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Mining Technology: Overview

Mining technology on the central Victorian goldfields in the 1850s and 1860s

Early techniques

The efforts of the first gold seekers were mainly focused on the shallow alluvial deposits found in central Victoria, particularly in the Bendigo-Ballarat area. Today it’s easy to regard the rolling wave of discovery, and the digging and development that followed, as the gold rush – like one big earthquake. In fact, it was a long series of tremors and aftershocks – more than 200 of them – with more advanced mining techniques and equipment becoming necessary as the easy-pickings dwindled. Some of the rushes to new fields – Heathcote, Alma, Ararat, Dunolly, and Landsborough – were equal to or even greater in size than those at Mount Alexander and Bendigo. Others were much smaller, like the Berlin (or Rheola) rushes of 1868.


The very earliest gold extraction equipment used by diggers were the cradle and the gold pan, both of which used a rocking action to separate the gold from a mixture of gravel and water. The ore was retrieved directly from a pan, or from riffles (that trapped the gold within the apparatus) when a cradle was used.

As diggers began to settle more permanently on the goldfields they began mining in new ways that required additional land, expensive machinery, and a more systematic and scientific approach to the extraction of the ore. Groups of men formed themselves into companies (co-operative or public) to make use of mining methods such as puddling, quartz reef mining, deep lead mining, and various forms of sluicing. Some goldfields became focal points for new mining technology such as Ballarat (deep lead mining) and Bendigo (quartz reef mining).

With the development of provincial cities and towns, such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Maryborough, large-scale and sophisticated infrastructure was developed to support the mining communities in central Victoria; railways and roads; active government outposts; libraries, theatres and art galleries; and stock exchanges were established.


When shallow alluvial ground was deemed ‘worked-out’, mining legislation permitted larger claims to be taken up for puddling purposes. The process involved the removal and processing of all the dirt – usually down to bedrock – stripping both gullies and hillsides (a practice known as surfacing). Puddling machines powered by horses could treat several tons of earth a day. The machines consisted of a circular wood-lined trough on the central mound of which was a wooden pivot post. A long, horizontal wooden pole was attached to the post by an iron pin and a horse was harnessed to the other end. Hanging from the pole were iron rakes that were dragged around the trench to break up the clay and free the gold. The water necessary for this process was obtained from a dam (the right to construct one came with a puddling lease) or from a water race.

Puddling operations led to considerable changes in the goldfield's landscape. 'Sludge' (the residue of puddled washdirt) choked watercourses and covered auriferous ground and roads. In some places special measures, such as the construction of sludge channels and the employment of workers to clear the watercourses (the cost borne by the proprietors of the puddling machines) were introduced to keep the channels running free. The peak period for puddling was from 1854 to the mid-1860s; after that, puddling declined in importance as suitable deposits were worked out or became too deeply buried by sludge to be economically worked. Puddling continued on some goldfields – such as Dunolly, Rushworth and Beaufort – well into the twentieth century.

Quartz reef mining

Quartz reef mining proved to be the most widely practised extraction method used in the region; it was undertaken on all the goldfields of central Victoria and continues to be successfully employed to the present day. Quartz reefs were the primary source of gold in most goldfields. They generally dipped steeply, and were mined in sections leaving large slots (called stopes) in the ground where the reef had been. The reefs were first quarried or open-cut to reap the benefit of their rich surface exposures; then shafts were sunk, or tunnels were driven into the sides of the hills, to trace the gold concealed at greater depths. Once extracted, the quartz had to be crushed to a fine sand to remove the gold. To accomplish this more efficiently than by just using hammers, machines such as crushing mills and stamping batteries (powered by hand, horse and eventually steam) were installed at the mining sites. Large companies, such as the Port Phillip Company at Clunes, helped develop the industry through continual experimentation to improve the economy of gold recovery.

Deep lead mining

Deep lead mining was less widespread. It was confined to country where alluvial deposits in ancient stream beds were buried beneath younger sediments or primordial lava flows. This form of mining was pioneered on the basalt plateau around Ballarat by skilled tin and coal miners from Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. The process involved sinking a main shaft, where possible in solid ground, and extending tunnels from this underneath the old, buried riverbeds (called leads). Vertical connections were made at intervals to the leads, and the ancient gold-bearing gravels were excavated from the sides of a main connecting tunnel through the lead. Underground, deep lead mining was fraught with danger for the miners: cave-ins in the loose earth and flooding were constant threats. By the mid-1850s, shafts at Ballarat were being sunk to depths of 100 ft through waterlogged ground to reach the rich deposits of gold. Many men became suddenly wealthy. In April 1857 the Golden Party commenced a shaft that later became famous as the Band and Albion Company Mine – Australia’s richest alluvial mining company.

During the 1860s, Ballarat continued to be the state’s focal point for deep lead mining with phenomenal gold yields at depths of 300 ft and over. The sustainability of deep lead mining had a pronounced effect on Ballarat. In fewer than 20 years a progressive, bustling city had arisen – with over 40,000 inhabitants; 56 churches; three town halls; 477 hotels; many large public buildings; 84 miles of made streets; 164 miles of footpaths; 15 miles of stone channelling; a reticulated water supply with 60 main water pipes; and a gas works with 50 miles of gas mains. Its main streets were lined with well-stocked, elegant shops and prosperous business premises. In and around the city were 11 banks, 13 breweries, eight iron foundries and three flour mills.

Water systems

Water was a crucial ingredient, not only for supporting the growth of the region’s new towns, but also for extracting gold from the clayey soil or crushed quartz, and for generating the steam that powered mining and manufacturing plant. Throughout the region, miners established extensive water supply schemes by constructing channels called water races. The construction of water races appears to have been largely pioneered on the Daylesford goldfield. Another large scheme, in the Talbot district, was undertaken by the private enterprise of Messrs Stewart and Farnsworth. These men were responsible for the construction of some 250 miles of water races and one large reservoir. The goldfields of Bendigo and Castlemaine were supplied with water through a government scheme, the Coliban water system. This was a vast initiative that included over 20 reservoirs, and 500 kilometres of races, tunnels and syphons. It operates today in essentially the manner that it was first proposed. Ballarat also had its own water supply scheme by the mid 1860s.


From the 1860s, various forms of sluicing took place using the water supplied from races and dams. Sluicing involved the use of running water to break down gold-bearing earth, and a sluice box, which was used to recover the gold. This simple, long, open-ended wooden box had transverse cleats, or riffles, tacked onto the base with, usually, coarse matting placed between the riffles. When the earth and gravel was washed through the box, the heavier gold stuck in the matting, or behind the riffles. There were two forms of early sluicing. Some miners worked streambeds, getting rid of the running water by diverting it through tunnels or cuttings, or by constructing embankments or wing-dams. Others extracted gold from the higher terraces (the remnants of old streambeds) by directing water from a high elevation down the faces of excavation soil to separate the gold from the soil and rocks. This form of mining was called ground sluicing and was undertaken on most goldfields.

The ‘mining revolution’

The steady accumulation of quartz mining expertise, a move to systematic, larger-scale mining, and the availability of improved mining technology, led to a 'mining revolution' in 1859. The 'revolution' manifested itself in the granting of large leaseholds of auriferous ground, the widespread formation of public companies, and a shift by the miners from independent workers to paid company employees. The move was assisted by the general trend for miners to settle down and raise families.

The ‘mining revolution’ transformed quartz reefing. The Bendigo field was at the forefront of the revolution, which precipitated the town’s transformation into a metropolis as rapidly as that which had occurred at Ballarat. The growing quartz mining industry was characterised by two types of performance: mines that produced spectacular yields for a short time; and those that gave steady, long-term returns, from mining at increasing depths. A vivid illustration of the latter was the experience of the Port Phillip Company (Clunes).

The Port Phillip Company was the state’s greatest quartz mine during the early 1860s. From an unpretentious start, by 1862 the proprietors found themselves in possession of a mine that had produced gold valued at over £400,000. The Port Phillip Company was incessant in its experiments in quartz reduction and amalgamation, employing a chemist to make careful analysis of the results obtained from the trials. The efforts of the Port Phillip Company established quartz reefing as the State’s most successful gold mining industry, and by the end of the decade, rich gold was being profitably recovered from depths of up to 600 ft.


Quartz reef mining transformed Bendigo into the Victorian goldfields region’s second provincial city – by 1870, Bendigo was the most secure mining location in Victoria. Underlying the boom was mining deeper and deeper below the surface. Geology experts had previously predicted that Australian gold would disappear at quite shallow depths, but several Bendigo companies were passing through the 500 ft level without any diminishment in the yield of gold. Another factor that contributed to obtaining successful yields was the widespread introduction of a Cornish system of working mines called tributing. Tributing involved a party of working miners (tributers) being contracted by a mining company to work a particular section of its mine. In return, the tributers paid the mining company a percentage of the gold they obtained, usually about 25%. Tributing quickly became widely used and helped sustain the quartz reefing industry.

The 1870s saw the demise of Ballarat’s deep lead industry but this was offset by a rise in prominence of new deep lead fields. Leading the way was the Maryborough goldfield and its flagship, the Duke and Timor Company. At its height, the company's proprietors boasted that nearly all the inhabitants of the surrounding towns of Timor and Bowenvale depended upon the mine for support. Elsewhere in the Maryborough district – at Alma, Majorca and Carisbrook – other significant deep lead centres developed. Perhaps the most significant event, however, was the discovery of gold at Spring Hill, near Creswick. The familiar scene of small company mining was enacted during the mid-1870s as the gold was traced down the hill and below the basalt plain. The main deep lead was traced northwards to Smeaton where, given the name the Berry Lead, it became synonymous with many of Victoria's richest deep lead mines. The Berry deep lead also holds a less enviable record. On 12 December 1882, a drive from the New Australasian Company's No. 2 shaft was flooded and 22 miners perished. To date, this is Australia's largest gold mining disaster.

Quartz reef mining was given a boost during the early 1880s with the introduction of the rock drill. Before its introduction, all holes required for blasting out horizontal mining tunnels (called cross-cuts) were cut by the technique of tap-and-hammer (one man held an iron drill, which the other hit with a hammer). Using this method, a team of two men took 10 hours to cut a horizontal blasting hole, 9 ft 3 ins in depth. Imported rock-drills could cut the same hole in one hour, so represented great saving in time and labour costs. Its introduction was due, at least in part, to a visit by Bendigo’s ‘Quartz King’, George Lansell, to the Nevada and California goldfields.

The rock-drill had a profound influence. Shafts were sunk deeper to enable further cross-cutting – by the end of the 1880s, 19 shafts on the Bendigo field were down to 2,000 ft. (Lansell’s 180 Mine approached a depth of 3,000 ft). Elsewhere other companies also prospered using the new technology: – the Magdala Company commenced driving towards an ore body and dominated Stawell's gold production until 1917; at St Arnaud, the Lord Nelson Company became a mighty gold producer; and the Maxwell (Inglewood), the North Cornish (Daylesford) and the North British (Maldon) companies also flourished.

Gold miners also began, for the first time, to extract gold from ore that was heavily laced with iron pyrites and other sulphides. This involved a chlorination process, using a combination of heat and chemicals; gold is readily attacked by chlorine gas and the chloride formed is soluble in water. Chlorine gas was generally used for the treatment of pyritical concentrates obtained from tailings. Physical evidence of the chlorination technology is now scarce in Victoria because, due to the toxic nature of the residues produced by the process, most sites have been ‘cleaned up’

David Bannear

Argus, 2 June 1851. Details
The Mining Journal, Railway and Commercial Gazette, p.463, 29 July 1852. Details
Mount Alexander Mail, 23 March 1855, p. 2. Details
Mount Alexander Mail, 30 March 1855. Details
Mount Alexander Mail, 29 January 1856, p. 3. Details
Moore, Bruce, Gold! Gold! Gold!: a dictionary of the nineteenth-century Australian gold rushes, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000. Details