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

Discover the turbulent tale of Victoria’s gold rush through the individual stories of just 20 objects.

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.

Absinthe Bottle

Absinthe Bottle from Little Lon

Absinthe and oysters This absinthe bottle was found in a rubbish pit at Little Lon (in Melbourne’s north-east corner) with nine more just like it, along with French champagne bottles, imported spirits and 300 odd oyster shells. The occupant, Mrs Alicia Bond (aka Sheridan), was supposedly running a grocery shop ...
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Chamber pot on display in Gold Rush: 20 Objects, 20 Stories

Chamber pot from Mayor Smith’s house

They say a person is defined by their chamber pot. Well probably not, but it is easy to imagine that this would be just the style that Mayor Smith or his wife Ellen would have fancied for themselves. Athena in her chariot fueling the Smiths sense of themselves and their ...
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Victoria the Golden

In 1907 the Premier of Victoria Thomas Bent purchased Victoria the Golden from the artist William Strutt for £120 and presented it to the Victorian Parliamentary Library. Victoria the Golden is celebrated as one of the Parliament’s great treasures and we are excited to have it on display in Gold ...
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chinese petition

The humble petition of the Chinese Storekeepers

The humble petition of the Chinese Storekeepers, miners and others now resident on and in the neighbourhood of the Bendigo gold fields in the said Colony, ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed 2 December 1856   By late 1858 the population of the Victorian goldfields had reached 150,000 ...
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welcome stranger replica nugget

Welcome Stranger Replica Nugget

Between 1851 and 1861 Australia exported at least 30 million ounces (850 metric tons) of gold - more than one third of the world’s total. The diggings were a casino but the prizes went more to men of strength and stamina. The acclimatised colonial was more likely to find gold ...
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Gold Cradle

Gold Washing Cradle

There are, we should say, about a thousand cradles at work, within a mile of the Golden Point, at Ballarat. There are about fifty near the Black Hill, about a mile and a half distant, and at the Brown Hill Diggings there are about three or four hundred more; to ...
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Royal charter

Shipping register of the Royal Charter

In the early 1800s the voyage from Europe to Australia took between four and five months. By the 1850s sleek, faster clipper ships had been designed. Captains of the clippers regularly competed with each other to make the quickest trip. The captain of the Marco Polo, which made the journey ...
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The Old Treasury Building- Object 20

What is the 20th Object…? The Old Treasury Building, of course! The volume of gold found in the first few years of the gold rush was staggering – some six million ounces was brought to Melbourne between 1853 and 1857. Soon all the strong rooms were full and in 1857 ...
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Diary of an unknown miner

Diary of an Unknown Miner

[A]dvise him first to go and dig a coal-pit; then work a month at a stone-quarry; next sink a well in the wettest place he can find, of at least fifty feet deep; and finally, clear out a space of sixteen feet square of a bog twenty feet deep; and ...
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Ballaarat Cemetery Record

Ballarat Cemetery record book, 1855-1866

A child’s life Goldfields must have been exciting places for children, but also unsettling and dangerous. Families moved about a lot. They often lived in makeshift shelters and there were hazards everywhere. Open fires, unprotected mineshafts and fast-flowing water courses all took their toll. But the greatest threat to children, ...
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