1871 was the year when alluvial mining staged a comeback on the NSW fields. The place was Gulgong, adjacent to Mudgee, and the field was a very significant one indeed.

Finally miners who hadn’t the resources to start their own small scale reef venture and didn’t fancy working for a company, could look to the ‘good ol’ days’ of a thriving alluvial goldrush.

This allure would ensure that Gulgong stood alongside Hill End / Tambaroora as the other big name field of 1871. Alongside these potent two icons, many of the established fields – especially Emu Creek at Grenfell – continued to prosper and generate a large degree of optimism for the future of gold mining in general in NSW.

Left: Mine head with group of miners and flag to indicate a new claim, Gulgong Area. American and Australasian Photographuc Company. Reproduced courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW. Call no: On 4 Box 3 No 18273: a 2822208

One of the fortunate things for us in looking back at this time is the fact that soon after its establishment, Gulgong was visited by the photographers Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss.

Taking advantage of the newly emerging portability of photography and using detailed glass plate negatives, the American and Australasian Photographic Company captured a vital array of scenes from both Hill End and Gulgong (as well as numerous other goldfield towns). This means that the Gulgong series of photographs effectively provide us with a photographic record of the early development of a major alluvial field. By contrast when the bulk of the alluvial fields were dominant in the 1850s, it was only artists like Samuel Gill who could visually record their society and landscapes.

6th September 1871

Together the two fields of Gulgong and Hill End had the major effect of refocussing attention in NSW gold mining back onto the regions around Bathurst and Mudgee that had seen the original rushes back in the 1850s.

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27th January 1871

At the start of the year though, the news was all of the copious rain and the effect this was having on mining. Hill End was in the midst of a building boom and not an inch of street frontage was to be had in the main part of the town.

Meanwhile at Gulgong, news of the northern El Dorado was still being treated with scepticism by a mining community that had heard such claims many times before.

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8th March 1871

Alongside these two emerging goldfield stars, older fields like Grenfell could still excite comment as “one of the most important in NSW”.

Good weekly wages of between £3 fo £6 were there to be had amidst the comforts of a settled village lifestyle with all its amenities.

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24th March 1871

But if you were a miner still craving the excitement and prospects of a new alluvial field – well Gulgong was the place you were heading to.

Come March and the field was well established, complete with a star drawcard status that was enticing many experienced miners onto the NSW fields at the expense of the by-then company dominated fields of Victoria.

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24th July 1871

One of the fascinating events to accompany the establishment of the Gulgong field, was a re-run of the troubles that occurred at the startup of the Grenfell operations, whereby a wily investor took up a free selection over much of the rich gold lead country just before it was declared as a goldfield.

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3rd August 1871

Some of these matters were addressed by the special goldfields commission report delivered at the end of the year.

This comprehensive account of the early stages of the field noted particulary that the extent of private land holdings (i.e. including the free selections) in the district was significantly holding back the development of the field.

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With Hill End's prospects booming, the rush to both establish businesses and get supporting crushing machinery set up on site was well and truly underway by mid 1871.

One of the interesting aspects of this stage of the field’s development is that as small mining syndicates rather than companies were firmly in charge of the mining claims, no one had the scale of workings to justify actually establishing their own crushing operations (as had originally happened with the pioneer quartz reefing at Tambaroora in the early 1850s).

This meant that crushing mills were operated as independent businesses who had more interest in getting through lots of ore, than they had in actually recovering gold. Also when there was so much gold being recovered anyway, why worry about that extra half an ounce per ton?

This mitigated heavily against them investing in additional ore processing technology such as occurred at Clunes in Victoria. It also meant that the tailings of the stamp batteries became a gold rich resource which many alluvial miners would work over profitably in the decades following the boom.

21st June 1871

The problems of having to cart ore long distances to the crushing plants was well recognised as one of the big factors which had held back the field’s development up to that time.

Due to the extensive nature of the Hil End / Tambaroora field, there was ample new ground to be taken up within the glow of the Hawkins Hill claims, while actually holding out little of their rich promise.

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26th July 1871

While the main, rich claims on Hawkins Hill were not open to the general investor at that time, the same was not true of the myriad of new operations that sprang up overnight on the many other quartz reefs surrounding Hill End.

These were open to investors such that the “good citizens of Sydney would seem to have been seized with a sudden reefing furore, to have offered themselves up willing victims to every sacrificial speculator”.

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9th August 1871

The extent of the potential for speculative ventures in the Hill End District was summed up in the August mining report where they noted that

“The whole distance of this line is somewhere about seven miles, and every spot where it is at all likely that the reef will be found has been taken up either by workers or for speculative purposes.”

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3rd November 1871

The destructive fruits of such hasty speculation however were still several years away from harvesting in spring 1871.

Times were good and the Gold Report was moved to comment that “the gold-fields of New South Wales are about to occupy a better position than they have ever before done, even in the palmiest days of the first gold discovery”.

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Hence it was that 20 years after the first discovery of a payable goldfield in NSW in May 1851, that the future of the local gold industry had never looked brighter.

This was good, but at the same time, there were a great many unanswered questions about how the Government should respond to ensure the future growth and development of this resource.

While its Commission of Inquiry into the goldfields had been the subject of much controversy, their imminent final report was still expected to provide a much needed spotlight on the problems plaguing the fields and the solutions needed.

19th December 1871

And answers it indeed provided. It addressed a range of issues relating to the frontage leasing system and also recommended a more strategic and scientific approach to the state’s mineral wealth be adopted by creating a State Mining Surveyor Office in Sydney.

This suggestion later bore fruit with the creation of the NSW Mines Department in 1875. Its other major recommendation was to build a railway line from Bathurst to Mudgee. This was opened in the early 1880s.

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