The 1850s Gold Rush

An Australian gold miners’ monument.
Australian 1850s gold digger’s hut.
Map of Australia, with the state of Victoria located in the southeast.
Horse buggies from the gold rush days.
University of Melbourne, founded at the height of the gold rush in 1853.

Gold was discovered in large quantities in southeast Australia in the 1850s. This caused gold diggers to pour in from Britain, China and many other countries, contributing to a doubling of Australia’s non-indigenous population in a few short years, from about half a million to a million.

Booming cities

Many diggers arriving in southeast Australia found significant quantities of gold, and converted it to money. Large sums of this money were then invested in real estate and the stock market, as well as spent on locally marketed goods and services like alcohol and sex workers. Because of this, economies boomed in the areas where gold had been found, with newly launched business ventures here often being able to turn a profit. Melbourne, capital of the gold rich state of Victoria, for example, saw many businesses flourish and many expensive, new buildings being built at this time.

A difficult and risky business

The flourishing businesses and the many gold digger success stories, quite naturally, inspired gold diggers to dream, but also caused a great many hopefuls to get disappointed at how difficult it really was to find gold. Discovering the golden metal, as the diggers soon fund out, required geographical knowledge, great stamina and a bit of luck — all things that plenty of them didn’t have. Moreover, if diggers did find any gold, spiteful rivals and armed criminals often wanted to steal it from them. Consequently, most gold diggers did not become rich. Instead, frustrated and poor, the vast majority of seekers generally saw themselves forced to remain in the tent cities or the dirty makeshift houses that they had once moved in to, far from obtaining the type of lifestyle they had aspired to.

The difficulty of finding and retaining gold notwithstanding, many tenacious gold diggers continued to search for gold for years. Over time, though, as much less gold was found and metal extraction became increasingly automated, they were often forced to look for new income streams.