It’s one thing to see a speckled collection of gold flakes looking up at you after you’ve washed a panful of earth, quite another to stumble onto a nugget you can hold up in your hand.

There’s something about nuggets and the instant bonanza they represent that has always excited the imagination of gold seekers, especially in the heady early days of a field when the surface alluvial ground is still largely unworked.

This was a big issue for NSW gold as while it had plenty of gold flakes on offer, the Victorian fields are renowned around the world for their unusually large and abundant collection of nuggets.

This in turn was a major incentive luring people south of the border in 1854.

Left: “Hello you boys” Reproduced courtesy State Library of Victoria (pi001963)

An air of lethargy seems have hung heavily over the whole gold culture in Sydney at the start of 1854.

Throughout the year just pased much of the slow news from the diggings had been blamed on the NSW government's legislation. Now this was fixed would the new year herald a turn around?

15th January 1854

One could but hope so. As the lead pararaph in the new year gold circular started off – “Great dullness has prevailed throughout the last week”. It did however follow this up with the brighter news that discoveries on the TAMBAROORA field were exciting much attention, while noting that the old enemy of gold’s opening years – floods – were back again.

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22nd January 1854

A feature of these new discoveries from Tambaroora was the fact that they were rich reef gold finds, not free alluvial gold. The location of this gold laden quartz vein which was heralded as “unrivalled in the annals of quartz bearing gold” is significant as is was immediately alongside the rich reefs that would be come to prominence with the rise of HILL END as a gold centre in the early 1870s. For the moment however, the first step ahead was to set up sufficient machinery to mine the reef gold. As ever – mining gold in the matrix was never an easy gimme – no matter how rich the vein may be.

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11th February 1854

Perhaps somewhat optimistically the gold report went on to report several weeks later that “a great number of diggers are flocking to Tambaroora from Port Phillip”. Sadly to get there they first had to travel past Bendigo and the Ovens fields to name just two and their temptation to push on past these Victorian fields must be questioned. In time the vast riches of the reef gold finds around Tambaroora / Hill End would come to define the area much as the gold nuggets had the Victorian fields – but such days were still a decade or two ahead.

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A very interesting feature of the NSW fields was how reef gold mining issues cropped up so early in their development

Usually no one troubled too much about reef gold until all the easily gotten alluvial gold was worked out. Perhaps it was just the impact that the discovery of the massive reef gold specimen, Kerr’s Hundredweight, had on the local zeitgeist? Either way it is significant that while just across the border the Victorian goldfields were in the grip of a classic alluvial mining feeding frenzy, people in NSW were already gearing up to mine the “motherlodes”.

6th March 1854

Already for example there were several operations on both the Turon and adjacent Meroo fields engaged in mining reef gold. Debate over their profitability centred mainly on the crude and rudimentary processing techniques available to them to process the gold ore. Clearly the hope of technology coming to the aid of these ventures in the near future was a strong incentive for investment. In the meantime, companies went to lengths to “shepherd” claims by extending their area of interest over very large areas of countryside, thereby closing these areas down to other would be operators.

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16th May 1854

In this environment a significant article was published in May of that year outlining a new process by which gold ore could be crushed and the gold extracted efficiently. The Berdans Gold Machine used rolling balls to grind the ore and mercury to capture the resultant loose gold.

While the machine never caught on to a great extent (perhaps owing to the open heating of the mercury and the likely poisoning of all the operators in the process?) it does describe the ore processing challenges facing reef miners at this time.

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So just how was everything going on the western goldfields of NSW at this time?

It was one thing to judge from the comments of the gold buyers whose views cropped up in the Sydney media regularly, another to actually look at the figures and hear the first hand accounts of people who had recently visited the fields.

24th June 1854

One useful indication we have of the numbers of miners on the fields is the numbers of licenses issued. This should not be taken as an exact measure however as one miner may well have purchased multiple licenses a year if buying them on a monthly basis. All up 11,550 licences were issued for the western goldfields including Sofala, Tambaroora, Avisford, Ophir, and Bathurst. To the south 15,552 licences were issued for the southern goldfields including including Majors Creek, Bells Creek, Araluen, Mongalo, and Tuena

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30th June 1854

An even more useful reference comes in the form of the commissioner for the Western Goldfields report to the Legislative Council at the end of June. Here he speaks of a vibrant array of goldfields with good prospects and the energy of around 7,000 people invested in them.

He notes a cautionary tale not to be too swayed by the actual gold delivery figures as many miners were avoiding the costs of consigning their gold to the escorts by taking it on a perilous journey to town themselves under various guises.

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Victoria - the elephant in the room

Everything about the NSW goldfields at this time needed to be set against the not so hidden subtext of what was afoot on the Victorian diggings. The time would come when both diggers and the attention would flow back across the border, but with the NSW field in a state of quiet development, all eyes tended to focus on the events shaping the fields around Bendigo and Ballarat. These were exciting yet also troubled times as things unfolded in the latter half of 1854 that culminated with the Eureka Stockade riots in Ballarat in early December.

18th July 1854

Turning to an account from the Victorian fields in late July, it is revealing to see some of the major issues being referred to there. Top of this was the issue of forming a local government that would allow the mining communities to manage their own affairs and diminish the role of the magistrates in the life of the diggings.

Significantly also, much discussion is centred upon the growing hostility to the 3,000 to 4,000 Chinese miners on the fields. Calls to expel the Chinese from the field were firmly rejected by the bulk of the goldfields’ community.

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28th July 1854

The issue of the Chinese on the goldfields non-the-less aroused very strong emotions on both sides of the debate, and the extensive account of the situation written up a week or so after the initial article makes for rivetting reading in terms of understanding the sense of egalitarian tolerance that by and large operated on the field.

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Victoria's eureka moment

The issues surrounding the Eureka Stockade uprising were in many ways a paticularly Victorian phenomena that had little direct relevance or impact on NSW. Perhaps in part it reflects the much higher densities of miners on the Victorian fields. Some 20,000 for example were estimated to be on the ground just at Ballarat, whereas the whole of NSW's dispersed western goldfields numbered around 7,000 souls in comparison. In any event, there is no doubt that the closing months of 1854 on the colonial goldfields will forever be defined by the Eureka Stockade.

4th December 1854

Some idea of the dynamic lead up to the stockade conflict comes from an account printed in South Australia of the unfolding events at Ballarat. It appeared in print the day after the actual stockade uprising, though in a non digital world accounts of such matters took several days to emerge.

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8th December 1854

Several days later, detailed reports of the actual affray were printed in papers like the Hobart Colonial Times giving us a direct insight into the drama and events of the moment. While order was quickly restored in the wake of the battle, the aftermath of the stockade would have a major influence on goldfield management in Victoria in the coming year – 1855.

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