The Victorian Gold Rush: Melbourne Booms when Gold is Discovered in the Colony

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Canvas Town, South Melbourne in the 1850s

When its rich goldfields were discovered, Victoria became a magnet to people from across the seas. The town of Melbourne quickly became Australia’s largest city.

A gold discovery in 1851 at Bathurst, New South Wales sparked Australia’s first goldrush. The leaders of the young town of Melbourne, realizing the rewards gold would bring to their colony, set out to encourage its men to stay and seek local finds. So they offered a £200 prize for the first gold discovered within 200 miles of Melbourne. It wasn’t long before a find in 1851 at Warrandyte north-east of Melbourne was followed by a series of other small discoveries. By year’s end, the Victorian gold rush was well and truly on.

The Victorian Goldrush is Underway

As gold fever caught in Victoria and the search for instant riches widened, the really big finds were not far away. The surface alluvial gold available for the taking in dry and shallow riverbeds was quickly claimed, and mining operations involving considerable investment of man and machinery would follow.

At Ballarat, the first discovery of alluvial gold at Canadian Creek in 1851 was quickly followed by others. By 1853 there were 20,000 ‘diggers’ working the area, but Ballarat’s real bonanza came in the 1860’s when deeper mining of the gold-bearing quartz began. One shaft alone produced 9.7 tonnes of gold, and at one time Ballarat was the world’s leading source of the precious metal.

Large quantities of alluvial gold were also recovered from the creeks and riverbeds around Bendigo. The relative ease of collection there attracted a large rush of prospectors, and publicity surrounding the Bendigo Goldfields in England gave the whole Victoria goldrush momentum. As many as 30,000 hopefuls came to Bendigo from all corners of the globe.

Melbournes Grows During the Gold Rush

In the early 1850’s Melbourne was at the heart of the Victorian goldrush, and the town excperienced a rapid population increase. The workers’ settlement known as Canvas Town sprang up, a place where those seeking their fortune or having won and lost it lived in poor conditions. As the wealth flowed in the growing city experienced a period of social upheaval. Violence, poor health and depredation went hand in hand with gold rush fever.

As the decade wore on Melbourne continued to grow rapidly, while the population of Victoria as a colony expanding at an even faster rate than the city. The goldfields nearest to Melbourne were worked out, and new ones were steadily sited further away. Towns that could service all the needs of the diggers began to become firmly established throughout the colony.

Many goldrush towns disappeared quickly once the goldrush was over. An example is Amherst, now just an open field close to the town of Talbot. The Age of 19 June 2008 has an interesting report on Amherst’s past. Others lived on but as smaller settlements, their existence firmly linked to the goldrush days of the 1850’s. Still others continued to grow and prosper. As land use changed to farming, Ballarat and Bendigo continued to develop as important and thriving settlements in the Victorian country.

The Victorian Gold Rush Helps Build a Nation

The Victorian goldrush saw Australia’s first big wave of immigration following its original establishment by way of convict transportation. In impoverished Ireland, many saw the opportunity for a better life and headed to the furtherest corner of the world. In China, local elites sent out men purely to exploit the goldfields on their behalf. The Chinese would stick very much to themselves, establishing Chinatowns in Melbourne and Ballarat. The presence of so many Chinese created considerable racial strife. The goldminers from Europe and America didn’t like the competition – resentful of the Orientals’ untiring efforts for little reward.

Many immigrants were already hardened to the rigors of goldmining, having come from North America where by 1851 the California gold rush had matured. With easier finds in one place exhausted, many who could simply moved on the next big goldfield.

As the gold became harder to find and the mines less profitable to work, many new Australians turned their labour to other activities, helping to build a country of many nationalities and cultures. Others moved once more to new goldfields with richer pickings, such as New Zealand where gold was discovered in Central Otago in 1861.

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