With the discovery of gold, in late 1851, Victoria entered a period of intense immigration. By the end of 1852, some 94,000 immigrants had flocked to Melbourne. Between 1852 and 1860, nearly 300,000 people emigrated (either temporarily or permanently) from Britain and Ireland alone, many of them lured by the yellow metal.
Although news of Victoria's gold first reached Britain in January 1852, it was not until April of that year that the frenzy for the colony's gold reached excitable heights. Prior to April, people were sceptical of the news, and found it hard to equate the stigma of the colony's penal history with wealth and opportunity. Yet when, in April, the Hero arrived from Melbourne with its cargo of gold, scepticism gave way to feverish excitement. In April and May alone, some eight tons of gold arrived in London. In July and August that year, about 5,400 people sailed from the United Kingdom to Melbourne. Two months later the figure was 15,941.
Eager to meet the labour needs of its antipodean colony, Britain assisted people to immigrate to Victoria. Under a government assistance scheme financed by the sale of Crown land, governments paid for the ticket, which would otherwise cost between fifteen pound and twenty-five pound. Crammed into three ships, which normally carried half that number of passengers, one group of government-assisted immigrants arrived in Melbourne in September, minus the 174 people who had died during the journey. On board, government-assisted immigrants were supplied with rudimentary supplies that included a mattress, bedding, eating utensils, and a canvas bag. Those paying their own way on private ships were required to bring their own supplies. As the quality of the water was generally very poor, passengers were advised to procure their own supply, together with a selection of food that could supplement the monotonous and, at times, unpalatable seamen's diet of salted meat and sea biscuits. On board the SS Great Britain, one passenger noted in his diary: 'Our dinner today, as far as the meat was concerned was quite uneatable, so desperately salty and tough. Many jokes passed about it at table, some asking the steward whether it was post horse or cart horse and all agreeing that he must have been cruelly overworked.'
Sailing from southern England, the voyage's route was down the western coast of Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Indian Ocean to Melbourne. Initially the ships took seven or eight months to reach Melbourne, but with the advent of the faster clipper ships, the voyage was reduced to about three months. In 1854, the SS Great Britain reached Melbourne in a record sixty-five days.