1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Gold in Melbourne

When we think of the heady early years of the gold rushes in Victoria, regional towns like Ballarat and Castlemaine usually come to mind. This entry by Robyn Annear tells the less well-known stories of gold discoveries in the town of Melbourne in the early 1850s.

Gold was found in many places in Victoria during the 1840s, mainly by shepherds and farm labourers. Their finds were mainly kept secret, as mining was illegal, all gold (and other metals) being the property of the Crown. No system of licences or miners’ rights existed; in fact, gold discovery was positively discouraged as an unsettling, uncivilising influence in a British colony where savagery had not long since been conquered. Earl Grey, the British Minister for the Colonies, had said of Australia as early as 1839: ‘If gold is discovered I will do nothing to facilitate it. Rather I would send someone to hide it’.

One of the earliest gold discoverers in Victoria was old Jemmy Gumm, who had arrived as one of Johnny Fawkner's servants on board the Enterprise in 1835. During the early 1840s he was known as ‘Gumm the Gold Hunter’ and lived in a hut in the Plenty Ranges (now the Warrandyte area). Police troopers raided his camp in search of gold belonging to the Queen, but found only crucibles and bellows.

Closer to Melbourne, gold was discovered at Richmond by a labourer digging a post hole, but that was supposed to be a freak occurrence.

By the late 1840s, the existence of gold in many parts of Victoria was an open secret among the authorities and squatters - as well as among a number of Melbourne jewellers who surreptitiously bought native gold from shepherds and encouraged their further exploration. But no finds were made official until the gold rush to New South Wales in 1851 forced Victoria's hand. When it seemed that the new colony of Victoria (it had until then been just a district of NSW) might lose its entire labouring population to the NSW goldfields, a committee was formed to promote and reward gold discovery in Victoria. In July 1851 came the announcement that 'unquestionable evidence has been adduced showing the existence of Gold in considerable quantity both at the Deep Creek on the Yarra (near Major Newman's run) [that is, Anderson's Creek, Warrandyte], and also at the Deep Creek on the Pyrenees, near Mr Donald Cameron's house [that is, Clunes]’.

And so the gold rushes began - Buninyong, Ballarat, Mount Alexander, Bendigo, and so on. Now, one of the few initial regulations governing gold mining in Victoria stated that mining could not take place within one mile of a settlement or station that was in existence prior to the first gold rushes. That included, of course, Melbourne and its suburbs - which, at that time, were limited to Richmond, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Hotham (North Melbourne), Williamstown, Emerald Hill (South Melbourne), Sandridge (Port Melbourne), St Kilda, South Yarra and Prahran.

It immediately became apparent that the earlier Richmond gold find was no one-off. There was definitely gold under Melbourne - although how many of the discoveries (particularly those at the height of the gold rushes of 1851-52) ought to be dismissed as furphies is hard to say. Some of them were, without question.

The first report of ‘GOLD AT OUR OWN DOOR’ came within days of the official confirmation of gold in Victoria. On 28 July 1851, the Argus broke the news that a lump of gold from the western end of Bourke Street (that is, near Spencer Street station) had been found to contain two grains of pure gold. ‘Whether the soil whence the specimen was taken, is in reality auriferous, remains to be proven’, ran the article, ‘but the fact seems clear enough that one particle has been discovered’. The finder was Mr Henry Frencham, ‘a respectable man, who can have no object in deceiving the public; and although his supposed discovery at the Plenty turned out a mistake, no one doubted his own firm believe in the genuineness of the article discovered’. In fact, Mr Frencham, a sometime correspondent for the Argus and probably the author of this piece, rated himself as a great gold-finder. He subsequently claimed to have been the discoverer of the Bendigo goldfield, but was knocked back by the Rewards Committee.

In August 1851, two young daughters of a carrier named William Williams were playing marbles on a vacant plot of ground near their home in a lane of Lonsdale Street, between Stephen (Exhibition) and Spring Streets, when they found a fragment of china poking out of the ground and dug it out with a stick. Beneath it they spied ‘a pretty thing’, which they took to show their mother. There being so much ‘talk’ of the precious metal, Mrs Williams took the piece for examination by a jeweller, Mr Crate of Swanston Street. He tested it and weighed it and pronounced it to be a pure specimen weighing just over half an ounce. The Argus described the specimen as:

rather long than broad, and somewhat flattened, having all the appearance of having been run by the action of intense heat, and resembling in this respect pieces of lead that have been thrown out accidentally from the melting pot. It also seems at some time to have been walked upon, for both the upper and lower surfaces are much scratched and flattened, as if innumerable boots had been operating on it. To one of the sides of the nugget a piece of milk quartz still adheres; and in the opposite side a portion of quartz is embedded, mingled with a small piece of other matter.

In spite of the law against digging for gold in town, several people set to work in the locality and found, at a depth of about 18 inches from the surface, a bed of dark quartz. Considerable excitement was caused, but nothing appears to have come of the rush.

Lonsdale Street and the northern end of town, as you will see, turned out to be something like the El Dorado of the CBD. Following on from the Williams girls’ find, a Mr George Say, publican of the St George & Dragon hotel in today’s Greek section of Lonsdale Street, saw the commercial advantages of sparking a gold rush of his own. He claimed to have found gold in the gutter not far from his public house, around about the Swanston Street corner. He took his specimen to the Herald office, but it was found to be just a piece of quartz with some gold leaf rubbed into its crevices. The scribes at the Herald were not a bit amused at having their legs pulled. ‘If Mr Say gets his windows smashed in some fine night for carrying on such vagaries’, they told their readers, ‘we will not pity him one bit’.

The same day as George Say’s bogus gold find, a real gold rush was sparked at the other end of Lonsdale Street. In those early gold rush times, the Treasury building was in William Street, just south of Lonsdale. On the morning of 23 October 1851 a digger named Payne was on his way to the Treasury to collect a parcel of gold which he had sent ahead by escort from Ballarat. Near the William Street corner, he remarked to his companion that the earth exposed in the roadside cutting on the north side of Lonsdale Street was of the same ‘blueish’ clay as that he had encountered at Ballarat. Out of curiosity, his friend broke of a few lumps of clay and found specks of gold inside. When the Herald’s man arrived on the scene, several parties were at work with pick and shovel, and he witnessed one man extract a nugget ‘the size of a large pea’. The reporter concluded that ‘there is no doubt whatever that there is gold there and in large abundance.’ Several applications were made to the Colonial Secretary for licences to dig, but they were met with stiff refusal. The newspaper report of the rush caused an even larger crowd of would-be diggers to gather in Lonsdale Street the next day, but only two very small ‘lumps’ were found. Late in the afternoon, two constables finally made their appearance and broke up the rush.

By the way, this is not the last time we will meet the pea as a unit of gold measurement. It is tempting to imagine the Herald sending its reporter to the scene of gold discoveries equipped with the contents of a fresh pod in his fob-pocket, for purposes of comparison. The best descriptions of gold nuggets that I’ve come across, though, appeared in the memoirs of an early Castlemaine gold digger. The first nugget he ever saw was, he said, ‘something between a lady’s watch and a leg of mutton—that is, the size of one and the shape of the other!’ Later, when he and his partners bottomed their first hole, they found in the washdirt ‘nuggets, some of which were, without exaggeration, as big as ants’ eggs.’

The west end of Lonsdale Street actually ran along the approach to Flagstaff Hill, which the ubiquitous Henry Frencham had already flagged as a likely site for a goldfield. Over the years to come, there would be numerous reports of gold discoveries in the Flagstaff Hill area. One, in 1856, was responsible for breaking up a church service at St Mary’s, North Melbourne. News of a gold find at the north end of Flagstaff Hill reached the ears of parishioners as they celebrated morning mass. Before the service was over, more than a hundred of them had joined the rush, using whatever implements they had on them to prise specks of gold from the familiar blue-tinged clay.

By mid-November 1851, Melbourne was well and truly in the grip of gold-fever. The news coming from Mount Alexander told of unimaginable riches being unearthed, and Melbourne, and the whole of the colonies, were half-mad with it. For me, the mood is captured by an incident where some lads were washing the soil built up in the Swanston Street gutters and found it to be highly auriferous. The thing that struck me was that, at that period, everybody more than half expected to find gold beneath their very feet. The Argus sent ‘An intelligent young man in our employ’ who ‘washed a few handfulls of earth, and found something like twenty particles of gold, varying in size from a pin’s head to a grain of mustard.’ What—no large peas?

In December, when a Dr Black found a specimen of quartz with gold adhering near St Stephen’s Church in Richmond, the Herald exclaimed: ‘It is becoming almost difficult to say where gold may not be found in Victoria.’

One place where it was not to be found was on ‘the alleged gold field at prahran’ at Christmas time in 1852. The rumour had been put about that gold was found on a building site in Chapel Street. Those who joined the rush and filled matchboxes with their spoils were disappointed when the ‘gold’ turned out to be brass filings.

In January 1853, a new arrival in the colony found gold in a post-hole he was digging in erecting his tent on ground behind the Melbourne Gaol (now the site of RMIT). This was the hill known as Tyburn (because of the hangings there), and it was the next high ground eastwards in the same line as Flagstaff Hill. The Herald was able to tell its readers that the immigrant’s nugget was about half the size of a pea. There were high hopes that more gold might be found in the sinking of a large reservoir in the grounds of the gaol, which was to due commence shortly. If more gold did emerge, the government (or the navvies) didn’t let on.

Now we come to my favourite report of a Melbourne gold discovery. It’s interesting, I think, as a blow-by-blow, eyewitness account of a gold rush - albeit a very minor one. But, to me, it is especially memorable for the cameo performance of one chap from Somerset. On 2 September 1853, a reporter at the Argus got word that gold had been discovered on Emerald Hill (South Melbourne). Police Constable Ivess was the source of the information, and he showed to the reporter, at about eleven o’clock, half-a-dozen small nuggets, ‘the largest of them being about half the size of a small pea’. The reporter decided to visit the spot for himself.

On reaching the foot of the hill our representative met Constable Ivess, who very courteously conducted him at once to the spot where the gold had been found, and to every other place and person who could give any information on the subject. The spot where the gold has so far been found is at the back, or north end, of a large store kept by a Mr Anderson. It is situated near the summit of the hills, and is distant about one hundred yards from Mr Bland’s Emerald Hotel, in a south-westerly direction. [Very fortuitous for Mr Bland.] The circumstances connected with the discovery are these. About a month ago Mr Anderson dug to a depth of about twenty-two feet, in the hope of finding freshwater. When he had reached the depth above mentioned, he came to a salt-water spring, and as he then supposed there was no fresh water near there, he gave up the project. The earth which had been thrown out from the intended well remained at the sides ever since, until yesterday, and no notice was taken of it. Of course, the earth which had been taken from the greatest depth was lying uppermost. Close by where this earth lay was an empty and now unused sawpit, which Mr Anderson yesterday morning determined to have filled up with the surplus earth from the excavated well. All hands, and all the children, young and old, who were about there, were set to work to remove the earth into and to fill up the sawpit. While they were so employed, some of the children first discovered small specks, particles and nuggets of gold in the earth which they were transferring to the sawpit. This soon became known, and then men, women and children turned out to search for gold, and to wash the earth in which it had been found. At one time about one hundred person had assembled there, and our reporter saw and heard of, in the possession of various persons, as many as about fifty nuggets. Besides this, he saw gold in all the various stages of washing. Some of the earth appeared to be a blueish clay, other portions of it had a dark red sandy appearance. Some of it was being paddled in tubs, some was washed in tin bowls. In one tin bowl a very large quantity of grain gold was discovered on our reporter removing the water. One man took hold of a piece of earth of about the size of a walnut, for which he seemed to have a particular fancy; and as he had no utensil or water at hand wherewith to wash it, he straightaway put the lump in his mouth, and proceeded to wash it with his saliva. A bystander expressed some astonishment at his conduct. The reply was given with extended eyes, and half-opened mouth, in a broad Somerset dialect, ‘Nev’r thee mind. It’s worth sooking.’ And so it turned out, for in less than two minutes, he produced from a mouthful of mud, the largest and prettiest nugget which has been found there yet. People were constantly arriving on the ground when our reporter left, and there is no doubt but that during this day and to-morrow, thousands will assemble there.

Surprisingly there was no follow-up to that story, to tell us how the thousands fared. Perhaps the constabulary intervened - more likely, the rush just fizzled out.

By the early 1860s, gold had been found in the footpath of Hoddle Street, at Prahran railway station, on Batman's Hill (now the site of Spencer Street station, but the gravel from the top of which was spread along the banks of the Yarra in the 1870s), on Richmond Hill again (in sinking a cellar), at Templestowe and Heidelberg. These finds didn't rate as much of a sensation anymore. I think ‘gold’ became a bit of a dirty word in Melbourne for the remainder of the ‘fifties. A fair percentage of those who had participated in the gold rushes - many of them coming from the other side of the world - considered that they had been taken for a ride. After 1852 or 1853 they found themselves in Melbourne and out of work - in a far more perilous financial position, in many cases, than they had been before setting out to seek their fortune. Gold-mining talk seems to have become polite in Melbourne again only after big-business mining took off in 1859.

When next there was talk of metropolitan gold, it turned out to be a postscript to the Emerald Hill rush of 1853. Frank Liardet was a publican and all-round opportunist. One of Melbourne's earliest pioneers, he had set up a public house at Sandridge, which became Melbourne's port (hence its present-day name, Port Melbourne). During the gold rushes, Victoria's richest gold mine was Frank Liardet's Bay View Hotel, which was the only watering hole and place of shelter available to emigrants when they staggered ashore after months at sea. One disembarking digger later recalled having paid two shillings (a high price) at Liardet’s for a quart of black beer called ‘Murphy’s Swipes’. If emigrants were daunted by the prospect of a three-mile hike through the dusty or swampy bushland to the town centre, Liardet offered to convey them - at a price. Now it was Frank Liardet who announced, in a letter to the Argus in January 1860, a ‘scramble for gold’ on the footpath outside his hotel. Liardet wrote:

A number of watermen, cabmen, stevedores, and boys, &c., are scraping up the pathway into caps and tin dishes. So conspicuous is the auriferous product, that it is detected in small particles without resorting to washing. One nugget just found is upwards of a quarter of an ounce weight.

It seems that the soil from which the footpath was formed - a reddish brown colour, interspersed with ferruginous and quartzose small pebbles - had been brought from Emerald Hill.

It was a Mr C.F. Nicholls who in 1862 offered a geological explanation for the presence of gold in Melbourne and its suburbs. He noticed the absence of gravel in Melbourne and, by studying rail and road cuttings in Prahran and Richmond, he concluded that Melbourne's gravel - the ancient bed of the Yarra - was covered with basalt. He predicted that a large deep lead ran through Melbourne to the bay, and he proposed prospecting under the basalt and adjacent to the high ground furthest from the present Yarra River. The Government geologist had already pinpointed Collingwood Flat (Abbotsford) as the most likely spot in the suburbs for a goldfield, but the cost of sinking through the bluestone had so far stood in the way of prospecting. Now an experienced Ballarat miner tried panning some gravel from the cliffs at Studley Park, above Collingwood Flat, and found specimens of waterworn gravel. The surface indications at Studley Park and Collingwood Flat were said to have a lot in common with those at Ballarat. Somebody took up the challenge later in 1862, and for a couple of years the Collingwood Flat GMC prospected in earnest for the supposed rich deep lead; but nothing payable turned up. Much later, in the early 1930s, a mining lease would be taken out at Port Melbourne, between Williamstown Road and the north-east end of Coode Island. Bores were sunk in search of the fabled Melbourne deep lead, but nothing promising was revealed there either

Gold prospecting surged during the Depression of the 1890s, and discoveries on Melbourne's outskirts included finds at Blackburn, at ‘Claytons’, Notting Hill, Hartwell and Balwyn, and closer to town at Hawthorn, Moonee Ponds and in Merri Creek, near Pentridge. Gold was found at Glen Waverley, just south of the Mountain View Hotel (corner of Springvale and High Street roads), in 1896. Alluvial gold was worked in the gully below the hotel, and stone was crushed from a reef nearby; but the rush dissipated after just a week or two.

In 1895, a bricklayer working on the construction of a pair of brick cottages in Condell Street, Fitzroy, knocked the corner off a brick and found a gold nugget protruding - about the size of a large pea, but square in shape. The bricks were made by the South Preston Brick and Tile Company, but the source of the clay used in their manufacture was not revealed. There is only one other report of gold being found in Fitzroy. That was in 1927, when workmen demolishing an old building found gold beneath the rubble. A number of claims were pegged out, but the rush came to a halt when Mines Department investigation revealed that the gold was connected with a dentist's surgery which had occupied the building for many years.

Robyn Annear

Argus, 11 June 1851, p. 4. Details
Argus, 14 June 1851, p. 2. Details