Eureka! The rush for gold

The gold rushes and the diggers who worked the goldfields are etched into Australian folklore.

Rush to Victoria

Melbourne had been deserted by the rush north to the New South Wales diggings. The Victorian government was concerned that the colony's economy would suffer with the loss of population to New South Wales.

The Gold Discovery Committee was established on June 9, 1851 and agreed that a reward would be offered to diggers who might discover payable gold in Victoria. It was only a few months after the rush to Ophir in NSW, in September 1851 that diggers descended upon Ballarat and surrounding areas. Ballarat was a particularly rich field.

Lieutenant Governor La Trobe visited the area one month after the rush began and witnessed a team of five men dig out 136 ounces of gold in one day and another 120 ounces on the following day. The richness of these finds equated to around 10 years' wages to an average Englishman.

Forty miles north of Ballarat lay the Mt Alexander gold fields, richer still than Ballarat. The gold lay just under the surface. The shallowness meant that diggers could just scrape back soil to discover gold nuggets.

Diggers avoided travelling with their newly found gold. The roads were too dangerous with bushrangers threatening to steal any valuables. 

Gold was deposited with the Commissioners on the goldfields.

It was then transported to Sydney and Melbourne on the gold escorts; special two-wheeled carts with four horses and followed by a mounted escort. They would travel at a gallop, changing horses every two hours at specific stations on the journey.

Arrival of the first gold escort, William Street, Melbourne, 1852, Atkinson and Atkinson

Samuel Thomas Gill

Artist Samuel Thomas Gill immigrated to South Australia in 1839. A year later he had opened his own studio in Adelaide. He produced lithographs which captured urban scenes and notable people of Adelaide.

In 1852 he travelled to the Victorian goldfields. He created many drawings depicting life on the goldfields and became known as the artist of the goldfields.

Gill’s depictions of the miners evoke dry digger humour and illustrate the lively entertainments on the goldfields, the hated commissioners, the naivety of freshly arrived ‘new chums’ and the despondent many who did not strike it rich.

McLaren's Boxing Saloon main road Ballarat, Dr Doyle's sketch book, by John Thomas Doyle & Samuel Thomas Gill

License Fees and Rebels: Eureka Stockade

By forcing each gold digger to purchase a license (also called a miner's right), the colonial government could generate revenue to police the goldfields. The government charged each digger one pound, ten shillings each month for the license to dig in the hope that it would drive some classes of people back to the cities. Diggers sold their belongings, sometimes even their horses to pay for the license to dig.

The search for diggers' licenses on the goldfields were conducted by police. The intense dislike of the license system united the diggers and the legendary mateship that developed amongst the diggers is often attributed to their mutual hatred for police authority.

The warning would go about amongst the diggers that the police were approaching, with the cry, 'Joe, Joe!' or 'Traps' (troopers): 'the traps are out today'.

Widespread police corruption and the licensing system ensured that diggers were united against these forces of authority on the goldfields. The 1854 rebellion of diggers on the Ballarat goldfields, known as the Eureka Stockade was an outpouring of anger at the license fee system.

Miner's Right, license for George Johnson, 1814-1917
Eureka Stockade riot, Ballarat, 1854, by J. B. Henderson

Rafaello Carboni, an Italian digger

Linguist, traveller and author from Italy, Raffaello Carboni travelled to the Ballarat goldfields after reading about the gold rush in the Illustrated London News. After some initial success, he moved on to working as a shepherd after his digging equipment was stolen. Returning to Ballarat he was then caught up in the protests about the mining licenses. Peter Lalor, leader at the Eureka Stockade, appointed him to organise the foreigners in the stockade and Carboni was among 12 diggers who were charged with high treason.

Carboni wrote his eyewitness account of the Eureka Stockade and published it himself a year after the event. His aim in writing was to vindicate himself and also to pay tribute to those killed.


This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of St Barbara Ltd.