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    A mixed society, courtesy of University of Queensland Press.

Immigration and Ethnicity: Overview

When we talk about the Victorian gold rushes, that occurred from 1851 onwards, we are really talking about people, specifically the movement of people. During the gold rushes, people moved on a small scale: trying their luck at different locations on the diggings, or shifting from one town to another. Many people moved from the city of Melbourne into the centre of the colony, leaving certain industries and businesses desperate for workers. There was movement between colonies too, for example hundreds of workers abandoned the copper mines in South Australia and switched to gold seeking in Victoria. Many folk in Melbourne were appalled to see Vandemonians streaming into Victoria from Tasmania to look for gold, fearing increased crime and social unrest.


But perhaps the most significant population movement was the migration of thousands of people from overseas countries to the Victorian goldfields. The influx led to dramatic changes in Victoria’s population, and more importantly, to its society and culture. This group of people is described as the ‘gold generation’, a generation that left a profound and lasting impact on the colony and on the Australian nation.

Population growth

The population of Victoria rapidly tripled as a result of the gold rushes, growing from 77,000 in 1851 to 237,000 in 1854. During 1852, the peak year of the rushes, 90,000 people arrived in Melbourne. Victoria had a population of 411,000 by 1857.

Intra-colonial migration was the source of some of this population growth but it is difficult to measure how many people overlanded from other colonies to the Victorian diggings. Shipping records tell us that 14,000 people from New South Wales, 19,000 from Tasmania, and 15,000 from South Australia and Western Australia arrived in Victoria in 1852 alone. Those who were thought of as the Melbourne ‘establishment’ from the pre-gold days were particularly concerned about the number of ex-convicts migrating from Tasmania. Their protestations led to the Convict Prevention Bill of 1852, although this had little effect on the influx of ‘poor types’ from Van Diemen’s Land.

A predominance of single men

Others in the colony expressed their concern about the male to female ratio in the rapidly growing Victorian population. Victoria had an unusual age-sex distribution in the 1850s – the 1854 census showed a population of 155,887 men to 80,911 women (or 1 woman to every 1.92 men). Despite schemes to boost female immigration, in 1861 the ratio was still only 1 woman to 1.46 men. Caroline Chisholm was a strong advocate for female and family migration to Australia, and she worked in New South Wales and Victoria to help female immigrants on their arrival. Famously describing women as ‘God’s police’, Chisholm believed that raising the female population in the colonies would provide a solution to many of society’s ills.

Sources of immigrants

During the gold rushes, the majority of the international arrivals were from Britain. Between 1851 and 1860, an estimated 300,000 people came to Australian colonies from England and Wales, with another 100,000 from Scotland and 84,000 from Ireland. Gold seekers from Germany, Italy and North America also made the journey to Australia in search of gold. Just over 5,000 people from New Zealand and other South Pacific nations, and at least 42,000 people from China, also arrived in Australia during the 1850s gold rushes. During this period, the colony of Victoria received 60% of all immigrants to Australia.

'The gold generation'

Who were the people who became the gold generation? Broadly speaking, they were young: half of the international arrivals in the 1850s were aged between 21 and 35, and two-thirds of the migrants were male. Most of them paid their own way to Australia (although roughly a third of them were assisted in their passage). A good number were educated – by 1861, Victoria had the lowest illiteracy rate in the world. Most were skilled as well – only a third of British male immigrants to Australia were unskilled labourers, compared with two-thirds of migrants to the United States. In the words of Geoffrey Serle, the migrants from Britain during the first years of the gold rushes were ‘something like a cross-section of Britain with a thin slice off the top and a thick slice off the bottom’. As time passed and these young men grew older, the members of the gold generation went on to be hugely influential in the development of cultural and political institutions in Victoria. Serle points out that nine out of thirteen premiers of Victoria from the 1860s to the 1890s were members of this generation.

The enduring impact of the gold generation was largely due to the fact that, regardless of their intentions before making the trip to Australia, the majority of these migrants stayed in the country. Many of the migrants during the gold rushes would have dreamed of making their fortune on the diggings and returning to a better life in their home country, but the statistics show that about two-thirds of diggers from continental Europe, and about 80% of the British migrants, remained in Australia.

Chasing the gold

Despite the high proportion of people who stayed on in Australia, there were many who kept moving beyond the initial journey from their home country to the goldfields. Some followed the gold rushes to New Zealand, where digging had commenced in 1861. Others did manage to return to their home country; Joseph Jenkins, known as the ‘Welsh swagman’ during his time on the Victorian diggings, returned to Wales in 1894, four years before his death.

There is a popular misconception that Chinese migrants who came to Victoria in search of gold were sojourners, who returned to China (prosperous or otherwise) after their time on the diggings, and who left little impact on goldfields society except for racist measures of exclusion such as the Poll Tax. Certainly, many Chinese did return home to China, and others continued to travel after their time in Victoria, tracking gold rushes elsewhere in Australia and beyond. However, in recent years, more and more researchers are uncovering the history of continuing Chinese participation in daily life on the Victorian goldfields.

During the 1850s and 1860s the Chinese comprised between 8 and 10% of the Victorian population. Far from quickly fading from the scene and returning to China, as conventional histories suggest, this population provided an antipodean epicentre supporting subsequent migration during the 1870s and 1880s to: the Otago goldfields in New Zealand; the Palmer River goldfields in Far North Queensland; the tin and gold prospects in northeast Tasmania and, as well, to a host of subsidiary and fugitive gold settlements across Victoria, New South Wales, and the Northern Territory. These subordinate migrations also provided the conduit for Chinese entry into rural and agricultural pursuits in south-eastern and northern Australia. The histories of Chinese diggers in Victoria in the 1850s and their patterns of migration and settlement sit uneasily beside the traditional figure of ‘the digger’ and the Chinese ‘sojourner’.

'Push and pull'

We can conceive of the movement of people in different ways. With international migration, it is common to hear talk of ‘push and pull’. The decision to leave one’s country for another is a significant step – this decision is prompted by ‘push’ factors in the home country, as well as ‘pull’ factors in the host country. The discovery of gold in Victoria certainly represented an irresistibly strong pull factor for many people, but there were also a number of push factors that cannot be ignored. In Britain in the nineteenth century, for example, emigration was seen by many as a solution to growing problems of poverty, overcrowding, and unemployment. Industrialisation was at the root of many push factors in Britain and Europe, as was famine – potato crops failed in the 1840s, not only in Ireland, but also in Germany and Cornwall.

To mid-nineteenth century societies struggling with the effects of industrial and agricultural upheaval, the power of Victoria (where more and bigger deposits of gold were being unearthed from 1851) to attract large numbers of migrants is easy to understand. The public in Britain waited eagerly for news from the colony, and for the arrival of ships from Victoria carrying cargoes of gold. Members of the gold generation who were optimistic and eager to advance themselves saw emigration as a way to escape the problems and hardships of their home country.

But as historians such as David Goodman have pointed out in recent years, we all too readily accept the ‘pull’ of Victoria’s gold in the 1850s as irresistible, and in doing so, miss a lot of the complexities in the story of human movement to Australia during the gold rushes. As Goodman observes:

The existing historiography naturalises the decisions to seek for gold … as though it were the most natural thing that men should leave all that was valuable to them in one part of the world, to seek for precious minerals in remote regions about which they knew little.

Accepting that the migrants of the gold generation were simply pulled here by the power of gold obscures just how remarkable and extraordinary it was for thousands of people to move across the world to a tiny fledgling colony like Victoria.

A continuum of human movement

Perhaps the movement of people is better conceptualised as a continuum, rather than in terms of push and pull and linear journeys. This range of movement does not have clear beginnings or endings. Settlement in a new country is not the end of the story of human movement. The continuum model has room to accommodate such phenomena as return migration, and the movement of diggers around the Pacific Rim (from the 1840s to the 1860s) following the discoveries of gold in California, Australia and New Zealand. Within this continuum, migrants stayed connected to their home country in many ways – personal correspondence and newspapers played a major role in maintaining communication between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ countries.

The enthusiastic letters home from migrants – particularly in the first years of the gold rushes – had a profound effect on patterns of human movement to Victoria’s gold diggings. Personal correspondence functioned as an information-exchange, and was often a major factor in people’s decision to migrate. One letter sent by a Scottish migrant home to Inverness resulted in 120 people leaving for Victoria within a week. Family correspondence was not so personal in the nineteenth century – letters were shared amongst family members and then amongst other people in the town or village. Commonly, letters were also published in newspapers, communicating their messages to a huge audience. These published letters, along with press reportage from Victoria’s goldfields and the advertisements of shipping agents, were a significant factor in unassisted migration to Victoria during the gold rushes. The communication processes between Victoria and other countries through correspondence and newspapers help to explain how migrants gathered the information upon which they based their decision to move to another country – which perhaps did not seem as far away or alien as we might imagine.

People in the continuum of movement also stayed connected to their home country by the cultural baggage that they carried with them on their journeys. This cultural baggage played a major role in shaping the institutions that grew up in Victoria to serve the new generation of migrants who arrived throughout the 1850s, many of whom stayed to create a new ‘Australian’ society. The different migrant groups who came to Victoria during the gold rushes attempted to keep a part of ‘home’ alive through the communities they formed, the churches and schools that they built, and the religious and cultural customs that they continued to follow. Their observance of these practices created new ‘national’ cultures on the goldfields, such as those of the Scottish, the Cornish, the Chinese and the Swiss-Italians in Australia.

Gold-related migration led to profound social and cultural change, not only in Victoria but also at other locations within the continuum within which so many people moved. The discovery of gold put central Victoria ‘on the map’ for thousands of people around the globe, and transformed the colony within a short period of time. We can talk broadly about the gold generation and the legacy it left to Victorian society, but when we probe further, we discover multiple and diverse histories of cosmopolitan and dynamic communities that sprang up all over central Victoria in the middle of the nineteenth century. The stories of the individuals, families and communities that were transformed by immigration to Victoria can be found in the records, objects, images and landscapes that have survived.

Cate Elkner

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Fitzpatrick, David, Oceans of consolation: personal accounts of Irish migration to Australia, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1994. Details
Garden, Don, Victoria: a history, Nelson, Melbourne, 1984. Details
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Knott, John William, 'Arrival and Settlement 1851-1880', in The Australian people: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001. Details
Moch, Leslie Page, Moving Europeans: migration in Western Europe since 1650, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1992. Details
Reeves, Keir, 'Tracking the Dragon Down Under: Chinese Cultural Connections in Gold Rush Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand', Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, 2005. Details
Serle, Geoffrey, 'The Gold Generation', Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 1970, pp. 265-272. Details