Australian Gold Rush: 1850

The bonanza in California was only the beginning. An Australian named Edward Hammond Hargraves, who had been there, was certain that the same geological features were to be found in his own country. Returning on the boat from California late in 1850, he predicted that he would find gold within a week. 'There's no gold in the country you're going to and if there is, that darned Queen of yours won't let you touch it,' a fellow passenger told him. 'There's as much gold in the country I'm going to as there is in California,' snapped Hargraves, 'and Her Gracious Majesty the Queen, God bless her, will appoint me one of her Gold Commissioners.' Hargraves was right. Within one week of landing, he had found gold on a tributary of the Macquarie river not far from Bathurst in New South Wales. The gold rush was on. 'A complete mental madness appears to have seized almost every member of the community,' the Bathurst Free Press reported. 'There has been a universal rush to the diggings.' Hargraves was duly made a commissioner for lands, and received a reward of £10,000 ($48,000) plus a life pension. For the rest of his life, he was regarded as a man with the Midas touch.

The news of the fresh gold field reached England, along with the first gold, aboard the Thomas Arbuthnot. Her captain said, 'The colony is completely paralysed. Every man and boy who is able to lift a shovel is off, or going off, to the diggings. Nearly every article of food has gone up, in some cases two hundred per cent.' He had had to promise his crew double wages to get the boat away from Sydney. The impact of the Australian find on Britain was to be even more important than that of California. The bulk of Californian gold stayed in the United States; 80 per cent of Australia's gold was to come through the London market.

In fact, Hargraves had touched only the fringe of Australian gold. New South Wales was yielding 26.4 tonnes (850,000 ounces) in 1852, but the neighbouring state of Victoria had joined the hunt. Victoria offered a reward of £200 ($1,000) for gold found within 200 miles of Melbourne. In the autumn of 1851, barely six months after the New South Wales discovery, gold was found at Ballarat, a mere 60 miles from Melbourne. Later in the same year came another find at Bendigo Creek, 30 miles farther north. Now the floodgates were really open; 370,000 immigrants arrived in Australia in 1852. The colony, which a few years before had been peopled only by convicts who had been transported, and a handful of farmers, had its economy transformed. The Australian gold miners were never such a cosmopolitan bunch as their colleagues in California, but they insisted on the same democracy in the gold fields. There was, however, much more law and order in the Australian gold rush right from the start. Hard liquor was banned. Special gold commissioners were appointed to administer the diggings. They sold licences for 30 shillings ($7.30) a month, and normally parcelled out 15 to 24 feet along a creek to a party of three to six men. They were a wildly assorted crowd. G. L. Mundy, a visitor writing in 1852, reported, 'There were merchants, cabmen, magistrates and convicts, amateur gentlemen rocking the cradle merely to say they had done so, fashionable hairdressers and tailors, cooks, coachmen, lawyers' clerks and their masters, colliers, cobblers, quarrymen, doctors of physic and music, aldermen, an ADC on leave, scavengers, sailors, shorthand writers, a real live lord on his travels - all levelled by community of pursuit and of costume'. 'Levelled' is just the right word. The miners lived in bark huts or tents. 'Our furniture,' wrote one miner, James Bonwick, 'is of simple character. A box, a block of wood, or a bit of paling across a pail, serves as a table.' Meals were primitive. 'The chops can be picked out of the frying pan, placed on a lump of bread, and cut with a clasp knife that has done good service in fossicking during the day.' Insects and flies added to the discomfort. 'The nuisance is the flies,' complained Bonwick. 'The little fly and the stinging monster March fly. O! The tortures these wretches give! In the hole, out of the hole, at meals or walking, it is all the same with these winged plagues. When washing at a waterhole, the March flies will settle upon the arms and face, and worry to that degree, that I have known men to pitch their dishes, and stamp and growl with agony. The fleas, too, are of the Tom Thumb order of creation, and they begin their bloody-thirsty work when the flies are tired of their recreation.' For those who stuck it out, the rewards could be handsome. Almost 80 tonnes (2.6 million ounces) of gold were mined in Victoria alone in 1853; by 1856 it had risen to a peak of 90 tonnes (2.9 million ounces).

Other secondary rushes followed. One rumour of gold - on the Fitzroy river in Queensland in 1858 - sent 10,000 people trailing north. It was a completely false lead but, because of the lack of communications, there was no way of stemming the tide. Even New Zealand, which had jealously watched Australia's budding economy be nourished by gold, finally had its reward. Gold was found near Dunedin on the south island of New Zealand in 1861. More than 7,000 men were working the field by the following year, and a steady production of 15 tonnes (0.48 million ounces) a year was maintained until 1870.

The Australian prospectors had their final triumph of the century in 1893 when Paddy Hannan found gold at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. The resulting gold rush pushed Australian output to an astonishing 119 tonnes (3.8 million ounces) in 1903, a record not equalled until 1988. And the famous 'Golden Mile' at Kalgoorlie remains at the heart of Western Australia's production. The town itself still has the feel of those gold rush days, with broad streets and low buildings, many with railed balconies on the first floor where you can sit at ease in a rocking chair. Some buildings bear plaques dating from the original boom: Grand Hotel 1895 or Palace Hotel 1897. To appreciate what gold rush days were like, Kalgoorlie is the place to go.