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Beyond the 1850s Gold Rushes: Mining Technology from the 1890s to the Present


During the early 1890s, the world’s economy went into recession. On the Victorian goldfields, the economic squeeze forced hundreds of farmers off their land as banks foreclosed; many of them returned to mining, finding new auriferous sites and opening numbers of rich mines. Old mining towns came back to life and new ones were created. To support the mining industry, the Victorian government provided assistance to the gold prospectors by installing and operating small quartz crushing facilities (known as government or State batteries) in localities where there were no privately-owned batteries available for public use.

The resurgence of prospecting brought about the discovery of new goldfields: in 1895 a quartz-reefing field was opened at Fosterville, some fifteen miles east of Bendigo; there was a large rush in 1901 to the Grampians area, south of Mount William, (which became known as the Maefking Rush); and the Poseidon Rush began in 1906 when gold nuggets were found ten feet beneath the surface – one named the Poseidon, after the winner of that year’s Melbourne Cup, weighed 953 oz and gave the rush its name.

In 1896, Victoria’s gold output was 805,087 oz – the biggest annual yield since 1882 – with the mines of Bendigo providing well over a quarter of this total. New deep lead mines were also contributing significantly; for example, the Raglan Lead near Beaufort was profitably worked, along about two kilometres of its length, by the Sons of Freedom group of companies. The Ararat district also experienced a deep lead mining boom.

The 1890s mining boom coincided with the introduction of a new form of alluvial gold mining, called pump, or jet elevator, sluicing. This involved hosing the face of a gully away, then puddling up the resulting wash dirt and elevating it by pressurised water into raised sluice boxes, from whence it passed over a series of ripples where the gold was captured. Gold mining companies also started to use bucket dredges to mine alluvial deposits. Dredging was a large-scale means of extracting gold from extensive river-flat deposits. Dredges were like huge floating factories; operating in a pond, they excavated the gravels in front of them with large buckets, processed the gravels on-board, and dumped the treated material behind. By far the most successful employment of pump sluicing and bucket dredging was practised in the Castlemaine district. By 1905, it was estimated that no fewer than 18 sluicing and dredging plants were in operation.

Contributing to the state’s high gold production was the introduction of a new chemical-based gold treatment process. By 1897, there were major cyanide works at Tarnagulla, St Arnaud, Stawell, Ballarat, and Maldon. One of the most stunningly successful introductions of cyanide processing in Victoria was at Costerfield. After 50 years of unsuccessful experiments to unlock the gold from the field’s antimony-rich ore, the application of the cyanide process brought immediate success, and in a decade or so gold worth £:240,000 was recovered.

From 1905 to World War I, the State’s gold production declined – for far too long, problems inherent in deep sinking had been largely ignored. At Bendigo, the New Chum Railway and the Victoria Reef Quartz Mining companies were engaged in sinking main shafts to 4,300 ft. The following year, Dr Walter Summons released his findings on ventilation in the Bendigo mines; they presented a picture of young men sickening and dying from working in poorly ventilated shafts. In June 1910, deep mining at Bendigo was abandoned and all operations confined to the shallow levels of mines. With the onset of World War I, the industry stalled in Victoria.

1930s mining revival

Gold fetched a good price during the depression of the 1930s, and led to a revival of gold mining. Local men, with backgrounds in mining, were joined on the goldfields during the depression years by new chums – unemployed men who came to the district not dreaming of making a fortune, as their 1851 counterparts had, but simply hoping to eke a living out of the creeks. The Government's Sustenance Department issued each with a gold pan, rail ticket, and prospecting guide, and left them to it. With the help of their prospecting guides, many newcomers revived the art of cradling, some panned in the creeks, and others worked at ground sluicing on the slopes.

One of the most staggering successes of the 1930s prospecting revival led to a relatively unknown mine at Chewton, Wattle Gully, becoming one of the state’s leading twentieth-century mines. Cyaniding and dredging companies also carried out successful post-1930s mining. Cyaniding was dominated by Gold Dumps Ltd, which worked on a large scale. The company began its work on the slum dumps near Carisbrook. After processing these dumps, the company moved on to Bendigo where it embarked on an even more grand and lucrative scheme of cyaniding.

Dredging barges once more cranked their way up creeks and major gullies, gobbling away swampy flats, and jet elevators tore down the last remaining faces of the old alluvial workings. The most successful alluvial mining company operation during this time was at Newstead where a dredge operated from July 1938 to March 1948. Despite many difficulties, including a time when the company’s Caterpillar tractors were appropriated for the war effort and substituted with teams of horses, the dredge worked continuously throughout the war years. During 10 years of operation, the dredge handled 19,546,713 cubic yards of soil.

From 1941, Bendigo’s mining industry began to feel the effects of the war. The shortage of manpower and equipment seriously hampered further development and made full production impossible. One by one the remaining mines closed and at the end of 1954, after 103 years of continuous production, gold mining at Bendigo was halted.


Today, the central Victorian goldfields region is still producing large amounts of gold. Fossickers using gold-detectors are still finding nuggets, some of which have been substantial: in 1980, the 870 oz Hand of Faith nugget was recovered at Kingower. It is currently on display at the Golden Nugget Casino, Las Vegas. In 2005, an amateur prospector unearthed a 141oz. (4.4 kg) nugget worth $250,000 at a secret location somewhere on the Victorian goldfields. This nugget, known as Goldasaurus, is on display at Sovereign Hill in Ballarat.

Mining companies, large and small, still operate in the central Victorian region. At places such as Stawell, Fosterville, Bendigo, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Costerfield and Maldon, large companies are exploring, gold producing, or about to move into production.

David Bannear