November 2011

Economic Geology

Australia (Part 1)

By R. J. Cathro

“All Australia’s large inland cities of the nineteenth century were mining cities, and gold made Melbourne for half a century the largest coastal city in the land. … This was the last continent found in Europe’s long search for treasure and perhaps in no other continent has European colonization been so affected by the winning of metals. In two periods metals were Australia’s most valuable export. New mining regions virtually rescued every Australian colony at least once from depression. They influenced racial policies, unionism, religious life, equalitarian laws, and politics. One small fact illustrates this pervasion: half of Australia’s prime ministers were either the sons of men who were attracted to Australia through gold or were themselves once residents or representatives of the mining fields. … Wealth from Australian rocks created financial dynasties in London and Melbourne, and a fortune from Queensland gold was indispensable in finding rich oilfields in the Middle East.”

~Blainey, 1963, p. 2

One thing that is quite striking about the Australian gold rush is how different it was from the one in California (Cathro, 2007), even though both were occurring at the same time. Although California was “the land of the free” and Australia was established by England as a penal colony, Australian gold miners were lawful and peaceful by comparison. They set a much better example for the future Cariboo and Klondike gold rushes, in British Columbia and Yukon, respectively.

Gold was first reported in Australia in 1823 by John McBrien, a government worker who was surveying a road east of Bathurst in the colony of New South Wales. He noted in his field book: “At E. (end of survey line) 1 chain 50 links to (Fish) river and marked gum tree. At this point I found numerous particles of gold convenient to the river.” Like many other reports by shepherds and convicts who were “fossicking” (a Cornish term for prospecting), it was hushed up by a government that was fearful of the impact that gold mining might have on pastoral life. There was no concerted support for mining at the time because of an archaic English law that deemed all gold and silver to be the property of the Crown.

As early as 1841, William Branwhite Clarke, an Anglican clergyman from England who had studied geology under Professor Sedgewick at Cambridge (a dangerous combination), saw specks of gold in quartz and granitic rubble while on a mapping trip he began from his home in Sydney. Clarke was a believer that gold was morally and economically undesirable and a menace. He later wrote: “There is no instance of a man making his fortune by opening a gold mine.” Clarke collected many specimens of gold given to him by parishioners and sent some to Sedgewick for the university museum. In 1844, he showed his best specimens to Governor Gipps of New South Wales, who, as expected, responded with indifference.

News of the California Gold Rush reached Australia early in 1849 and prompted many Australians to migrate to the United States. When they returned excitedly with samples and stories of gold, it prompted the New South Wales government to provide a reward for a mineable discovery to encourage its citizens to prospect at home.

In 1849, the first significant Australian discovery was made in the Victoria district by a shepherd named Thomas Chapman. The young man showed up at a jeweller in Melbourne with 38 ounces of gold, including a nugget weighing 16 ounces, which people believed was found near Avoca, about 140 kilometres northwest of Melbourne. He refused to reveal the exact location of his find.

Significant transformations occurred in New South Wales and throughout Australia in 1851. One of the principal figures that year was Edwin H. Hargraves, a 34-year-old English promoter and scamp who had lived half his life in Australia. In Blainey’s words:

“He had been a sailor, station overseer, farmer, publican, shipping agent, and cattle owner, succeeding at none of these trades. In 1849, he went to California to dig gold and boasted about how well he did, writing in his autobiography ‘The greater our success was, the more anxious did I become to put my own persuasion to the test, the existence of gold in New South Wales.’ In fact he was not a lucky digger; he was not even energetic. A man of his weight found it exhausting to shovel gravel or work the cradle all day, and of the year he spent in California he actually dug for gold only a few months. He liked instead to potter about the camp or to yarn around the fire, and he would discuss with his friend Davison whether Australia might be rich in gold. They discussed places where gold had been found and McGregor the gold-finder was often in their talk. When in March 1850 Hargraves was lodging in San Francisco to avoid winter on the goldfields, he wrote to a Sydney merchant: ‘I am forcibly impressed that I have been in a gold region in New South Wales, within three hundred miles of Sydney.’ Always restless, the idea of finding payable gold in his own land obsessed him. With the approach of his second winter in California he thought of snow and iced winds and hastened his plans to return to Sydney. Concern for his wife and five children … added to his restlessness. And so, having failed again in a new occupation, he walked the wooden sidewalks of San Francisco for the last time and joined disappointed Australians who were sailing home.”

Hargraves realized that few Australians knew how to explore for alluvial (placer) gold. When he returned home to Sydney, he boasted openly to a jeweller and a lawyer that he would find some gold. After obtaining a grubstake from a merchant, he headed across the Blue Mountains with two assistants to an area in New South Wales where, in 1823, a surveyor had reportedly seen gold and found a few colours (tiny specks) in a waterhole in the valley of Lewis Ponds Creek.

After having little success with the pan, he had the crew build a California cradle with which they were soon able to collect a few flakes from each bucket of gravel. Hargraves left the others to continue the work and headed for Sydney to claim the government reward, but he was unsuccessful. While he was away, the miners moved two miles downstream and hit a real paystreak. They soon collected four ounces and named the site Ophir, after the biblical city of gold. It was situated about 45 kilometres northwest of Bathurst and 270 kilometres northwest of Sydney.

Hargraves renamed the area FitzRoy Bar after the governor, part of a shrewd plan he devised to force the colonial administration to abolish the Royal status of gold mines and allow prospectors to acquire title to claims. Using his California experience, he publicized the discovery rather than keep it secret, reasoning that by attracting more miners, he would expand the placer camp to such a size that the authorities would be unable to control the activity and excitement. A few days later, Hargraves wrote: “The effect of my appearance in the district has caused a little excitement amongst the people,” and he estimated that 500 were digging for gold. With so many workers leaving their jobs, the local Commissioner of Lands soon feared a rise in violence, similar to what had occurred in California.

The government was indecisive and slow to react because it did not believe the reports from Bathurst stating that the discoveries were real and rich. Its first impulse was to stop the rush, but the governor believed that “stopping the rush to the diggings would be as hazardous as trying to stop the waves of the sea.” He tried to control it with an expensive licensing fee, but that caused so many prospectors to leave the Bathurst area that the government became alarmed that the rush might end. Panicked, it hired Hargraves to find other gold-rich areas. When he was unsuccessful, they turned to the eminent geologist/clergyman Reverend Clarke to search.

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