This was the year that the NSW gold rush got its mojo back. After a heady start in 1851, things in NSW had quickly gone into decline as the remarkable finds from Victoria attracted both the mass of public attention and miners to boot.

With numbers few and far between on the NSW diggings things were hence in the doldrums there for a few years. All this was to change though in 1856 with a new series of exciting discoveries on the western goldfields.

As NSW surged back as a re-emerging gold prospect, an influx of Chinese miners were amongst those who headed off to the diggings. This upsurge coincided with Victorian initiatives to discourage new Chinese immigration onto their fields via a £10 “Chinese” entry tax amongst other measures. This in turn made Sydney a desirable entry point to the colonies for Chinese miners.

Left: “Chinese Miners on their way to the Diggings – Charles Lyall, 1854
Reproduced courtesy State Library of Victoria H87.63/2/4

At first glance, 1856 started off much like any other recent year on the NSW goldfields front - quietly.

After several steady years, the aura of boom and bust was fading. In is place, settled communities where people worked steadily to earn a good living (relative to the wages then available in urban and rural settings) predominated.

In this environment, gold mining companies could look optimistically to establish their operations hopeful of drawing upon a steady stream of labour to support their operations.

7th March 1856

One thing companies could not be so hopeful of however was actually making a profit. The Colonial Gold Mining Company was at that time developing its reef mining ventures at Louisa Creek, Tambaroora and Burrendong with little success.

Chief amongst their problems was the high cost of labour on the fields coupled with technological and logistical problems involved with crushing the quartz and extracting the gold.

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15th February 1856

It was in late summer at the start of 1856 that things started to look up for the NSW fields when spectacular finds from Yorkeys Corner adjacent to Ophir were revealed.

Significantly these discoveries came not from the creekbeds, but rather up on the elevated ridgelines where miners dug down through alluvial soils to ancient river bed deposits mixed with quartz veins.

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18th February 1856

Significantly also about the new finds close to Ophir was the fact the mining party had previously honed its skills at Ballarat. This bore out the fact that the potential richness of the NSW fields awaited those with skill and experience and that sadly for NSW, the bulk of this had been lodged in Victoria for the previous few years.

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4th April 1856

In terms of skill and experience in extracting gold at this time, there were few to rival the ability of the Chinese miners on the Victorian fields. These immigrants brought with them a highly organised approach to gold mining and their purposeful diligence coupled with their successes was in no small measure reflected in a general antipathy towards them. This generated a special response from the Victorian Government who brought in a specific set of regulations covering the activities of the Chinese miners.

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What though were the established gold field communities to make of the prospect of a new wave of rushes exploding onto the then relatively stable social landscape of the western goldfields?

Having a series of rushes unfold in Victoria was one thing - these after all were a long way off and many local miners had already established themselves and their families on the central west NSW fields. Moving a long way south may have been one thing - but what about when rich pickings were apparently to be had just up the road?

1st May 1856

One correspondent writing from Sofala at this time certainly felt that the town’s progress had been let down by Government – both through its lack of investment in facilities and also by the regulations that they felt discriminated against tradespeople on the fields and drove them away to the detriment of community development.

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12th June 1855

Well may have Sofala residents have been disgruntled judging by what some reports from other fields were saying. Tuena to the south for example was reporting that “several parties from Sofala, experienced diggers, who, attracted to this quarter by the richness of our deposits, have abandoned the more popular gold-field”.

Even Tuena which by this time had been slowly evolving over the past few years was finally hitting its straps whereas the early icon fields like Sofala and Ophir were struggling big time.

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By mid year all talk of the NSW fields being sluggish had disappeared and the focus was firmly on the exciting new discoveries emerging from various quarters across the state.

Not only were the original western goldfields delivering new prospects, but the northern goldfields around Armidale that had been home to a fledgling array of diggers for several years were starting to hit their straps, while the southern goldfields also were strong.

5th July 1856

As a checklist on the state of the goldfields in NSW at this time, the Gold Fields report of early July gives an excellent summary.

It lists all the gold centres in the three regions – northern, western and southern – and gives some account of the scale of each.

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8th July 1856

This was good news indeed for all those Sydney siders who had for years been arguing that the emptying of the NSW fields in favour of the Victorian diggings had been premature.

Reports also noted that amongst the influx of new miners into the NSW fields there were “a considerable number of Chinese … Two shiploads have, within the last fortnight, come on to Sydney, and many of them have, we understand, joined their companions on the auriferous fields.”

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15th July 1856

When the Chinese disembarked in Sydney they set up camp in a paddock along the Tank Stream to organise themselves before setting off for the diggings. This they did with such rigour and discipline as to excite comment that their arrival prefaced a bright future for the local goldfields.

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While the prospects of fields seemed strong across the three regions, it was still the reports coming in from the several marque locations that generated the real excitement for the future influx of miners back onto the NSW fields.

Here it was partly a case of new discoveries lining up side by side with new opportunities emerging in the established fields.

This was the case in the dramatic turn around in the fortunes of the Louisa Creek field in the winter of 1856. This was the area around the discovery of Kerr's Hundredweight and the field opened up by Edward Hargraves himself.

8th July 1856

Louisa Creek’s resources had been locked up under the massive lease area granted to the Great Nugget Vein Company in a manner that discouraged independent miners from working the ground.

Following the company’s failure to make a profit, the ground was at last thrown open to the general mining community with spectacular results.

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5th July 1855

Nor was the ground south of Mudgee the only area of excitement at this time. Diggers on Stoney Creek north of Bathurst at Stockyard Creek had for some time been working quietly away on their rich ground.

This quietude changed rapidly however when news emerged that a local digger named “Bothered Harry” had unearthed a 28 oz nugget on the field. Presumably his name may well have then changed for a happier countenance – at least for a time!

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11th August 1856

Nor were such discoveries isolated events in the emerging life of these fields. In an account published towards the end of winter, stories of great success from both Stony Creek and Lousia Creek compete for the reader’s attention.

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27th August 1856

Another of the exciting goldfields at this time was the new Rocky River diggings up on the northern tablelands near Armidale. It was to this field that a large number of the new Chinese arrivals journeyed as their first port of call.

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So just what did these tumultous winter months mean for the future of the Western Goldfields?

As ever the best assessment of such matters came not from the pens of reporters, but rather from the public servants that were the Gold Commissioners. All in all though, these tend to confirm pretty much what the papers had been saying - things were very much hotting up on the western goldfields!

14th August 1856

In the commissioner’s report at the end of winter, several matters feature strongly. These include the impacts on places like Sofala of the new rushes and also the arrival of the Chinese on the field for the first time.

Here he comments that “About 150 Chinese arrived here during this month, and have apparently determined upon remaining; they are a patient industrious race, who do well where Europeans cannot.”

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What though of the southern goldfields amidst all this excitement coming from its neighbouring gold regions?

Would the southern fortunes fade as the stars shone ever brighter over them to the north?

29th October 1856

Well perhaps not.

Just when a timely shot of good news was in order for the southern districts a new gold discovery was made at Tumut and the Adelong Creek workings received some encouraging new finds.

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20th December 1856

Similarly things closer to home at the Tuena diggings also promised much good cheer as the eventful year of 1856 drew to a close.

As this commentator however goes on to conclude, the challenges facing the goldfields were very large indeed and the government needed to do much more than than “merely giving them a commissioner, and a couple of policemen, for the purposes of selling and collecting licenses.”

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