An extraordinary event in the history of Australia occurred on this day in 1851. In a bold step, the Government of New South Wales made the official announcement of the discovery of gold.
Before 22 May 1851, colonial authorities had hushed up such news for fear of its effect on convicts. When William Branwhite Clarke found gold in the Blue Mountains 10 years earlier, for example, Governor Gipps told him: “Put it away, Mr Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut.”
Edward Hargraves, a man with a flair for publicity, was more difficult to keep quiet. When his party found gold in 1851 at a place in New South Wales they named Ophir, Hargraves rode to Sydney to press the Colonial Secretary into publicly recognising the feat.
The official announcement sparked a gold frenzy. “A complete mental madness appears to have seized almost every member of the community. There has been a universal rush to the diggings,” the newspapers reported.
The race to find more deposits was on and just six months later gold was uncovered in neighbouring Victoria in what turned out to be enormous quantities at Ballarat and then Bendigo.
As men abandoned their jobs in Australia and headed for the mine sites, news spread far and wide. A huge new influx of migrants began arriving, many fresh from the Californian gold rush. In 1852 alone, more than 350,000 immigrants disembarked on Australian shores and pretty soon their numbers outstripped the existing convict population.
As well as English, Scots and Irish, newcomers included Americans, French, Italians, Germans, Poles and Chinese as Australia took on a distinctly cosmopolitan air.
Gold field towns sprang up with stores, hotels and workshops all servicing the requirements of this huge number of miners and their equipment.
The incredible wealth created by gold would soon be enough to transform Melbourne from a straggling colonial town into one of the richest cities in the world and the second largest in the British Empire!
The impact of gold was felt in many social, cultural and political ways. During the Eureka Rebellion of 1854, Victorian miner’s fought against the unfairness of the Miner’s Licence. Their success (at the cost of over 20 lives) was seen as a key event in the development of Australian democracy.
The ‘mateship’ exhibited by 19th century gold ‘diggers’ in their defiance of authority was reflected in stories about Australian troops at Gallipoli in 1915, by which time these characteristics had become fundamental to the emerging sense of an Australian national identity.
In short, gold was a strong driving force in Australia’s transformation from giant open-air prison into a progressive, independent nation with outstanding potential.