Gold rush – Did you know?
In the middle of the 19thC, gold rushes became a worldwide phenomenon. The first great gold rush took place in California in the 1840s. In the 1850s it was Australia’s turn. In 1851 gold was discovered for the first time in considerable quantities in Australia – first in New South Wales, then in Victoria. Huge deposits were discovered at Ballarat (see photo) in 1851, and in the same year the biggest deposits ever were discovered at nearby Bendigo.
Within months, the streets of Sydney were almost deserted, and the middle classes throughout Australia suddenly found themselves suffering from a distinct lack of male servants. The news soon spread worldwide. British and Irish immigrants arrived in their tens of thousands, and forty thousand Chinese turned up. As well as Finns, Russians, Afghans, Filipinos, Japanese, Italians, you name it – they were all hell-bent on becoming ‘diggers’.
The population of Victoria mushroomed from 70,000 to more than half a million (while at the same time the population of Australia doubled to more than a million). Gold licenses cost 30 shillings a month – no mean sum in those days, when a week’s wages were often far less. This license entitled a digger to a claim of eight square feet. Tent cities sprung up around the gold towns, whose saloons and ‘dance halls’ soon began witnessing scenes of ‘unbridled wickedness’. Diggers who found gold spent, and behaved, with an un-Victorian abandon.
By the 1890s, many of the goldfield settlements had become flourishing towns – with fine streets and resplendent buildings. Banks vied with the saloons, and diggers and ex-prostitutes became mansion owners. Meanwhile, Victoria’s state capital, Melbourne, became the largest city in Australia, as well as the country’s financial centre.