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Travelling: Overview

Victoria’s gold rush era was characterised by frequency of travel and great upheaval. People journeyed, sometimes over vast distances, to and from the diggings. Excited and filled with hope, they made their way to the goldfields, passing en route goods wagons, disillusioned diggers, and those who had become newly rich. Many ventured to other fields before finally settling down or returning home. One man commented, ‘since the commencement of this gold revolution society in the antipodean regions has become almost as migratory as the Bedouins.’


Flocking to the diggings

As the initial discovery of gold in August 1851 gained greater publicity, the small trickle of people arriving at the diggings became a stream and then a flood. A month later, when news of gold discoveries at Castlemaine circulated, men and women flocked there in increasing numbers. Populations swelled from a few dozen prospectors to a few hundred, and then to thousands, as people continued to arrive. Two months after the first gold discovery there were about eight thousand people at Mount Alexander; a month later the population had escalated to about twenty thousand. Eager fortune-seekers, from Melbourne, regional Victoria, and other Australian colonies reached their destination on foot or travelled on drays. Others – from New Zealand, Europe, Britain, Ireland, China, and elsewhere – made the voyage by sea. The writer William Howitt noted with astonishment, ‘the number of people pouring into the colony from all quarters is perfectly astounding. They arrive 500 and 600 a week.’

After the news of Victoria’s gold discoveries reached Britain in January 1851, British, Irish, and European immigrants began to arrive in Melbourne to seek their fortunes. People came from far and wide, often travelling for months in overcrowded ships. Port Phillip Bay became packed with ships: ‘vessels are continually pouring in their living freight of gold-seekers upon our shores, and the cry is still “they come”.’ By 1854, approximately one in ten of the diggers on the fields was an immigrant from overseas, most frequently Chinese, British, American or European. Three years later, a sixth of all diggers were Chinese.

Great expectations

Many immigrants arrived ignorant of what lay ahead of them, and of the skill and patience required to live the life of a miner. Many seasoned diggers regarded the new immigrants as ‘arrant fools . . . who are constantly arriving with the most absurd expectations of finding gold and after spending a week or two in sauntering about depart quite disappointed in finding it requires hard work and patience to acquire it.’ While manuals and directories for prospective or newly arrived immigrants often sought to dispel the myths of quick and effortless wealth that were circulating, thousands upon thousands of people – of all classes, religions and backgrounds – failed to heed the warning and flocked to the diggings in haste. Publishing one such directory in 1852, George Butler Earp wrote, ‘men, who, under ordinary circumstances would be reckoned perfectly sane, are flying away in many cases without plan, preparation or foresight. It is quite enough for them that gold is to be found and away they go.’


People made their way to the diggings by any means available to them. The more affluent travelled in coaches, horse drawn drays, or bullock wagons. Others travelled on ox carts, or walked – pulling their possessions in wheelbarrows, or carrying them on their backs. James Butchart observed from his property, ‘in the last two days vehicles of all descriptions have been passing here on their way to the diggings.’ The roads became littered with the detritus of the journey: animals, abandoned when they were too sick or tired to complete the journey, lay dead or dying by the roadside, along with discarded objects too cumbersome to transport, broken wheels, and other superfluous equipment. The movement of large numbers of people also affected the surrounding landscape – trees were felled for firewood, and sites were cleared to set up tents – as campsites became established.

Communities formed as people arrived at the diggings, but a sense of permanency was tenuous as the population was likely to leave at any moment for more profitable diggings. By December 1851, Ballarat’s once bustling population had diminished to about three hundred. Believing that the diggings were exhausted, many miners and their families left for Mount Alexander or other fields; many businesses also relocated. However, the discovery of the very profitable Eureka lead in 1854 encouraged many people to return to Ballarat, thereby swelling its population to about twenty-five thousand. Seasonal factors also influenced population movement. As the deplorable state of the roads in winter made travel very difficult, people tended to move about in the drier months; but some diggings were almost unbearable in summer, with the lack of water, and thus were avoided. Many miners established a pattern of travelling to Bendigo with its dry diggings in winter and then back to Castlemaine with its wet diggings in summer; a route between the two settlements, consisting of crudely constructed tracks and roads, was quickly established.

As well as the multitudes of people, numerous goods wagons occupied the roads to the goldfields. Before rail arrived in central Victoria in the early 1860s, all goods were transported in wagons and drays, pulled by horses or teams of bullocks. Food, mining equipment, building supplies, clothing, cooking utensils, and the myriad of other goods required to service the needs of growing communities were all transported on the atrocious roads. This contributed to the steep price of produce and other merchandise at the diggings: in winter, when the roads were at their worst, it could cost up to fifty pounds a ton to transport goods from Melbourne to Forest Creek, and one hundred and fifty pounds to deliver them from Melbourne to Bendigo.

With no made roads to the diggings, the trip was one of difficulty. In summer travellers were engulfed in dust, while in winter they had to wade through seemingly endless miles of mud and bogs. Without bridges, and with only crudely constructed river crossings, waterways were not only difficult to traverse after rain but also, in some cases, very dangerous. One traveller recalled the deplorable conditions of the roads when he wrote:

horses were bogged everywhere, and often horses and bullocks left to perish. We have taken a whole day to get our drays half a mile . . . the horses would sink up to their bellies, and then we had to dig both horses and drays out. Very often we got stuck ourselves.

Sometimes, travel was such an arduous and time consuming undertaking that ‘it is an easy thing to say “I’ll go to the diggings,” but no one knows what it means till he has tried it.’

Laura Donati

Annear, Robyn, Nothing but gold: the diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1999. Details
Bate, Weston, Lucky city: the first generation at Ballarat, 1851-1901, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 1978. Details
Brown, Joseph Junior; University of Melbourne Archives. Details
Butchart, James; Accession 90/83; University of Melbourne Archives. Details
Earp, G. B., The gold colonies of Australia: comprising their history, territorial division, produce and capabilities; also ample notices of the gold mines, and how to get to them; with every advice to emigrants, George Routledge and Co., London, 1852. Details
Serle, Geoffrey, The golden age: a history of the colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963. Details