Australia in the 1850s


In February 1851, Edward Hargraves discovered gold near Bathurst, New South Wales. A few months later, gold was discovered in Victoria, first at Clunes and later at Buninyong, Ballarat, Castlemaine and Bendigo. During this era, the gold bullion that was shipped to London brought back a huge flow of imports.

Everyday life in the cities was disrupted as men left their jobs and families to seek their fortune on the goldfields. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from Europe, the USA and Asia travelled to the Australian colonies to converge initially on Victoria and New South Wales in search of gold. The goldfields became multicultural and multilingual sites. Special gold commissioners were appointed to administer the diggings.

In 1852, Chinese migrants were one of the largest groups to come to the colonies. They named the goldfields the 'New Gold Mountain'. Almost all of them were male and they intended to make enough money for a better life, and then return to their families and villages in China. Eventually, some turned to other occupations such as market gardening and furniture making to earn a living.

Over 90 tonnes of gold was mined between 1853 and 1856. During the 1850s Victoria dominated the world's gold output and for a while Ballarat ranked number one in gold production.

The 1850s were a peak time for bushrangers as the discovery of gold gave them an opportunity to access the wealth of successful miners when the gold was transported by coach from the goldfields to the cities. In 1853, the notorious George 'Frenchy' Melville was hanged for robbing the McIvor gold escort near Castlemaine.

In 1855 some of the Chinese miners, such as Lee Heng Jacjung, came from the Californian goldfields and were known as the 'forty-niners' after the year of the Californian gold rush. They were experienced in the techniques of goldmining, which assisted them when the alluvial gold ran out. Jacjung became a miner, a shopkeeper, a government interpreter and an important figure in the Chinese community on the Mount Alexander goldfield.


A snapshot of 1858

  • January
    • A telephone line opened between the Sydney GPO and South Head.

  • May
    • New South Wales followed the lead of Victoria and South Australia to become the third colony to introduce the principle of manhood suffrage for parliamentary elections.

  • June
    • A huge gold nugget named the Welcome Nugget weighing 68.98 kilograms was found at Ballarat.

  • August
    • The Aborigines' Friends' Association (AFA) was formed at a public meeting in Adelaide in South Australia.

  • September
    • The first recorded game of Australian Rules Football was played between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar.

  • October
    • The first intercolonial electric telegraph line was officially opened between Adelaide and Melbourne.


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