Australia History: Gold, Stability and Growth

The discovery of gold in the 1850s brought about the most significant changes in the social and economic structure of Australia, particularly in Victoria, where most of the gold was found.

Earlier gold discoveries had been all but ignored, partly because they were only small finds and mining skills were still undeveloped, but mostly because the law stated that all gold discovered belonged to the government.

The discovery of large quantities near Bathurst in 1851, however, caused a rush of hopeful miners from Sydney and forced the government to abandon the law of ownership. Instead, it introduced a compulsory diggers' license fee of 30 shillings a month, whether the miners found gold or not, to ensure the country earned some revenue from the incredible wealth that was being unearthed. Victorian businesspeople at the time, fearing their towns would soon be devoid of able-bodied men, offered a reward for the discovery of gold in their colony.

In 1851 one of the largest gold discoveries in history was made at Ballarat, followed by others at Bendigo and Mt Alexander (near Castlemaine), starting a rush of unprecedented magnitude.

While the first diggers at the goldfields that soon sprang up all over Victoria came from the other Australian colonies, it wasn't long before they were joined by thousands of migrants. The Irish and English, as well as Europeans and Americans, began arriving in droves, and within 12 months there were about 1800 hopeful diggers disembarking at Melbourne every week.

Similar discoveries in other colonies, in particular Western Australian in the 1890s, further boosted populations and levels of economic activity. The gold rushes also brought floods of. diligent Chinese miners and market gardeners onto the Australian diggings, where violent White opposition led to race riots and a morbid fear of Asian immigration which persists, to some extent, to this day.

Although few people actually made their fortunes on the goldfields, many stayed to settle, as farmers, workers and shopkeepers. At the same time the Industrial Revolution in England started to produce a strong demand for raw materials. With its vast agricultural and mineral resources, Australia's economic base became secure.

Besides the population and economic growth that followed the discovery of gold, the rush contributed greatly to the development of a distinctive Australian folklore. The music brought by the English and Irish, for instance, was tuned in to life on the diggings, while poets, singers and writers told stories of the people, the roaring gold towns and the boisterous hotels, the squatters and their sheep and cattle stations, the swagmen, and the derring-do of the notorious bushrangers, many of whom became folk herpes.