Thursday, 18 April 2013

Gold in Australia in 1851

Gold had been found in Australia in the Bathurst district in 1823[1], in the Victorian Alps in 1839 and by William Campbell on his sheep run in Strahlodden, Victoria, in 1840. The following year, the Reverend William Clarke found gold in the basin of the River Macquarie but this was suppressed by Governor Gipps, who worried about its potential effects on convict order. [2] Shepherds and farmers were known to appear in Sydney, disposing their finds with as little fuss as possible. Nevertheless, throughout the 1840s there were growing fears in colonial government that there were substantial gold deposits in Australia, a situation exacerbated by the discovery of gold in California in early 1848. [3]

On January 7 1851, Edward Hargraves and James Esmond disembarked the Emma in Sydney determined to find the gold that had eluded them in California. On 5 February 1851, Hargraves headed west for the Bathurst plains where he believed a gold field existed, while Esmond boarded a coastal steamer for Melbourne. Hargraves planned to find gold and claim the government reward for discovery of a payable goldfield.[4] Arriving in Guyong, Hargraves met John Lister following him to where he had already found gold. In his autobiography [5] Hargraves dramatised his account with suitable hyperbole:

My recollection of it had not deceived me. The resemblance of its formations to that of California could not be doubted or mistaken. I felt myself surrounded by gold…This is a memorable day in the history of New South Wales, I shall be a baronet, you will be knighted, and my old horse will be stuffed, put in a glass case, and sent to the British Museum![6]

In the next weeks, Hargraves explored the area with little success, so he enlisted Lister and William, James and Henry Tom to continue the search. At Summer Hill Creek, they quickly extracted £13 worth of gold. [7] Rushing to Sydney in March with the find, Hargraves went to Deas Thomson, the Colonial Secretary saying that he was willing to reveal the location of the field while cleverly ensuring he would be rewarded regardless. [8] After lengthy discussion, Thomson was persuaded to send Samuel Sutchbury, a British geologist to examine the field and subsequently paid Hargraves a £500 reward. [9] However, before the geologist made an official statement but encouraged by news from the Tom brothers, Hargraves wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald describing in general terms the rich fields. When sure of the government reward some weeks later, he identified the gold’s location and left for Bathurst early in May. He ignored pleas by the Toms and Lister for secrecy, named the area ‘Ophir’, the biblical city of gold and whipped up enthusiasm in the Bathurst district. By 15 May over 300 diggers [10] were at Ophir and the first gold rush had begun. [11]

Within a few days Sutchbury was confident about the size of the potential goldfield and the government declared a gold discovery on May 22 1851. The impact on Sydney was immediate: prospectors cancelled their trips to California and clerks, labourers and servants failed to appear for work as thousands rushed west to ‘Ophir’. The Bathurst Times stated that:

A complete mental madness appears to have seized almost every member of the community, and as a natural consequence, there has been a universal rush to the diggings. [12]

Writing four years later, G. C. Mundy said that:

The masters and employers of labour, of all ranks, from the lordly squatter of the distant interior, with his battalions of dependents, to the small tradesmen in the townships, with his single assistant, trembled at the idea of their deserting for the diggings, and the consequent ruin of flocks and custom. [13]

In the days following Hargraves’ announcement the mood in Sydney was feverish. Some inhabitants looked to a glorious future while others recalled reports of Californian lawlessness and anarchy. The gold rush threatened the very existence of Victoria and the Melbourne Argus unrealistically preached restraint:

If we neglect our cornfields or our sheepwalks for a time, a short supply of food, and a falling off of exports will result. But gold can keep, it will neither deteriorate in quality nor diminish in quantity, by waiting our leisure. The work therefore should be set about in a calm, systematic, deliberate manner, nothing done in a hurry[14]

While La Trobe commented in October:

Within the last three weeks the towns of Melbourne and Geelong and their large suburbs have been in appearance almost emptied of many classes of their male inhabitants…leaving their employers and their wives and families to take care of themselves[15]

In desperation, he assembled a Gold Discovery Committee on June 9 1851 offering a £200 reward to anyone who found payable amounts of gold within two hundred miles of Melbourne. Gold had already been discovered by William Campbell on Donald Cameron’s station in Clunes in 1850. But Cameron feared his station would be overrun by ambitious diggers and opted to keep quiet like others before him. Meanwhile, word of Cameron’s story reached James Esmond and Dr George Bruhn, a German physician who travelled to Clunes and found £50 worth of gold around June 28 1851. [16] On 5 July 1851, Esmond went to Geelong and showed some of their gold to Alfred Clarke of the Geelong Advertiser. When he returned to Geelong on 15 July he told Clarke the locality of the find and this was published on 22 July. The first big gold rush at Ballarat was, in actual fact, a false start.[17] The first diggers exhausted a layer of gold-bearing gravel that lay only a few feet below the surface, then moved on to new strikes in search of greater success. The richest goldfields had yet to be discovered. In August 1851, Thomas Hiscock [18] found gold in Buninyong near Ballarat, [19] followed in December by Henry Frencham [20] in Bendigo. [21] Further finds were also made in Anderson’s Creek, Ararat, Mount Alexander, and McIvnor’s Creek. By Christmas, an estimated 250,000 ounces of gold had been taken from the central Victorian region. [22]

Both Hargraves’ and Esmond’s reputation as the discoverers of gold in NSW and Victoria are questionable. Lister and the Tom brothers realised too late that they had been used by Hargraves. In 1853, a Legislative Council select committee heard evidence on the events in 1851 and, while upholding Hargraves’ key role, recommended that £1000 be granted to the men taught by Hargraves and a similar amount to Rev. W. Clarke. Hargraves’ polemical autobiography did not silence the increasingly bitter Tom family or Lister and it was not until 1890 that the Legislative Assembly found that Hargraves may have taught them to pan for gold, but ‘Messrs Tom and Lister were...the first discoverers of gold obtained in Australia in payable quantity’. Nevertheless, the legend of Hargraves, ‘the discoverer of gold’ persists. As far as Esmond is concerned, in 1853-1854, Victoria’s Legislative Council accepted his evidence that he had found gold on 28 June 1851 and revealed his site on 22 July. Louis Michel however, had fond gold at Anderson’s Creek and given full particulars of the site on 5 July.[23] The Council recommended rewards of £1000 to Michel for discovering and publicising an available goldfield and to Esmond, ‘as the first actual producer of alluvial gold for the market’. Other rewards were recommended for Campbell, Hiscock and Bruhn but were not paid for ten years.


[1] The field book of Surveyor James McBrien mentions particles of gold on the Fish River near Bathurst in 1823. This was the first mention of the discovery of gold in the colony but went unreported to the public as the colonial government of the day wanted to avoid a gold rush.

[2] Mozley, Ann, ‘William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878)’, ADB, Vol. 3, 1969, pp. 420-422, provides useful biographical material.

[3] Lancelott, Francis, Australia as it is: Its Settlements, Farms, and Gold Fields, (Colburn & Co.), 1852, pp. 274-279; Erskine, John Elphinstone, A Short Account of the late discoveries of Gold in Australia, London, 1851, edited by Mackaness, George, Sydney, 1957, pp. 6-8, an account of the NSW discoveries that ended in early August 1851.

[4] The government eventually gave him £10,000 and from 1877 an annual pension of £250. He was also showered with testimonials, valuable cups and other trophies. In 1851, he became a commissioner of crown lands for the gold districts and a justice of the peace.

[5] Hargraves, Edward, Australia and its goldfields, (H. Ingram), 1855, is a self-congratulatory, decidedly partial and probably ghost-written account. Mitchell, Bruce, ‘Edward Hammond Hargraves (1816-1891)’, ADB, Vol. 4, 1972, pp. 346-347, is a useful, if short corrective.

[6] Ibid, Hargraves, Edward, Australia and its goldfields, pp. 114-116.

[7] The gold was located in Summerhill Creek near its junction with the Macquarie, about fifty miles from Bathurst and thirty from Guyong.

[8] Biographical material can be found in Osborne, M. E., ‘Sir Edward Deas Thomson (1800-1879)’, ADB, Vol. 2, 1967, pp. 523-527, while Foster, S. G., Colonial Improver: Edward Deas Thomson, 1800-1879, (Carlton), 1978, is more detailed.

[9] See, Hargraves to Deas Thomson, 3 April 1851, ‘Correspondence relative to the Recent Discovery of Gold in Australia’, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. xxxiv, 1852, 1427, pp. 10-11. Hargraves’ reward was his appointment as a Commissioner of Crown Lands at £2 10s per day. He was to travel extensively throughout the colony as a gold finding expert but there is no record of him ever finding any more gold.

[10] Butler, A. G., The Digger: A Study in Democracy, (Angus & Robertson), 1945, gives the implications and history of the term ‘Digger’.

[11] Ibid, Erskine, John Elphinstone, A Short Account of the late discoveries of Gold in Australia, p. 10.

[12] Bathurst Times, 14 July 1851.

[13] Mundy, G. C., Our Antipodes: or, Residence and Rambles in the Australasian Colonies with a Glimpse of the Gold Fields, (R Bentley), 1855, pp. 561-562.

[14] Argus, 28 July 1851.

[15] La Trobe to Earl Grey, 10 October 1851, ‘Further Papers relative to the Recent Discovery of Gold in Australia’, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. lxiv, 1852-3, pp. 45-47.

[16] Cranfield, Louis R., ‘James William Esmond (1822-1890)’, ADB, Vol. 4, 1972, p. 142, is a useful, if brief, biography.

[17] Late in 1852, however, alluvial mining at Ballarat entered a new phase. Some teams, convinced there might be a deeper gold-bearing layer, sank shafts beneath the shallow gravel layer. Others followed the shallow layer as it gradually became deeper. These enterprising diggers were soon to strike the amazing system of deep leads, buried rivers of gold.

[18] Sunter, Anne Beggs, ‘Thomas Hiscock, Discoverer of Gold at Buninyong’, Buninyong & District Historical Society newsletter, August 2001, is a brief study of an individual not included in the ADB. See also 150th Anniversary of Gold Discovery at Buninyong, (Buninyong & District Historical Society), 5 August 2001.

[19] This was publicised in the Geelong Advertiser on 12 August 1851.

[20] Garden, Donald S., ‘Henry Frencham (1816-1897)’, ADB, Vol. 4, 1972, p. 221.

[21] In 1890 a select committee was appointed to inquire into his claims. In the course of its proceedings the committee was presented with twelve other claims for the original discovery. The report found ‘that Henry Frencham’s claim to be the discoverer of gold at Bendigo has not been sustained, but that he was the first to report the discovery of payable gold at Bendigo to the Commissioner at Forest Creek’. No reward was forthcoming.

[22] Cranfield, Louis R., ‘The first discovery of gold in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 31, (1960), pp. 86-96, and Sutherland, Alexander, Victoria and its Metropolis: Past and Present, 2 Vols., (McCarron, Bird), 1888, Vol. 1, pp. 296-323, focus on the early discoveries. Flett, J., The History of Gold Discovery in Victoria, (Hawthorn Press), 1970, and Bate, Weston, Victorian gold rushes, (Macphee Gribble), 1988, are broader.

[23] Cranfield, Louis R., ‘Louis John Michel (1825-1904)’, ADB, Vol. 5, 1974, p. 246.

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