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April 1, 2024

The Victorian Gold Rush - 1850's & 60's

The Victorian Gold Rush - 1850's & 60's
The Victorian Gold Rush - 1850's & 60's

Written By

Chrish Samuel

Chrish Samuel

Managing Director

Victoria was engulfed in gold fever subsequent to the initial gold discoveries in the vicinity of Clunes, Warrandyte, and Ballarat in 1851, which were fueled by illusory tales of prosperity acquired during the Californian gold rush in 1849. However, the true frenzy commenced when the Mount Alexander goldfield, located 60 kilometres northeast of Ballarat, was discovered. Mount Alexander (taking in the goldfields of Castlemaine and Bendigo) was one of the world's richest shallow alluvial goldfields, yielding c.4m ounces of gold, most of which was found in the first two years of the rush and within five metres of the surface.

Between 1850 and 1900, c.$9Bn worth of gold was found in Bendigo, making it the second highest producing gold field in Australia after Kalgoorlie, and seventh richest field in the world. The small town of Moliagul became famous when a 69-kilogram gold nugget was found in 1869 at Bulldog Gully. Dubbed 'Welcome Stranger', the nugget was the largest in the world.

In 1851 the population of Victoria was only 77,345. A decade later it had risen to 538,628 (a seven-fold increase). During 1852, the peak year of the rushes, 90,000people arrived in Melbourne. Victoria had a population of 411,000 by 1857. A portion of this population growth can be attributed to intra-colonial migration; however, the precise number of individuals who arrived at the Victorian diggings by way of overland routes from other colonies remains difficult to ascertain. In 1852 alone, according to shipping records, Victoria received 14,000 individuals from New South Wales, 19,000 from Tasmania, and 15,000 from South Australia and Western Australia. With regards to immigrants, majority of the international arrivals were from Britain. Between 1851 and 1860, an estimated 300,000 people came to Australian colonies from England and Wales, with another 100,000 from Scotland and 84,000 from Ireland. Gold seekers from Germany, Italy and North America also made the journey to Australia in search of gold. Just over 5,000 people from New Zealand and other South Pacific nations, and at least 42,000 people from China, also arrived in Australia during the 1850s gold rushes. Half of the international arrivals in the 1850s were aged between 21 and 35, and two-thirds of the migrants were male.

Most of the immigrants paid their own way to Australia (although roughly a third of them were assisted in their passage). A good number were educated – by 1861, Victoria had the lowest illiteracy rate in the world. Most were skilled as well – only a third of British male immigrants to Australia were unskilled labourers, comparedwith two-thirds of migrants to the United States. In the words of Geoffrey Serle, the migrants from Britain during the first years of the gold rushes were ‘something like across-section of Britain with a thin slice off the top and a thick slice off the bottom’. As time passed and these young men grew older, the members of the gold generation went on to be hugely influential in the development of cultural and political institutions in Victoria. Serle points out that nine out of thirteen premiers of Victoria from the 1860s to the 1890s were members of this generation. Many of the migrants during the gold rushes would have dreamed of making their fortune on the diggings and returning to a better life in their home country, but the statistics show that about two-thirds of diggers from continental Europe, and about 80% of the British migrants, remained in Australia.

It is a prevalent fallacy that Chinese migrants who migrated to Victoria in pursuit of gold were temporary residents who returned to China (whether prosperous or impoverished) following their labours and had little influence on goldfields society beyond the implementation of racist exclusionary policies like the Poll Tax. Many Chinese undoubtedly returned to China, while others persisted in their journeys beyond Victoria, observing gold surges in other regions of Australia, New Zealand and further afield. However, in recent years, more and more researchers are uncovering the history of continuing Chinese participation in daily life on the Victoriangoldfields. Migrants also stayed connected to their home country by the cultural baggage that they carried with them on their journeys. This cultural baggage played a major role in shaping the institutions that grew up in Victoria to serve the new generation of migrants who arrived throughout the 1850s, many of whom stayed to create a new 'Australian’ society. The different migrant groups who came to Victoria during the gold rushes attempted to keep a part of ‘home’ alive through the communities they formed, the churches and schools that they built, and the religious and cultural customs that they continued to follow. Their observance of these practices created new ‘national’ cultures on the goldfields, such as those of the Scottish, the Cornish, the Chinese and the Swiss-Italians in Australia.

The gold decade (1851-61) was a period of spectacular growth. Timber buildings in the city were rebuilt in solid stone and brick and work commenced on important public institutions ―the State Library and the University of Melbourne in 1854, Parliament House in 1856, and the Treasury Building in 1858. Houses were built for thousands of new immigrants and by 1853 large-scale subdivisions mushroomed in the city fringes. Better roads and the development of a rail network accelerated the suburban boom. The demand for housing sent land prices skyrocketing. The poor, displaced from the centre of the city by commercial and industrial development, clustered in tiny ‘gimcrack’ housing in Fitzroy, Collingwood and North Melbourne, while the wealthy-built villas in Toorak, Hawthorn, and Kew. The ‘poor west affluent east’ pattern was established early. Historian, Graeme Davison, describes Gold Rush Melbourne as an ‘instant’ city, with all the problems associated with rapid urban growth.

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