... consistent with the the national approach to economic, environmental and social stewardship.

Golden Years

Gold was first discovered in Victoria at Clunes in March 1850 by the Hon. W. Campbell. However the discovery was not announced until the 8th July, 1851, a week after Victoria gained its independence from New South Wales.  This small, yet important find was soon eclipsed by the amazingly rich goldfields found at the locations which would grow into Castlemaine, Ballarat and Bendigo. The richness of these fields would far outstrip those of goldfields the world over and were only rivalled by those in California. The central Victorian fields were especially rich in relatively shallow and easily won nuggetty alluvial gold. They would soon become the gold-mining centres of the world.

The amount of gold produced in central Victoria during the gold rush was phenomenal.  Between 1851 and 1860 a staggering 21.97 million troy ounces (683.5 tonnes) of gold was mined[1]. Furthermore, considerable amounts of gold were not recorded by miners who took their precious bounty out of the country in those early days, so the actual figure may have be considerably higher[2]. To put the value of this amount of gold into perspective, at today’s prices it would be worth over $30 billion dollars[3]. What is even more amazing about the levels of gold production during the gold rush was the majority of the gold was won by hand and processed using crude and inefficient mineral separation methods when compared to those used today.

The gold rush had a number of profound effects on Victoria which would shape both the future of Victoria and Australia. The first was the obvious dramatic increase in wealth circulating in the Victorian economy. While this was ultimately beneficial, to which the many grand public and private buildings which were built during the time attest, the dramatic increase in wealth in the colony caused significant inflation. In addition, as many men rushed off to the goldfields, other sectors of the colony’s fledgling economy were subjected to labour shortages, which stalled the development of non-gold related industries such as agriculture.

The second was the boom in the population, which grew from 77,000 in 1851 to 411,000 by 1857. In 1852, the peak year of the rush, 90,000 people arrived in Melbourne[4].  This growth placed great pressures on the Colonial Government as the speed that the population grew far outpaced the development of essential infrastructure and services, as well as the growth of non-gold mining industries.  The pressure on the Colonial Government to provide services and infrastructure to such rapidly increasing numbers of people in such a short space of time would lead to the adoption of revenue raising policies which would eventually result in significant opposition.  A further complication of the population boom caused by the arrival of thousands of gold seekers was the dearth of females. By 1854 there were nearly two men for every woman in the colony, a significant gender imbalance.  The famous humanitarian, Caroline Chisholm blamed many of the moral ills of Victoria’s society at the time on the absence of family life due to the lack of women[5].

The less obvious but perhaps more significant role that the Victorian gold fields played was that of helping to forge the Australian character through the freedom and aspirational dreaming which permeated the goldfields. The men and women who made their way to Victoria in search of riches came from all corners of the world. While they had many differences, of language, culture, beliefs and appearances, the one commonality was that they had left their old lives behind and had all become ‘diggers’ in the hope of winning their fortune and the independence it would afford them.  Some historians claim that this created a sense of egalitarian freedom on the goldfields, a place where the shackles of class that had restrained the dreams and ambitions of people in their home countries were broken and thrown down[6].  In many ways the diggers on the gold fields were inadvertently laying the foundations for the great society of free and equal people, into which Australia has developed.

The gold fields of Victoria also provided Australia with some of its first multi-shareholder companies.  This development came about because of a combination of the legal restrictions on the size of a licence area a single miner could hold, as well as the expense and difficulty of mining gold to the increasing depths that leads were being followed. Victoria was one of the first places in the world where gold was mined in quartz reefs at depth, as historically gold mining had focused on alluvial gold found relatively close to the surface. In fact reigning geological theories insisted that gold would not occur at depth[7]. This theory was soon clearly discredited as mines operating in Victoria began to delve hundreds of metres into the earth as they followed the deep leads. By 1880 the Stawell mine had reached 720 metres.  The demands of the ever deepening mines essentially necessitated the creation of mining companies as the capital and manpower requirements of mining deep leads were simply beyond the means of either individual miners or even small groups.  To mine deep quartz reefs required extensive space and the use of machinery, both of which were costly. As such the first mining companies relied on investors to fund their operations[8]. In this manner the riches won on the goldfields were spread beyond the miners themselves or the people that directly profited from the miners at the goldfields such as the merchants, shopkeepers or publicans. Any person with some disposable income could invest in a mining venture, further spreading the wealth that was being won from the goldfields. 

Something that made the gold rush of Victoria special was that most of those who came to the gold fields in search of their fortune stayed.  In contrast many of the gold rushes in North America took place in remote and rugged wilderness, great distances from both the coast and any ports. Many fortune hunters moved on once they ceased digging.  In Victoria the proximity of the emerging towns of the goldfields to the ports and service centres of Melbourne and Geelong, as well as the fertile pastoral land of the colony, supported the mining camps to become towns which in turn grew into cities in their own right as unsuccessful diggers reverted to their previous trades or occupations and built homes and started families.  By laying down roots in Victoria the gold seekers invested more than their wealth and toil in the Victorian goldfields, they invested their future[9].  This had the effect of making the miners more involved in the way that they wanted to be governed.  The most extreme example of this was the Rebellion at the Eureka Stockade.

The Rebellion at the Eureka Stockade was the culmination of intense dissatisfaction by the miners on the gold fields of Ballarat with the manner in which they were being governed[10]. There were a number of factors that contributed to the animosity of miners towards the Colonial Government, these included allegations of corruption of the administration at Ballarat and most significantly, resistance to the exceptionally high taxes charged for the mining licence and the harshness of the licence regimes enforcement.  On the 29th of November 1854, a great number of protesting miners had come together to burn their licences and swear allegiance to, their rights and liberties under the newly made Sothern Cross flag. The miners knew that the authorities would come to break their rebellion so they built a stockade around their new flag. At 4am on 3 December 1854, the colonial government’s troops attacked the stockade with overwhelming force, as the rebel miners were outnumbered and hopelessly outgunned by the professional British soldiers and colonial police who overran the stockade within minutes, crushing the rebellion[11].

The rebellion at Ballarat is one of the most discussed, written about and celebrated events of Australian history.  Depending on to which interpretation of the event one subscribes, it was the birth of Australian Democracy, Nationalism, and Republicanism or as the beginnings of the struggle by entrepreneurs and business men against government, and the birth of the Australian trade union movement. In a way the Eureka Stockade has become something to everyone. Regardless of these varying historical interpretations of the rebellion, the effects of it were dramatic. The first was that the power and influence of mining in the colony was not simply about the wealth being extracted from the ground.  Miners now made up a substantial population and as such, their political grievances could not be ignored.  Consequently, the mining licence system was scrapped and replaced by the “Miner’s Right”. The main differences between a miner’s right and the old mining licence were that a miner’s right was a fraction of the price of the licence, it was purchased annually and it granted holders the right to vote and stand for election, rights previously restricted to landowners. Miners were also granted a degree of autonomy in regards to how they were regulated through the establishment of miner’s courts. These courts were where the regulations and laws pertaining to gold mining were decided and adjudicated by a judge and a panel of fellow miners.  While the stockade at Ballarat was dismantled by the authorities, some would say that in the end the miners got exactly what they demanded[12].

The gold rush left an indelible mark on the infant colony and within 20 years Victoria had transformed from a backwater outpost of the colony of New South Wales to become the richest jurisdiction in the world with a prosperous economy, widespread democracy and a thriving society.

Since the Victorian gold rushes of the 1850s, the easily won alluvial gold that inspired the rushes has been exhausted. Despite this Victoria is still regarded as a global gold province based on historical extraction and potentially major deposits of gold still to be discovered.  Recent geological research suggests that there remains between 15 and 70 million ounces of gold yet to be discovered beneath sedimentary cover in the region north of Stawell and Bendigo (known as the Bendigo and Stawell zones)[13].

There are currently gold mines operating at Stawell, Ballarat and Fosterville, a number of historic mine sites are also under redevelopment. The long operational history of some gold mines in Victoria demonstrates the richness of the State’s deposits and the long term potential for future discoveries.

[1] Dunne, T.A (1953) Australian Gold; Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 101, No. 4896
[2] Ibid.
[3] Calculated at AUD$1450, July 2013 price.
[4] Electronic encyclopaedia of gold in Australia, Immigration and Ethnicity http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00006b.htm
[5] Ibid.
[6] Electronic encyclopaedia of gold in Australia, Social and Domestic Life: Overview, http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00012b.htm; also see: Blainey, G. (1993) The Rush that Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining, Melbourne University Press; Goodman, D. (1994) Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s. Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.
[7] Blainey, G. (1993) The Rush that Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining, Melbourne University Press
[8] Ibid.
[9] Electronic encyclopaedia of gold in Australia, Telling the National Story of Gold http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00074b.htm
[10] Blainey, G. (1993) The Rush that Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining, Melbourne University Press
[11] Percival, A.  Lancashire Infantry Museum, The “Battle” of the Eureka Stockade 1854: The 40th Foot In The Australian Goldfields http://www.lancashireinfantrymuseum.org.uk/the-battle-of-the-eureka-stockade/
[12] Blainey, G. (1993) The Rush that Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining, Melbourne University Press.
[13] Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Victoria, Australia, A world class gold province http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/37506/Gold-fact-sheet-September-2012-Web.pdf