Thursday, 23 May 2013

Gold in Victoria: British immigrants

Migration was common among many Cornish people and, in the nineteenth century, an estimated third of Cornwall’s population emigrated. [1] They were often pulled to countries such as Australia by news of mining work or pushed from their homes by a variety of factors including poverty, famine (the potato crop failed in Cornwall in 1845 and 1846), depression and economic change. [2] Between 1846 and 1850, 6,700 assisted Cornish immigrants went to Australia.[3] The Cornish were a significant ethnic group on the Victorian goldfields because of their number and, like Welsh immigrants, the mining knowledge they brought with them. Some of the distinctively Cornish mining practices established in the Victorian goldfields developed from the equipment and techniques favoured by Cornish miners: single-pointed picks; bucket pumps; the ‘hammer and tap’ method of drilling holes in the rock face; the ‘Cousin Jack’ wheelbarrow; and Cornish-designed whims are examples.

The first Cornish arrivals on the Victorian goldfields travelled overland from South Australia and its copper mines where they had originally emigrated in the late 1830s and 1840s. Letters home played a powerful role in spreading news of opportunities for Cornish miners in Australia. In 1849, a mining man wrote home to Cornwall from Australia

If...you may know of any Government [assisted] Cornish miner about to seek his fortune in Australia, be pleased to tell him to apply his knowledge of the mode of extracting his ore from his own gravel to the drift and debris on the flanks of the great north and south chain of Australia...for great would be my pleasure to learn that through the application of Cornish skill such a region should be converted into a British El Dorado.

The South Australian town of Burra Burra was a significant Cornish settlement and most of its 5,000 residents in 1850 were Cornish. [4] From 1851, the Burra’s copper mines lost many of their workers to Victoria’s gold rushes.  A deputation of Cornish miners from Burra Burra visited the goldfields to ascertain their worth, and when they returned to the Burra to collect their families and belongings, their enthusiastic descriptions of Victoria precipitated a mass exodus from the South Australian mines.[5]

The next wave of Cornish miners did not begin to arrive from Cornwall until the end of 1852. [6] The Ballarat area received many ‘Cousin Jacks’ who congregated in particular areas: Mt Pleasant was an important Cornish settlement and Sebastopol had its own ‘Cornish Town’. [7] Cornish miners and their families travelled together, lived in close proximity and worked co-operatively in groups, a distinctively Cornish mining practice. Jan Croggon showed that the mining skills and knowledge that the Cornish immigrants in Ballarat brought with them prepared some of them to become managers of mines in Victoria as the alluvial rushes ended in the mid-1850s. [8]

Irish immigration increased with the discovery of gold. [9] Initially their lack of mining skills was not a problem since alluvial mining required little expertise. [10] However, as surface deposits of gold were exhausted and alluvial mining gave way to deep, shaft mining, mining skills became essential. Lacking these, the numerous Irish on the goldfields became a ready source of unskilled labour for large-scale mining. For the vast majority a short, fruitless stint as a miner soon gave way to more profitable occupations as grocers, publicans, cartage operators, brewers, domestic workers, policemen and general labourers and the wealth of available work meant that many of the Irish enjoyed a standard of living far exceeding their experience in Ireland. They had a large impact on the goldfields communities that sprang up if only because of their numbers and quickly earned a reputation for their colour and flamboyance on the diggings. Nonetheless, political discontent was never far from the surface and of the diggers that took part in the 1854 Eureka rebellion, one witness at the Gold Fields Commission claimed that, ‘quite half of them were Irishmen’.

Many Scots and Welsh emigrated to Australia and played an important part in the development of Victoria. [11] For example, William Campbell arrived in Australia in 1838 and discovered the ‘first’ gold at Clunes in early 1850; Scottish diggers played leading roles in the Red Ribbon Movement; James Scobie’s murder was a catalyst for the events at the Eureka Stockade in December 1854, and a Scot, John Robertson, was killed at Eureka. Australia became a particularly popular destination after the discovery of gold with approximately 100,000 Scots arriving between 1851 and 1860. [12] Many headed for the Victorian diggings and contributed to the new towns and communities emerging in the interior of the colony. As gold fever took hold in Victoria, many of the squatters who were faced with threats to their livelihoods with the exodus of workers to the diggings, were immigrant Scottish landholders and farmers who had been ‘pushed’ to migrate earlier in the century by rising rents and the high cost of new agricultural techniques. The Scottish immigrants in Victoria helped to build its infrastructure while ensuring that elements of Scottish culture endured in the new colony. Presbyterian churches and schools, funded by Scottish squatters and highland games and pipe bands sprang up in towns such as Ballarat.[13] Detailed reports of gold arriving in Britain, fresh from the Victorian goldfields and excited letters home from expatriate diggers were published in the local press playing a major role in encouraging migration to Australia although a high proportion of Scottish arrivals during the 1850s were assisted migrants: 51% received assistance compared with 25% from England.


[1] Schwartz, Sharron, ‘Cornish migration studies: an epistemological and paradigmatic critique’, Cornish Studies, Vol. 10, (2002), pp. 136-165, provides an excellent framework.

[2] Payton, Philip, ‘Cornish’, in ibid, Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people, pp. 237-245, and his broader The Cornish Overseas, (Alexander Associates), 1999, pp. 161-200, 228-255, provide a good introduction to the Cornish diaspora while his The Cornish Miner in Australia, (Dyllansow Truran), 1984, is the most detailed study. Croggan, Jan, ‘Methodists and Miners: the Cornish in Ballarat 1851-1901’, in Cardell, Kerry, and Cummings, Cliff, (eds.), A world turned upside down: cultural change on Australia’s goldfields 1851-2001, (Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University), 2001, pp. 61-77.

[3] Lay, Patricia, ‘Not what they seemed? Cornish assisted immigrants in New South Wales 1837-1877’, Cornish Studies, Vol. 3, (1995), pp. 33-59.

[4] Auhl, Ian, and Marfleet, Denis, Australia’s Earliest Mining Era: South Australia 1841-1851, (Rigby), 1975 and Auhl, Ian, The Story of the ‘Monster Mine’: The Burra Burra Mine and Its Townships 1845-1877, (Investigator Press), 1986.

[5] South Australian Register, 19 July 1851

[6] Payton, Philip, ‘Cousin Jacks and Ancient Britons’: Cornish Immigrants and Ethnic Identity’, Journal of Australian Studies: Scatterlings of Empire, Vol. 68, (2001), pp. 54-68.

[7] Rich gold-bearing quartz lodes were found in the bedrock under the buried streams of the Ballarat plateau in 1856 and a new settlement, mainly of Cornish and Welsh miners, developed on the Yarrowee Creek. Sebastopol grew rapidly in the late 1850s and its population rose from 2,149 in 1857 to 6,496 in 1871.

[8] Jan Croggan ‘Methodists and Miners: The Cornish in Ballarat 1851-1901’, in Cardell, Kerry, and Cummings, Cliff, (eds.), A world turned upside down, pp. 61-77, passim.

[9] Ibid, O’Farrell, Patrick, The Irish in Australia, ibid, McConville, Chris, Croppies, Celts & Catholic: The Irish in Australia and ibid, Fitzpatrick, David, Oceans of consolation: personal accounts of Irish migration to Australia. See above, pp. 222-264.

[10] Coughlan, Neil, ‘The Coming of the Irish to Victoria’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, Vol. 12, (1965), pp. 64-86, and ‘The Irish, in Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people, pp. 443-478, passim.

[11] Jones, Bill, ‘Welsh Identities in Colonial Ballarat’, Journal of Australian Studies: Scatterlings of Empire, Vol. 68, (2001), pp. 34-53, and ‘Welsh identity on the Victorian goldfields in the nineteenth century’, in Cardell, Kerry, and Cummings, Cliff, (eds.), A world turned upside down, pp. 25-50.

[12] Macmillan, D. S., Scotland and Australia, 1788-1850: emigration, commerce and investment, (Oxford University Press), 1967, ‘The Scots’, in ibid, Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people, pp. 644-665, and Prentice, Malcolm D., The Scots in Australia: A Study of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland 1788-1900, (University of Sydney Press), 1983, provide the context.

[13] Cardell, Kerry and Cummings, Cliff, ‘Squatters, Diggers and National Culture: Scots and the Central Victorian Goldfields 1851-61’, in Cardell, Kerry, and Cummings, Cliff, (eds.), A world turned upside down, pp. 78-94, passim, and Cummings, Cliff, ‘Scottish National Identity in an Australian Colony’, Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 72, (1993), pp. 22-38.

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