1851 … and who could resist the lure of gold.

As the frenzy of the new goldfields swept across the colony, a wave of fortune seekers descended first upon the first discovered field at Ophir and thereafter to new discoveries around the Turon, Mudgee, Goulburn and Braidwood.

As the drama unfolded throughout the year, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper was there recording the events. Selected extracts included here let you read the stories as they were reported at the time.

14th May 1851

While traces of gold had been found in NSW prior to 1851, it was the discovery of the precious metal in payable quantities at Summerhill Creek near Bathurst that turned the future course of the NSW colony on its head.

It was mid May when the news from Bathurst was first picked up in the Sydney media …

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15th May 1851

The news from Bathurst had resulted from a group of nine people including Edward Hargraves, John Lister and William and James Tom spending several months prospecting along tributaries of the Macquarie River and finding the region to be a vast goldfield.

Hargraves then left his colleagues digging at field they had called Ophir at a point of the Summerhill Creek near its junction with the Macquarie, to travel some fifty miles into Bathurst to break the news of their discoveries.

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16th May 1851

If anyone doubted the credibility of the new gold claims, these fears were soon dispelled by the arrival in Bathurst of impressive gold samples and news that upward of 200 people were already on their way to the diggings.

Calls immediately went out for a government response to ensure law and order were maintained

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“That’s where the Commissioner put the peg and if I catch you there again I’ll wring your nose off.””Will you old bloke? lets just see how you can do it”Image reproduced courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (Album ID : 865441)
“View taken about a mile and half below the junction of Summerhill Creek with that of Lewis Ponds. One man rocking the cradle, others excavating earth, another carefully washing residue of the cradle in a prospecting pan.” Image reproduced courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (Album ID : 865441)

19th May 1851

Immediate fears of a breakdown of law and order on the diggings resulted in calls for the miners to organise themselves into groups for their own protection and to cooperate with the authorities.

With hunger and the lack of provisions a feature of the new goldfield, produce prices in Bathurst skyrocketed.

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20th May 1851

With Bathurst awash with gold frenzy, a Government geologist arrived to test the validity of the gold claims and quickly found them to be the real deal.

Several large nuggets from the diggings soon found buyers and were despatched to Sydney where they further fuelled gold frenzy.

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23rd May 1851

With the report of the government geologist confirming the existence of gold, the masses in Sydney were mobilised to journey to the goldfields even at the outset of winter. The government established mining licences to raise revenue to cover the costs of providing law and order and other services for the new goldfields.

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“Ophir at the Junction” Image reproduced courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a1837006)
“Ophir” Image reproduced courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a1837008)

27th May 1851

As an exodus of people from Sydney streamed over the mountains, tales of people in desperate straits on the roads were common.

Reports predicted an influx of people into the region not only from the other parts of the colony but also from around the world.

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28th May 1851

The rush to the goldfields drew much comment and concern in relation to people leaving their farms, industries and often their families behind them.

Fears of widespread social disorder were common and robberies were already being reported.

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30th May 1851

Public interest in the new fields was great even amongst those with no intention of going there. Detailed reports emerged from correspondents who visited the diggings.

These give us a wonderful picture of both life on the fields and the mechanics of winning the gold.

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What an extraordinary two weeks the last days of autumn were in 1851!

With the coming of winter the roads to the new diggings were awash with fortune seekers. No one though could have seen what was coming with the discoveries about to redefine the possibilities of the new goldfields ...

13th June 1851

Amidst the frenzy of gold fever, sober voices were quickly raised about the need to be well prepared.

As the correspondent opposite went on to note, “I have seen many on their return trip from the mines, crest-fallen and disappointed, although the principal cause of their leaving was, their not being properly equipped with the necessary implements for digging: £10 at least is said to be required for the necessary outfit, and to this sum we must add the item of 30s. a month for a license, making a total of £11 10s.”

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18th June 1851

One of the best sources of news about the goldfields were the buyers who went around purchasing the gold from the miners.

It was from these agents that word of a new field being opened up on the Turon first surfaced …

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20th June 1851

Almost immediately the magic disappeared frm the names of Summerhill Creek and Ophir and was transferred to the Turon – the mysterious new find around which nothing was known, leaving speculation to fill in the gaps …

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Gold diggers of the Turon shifting their goods from one locality to another. Image reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an4698023)
Issuing licences to dig for gold, Sofala, Turon River. Image reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an4697971)

25th June 1851

Sure enough, a week or two on and the Turon started to look much like the other goldfields – yes – gold was there to be had, but much hard work and trouble went with the process of getting it.

In particular the lack of water in the vicinity looked like being a major problem. (Strangely though this was later to prove less of an immediate threat when flooding in spring severely disrupted operations.)

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2nd July 1851

Hence it was that just six weeks after being the name on everyone’s lips, Ophir was just ‘so yesterday’.

Amongst the news from the Turon came the first reports of reef gold being discovered where the correspondent noted that “the gold was so thoroughly intermixed with the stone that in fact, it almost appeared as if the quartz and gold had been in a state of fusion together, and had afterwards hardened into a solid mass.”

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16th July 1851

Also amongst news from the Turon came the sound of new technology by way of the ‘Quicksilver machine’ that allowed miners to win an astonishing amount of gold by taking advantage of the way mercury (quicksilver) grabs hold of any gold passing by.

Much detail also was provided as to the extent and nature of the workings.

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18th July 1851

If reef gold was a novelty from the Turon fields, it soon became an unparalleled headline event with the discovery of Kerr’s Hundredweight – a vast mass of gold still trapped in its original rock casing that had been lying around on the ground surface waiting for water to erode it and set it free as alluvial gold.

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22nd July 1851

Amongst the suite of problems which accompanied the frenzy of new gold discoveries, there existed the not inconsiderable challenge of how to get the gold 150 miles over the mountains to Sydney.

The answer was to create an armed gold escort, where miners could at their own risk consign their golden goods to a special courier service. The transport levy though was quite large and this ensured many diggers still made their own arrangements for getting gold back to Sydney.

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By late winter reports of new gold finds were beginning to sprout like mushrooms across central west and southern NSW ...

First came news of gold discoveries around Gunning east of GOULBURN followed quickly by reports of finds to the east on the Shoalhaven River. This in turn highlighted the need for increased police presence as gangs of bushrangers were already causing a problem for travellers on the main southern road.

23rd July 1851

The dreadful state of repair of the main southern roadway between Sydney and Goulburn and beyond to Melbourne says much of the essential infrastructure challenges facing the new colony at the time gold was discovered.

Also of interest is the way the news of the discovery was welcomed by the Goulburn “Gold Discovery Committee”. Clearly other regional centres around southern NSW were very keen at this time to come up with their own goldfields so as to share in the spoils and avoid an exodus of locals to the new fields.

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16th August 1851

While the initial finds sometimes seemed to be so small that “there was a danger of losing it!” it did not take long for more substantial gold samples to surface sufficient to claim the reward on offer from the Goulburn Gold Committee.

Not only was the gold found in the Abercrombie River, but indeed in all its tributaries also. This marked the beginnings of the TUENA goldrush in the country between Goulburn and Bathurst.

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8th August 1851

Nor were things standing still at this time on the existing goldfields of the central west. In the wake of the excitement surrounding the new fields of the TURON and CUDGEGONG RIVERS, and the extraordinary discovery of Kerrs Hundreweight, all the real attention was directed northwards.

There to help fuel attention on the newly emerging town of MUDGEE and its surrounding fields was Edward Hargraves, in the process of cementing his initial position as the acclaimed goldfield discovery meister.

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18th August 1851

Another week – another goldfield – at least that’s the way it must have seemed come winter’s end in 1851.

By late August, ORANGE had joined the ranks of the new fields with the discovery of gold at Fredericks Valley. As reports of the new field came in, attention was also focussed on the processes by which miners could take up and work the new ground which was located on private land, thus allowing the owner the opportunity to charge miners a monthly licence fee in addition to the government’s levee.

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... no sooner does Victoria separate off and become a new colony ...

than they discover gold there as well. Just six weeks after the colony of Victoria was established as a separate entity to NSW on 1 July 1851, a report of the discovery of gold on the Clunes Diggings reached the Sydney media. Over the next three decades, the riches that would flow from the Victorian fields transformed that state and by the 1880s Melbourne had become the richest city in the world, and the largest after London in the British Empire.

20th August 1851

“That gold has been discovered in our sister colony is now ascertained beyond all doubt. Of the quantity, and the prospects of working it successfully, it is yet too early to predicate …”

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... meanwhile back in NSW ...

6th August 1851

The thing about Dr Kerr’s precious prize was that it was a mass of reef gold still trapped in its original rock casing. Whereas alluvial gold was a bit like a trail of coins washed out of a treasure chest, reef gold was the very chest itself and its riches were potentially vast indeed.

Accordingly the government wanted to make sure it had a hand in any future such treasure chests discovered.

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27th August 1851

The new field to grow up downstream from the hillside discovery of Kerr’s Hundredweight was know as WORLDS END on the MEROO CREEK / LOUISA CREEK waterways some 35 km south of Mudgee.

One interesting account of the new field notes that in the aftermath of the Aboriginal shepherd discovering the original gold mass, a group of Aboriginal people had engaged in washing up gold from the local creek which they then “exchanged with the pale faces for white money, at a very considerable profit to the latter.”

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30th August 1851

Back at OPHIR (remember that field?) things were slowly getting organised with government officials setting up shop and regular mail services established.

Flooding in the creek played havoc with operations though and already variations in the price being paid for gold saw many miners looking for ways to increase the profitability of their operations. This involved ignoring the services of the gold escorts and taking a chance on carrying their own gold out.

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17th September 1851

Meanwhile up north at the TURON field, developments were underway to reveal a classic early goldfield pattern. This stage 2 work took hold once the surface ground had been worked over and involved sinking shafts into the river gravels to get at older alluvial deposits long since covered over by layers of flood sediments.

In this way a single claim could yield an ongoing stream of gold and rich claims were even traded for as much as £1200.

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Regulations and licenses

While stories of instant riches continued to flow from the diggings, so too did the tales of those who struggled mightily to make at best a modest wage for their efforts. In this environment attention quickly focussed on the high cost and general inconvenience of government's fledgling system of licenses and regulations.

29th September 1851

Costing as it did 30 shillings a month, it’s not surprising many miners went to considerable lengths to avoid the clutches of the authorities.

For the commissioners’ part, they often had limited sanctions to impose upon miners found without a licence. When the option of ordering them off the field seemed inadequate, reports existed of commissioners engaging in ‘cradle breaking’ even though they had no legal right to do so. In such matters were the seeds of future dissent sown.

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4th October 1851

The challenge of coming up with a better system of licensing that ironed out the teething problems associated with the new poll tax was one that drew significant comment in the media at that time.

Writers such as the one reported opposite vehemently rejected the notion that many miners sought to avoid the tax and in the process provided a wonderful account of how things really worked on the fields.

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4th October 1851

One can’t help but feel some sympathy for the government officials charged with the task of drawing up the regulations for the new mining operations. As the detailed and updated set of regulations published in early October reveal, there was much to attend to. A significant part of the new regulations were those relating to reef mining operations requiring people to first post a bond of £2000 before commencing operations to cover the 10% stake on gold the government claimed from their operations. This represented a very significant deterent to the uptake of new reef mining ventures.

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As the weather warmed up through spring, news from the new fields around Goulburn started to gain traction in the Sydney media.

As a result names like Abercrombie and Araluen began to claim their own space in the lexicon of iconic gold fields. The potential of these new fields was such that several correspondents had no doubt they would soon be drawing crowds of miners off the Turon fields to the new southern ventures.

21st October 1851

The potential of the new ABERCROMBIE field was best summed up by the correspondent opposite who noted that: “I wish I could induce some more of your Goulburn people to come up here; there is now an immense field open for them, from which to choose eligible spots, and by ascertaining valuable localities they would be able to make a mint of money by selling claims when the crowds from the Turon arrive; and come here they must, in the course of a few weeks.”

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28th October 1851

Certainly there was no doubt that the new fields were up and running – so much so that there were urgent calls for the government to establish a gold escort service between Goulburn and Sydney to facilitate the safe passage of the golden product along the remote, poorly made, bushranger inhabited track to Sydney now known as the Hume Highway.

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22nd November 1851

Certainly there was no doubt that the new fields were up and running – so much so that there were urgent calls for the government to establish a gold escort service between Goulburn and Sydney to facilitate the safe passage of the golden product along the remote, poorly made, bushranger inhabited track to Sydney now known as the Hume Highway.

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and so the year closes with a flourish

With the approach of summer, a tumultous year in the history of the fledgling colony drew to a close.

As if to sound out the year on a strong note, several of the fields north of Bathurst reported a new series of stunning finds, only however to have these soundly trumped by the news in from Victoria of the astonishing richness of their goldfields. Finally correspondence just in around Christmas time told of the impact the word of the new discoveries had had back in Britain. 1851 was indeed a year to remember!

22nd November 1851

The discovery of a massive 27lb gold specimen at LOUISA CREEK near to where the original Kerr’s Hundredweight was found was an event of major consequence much remarked upon in an article in late November. Similar accounts of major rich returns for the other fields also figured prominently in the article, as did the subject of a miner’s petition calling for a review of the licensing system.

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18th December 1851

However dramatic the news from the NSW may have been, it was quickly apparent from the first three months of work in Victoria just where the vast mass of gold resided. As the correspondent here noted it was too early to count NSW out of the premier goldfield race as “Albury and several other places are giving indications of richness and we may yet stumble upon a Ballarat or Alexander” (or not as the case may be!)

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27th December 1851

If one wanted a single pocket summary of all that gold excited and promised at the outset of 1851, then this report from the London Times in September of that year is as good as any.

Written fresh upon the news of the first gold discoveries arriving in England after the three month oceanic mail run, it spoke of events already six months old when re-published in the Sydney Morning Herald at Christmas of that year. While the details may have been old news however, the international importance of the finds resonate through the article.

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