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Telling the National Story of Gold

The story of the gold rushes forms one of the major historical narratives of Australian history during the second half of the nineteenth century. Key events of the gold rushes are central in explaining many aspects of Australian history and present day society. These key events include the Eureka Stockade rebellion; the development of responsible government; the mass movement of people to the Australian colonies during the 1850s and 1860s; the emergence of radical dissent; and the rapid economic growth of the country.


The story of gold seeking in Australia involved every part of the continent but is often better understood when considered at significant discrete sites. At the Mount Alexander (Castlemaine) diggings in central Victoria, the legacy of the alluvial mining era (a period when individuals and small groups of men could win their fortune) is strongly evident, and at Ballarat there are plentiful reminders of a formative event in Australian democracy which took place at Bakery Hill – the Eureka Stockade uprising. Castlemaine and Ballarat both experienced rushes in the early 1850s and the ideas people encountered at these diggings travelled throughout Australia during the gold rushes of the following half-century. It has been suggested that the vote of the miners of the eastern goldfields in Western Australia, that secured the ‘yes’ vote at Federation, was an echo of the democratic values espoused at Eureka almost half a century earlier.

The alluvial gold rushes of the 1850s led to a transformation of Victorian and New South Wales society. When news of the famed surface gold on the Mount Alexander fields was made public, thousands of immigrants rushed to the Australian colonies – Victoria became a key colony of the British Empire because of the wealth derived from its goldfields.

Gold rushes initially occurred in New South Wales, in 1851, and quickly spread to Victoria, where there were larger and more enduring deposits. Discoveries continued to be made throughout Australia and diggers moved in an anti-clockwise direction in pursuit of fortune – to Queensland, the Northern Territory, and finally to Western Australia (where the greatest gold strike in Australia occurred at Kalgoorlie, in an area now known as the golden mile). This mining exploration and population expansion had economic and social dimensions that help explain the rapid development of Australia from 1851.

The narrative of the Australian rushes is not only the story of the search for wealth and self-advancement: it is also tells of the emigration of people from all over the world to Australia. Although members of the gold generation, as the immigrants became known, were predominantly from the British Isles, significant numbers of people also arrived from the Pearl River delta region of Southern China; Chile; continental Europe; North America; the Pacific Islands; and New Zealand. Most arrived in the hope of gaining greater personal wealth and obtaining their own property: gold offered the immigrant a chance of securing his or her future. However, most gold prospectors were unsuccessful.

The world’s first two major gold rushes – in California and then in Victoria – were pivotal to the increased power of gold during the nineteenth century. These two goldfields rapidly raised the world’s annual gold output by a factor of six or seven. The hoarding of vast quantities of Californian and Victorian gold (by the central banks of America, England and France) provided the basis for sound currencies and solid financial systems around the globe, and supported a gigantic credit expansion that bankrolled world trade, shipping and manufacturing. In the 1850s, which was by far the greatest period of gold production the world had ever seen, Victoria alone produced a third of the world’s gold (New South Wales contributed an additional 5 per cent).

The Californian and Victorian rushes were roughly similar in size in terms of mining population and gold production. There was, however, a fundamental difference: in California the gold-seeking miners saw themselves as transient, whereas in Victoria they were more liable to remain, either staying as miners, moving to other Australian fields as fluctuating yields dictated, or settling into non-mining occupations. This is vividly illustrated by comparing the present-day landscape of the two goldfields – central Victoria, with its great gold cities, administrative centres, and public and commercial infrastructure, and the Californian mountains, with a myriad of small towns, some of these still inhabited but many others now ghost towns.

There is also a fundamental difference in the surviving cultural heritage. Little archaeological evidence of life and mining activity has survived on the original gold rush country of California. American River and its tributaries yielded rich alluvial gold and sparked the world’s first international gold rush with more gold taken from this system than from all the other rivers and streams of California combined. But the majority of this gold was not mined from the streambeds, rather it was hydraulically sluiced from the ancient riverbeds in the surrounding foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Hydraulic sluicing of these deposits commenced in 1850. Five thousand miles of ditches and flumes were constructed by mining engineers, within five years, to supply the mine with the water needed to power the monstrous hydraulic monitors. About 26 million ounces of gold was recovered by hydraulic sluicing but at the cost of 13 billion cubic yards of earth being washed away, and with it much valuable historical information.

The surviving heritage of the Castlemaine Diggings is, in comparison, rich in authenticity and intactness; the gullies, hills and flats that once yielded fortunes still bear their original names, and contain evidence of the gold rush and later mining ventures. There are also hundreds of ruins, many of them the remains of the first homes of immigrant miners. These rare mining relics exemplify the wider story of willing immigration, political and economic transformation, and the creation of the Australian identity. The Castlemaine Diggings is a singular yet fragile site, and internationally significant. The history of this landscape of ruins and regeneration becomes even more vivid when considered alongside the rich and powerful collection of gold rush writings, drawings and artworks which have survived.

While the history of the alluvial gold rushes is celebrated at such sites as the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, other once-thriving sites of gold discovery (Rum Jungle and Coen River, for example) attract less emphasis in the gold rush narrative. Regardless of whether the sites of former diggings have achieved national fame (and this is certainly true in the case of Castlemaine), or only local celebrity (for example, Palmer River, Braidwood, Sofala, Ravenswood and Hill End), the impact of the Australian gold mining industry is still to be observed in the streetscapes, bush scapes and mining landscapes that comprise the cultural legacy of these sites, and of the entire gold rush period.

Keir Reeves (Special thanks to David Bannear)

Argus, 17 September 1851. Details
Argus, 20 December 1851. Details
Bannear, David, Keir Reeves, Jane Lennon, and Michael Pearson, 'Gold, Ruins and the Victorian Way', Journal of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, vol. 3, 2002, pp. 65-68. Details
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Blainey, Geoffrey, The golden mile, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, NSW, 1993. Details
Carboni, Raffaello, The Eureka Stockade: the consequence of some pirates wanting on quarter-deck a rebellion, Printed for the author by J.P. Atkinson, Melbourne, 1855. Details
Curthoys, Ann, ''Men of All Nations, except Chinamen': Europeans and Chinese on the Goldfields of New South Wales', in Iain McCalman, Alexander Cook and Andrew Reeves (eds), Gold : forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 100-123. Details
Davison, Graeme, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre, The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Revised edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details
Day, David, Claiming a continent: a new history of Australia, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2001. Details
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Goodman, David, Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1994. Details
Macintyre, Stuart, A concise history of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999. Details
Mayne, A. J. C, Hill End: an historic Australian goldfields landscape, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2003. Details
McCalman, Iain, Alexander Cook, and Andrew Reeves (eds), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details
Pickering, Paul, ''Ripe for a Republic': British Radical Responses to the Eureka Stockade', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 34, no. 121, 2003, pp. 69-90. Details
Reeves, Andrew, 'Trade Unionism and the Mining Industry: A National Survey 1870-1920', in Paper presented at Golden Landscapes: Rethinking the Goldrushes of the Pacific Rim Conference, Castlemaine, Victoria, 2005. Details
Serle, Geoffrey, The golden age: a history of the colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963. Details
Serle, Geoffrey, 'The Gold Generation', Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 1970, pp. 265-272. Details
Wilson, Alex, 'Chartism', in J. T. Ward (ed.), Popular Movements, C. 1830-1850, Macmillan, London, 1970, pp. 116-134. Details