The Ballarat gold rush of 1851 [chapter 50 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 50 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 9 June 1935.]

The story of Australia — L.

The Ballarat gold rush of 1851

At the beginning of 1851 Victoria was merely a pastoral settlement, with a population of 77,345. At this period it was in the grip of a commercial depression, prosperity was waning, and the population decreasing. Hargreaves had discovered gold in New South Wales, and the men of Victoria were drifting away to the goldflelds to engage in the hunt for gold and fortune.

So serious was the position that the leading citizens of Melbourne united, and formed what was called the Gold Discovery Committee, and offered a reward of £200 to anyone who should give the first intimation of a payable goldfield within 200 miles of Melbourne.

There was no lack of prospectors, each in hopes of being the fortunate discoverer. The Hon. W. Campbell discovered gold in March, 1850, at Clunes; he concealed the fact at the time for fear that the announcement might prove injurious to the squatter on whose run the discovery was made, but on June 10, 1851, he disclosed it.

Mr. L. J. Michel discovered gold on the Yarra Ranges, and brought samples to Melbourne. Mr. James Esmond, a Californian digger, obtained gold at Clunes and made the discovery public on July 5. Mr. Thomas Hiscock found gold at Buninyong on August 8, and communicated the fact to the editor of the Geelong “Advertiser” on August 10. This attracted a great number of diggers to the neighbourhood, and so led to the discovery of the Ballarat goldfields.

Towns deserted

The amazing effect which these discoveries had on the whole community is aptly described by Governor Latrobe. On October 11 he wrote to Earl Grey:—

Within the last few weeks the towns of Melbourne and Geelong and their large suburbs have been in appearance almost emptied of many classes of their male inhabitants. Day labourers in town, shopmen, artisans, and mechanics of every description have thrown up their employments, and run off to the diggings, and responsible tradesmen, farmers, clerks of every grade, and not a few of the superior classes, have followed — cottages are deserted, houses to let, business at a standstill, and even schools are closed. In some of the suburbs not a man is left, and the women are known, for self-protection, to forget neighbours’ jars, and group together to keep house. The ships in the harbour are in a great measure deserted, and masters of vessels, like farmers, have made up parties with their men to go shares at the diggings.

Very soon the quiet Ballarat sheep run, with its grassy slopes and shadowy glades, was swarming with prospecting parties. In a brief time all was changed. Everywhere little hillocks of red, yellow, and white earth were visible as the diggers got to work, and in a few weeks the green slopes changed from the primal condition to the appearance of a fresh and rudely made burial ground.

Miners’ grievance

There had been disappointment at Clunes, for the gold was all embedded in the quartz rock, and these early miners were not able to extract it. Parties from Clunes, therefore, moved southward to Buninyong, and began to work on the banks of a streamlet called Yarrowee, afterwards famous as the Ballarat diggings. Here, at the bend of the creek, which they called Golden Point, each man could easily earn £20 to £40 a day, and crowds of people hurried to the scene. Before a month had passed Ballarat took rank as the richest goldfield in the world.

The miner, however, had one grievance to trouble his life, and that was the monthly payment of the licence fee. Soon after the discovery of gold the Government claimed the right of the Crown to the precious metal, but granted licences to diggers.

When the European gold-hunter arrived in Victoria he no sooner found himself upon the goldfields than he was called upon to take out a licence. Before he could legally put pick or shovel into the ground he had to pay a heavy monthly tax, levied upon him by a Government and Parliament, in which he was not represented. At first for 30/, then for 60/, and then again for 30/ a month.

In this licence we have the symbol of the grievances that later on roused the goldfields’ population. It was oppressive, and it was often collected in so insolent a manner that its unpopularity became a thousand-fold greater. Meanwhile, the news of the wonderful goldfields of Victoria had been heard all over the world, and thousands and thousands landed in Melbourne, and then started for the diggings.

During the year 1852 nearly 100,000 persons were thus brought into the country, and the population was doubled. The amount of gold raised between August 1 and December 6, 1851, was 211,734 ounces. At £3 per ounce that was worth £635,202.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 9 June 1935, p. 29

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