all headed ‘off to the diggings’.
8. You had to pay to be a miner
The influx of people meant limited finances for governmental services and the colonial budget was struggling. To discourage the tidal wave of newcomers, the governors of New South Wales and Victoria imposed a 30 shilling a month licence fee on miners – a pretty substantial sum.
By 1852, the surface gold had become ever harder to find and the fee became a point of tension between the miners and government.
9. New ideas about society led to conflict with the British colonial state
Miners from the town of Ballarat, Victoria, began to disagree with the way the colonial government administered the goldfields. In November 1854, they decided to protest and built a stockade at the Eureka diggings.
On Sunday 3 December, government troops attacked the lightly guarded stockade. During the assault, 22 prospectors and 6 soldiers were killed.
Although the colonial government had resisted the change in political attitudes, public opinion had shifted. Australia would go on to pioneer the secret ballot and the 8-hour working day, both key to building Australia’s representational structures.
10. The Australian Gold Rush had a profound impact on the country’s national identity
As the government had feared, exemplified at the Eureka Stockade, the gold ‘diggers’ forged a strong identity separate to colonial British authority. This identity was centred around the principle of ‘mateship’ – a bond of loyalty, equality and solidarity, particularly among men.
Mateship has become an enduring part of Australian identity, so much so that it has even been suggested the term be included within Australia’s constitution.