A new exhibition opening soon at the Old Treasury Building will present the turbulent tale of Victoria’s gold rush through the individual stories of just 20 objects. Gold Rush: 20 Objects 20 Stories opens on 8 June.
Gold was first discovered in Australia in 1851 – first in New South Wales and then in Victoria. The finds caused a sensation. Stories of fabulous discoveries in California were already famous and the Australian finds promised the same opportunity. Men throughout Australia immediately downed tools to ‘rush’ to the goldfields, soon joined by others from New Zealand. By the following year thousands began to arrive from Britain, Europe, America and then China. The impact on farms and businesses was devastating at first. As Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe wrote to his superior in England, ‘Cottages are deserted, houses to let, even schools are closed. In some of the suburbs, not a man is left.’
The lure of gold was huge. It represented the opportunity of a lifetime to escape from the relentless cycle of hard work and low pay that was the lot of most people. As stories circulated of fabulous finds literally picked up from the ground, gold fever gripped the imagination of thousands on both sides of the globe. Soon every available vessel had been commandeered for the long journey to Australia, and Victoria was inundated by eager gold seekers. In 1851 Victoria was still a sleepy little outpost of Britain, with a population of just under 100,000. Over the next decade this would double, then double again, to reach 537,847 in 1860, and that only included those who had stayed! Many more had come and gone.
In the early years of the gold rush Melbourne was a city in chaos. Every inch of floor and almost every table and bath in the hotels and lodging houses was occupied. Hundreds at a time spent a night or more on the wharves amongst the barrels and bales. Thousands more went to ‘Canvas Town’ – a sprawling, makeshift tent city on the southern bank of the Yarra, near where the National Gallery is today. Everything was soon in short supply and prices soared. Canny traders made quick fortunes and there were plenty of rogues ready to fleece trusting newcomers. Most would-be miners set out for the diggings as quickly as they could – while their money lasted.
Although the stories of gold made it sound easy to make a fortune, the reality was very different. Miners worked long and hard in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, with no certainty of success. Writer and miner William Howitt described gold digging as, ‘a lottery, with far more blanks than prizes,’ and many who had travelled half way around the world returned home disappointed. At the same time prices on the diggings were ruinous – not least for the gold licences each miner had to buy. Disappointment fuelled resentment. Agitation against the gold licences spread throughout the diggings in 1854, culminating in the short-lived, but bloody Eureka Stockade. Chinese miners were also targeted by European diggers resentful of their patient success and dogged perseverance.
There is a rich lode of stories of gold-rush Victoria to be discovered and the 20 objects chosen for this exhibition show just how varied they can be. From tiny manuscript dairies kept by men and women on the goldfields, to a replica of the largest nugget found in the world at the time, this exhibition has stories for everyone.