Gold had been found in Australia as early as the 1830s. Explorer Paul de Strezlecki discovered gold in the Victorian Alps in 1839. Gold was also discovered at Montecue, South Australia, in 1846, and Glenmona Station in Victoria, in 1849.
Early gold discoveries in Australia were kept quiet as many feared a gold rush would plunge the largely convict population into chaos and lawlessness. However the rush to California depleted the new colony’s small population and forced the authorities to think differently about Australian gold.
Edward Hargraves rode to the colony’s rescue. His well publicised discovery of gold in NSW on the 12th of February 1851 marks the beginning the Australian gold rush, the mass migration and the frenzy that ensued.
There is no doubt that the gold rushes had a huge effect on the Australian economy and our development as a nation. It is also true to say that those heady times had a profound impact on the national psyche.
The problem of the shifting population was disastrous for Victoria, which had only received autonomy from New South Wales six months earlier. Victoria had been a bustling region with a population of 77,000 free settlers, six million sheep and a lucrative wool trade worth 1,000,000 pounds annually. Now, the streets of Melbourne were all but deserted and farms literally emptied. The New South Wales gold rush was threatening the very existence of the Victorian colony.
In a state of desperation, Governor Charles J La Trobe assembled a Gold Discovery Committee on June 9, 1851, and offered a 200 pound reward to anyone who found payable amounts of gold within 200 miles of Melbourne.
The Committee were unaware that gold had already been discovered in Victoria. William Campbell claimed to have found gold in 1850 on Donald Cameron’s station in Clunes one year before Hargraves’ discovery. But Cameron feared his station would be overrun by ambitious diggers, and opted to keep quiet like many people before him. It wasn’t until the goldfields in New South Wales threatened Victoria’s economy that Donald Cameron finally announced the discovery on July 8, 1851.
When gold was first discovered in Victoria there were no roads to the goldfields. Everything had to be carried by horses, bullocks or wheelbarrows on the journey from Melbourne, which sometimes took as long as the sea journey from England.
There were two routes to Ballarat. One went via the Adelaide overland route on the Gambier Road via the Keilor Plains. The other went via Geelong: travellers went part of the way on steamer and the remainder on foot. Whichever way diggers went, in winter it was boggy, in summer it was a dustbowl. In the rain, horses often got bogged up to their bellies in mud and diggers often lost their boots.
By July 1853, four enterprising Americans who had worked on the Californian goldfields on Wells Fargo stagecoaches established their own coaching firm in Melbourne.
Freeman Cobb, and his three partners set up "Cobb & Co" using the light leather sprung Concord coaches built in the United States. By the end of 1853 the journey could be made in a little more comfort.
Diggers had grown angry and had threatened to riot if the cost of licensing fees was not reduced. The monthly fee of 30 shillings for each claim was tough to pay in hard times and the claims were only 13.5 square metres on the surface, which made them difficult to work. Police would descend on the goldfields seeking out those diggers who had not paid their fees. Those who hadn't paid were hauled before magistrates and fined £5 for the first offence. The fine doubled for each subsequent offence.
As the police digger hunts grew more unpopular, the police began using more and more force. Between 1851 and 1854 tension was building on the goldfields. Clashes between the miners and the authorities became more frequent with significant discontent brewing over the injustice of the goldfield licensing system and police corruption.
At Ballarat, the tension was rising quickly. The Ballarat Reform League was set up under the leadership of an Irish engineer, Peter Lalor.
In December 1854, 1000 men gathered at Eureka, on the outskirts of Ballarat and unfurled their flag, a white cross and stars on a blue field, to proclaim their oath:
"We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties."
This incident and a similar one involving shearers in Queensland striking for better pay and conditions have been as close as we have ever come to Civil War in Australia.
In a tragic climax to the rising tensions, troops from Melbourne overran the stockade and killed 22 of its defenders.
Juries in Melbourne refused to convict the rebel leaders who were put on trial for high treason. A Royal Commission condemned the goldfield administration and the miners' grievances were remedied. Their demands for political representation were also met. Within a year, Peter Lalor - the leader of the rebels - became a member of the Victorian parliament.
The end of transportation
The discovery of gold in NSW and Victoria accelerated the abolition of convict transportation to the east coast of Australia, and ultimately to the nation as a whole. By continuing to send convicts to the eastern colonies, it was, in effect, giving free passage to potential gold diggers. And why would the new convict arrivals want to work for a living when a fortune awaited them on the goldfields?