The California goldrushes of the 1840s captured the popular imagination around the world with tales of the huge fortunes to be made gold-prospecting, and it wasn’t long before Australia’s first goldrush took place – near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1851. Victoria had been a separate colony for only nine days when gold was found at Clunes on July 10, 1851; the goldrush began in earnest when rich deposits were found in Ballarat nine months later. The richest goldfields ever known soon opened at Bendigo, and thousands poured into Victoria from around the world.
The golden decade
In the golden decade of the 1850s, Victoria’s population increased from eighty thousand to half a million, half of whom remained permanently in the state. The British and Irish made up a large proportion of the new population, but more than forty thousand Chinese came to make their fortune too, along with experienced American gold-seekers and Russians, Finns and Filipinos. Ex-convicts and native-born Australians also poured in, leaving other colonies short of workers; even respectable policemen deserted their posts to become “diggers”, and doctors, lawyers and prostitutes crowded into the haphazard new towns in their wake.
In the beginning, the fortune-seekers panned the creeks and rivers searching for alluvial gold, constantly moving on at the news of another find. But gold was also deep within the earth, where ancient river beds had been buried by volcanoes. In Ballarat in 1852 the first shafts were dug, and because the work was unsafe and arduous, the men joined in bands of eight or ten, usually grouped by nationality, working a common claim. For deep mining, diggers stayed in one place for months or years, and the major workings rapidly became stable communities with banks, shops, hotels, churches and theatres, evolving more gradually, on the back of income from gold, into grandiose towns.