Gold Rush: 20 Objects 20 Stories on display at Old Treasury Building. Image Golden Point Ballarat 1851

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.

Start Date: 8 June 2018

End Date: 26 May 2019


Gold Rush: 20 Objects, 20 Stories is presented by Old Treasury Building in partnership with Public Record Office Victoria.

Pistol from the Eurkea Lead Ballarat. On display in 'Gold Rush: 20 Objects, 20 Stories' at Old Treasury Building.

A pistol from the Eureka Lead, Ballarat

The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees. - Author and miner, William Howitt These dilletantes [...] send the bullets in all directions, even into other miners' tents. Sleeping miners have been killed by stray bullets. I nearly had it happen to me ...
Read More
Race to the Gold Diggings on display at Old Treasury Building in 'Gold Rush: 20 Objects, 20 Stories'

Race to the Gold Diggings board game

Gold is discovered In March 1851 Englishman Edward Hargraves announced in the Sydney Morning Herald that he had found gold just outside the New South Wales town of Bathurst. By July, reports came of good finds at Clunes and Anderson’s Creek near Warrandyte in Victoria and, by the end of ...
Read More
Gold Licence on display in 'Gold Rush: 20 Objects, 20 Stories' at Old Treasury Building.

Gold Licence

During the 1850s the population of Victoria almost trebled as gold seekers surged into Melbourne then onto the goldfields. The gold licence The colonial governments in Melbourne and Sydney imposed a licence fee to dig for gold. This licence gave a miner the right to peg out a small ‘claim’ ...
Read More

1850s Day Dress

This summer day dress was in the 'must-have' style of the mid-1850s. It was known as a crinoline, from the wide, bell-shaped skirt. Women of all ages and all classes of society wore crinoline dresses in Victoria, though they were not very practical for everyday tasks about the house. It ...
Read More