Chapter 19 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XIX


Strzelecki finds gold among the mountains — W. B. Clarke’s prognostications — Gold found in the Port Phillip district — Official disfavour of gold discoveries — Hargreaves’s discoveries — Ballarat — Bendigo — Wonderful finds — Inrush of Chinese — The digging days — Digging licences — Riot on the Turon — Unrest at Ballarat — The Eureka Stockade — The miner’s right — Gold-mining as an industry — Gympie — Mount Morgan — Coolgardie — The Golden Mile — Broken Hill — The Burra.

From the first discovery of gold down to 1916, Australia contributed nearly £600,000,000 to the world’s stock of this metal. The history of gold-mining presents three broadly marked phases. First, there were the occasional discoveries of fragments, and the more or less confident predictions that rich deposits would be found. Secondly, there were the exciting years of the gold ‘rushes,’ when the diggers flocked from the ends of the earth to pick up fortunes in yellow lumps or to wash it out of the gravel of streams. Thirdly, as the surface alluvial deposits became exhausted, there was the period when gold-mining became an organized industry, to which science and capital were applied, liable to be flushed with unexpected successes or depressed by sudden collapses — speculative, spasmodic, perhaps incalculable, but a regular industry nevertheless.

In 1839 the Polish Count, Paul Strzelecki, during a scientific exploring expedition from Sydney across the mountains of the south-east and into the region of Victoria which he called Gippsland, observed particles of gold amongst decomposed ironstone. Sir Roderick Murchison, when he examined Strzelecki’s maps and rock specimens in England, pointed out the resemblances between the geological formation and that of the gold-bearing rocks of the Ural Mountains. He wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Grey, stating his conclusions and the reasons for them; but no notice was taken of his letter. Several persons in New South Wales occasionally found small specimens of gold. As early as 1823 McBrian, a surveyor, picked up some specks while at work near the Fish River. A Sydney geologist, W. B. Clarke, from observations made in the Bathurst neighbourhood, heralded the approach of important discoveries, and showed a sample to Sir George Gipps. But the Governor did not view the discoveries with pleasure. Gipps, who dreaded the unrest which the lure of gold would cause among his horde of convicts, said to the geologist, ‘Put it away, Mr. Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut.’ He requested Strzelecki to say nothing about his inferences, lest the convict population and labourers should become restless and go prospecting. The Count, for this reason, refrained from alluding to the subject in his book on Australia. When, in 1848, a piece of gold found near Berrima was shown to the Government in Sydney, they would not order a geological survey for fear of ‘agitating the public mind.’

But the discovery of various nuggets and fragments continued, not only in New South Wales but in Victoria. In 1847 a Port Phillip shepherd found gold at the roots of a tree which the wind had blown down. In the two following years Melbourne goldsmiths purchased several specimens found in a similarly chance fashion. In 1849 a shepherd named Chapman, who was looking after his master’s sheep at Mount Buninyong, near Ballarat, brought in twenty-two ounces of fine gold, and guaranteed to show a gully in the ranges where more would be found. A gold assayer accompanied him to the spot, and brought back twenty-four ounces. A labourer in Gippsland, in digging a hole for a fencing-post, struck a nugget with his spade, and his good luck made him the richer by a hundred sovereigns. Similar incidents became so frequent as to make men feel that they were on the eve of surprising changes.

The period of systematic search did not begin till after 1850. Edward Hargreaves, who had had a sheep station on the Bathurst Plains, was attracted to the gold diggings of California in 1849. He roughed it there among the variegated society of Poker Flat and the Roaring Camp, and he noticed that the diggings which yielded the richest returns were in country very closely resembling Bathurst. He knew of the traces of gold which had been found there; so he hurried back to Australia and commenced to search. In May 1851 the Lands Commissioner wrote in alarm from Bathurst to Sydney that ‘a Mr. Hargreaves’ had been employing people to dig for gold on Summerhill Creek. They had found several ounces, and he considered that ‘some stringent measures should be adopted to prevent the labouring classes from leaving their employment to search on the crown lands.’ Sheep, to the Commissioner, were more important than gold; and so, indeed, the Government were inclined to think. But Hargreaves had been in communication with Governor Fitzroy, seeking a reward if he pointed out where gold would certainly be found. He did in the end receive a grant of £10,000, and was presented to Queen Victoria as the celebrated gold discoverer. But in fact Clarke’s intimations were earlier and based upon a foundation of reasoned knowledge.

As soon as the news of the Bathurst discoveries reached Melbourne the importance of the previous occasional findings of gold was realized. Here there were no misgivings. Victoria had been passing through a period of commercial depression. People were drifting away from the country. Prosperity was waning. Nothing could have been more opportune than the stimulus of rich gold discoveries at this juncture. A committee of wealthy citizens at once offered liberal rewards for discoveries, and claimants were quick in coming forward. Gold was found in the Plenty Ranges, quite near to Melbourne. Prospectors on the upper Yarra brought back gravel sparkling with golden grains. Farther away, at Clunes, a coach-driver looking round in his spare time discovered valuable deposits. Pockets containing nuggets often weighing many ounces of pure gold were revealed at Mount Alexander. In August 1851 the beginnings of the fabulous richness of Ballarat were disclosed by Thomas Hiscock; and in November Henry Frenchman in Golden Gully, Bendigo, tapped the first draught of the great yellow stream that was to flow from that amazing field. Before the end of 1851, 249,000 ounces had been taken from the soil of Victoria, worth nearly £900,000.

Wonderful finds were made by individuals. An aboriginal employed by Dr. Kerr, in the Bathurst district, cracked a block of quartz with his tomahawk and told his master that there was gold inside it. A hundredweight of pure gold was at once taken from the spot, including one solid lump weighing sixty pounds. A digger at Golden Point, Ballarat, sank a hole five feet deep, and at the bottom found that ‘the gold was so thickly sprinkled that it looked like a jeweller’s shop.’ Another Ballarat digger took £1,800 out of one hole in one day’s easy work. A Bendigo miner obtained £3,000 in six weeks. A party of eight mates, after taking £12,800 from a Ballarat claim, sold it to a party of ten, who obtained from it £10,000 between Saturday morning and Monday evening. Then they sold the right of working the mine for one week to a party of twelve, who scooped out £14,400; after which the ten proprietors resumed possession, made £9,000 in the next week, and sold out to a party who won £5,000 within the following fortnight. The Welcome nugget weighed 2,217 ounces, the Welcome Stranger 2,280. Lesser nuggets seemed to be nearly as profuse as pebbles on a beach. When Latrobe, the Lieutenant-Governor, paid a visit of inspection to Ballarat, a miner offered him a piece of pure gold as a souvenir, and when he protested it was too much to take, the man simply answered that there were plenty more where that came from. It is true that the rich ‘finds’ were the good fortune of comparatively few among the many thousands who crowded the auriferous areas, but the others were always buoyed up with hope.

Naturally the news which flew round the globe emphasized the richness of the discoveries and created the impression that inexhaustible wealth lay scattered over these Australian gold-fields waiting to be picked up. The stories which the newspapers in all languages had to tell were not exaggerations, and could hardly have been so, because the things which occurred were far more wonderful than any that could be imagined. From the fiords of Norway to the villages of China ran the golden tidings. Ibsen, writing his poetical play, Love’s Comedy, in Christiania, figured ‘a Ballarat beyond the desert sands’ as an end worth leaping for. From Canton and Belgravia alike came the seekers. Thousands of Chinese poured in, packed in ships like cattle, so that already men began to say that the proximity of empty Australia to crowded Asia presented a grave problem which would have to be guarded against. Bathurst, Bendigo, and Ballarat homed the most mixed assembly of humanity on earth. In the first year there were more foreigners than people of British blood among the procession of immigrants who thronged the roads from the wharves where the ships dropped them to the diggings where they all hoped to become immensely rich within an extremely short period. Before 1855 there were as many residents in Victoria alone as there were in all Australia previously to the gold discoveries.

The Government claimed that gold found ‘in its natural place of deposit’ belonged to the Crown, but granted licences to diggers. In New South Wales the fee fixed in May 1851 was 30s. per month, and in Victoria the same rate was proclaimed in August. Gold-fields Commissioners were appointed to issue licences and prevent digging by those who had not paid the fees. In 1852 the Imperial Government notified that the revenue derived from this source was to be used to defray the cost of local administration. The Legislative Councils of both New South Wales and Victoria, being composed principally of landowners, many of whom regarded the gold-fields as unblessed things because they attracted labour from the sheep-runs and farms, were resolved to make the miners pay for the privilege of gold-getting. Some of the squatters, alarmed for the welfare of their flocks, advocated that gold-digging should be peremptorily prohibited ‘in order that the industrial pursuits of the country should not be interfered with.’ Such a policy would have been manifestly absurd; but it was considered that at least the Government should benefit from the finds made by the miners. Besides, the gold-fields entailed much additional expenditure. More roads, more wharves, more officials, more police, were required. Should not these be paid for out of the proceeds of the mines? The squatters and rulers certainly thought so.

The operation of the licence system, however, was so inequitable that it was bound to cause dissatisfaction. It extracted 30s. per month alike from the miner who had a rich claim and from him who toiled all day and got nothing. After the first flush of easily won opulence, nuggets were no longer as plentiful as coconuts on a tropic isle, and in the lottery of gold-fields life, while many still drew prizes, there were also plenty of blanks. In New South Wales there was a riot on the Turon diggings, in protest against the exaction; but there the number of miners was not very large, they were tactfully handled, and the trouble was soon at an end.

But in Victoria there were more serious disturbances. The gold-fields population there comprised a number of foreign diggers — continental revolutionaries who had been in the habit of nourishing grievances and defying authority. Sir Charles Hotham attributed the disturbances chiefly to ‘active, designing, intriguing foreigners whose aim is disorder and confusion’; and if he exaggerated this influence, it certainly was present. Moreover, the principal Victorian gold-fields were contained within a fairly compact area. Bendigo, Castlemaine, Creswick, Ballarat, Maryborough, and a cluster of other mining centres were not far apart; and there was always amongst the miners that feeling of mateship which made the troubles of some the concern of the entire community. But, above all, the police, who collected the fees, carried out their duties arrogantly and caused much exasperation. Undoubtedly many diggers who could afford the fee evaded payment, and it was no easy task to collect money from them. There were so many opportunities of hiding when the troopers came upon the scene: in the scrub, down a shaft, among the tents. Tradespeople, who did business principally with the miners, were disposed to be on their side against the police. The revenue was always very far short of the amount that should have been received from the number of diggers on the various fields; and the Victorian Government was in urgent need of all the money it could collect. The police, frequently baffled and constantly urged to be more vigilant, became at enmity with the mining population, and a tension of feeling dangerous to the public peace was the consequence.

Latrobe admitted that the licence system was inequitable, and favoured the imposition of an export duty on gold as a better means of enabling the Government to obtain a reasonable portion of the product of the mines. But his Legislative Council rejected that plan, and proposed to reduce the fee. An Act passed in 1853 did diminish it to a minimum of £1 per month, or £8 per annum. But the police still continued to act as collectors. They probed and hunted and hustled amid scowls and curses and threats; and amongst the miners avoidance of payment was elevated into a virtue.

The ill-feeling blazed into open rioting and rebellion at Ballarat in October, November, and December 1854, and culminated in the incident of the Eureka Stockade. In October a mob had burnt down a disreputable drinking shanty known as the Eureka Hotel, kept by one Bentley, who had been a Van Diemen’s Land convict. A digger had been murdered in a scuffle at the door of the hotel, and Bentley was believed to have committed the crime. But he was a friend of the magistrate, and was acquitted. The diggers, nearly 10,000 strong, held an indignation meeting, which the police endeavoured to disperse. The infuriated crowd overwhelmed them, rushed at the hotel, and burnt it down. Later Bentley was rearrested, and, with three accomplices, convicted of manslaughter, whilst the magistrate who had previously acquitted him was dismissed from office.

So far the quarrel between the diggers and the authorities was little better than a vulgar squabble involving a tragedy. But out of the passions aroused by it arose a movement which had in it a tinge of political idealism. An Association called the Ballarat Reform League was organized, which, in addition to championing the cause of the diggers in reference to the licence fee and the intimidating conduct of the police, put forward a programme demanding parliamentary representation on the basis of manhood suffrage, the payment of members of Parliament, the abolition of the property qualification for members of Parliament, and the settlement of disputes between the miners and the authorities by arbitrators chosen from each side. The programme of the League was, in short, substantially that of English Chartism adapted to local circumstances.

Hundreds of licences were publicly burnt, and the League pledged its members to support those who refused to pay the obnoxious fees. Several exciting incidents occurred before the climax at the Eureka Stockade was reached. The Governor (Hotham) considered it to be necessary to send up troops, and on the appearance of a detachment of the 40th regiment on November 28, two diggers approached the officer in command, Captain Wise, and asked him whether it was true that the wagons which he had with him contained guns. Wise replied contemptuously that he had no information to give to a parcel of rebels. Thereupon the crowd of angry men hurled themselves upon the military convoy, overpowered the soldiers, captured one wagon, overturned another, and scattered the troops in flight to the military camp. The mounted police dashed forth to disperse the crowd and rescue the wagons, the contents of which, consisting partly of ammunition, had by this time been destroyed or distributed among the rioters. The troopers rode slashing with their swords among the people, and many were wounded.

It was now evident that the Government would have to take stern measures, and the miners had to make up their minds to defend themselves or tamely submit. In the excited condition of Ballarat there was no doubt about the decision. They elected as their leader Peter Lalor, a tall Irishman with some facility of speech and command over men. Under his direction an acre of land on an area known as the Eureka Lead was fenced off as a drill ground, and hastily fortified with earth, rock, and logs. A lanky German named Vern superintended the construction of this fortress, which, like himself, was not so formidable as it looked. Meanwhile the military had been reinforced, and the officer in command, Captain Thomas, was fully informed as to what was happening. He determined to make an early morning attack on the stockade. Lalor and his four lieutenants, two of them foreigners, had proclaimed ‘the Republic of Victoria,’ and hoisted a blue flag with the southern cross in white stars upon it as the symbol of their revolution.

At four o’clock on the morning of Sunday, December 3, Captain Thomas, at the head of his little force of 276 soldiers and police — of whom only 182 were trained troops — attacked the Eureka Stockade. The assault was quite unexpected. But the alarm was given, and the redcoats were met with a volley which killed Captain Wise, the second in command, and a couple of privates. Two volleys from the troops swept the log parapet of the stockade, and then Thomas gave the order to charge. In a few seconds the troops were over the top and in among the defenders. For about a quarter of an hour there was a brisk hand-to-hand fight, but in twenty-five minutes the struggle was over, the flag was down, Vern had fled, Peter Lalor was lying unconscious with a shattered arm, and the Eureka Stockade was in the hands of the Queen’s forces. Four soldiers and an officer were killed, and a dozen men were wounded; whilst probably thirty of the rebels lost their lives. The soldiers fought chivalrously, but the police, animated by revenge, got out of hand and were censured by the coroner’s jury for ‘brutal conduct in firing at and cutting down unarmed and innocent persons of both sexes at a distance from the scene of disturbance.’

Amongst Australian miners the Eureka Stockade incident has always been regarded as in some sense a ‘fight for freedom,’ and the fact that a liberalizing of the governing institutions occurred afterwards was connected with the event itself. But the rebellious features were contrary to the saner judgment of the miners, especially of those of British origin. How much of it was really due to foreigners who had no respect for British methods of securing reforms, it is difficult to determine. The influence of the foreign element has been questioned, and Hotham’s assertion that the mass of the miners were urged on by non-British agitators has been attributed to his anxiety to find an excuse for the mishandling of the situation by the Government. But Vern was a German; so was Thonen, another ringleader who was killed; and Raffaelo, who was arrested and brought to trial, was a red-headed Italian who seemed to hate all authority because he had been brought up to hate the Austrians.

There was much more wild talk before Victoria settled down to ordinary ways of life, but the bottom was knocked out of the rebellion at Eureka. Thirteen insurgents were selected for prosecution. The first two cases tried resulted in acquittals in circumstances contemptible for the Crown case, and the Government would have been wise not to face a judge and jury with the remainder. They persisted, however, and again were defeated. Lalor, who lost his right arm, evaded the police, and was never prosecuted. Nor was Vern, who ought to have been. But two unhappy spectators in court whose enthusiasm exploded in cheers when the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty were sent to jail for a week by the Chief Justice, A’Beckett, for contempt of court. A Commission appointed to inquire into the gold-fields grievances recommended the abolition of the licence fee and the issue to diggers of a Miner’s Right, for which £1 per annum should be paid, and which should be the miner’s title-deed to his claim and to the gold derived from it.

The wild freedom and lavish gains of the digging days were rapidly passing during the occurrence of these vehement events. The first-comers scraped off the golden crust of that rich auriferous area which centred around Ballarat and Bendigo; and here, as also on the Bathurst Plains, in the Plenty Ranges and elsewhere, gold-mining passed from the alluvial into the organized industrial stage. Rarer and rarer became the instances where small groups of mates, ‘kept going’ by a trustful store-keeper till they ‘struck it,’ worked at their own little claim beside a creek. The tin dish wherein the red-shirted digger washed the gold out of the gravel vanished from the picture; the poppet-heads of the big mines rose, and the stampers of powerful batteries pounded gold-bearing rock brought up from a depth which (as at the Victoria Quartz shaft at Bendigo) might reach down to 4,600 feet. Companies, many of whose shareholders had never seen a mine, found (and often lost) the capital for exploiting good mining ‘shows,’ and the miner worked for wages, or wandered afar ‘prospecting’ for new reefs. There have been many ‘rushes’ since, but none like those of the fifties. But all around Castlemaine and many another old gold-field may be seen innumerable holes in the earth, like gaping graves, dug by the picks and shovels of the miners of the days of the rushes, holes which once yielded the reward of eager hopes or swallowed up fruitless energies.

In all the Australian States gold has been found. Queensland provided some sensational yields after the discovery of the metal by the prospector Nash at Gympie in 1867. A single thousand-ounce nugget was one of the choice products of that field. The most remarkable mine was Mount Morgan. Situated on a hill-top, bought by the three Morgan brothers in 1882 for £1 per acre from a selector who had no idea of what was below the surface, it was found to contain crumbling ironstone wherein lay gold of unexampled purity to the quantity of thirty or forty ounces per ton. It paid £1,000,000 in dividends in a single year, and in about a quarter of a century gold to the value of about £14,000,000 was taken out of this very wonderful square mile of ground.

The historical importance of the discovery of the Western Australian gold-fields between 1882 and 1900 was very great. From the foundation of colonization in the west, in the circumstances described in Chapter XII, it had been an agricultural community, cut off from the other Australian colonies by thousands of leagues of sea and sand. It was an English settlement, but perhaps less of an Australian colony than any other within the group. But the gold discoveries brought in crowds of miners and speculators, especially from Victoria, who changed the social and political complexion of the country. The Kimberley, Pilbara and Yilgarn gold-fields occasioned ‘rushes’ during 1886-8, though the results were not sensational. It was not until Messrs. Bayley and Ford struck a rock at Coolgardie with a tomahawk one Sunday afternoon in August 1892, and obtained five hundred ounces, that the world turned with astonishment to what it had regarded as desert country, and entered upon the exploitation of the ‘Golden Mile’ of Boulder. The city of Kalgoorlie sprang up with magical swiftness, and miners flocked to the west from every part of Australia. Between 1892 and 1900 Western Australia produced gold to the value of £22,200,000.

The old-settled landowning oligarchy viewed the inrush of the mining population with scarcely concealed suspicion and dislike. They resisted the conferring of political rights upon the miners, whom they spoke of as ‘t’other siders,’ and, in order to keep the power in their own hands, maintained a system whereby fifty-seven votes in one pastoral district (Ashburton) had the same representation as 1,500 votes in East Coolgardie. The great political value of the new mining influence was that it compelled Western Australia to enter the federation movement. The miners, bred in the eastern States, and having political affinities with them, were federalists to a man, and their insistence, more than any other factor, carried Western Australia into the federal union in 1900.

Australia is rich in every kind of mineral, and in some its produce has been phenomenal. The Burra copper mine, in South Australia, discovered in 1845, yielded to the company which bought it for £10,000 a profit of over £400,000 in six years, and of over £800,000 in twenty years. The discovery in 1883 that Broken Hill — a ‘considerable protuberance,’ as Dr. Johnson might have called it, in the far west of New South Wales — was a vast heap of silver converted a little group of shepherds and miners who composed the original syndicate of owners into millionaires, and from first to last has yielded metal — silver, lead and zinc — to the value of more than £100,000,000. The west coast of Tasmania has given out great wealth in tin, copper, silver and lead; whilst Cobar (New South Wales), and Queensland have produced fortunes in copper. And all these riches have been found in a country which the Dutch did not think it worth while to examine when it might have been theirs for the taking, and which was a no-man’s-land to Europeans for nearly two centuries after its existence had become known to them.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 209-221

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