Gold Fever and Angry Diggers

Old gold panning equipment.
Gold diggers panning for gold in Australia.

In 1851, gold was discovered in southern Australia, near Melbourne. People now caught “gold fever”, and over the next few years, hopefuls from near and far flocked to the area. The large influx of men and the riches that came from gold turned Melbourne and many surrounding farming villages into bustling boom towns, which came to be difficult for authorities to control.

To try to bring order, as well as gain economically from the new wealth that was created, in the heat of the gold rush, the fledgling state government of Victoria obligated diggers to purchase a mining license to search for gold. The fee was expensive and had to be paid regardless of whether or not one found gold. This, as could be expected, upset many diggers, who generally regarded the license as unfair, since the vast majority of diggers found very little gold or none at all.

Growing anger

The mining license policy, detested in and by itself, became even more resented by aggressive license controls by the authorities and the police. As a consequence, anger and discontent grew, and when a Scottish gold digger was killed in the town of Ballarat in 1854, things escalated rapidly. Convinced that the killers had been let off due to their friendship with the magistrate, many diggers now decided to publicly protest both the mining license and the justice system.

Soldiers and policemen called in

Subsequent to their decision to publicly protest, thousands of gold diggers gathered in mass meetings demanding an end to what they saw as unfair licensing and improper exercise of authority. Some diggers, too, turned to violence, and burned down a hotel owned by one of the persons believed to have murdered the Scotsman. The government, evaluating the situation, suspected that an uprising was brewing in Ballarat, and called in large numbers of soldiers and policemen to quell it. By doing so, they pitted armed government forces against disgruntled diggers, something that, as explained in the next chapter, would lead to violent clashes, but indirectly also spur democratic reform.