New South Wales gold rush
New South Wales experienced the first gold rush in Australia, a period generally accepted to lie between 1851 and 1880. This period in the history of New South Wales resulted in a rapid growth in the population and significant boost to the economy of the colony of New South Wales. The California Gold Rush three years prior signalled the impacts on society that gold fever would produce, both positive and negative. The New South Wales colonial government concealed the early discoveries but various factors changed the policy.
Gold was first officially discovered in Australia on 15 February 1823, by assistant surveyor James McBrien, at Fish River, between Rydal and Bathurst (in New South Wales). McBrien noted in his field survey book At E. (End of the survey line) 1 chain 50 links to river and marked a gum tree. At this place I found numerous particles of gold convenient to river. Then in 1839, Paweł Edmund Strzelecki geologist and explorer, discovered small amounts of gold in silicate at the Vale of Clwyd near Hartley, and in 1841 Reverend W.B. Clarke found gold on the Coxs River, both locations on the road to Bathurst.
The finds were suppressed by the Colonial government to avoid a likely dislocation of the relatively small community. It was feared that convicts and free settlers would leave their assigned work locations to rush to the new find to seek their fortunes, in particular damaging the new pastoral industry. Reportedly Governor George Gipps said to Reverend W.B. Clarke when he exhibited his gold; “Put it away, Mr Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut.” Recent evidence shows another find by William Tipple Smith near Ophir in 1848 was also kept quiet until the government was ready to exploit the resource.
The Californian goldrush started in 1848, immediately people began to leave Australia for California, to stem the exodus the New South Wales colonial government decided to alter its position and encourage the search for payable gold. In 1849 the colonial government sought approval of the Colonial Office in England to allow the exploitation of the mineral resources of New South Wales. A geologist was requested and this led to the appointment of Samuel Stutchbury. A reward was offered for the first person to find payable gold.
Beginnings of the rush
The discovery of gold was literally the discovery that changed a nation. Twenty-eight years after the Fish River discovery a man named Edward Hargraves discovered a 'grain of gold' in a waterhole near Bathurst, this was in 1851.
Hargraves had recently returned to New South Wales from the Californian goldfields where he was unsuccessful. He decided, however, to begin searching for gold in New South Wales. The geological features of the country around Bathurst, with its quartz outcrops and gullies, seemed similar to those of the Californian fields. In February 1851 Hargraves and his guide, John Lister, set out on horseback with a pan and rocking-cradle, to Lewis Ponds Creek, a tributary of the Macquarie River close to Bathurst. On 12 February 1851 they found gold at a place he called Ophir. He said that once in the creek bed he somehow felt surrounded by gold. Initially keeping the find secret, he travelled to Sydney and met the Colonial Secretary in March. Soon the claim was recognised and Hargraves was appointed the "Commissioner of Lands". He also received a £10,000 reward from the New South Wales government, as well as a life pension and a £5,000 reward from the Victorian government. Due to a dispute with his partners, however, some of the reward was withheld.
The find was proclaimed on 14 May 1851 and within days the first Australian gold rush began with 100 diggers searching for their gold. By June there were over 2000 people digging around Bathurst, and thousands more were on their way. In 1852, the yield was 850,000 ounces (24½ tonnes). The great western road to Bathurst became choked with men from all walks of life, with all they could carry to live and mine.
Bathurst Free Press (Newspaper) 17 May 1851: —
- A complete mental madness appears to have seized almost every member of the community. There has been a universal rush to the diggings.
Largely due to the gold receipts into the colonial government treasury bringing immense wealth to the colony of New South Wales, the British Government, in 1854, authorised the establishment of the Sydney Mint. This was the first Royal Mint to be established outside of England.
Ten years after the start of the gold rush in 1851 the population of New South Wales had grown from 200,000 to 357,000 people, an increase of 78%.
A very productive gold field surrounded the area of Hill End. This is the location of the world's largest piece of gold-bearing material, a mixture of slate and gold weighing 235 kilograms, known as the Holtermann's Nugget. The nugget was found by Bernhardt Holtermann in 1872.
The New South Wales gold rush caused major social and economic problems. Alcohol abuse was a common problem among the miners, who used the cheaply made spirits to mask the difficult living and working conditions. At one point the government attempted some order of control by banning the sale of alcohol on the diggings. This attempt, however, was unsuccessful. Supplies of food and hardware were in short supply and this raised the price to unrealistic levels. Workers able to operate businesses in the non-direct mining industry became in very short supply as an example the major service town of Bathurst was practically abandoned of able-bodied men for general commerce during the Ophir rush.
Gold fever was experienced in the following localities across New South Wales:
- Bathurst, May 1851 [Ophir Goldfields]
- Sofala, Jun 1851 [Turon Goldfields]
- Bungonia, Jul 1851 (aka Shoalhaven)
- Hill End, Jul 1851 
- Louisa Creek (now Hargraves) near Mudgee, Jul 1851
- Moruya, Jul 1851
- Araluen, Sep 1851 [Araluen & Bells Creek]
- Braidwood, Oct 1851 [Majors Creek]
- Bell's Point on the Bell River, Nov 1851
- Tuena, Nov 1851
- Near Lake George, 1851 [Carraway Flat & Black Swamp]
- Parshish 80km south of Bathurst, 1851
- Oakey Creek near Coolah, 1851
- Monaro, 1851
- Hanging Rock, near Nundle (northern tablelands), 1851
- Adelong, 1852
- Sunny Corner, 1854
- Rocky River near Uralla, 1856
- Broulee, 1857, on the Araluen Field
- Mogo, 1858, on the Araluen Field
- Kiandra, 1859
- Young, 1860, known at that time as Lambing Flat
- Nerrigundah 1861
- Forbes, 1861
- Parkes, 1862
- Lucknow near Orange, 1862
- Grenfell 1866
- In beach sands at Northern Rivers, 1870
- Gulgong, 1870
- Hillgrove, 1877
- Mount Drysdale near Cobar, 1892
- Wyalong, 1893
Simmering discontent and the Riot Act
Discontent among the diggers grew as the government imposed restrictions and fees on mining. A monthly fee of 30 shillings was difficult to pay when the size of the claim per miner allowed only 13½ surface square metres. At the Turon fields near Bathurst the diggers were threatening to riot if fees were not reduced. Governor Fitzroy agreed and cut the fee by two-thirds but refused to change the collection method, known as "digger hunts". This involved police raiding a gold field and seeking out diggers who had not paid their fees. The offending diggers would be removed and taken before a Magistrate fined £5 for the first offence and double for each subsequent offence.
Another aspect of discontent had a racial tone. Leading up to 1861 the population of Lambing Flat, now known as Young, grew to 20000. Of that number 2000 were recent Chinese immigrants and this created significant tension leading to a riot in 1861. The official Riot Act was read to the miners on 14 July 1861.
21st century gold
After a decline in production of gold in New South Wales throughout the mid 20th century a resurgence in gold production is now occurring due to improved techniques for exploration and mining and the high price of gold. The Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales is expected to move from the second largest gold mine in the world to the largest in 2012. Another large scale open cut mine known as Cowal mine is also located in central New South Wales.
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- "Gold was first discovered about Mitchell's Creek in 1852, and two years afterwards it was somewhat extensively worked as an alluvial field, every watercourse about the place returning payable gold, and in some instances proving very rich." The Brisbane Courier. "A New Silver-Field". By the Special Reporter of the Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 6 November 1884.
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