For over 40,000 years, Aborigines inhabited Australia and the continent was unknown to the rest of the world. There is no evidence that the Aborigines had any use for gold or other metals. After British settlement in 1788, Australia was used as a convict settlement to relieve the over-crowded prisons and hulks of Britain. Conditions were harsh and foreign for the new settlers and diseases such as smallpox that they imported destroyed much of the original Aboriginal population.The first discoveries of gold date well back to before the rushes of the 1850s. In those days, all gold belonged to the Crown. A shepherd named MacGregor regularly appeared in Sydney with small nuggets, but vanished before he could be followed. In 1823, Mr. J. McBrien, a government surveyor, reported the discovery of alluvial gold on the Fish River, NSW and in 1839 Sir Paul Edmund de Strezlecki found gold near Hartley, NSW, but did not publish his find until 1845.
The authorities hushed up these finds in fear of a rush. The Rev. W.B. Clarke, an amateur geologist, found gold in 1841 near Cox’s River. When he showed the Governor his small nugget, Governor Gipps said
This recognition of Hargraves aroused a hotly debated dispute amongst those who claimed priority in the discovery of payable gold. Among the disputants were Rev. W.B.Clarke, the Tom brothers, William and James, and their friend, John Lister. The Tom brothers and Lister petitioned the Legislative Assembly in order to further their claims, which included the assertion that although Hargraves had taught them the methods used in extracting alluvial gold, it was they who actually discovered payable gold before Hargraves. In the findings of a Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly which reported in 1891, William and James Tom and John Lister were finally vindicated.Encouraged by the gold fever in New South Wales and concerned by the decline in population, the Victorian Government established a Gold Discovery Committee which offered a reward to anyone who could find payable gold within 200 miles (320 kms) of Melbourne. In June, 1851, James Esmond found gold at Clunes. This was shortly followed by finds at Andersons' Creek, Buninyong and Ballarat. By December, rich fields had also developed at Bendigo, Castlemaine and McIvor.
The reward of £200 was distributed eventually amongst several discoverers including Hargraves and Rev. W.B. Clarke.
News of incredible gold discoveries spread quickly and many deserted their positions to join the rush. By 1852, immigrants from Europe and from the disappointing Californian rushes swelled the numbers trudging the rough tracks to the diggings. Stories of new finds saw mass migration from one field to another. Ballarat boasted 10,000 diggers in early December 1851. This number plummeted to 150 by the year’s end but was reinstated during 1852.
The sea voyage was long and treacherous often taking three or four months. The roads were little more than tracks and diggers carried their supplies in swags, wheelbarrows and on horseback. Diggers from all over the world mingled on the roads and towns of the Australian goldfields.
On finally reaching their destination, ‘new chums’ found that mining was hard, constant and often unrewarding. Early finds were close to the surface of the ground, but this did not last long. Experienced miners from Cornwall and other places knew that they were likely to strike it rich if they could just find ancient buried streams where nuggets were concentrated. And so ‘deep lead’ mining began. In 1854, it could take up to eight months to "bottom" a shaft in Ballarat, often without any reward.
Surviving meant finding suitable food, shelter and water. This was not always easy when supplies had to travel long distances over rough tracks, and water was a necessary part of mining. Diggers had to endure extremes of heat and cold in their quest for that elusive fortune.
The entertainment pursued by the wealthy diggers on the fields and in Melbourne balanced the hardships of their working days. Saturday was gala night when, in addition to drinking and card playing, there was the possibility of a dance. Those miners whose fortunes permitted went to the cities. Tales of miners' frolics in Melbourne are legendary and include stories of packed theatres and pubs, cigars lit with £5 notes and champagne toasts. The infamous Lola Montez performed her renowned ‘Spider Dance’ in Melbourne and Ballarat, and was rewarded with gold nuggets thrown onto the stage.
Tent towns sprang up overnight on some diggings and, with the lure of easy gold as temptation, many crimes were committed. The Colonial police, called troopers and traps, not only maintained the peace, but also enforced the heavy licence fee which the government imposed on all diggers. Much of the police force came to be made up of ex-convicts from Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) as the original members gave up their careers to try their luck as diggers. Rumours of police corruption were rife and it was suggested that a protection racket was run by troopers for sly groggers.
In the early years, the diggings were not considered a suitable place for women. As a consequence, many families were left in tent towns like Sandringham, in Melbourne, while husbands and brothers sought their fortune. Those who did make the move to goldfields were often in a minority and faced great hardships. (By 1854, there were 4,023 women on th Ballarat goldfields compared to 12,660 men.) Some, like Martha Clendinning, were bold enough to operate their own businesses while others took up the arduous work of mining. A few, like Lola Montez, found fame and fortune in the fledgling towns while many, faced with poverty and destitution, were forced into prostitution to become "fallen angels". During the mid 1850s, the 'civilising' influence of women was sought for the male-dominated colony and many young, single women were encouraged to migrate.
The Victorian Government introduced a system of licences and commissioners in 1852. However, the richer and more populous fields in Victoria were more difficult to control, and the problems and conflicts which developed were more intense than those in New South Wales. Minor clashes and deaths were known to occur in the confusion and disorder that occasionally broke out on the goldfields.The diggers hated the harsh licence fee imposed whether gold was found or not, and they resented the brutal way it was enforced. Rumours circulated of corrupt goldfields officials and issues of political freedom inflamed the diggers' discontent. The tension came to a head on the Ballarat Diggings in 1854. When the publican, James Bentley, was acquitted of a murder charge, the diggers were convinced of corruption on behalf of the magistrate and Bentley's Eureka Hotel was burned to the ground. The posting of additional troops in Ballarat did not quell ill-feeling, but inflamed the growing tensions. The Ballarat Reform League was formed and monster meetings held. The governor was petitioned to change the laws, to no avail. The diggers' demands were encapsulated in Frederick Vern's motion at one of the meetings calling for :
1). The abolition of the license (sic) fee 2). Disbanding of the Gold Commission 3). Unlocking of the land (so diggers could buy it) 4). Manhood suffrage (the right to vote) 5). The commencement of a political organisation to effect these objects(from Frederick Vern in Melbourne Monthly Magazine, November, 1855, p.10 State Library of New South Wales ML 059/M)
The diggers' demands fell on deaf ears, and at a monster meeting, late in November, Peter Lalor was elected Commander-in-Chief and an oath was sworn to the Eureka flag. Licences were burned, a flimsy stockade erected on the Eureka Diggings and the diggers began drilling in military fashion. Many of the assembled diggers went home on the Saturday evening of December 2, in the sure belief that the authorites would not fight on the Sabbath. On Sunday 3 December, 1854, troops attacked the poorly defended Eureka Stockade at dawn. The sun rose on the bodies of twenty-two diggers and four soldiers and heralded one of the most important turning points in Australia's short history.
Martial law was proclaimed but lifted three days later. Peter Lalor had his injured arm amputated while in hiding but eventually an amnesty was declared. Thirteen diggers were tried for treason and found not guilty in March, 1885.
Governor Hotham established a Gold Fields Commission which recommended the abolition of the licence fee and the introduction of the Miner's Right as the right to stake a claim at a cost of £1 per year. Lands were eventually opened up and miners given the right to vote for the Legislative Assembly.
The concepts of freedom and democracy, embodied in the action of the miners at Eureka, have become part of Australia's heritage.Many nationalities were represented on the diggings, but the Chinese were often treated with fear and hostility. They were accused by the diggers of acting provocatively by wasting water needed for mining, living in isolated communities and sending most of their gold back to China. In Victoria, the Chinese were forced to pay a 'landing tax' of £10 and a fee of £1 per annum under the Chinese Protectorate system which forced them to live in separate villages in an effort to stem potential violence.
In New South Wales, antagonism erupted into open conflict. At Lambing Flat, now Young, in 1860 and 1861, there were riots in which the Chinese became the target for the diggers' hostility. On both occasions, the Chinese were humiliated and forced from the goldfields. Those who were affected by the riots petitioned the Government for damages, but were unsuccessful.
The Miners' Protective League was formed in 1861 and their objectives included expulsion of the Chinese, the release of public lands and the spread of Christianity throughout the Colony. Also, as a result of the Lambing Flat Riots, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1861 was passed. This Act, later repealed, served to restrict the numbers of Chinese entering the Colony.