Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Gold in Victoria: immigrants arrive

Word that gold had been found in NSW and Victoria spread quickly as it had done in California. [1] The result was a massive movement of people from Britain, Europe, China and America but also within Australia and Victoria’s ports bustled with new arrivals. In just four months in 1852, 619 ships arrived in Hobson’s Bay carrying 55,057 passengers; 1853 saw the arrival of 2,594 ships. In March 1851, Victoria’s population was 80,000, not including its indigenous population; by 1854, it had tripled to 237,000 and doubled again to 540,000 by 1861. [2] The population of the Victorian gold fields was 20,000 in 1851; 34,000 the following year; 100,000 in 1855 reaching its peak of 150,000 in 1858. The majority of migrants came from the United Kingdom; [3] between 1852 and 1860, 290,000 people came to Victoria from the British Isles. [4] Of the other migrants, less than 15,000 came from other European countries and 6,000 migrated from America. The NSW gold fields were poorer but the state’s population increased from 200,000 in 1851 to 357,000 ten years later. By 1861, 29% of the population was Australian born, 60% were from the United Kingdom and 11% were from other parts of the world. [5]

Reaching the goldfields

A comparatively small number of Americans made their way to the Victorian diggings in the 1850s. Nevertheless, this group of migrants had a major impact on the goldfields, like the Cornish diggers, because of their mining heritage. Many Americans quickly recognised the potential of fast-growing markets in Victoria in expanding trade between Australia and the United States. In early 1853, an editorial in the New York Herald maintained that Australia’s ‘social, commercial and political’ importance would ‘advance with rapid strides,’ as would trade between the two continents.

Arriving at Melbourne c1856

The American visitor George Francis Train [6] recorded his impressions of the country in his letters from Victoria that appeared in the Boston Post between 1853 and 1855[7] and in his An American Merchant in Europe, Asia and Australia, published in 1857.[8] Only 26 when he finally left Australia in November 1855, Train soon became an important part of the Melbourne business scene and actively involved in its Chamber of Commerce. The Argus commented that Train’s

....energy, spirit, and restless activity have had an effect, not fully appreciated we believe, in stirring up a spirit of emulation amongst his brother merchants...it would be difficult to trace the full effect of his example in vitalising our whole commercial system. [9]

In Train’s impressions of Melbourne, his American cultural background is always evident: Melbourne was seen through American eyes as he stated in a letter home, on 23 June 1853,

Collins street is the Broadway and Flinders lane is Wall street’ and that ‘Melbourne, though situated so far out of the way, cannot fail to be a great city...We must introduce a sprinkling of Yankeeism here and teach the residents the meaning of despatch!

His letters provided detailed, if not always reflective, analysis of Victorian politics that reflected the views of the local business community. On 1 January 1855, he declared that:

Politics have grown twenty years in a single month...the miners of Ballaarat raise an independent flag and the country thrills with the purport of expected change. The love of liberty that is convulsing the shaking thrones of the old world has touched the giant chieftain of the Australias, and the ‘southern cross’, three-fourths of the people say, must be the flag of the southern El Dorado.


[1] Moch, L.P., Moving Europeans: migration in Western Europe since 1650, (Indiana University Press), 1992 is a useful general work on migration.

[2] Potts, E. Daniel, and Potts, A., Young America and Australian Gold: Americans and the Gold Rush of the 1850s, (University of Queensland Press), 1974; Knott, J. W., ‘Arrival and Settlement 1851-1880’, in Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, 2nd ed., (Cambridge University Press), 2001, pp. 367-370; Broome, R., The Victorians: arriving, (Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates), 1984, and Goodman, D., Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, (Allen & Unwin), 1994, focus on Australia.

[3] Ibid, Jupp, James, The English in Australia, pp. 52-86, especially pp. 71-74.

[4] Clarke, F. G., The Land of Contrarieties: British Attitudes to the Australian Colonies 1828-1855, (Melbourne University Press), 1977, pp. 142-154, provides a useful summary of changing attitudes in Britain to the discovery of gold.

[5] Beever, A., ‘From a Place of “Horrible Destitution” to a Paradise of the Working class: The Transformation of British Working class Attitudes to Australia 1841-1851’, Labour History, Vol. 40, (1981), pp. 1-15, examines how and why Australia became the place where British workers wanted to emigrate.

[6] Potts, E. Daniel, ‘George Francis Train (1829-1904)’, ADB, Vol. 6, 1976, pp. 299-300, and Thornton, W., The Nine Lives of Citizen Train, (Greenberg), 1948.

[7] Potts, E. Daniel and Annette, (eds.), A Yankee merchant in Goldrush Australia: the letters of George Francis Train 1853-55, (Heinemann), 1970. In his review of Train’s letters, The Business History Review, Vol. 46, (1972), pp. 272-274, Sydney Butlin exposed their limitations: ‘his comments were the commonplaces of contemporary newspapers, to be found in almost every traveller’s book of the period’.

[8] Train, G.F., An American Merchant in Europe, Asia and Australia, (G.P. Putman), 1857, especially pp. 369-401.

[9] Argus, 6 November 1855.

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