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Before the discovery of gold (Dunlop and Reagan, between 21 and 24
August 1851 at Poverty Point), the Ballarat district had already been
established as a pastoral area. Ballarat was known by the squatters as
a good camping spot. Wool growing and cattle breeding had become the
main pursuits in the area. Sheep and cattle browsed over the
surrounding grassy plains, drinking from the three permanent water
holes found in the area.
The transformation began, from a tranquil squatting environment to a
noisy accumulation of diggers scouring the ground in search of gold.
Creeks that for so long had flowed through a peaceful, verdant land
were almost obliterated with tailings and sludge, and in wet weather
flood waters, bereft of a clear channel, rushed in all directions.
Great havoc was caused among the mass of tents and business premises
that had appeared along the low-lying flats.
The discovery of gold made great changes in the life of the Australian
colonies. Many of the men, women and children who flocked to the
goldfields were hardly suited to the rigours of the journey to
Australia, the conditions encountered on arrival, or the week's
journey to the diggings.
Within a few weeks of the discovery of gold 2,500 men were furiously
digging at Ballarat, and the population was increasing by 100 a day.
Men worked harder than ever before, enduring the hardships of the
On 20 September 1851, the Goldfields Commissioner arrived to issue a
monthly licence of one £1/10 to dig for gold on a claim eight feet
square for one month. It was also accepted that no work was to be done
on the Sabbath (Sunday). On some diggings a gun was fired each evening
from the Commissioners tent to signal that work must finish for the
day. The Government Gold Escort was established on 21 September of the
same year to take gold to Melbourne.
By mid October there were 2,000 tents near Golden Point, 10,000 men at
work and £10,000 earned daily but very unequally divided.
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By the end of 1851 Ballarat was almost deserted as gold was more
easily obtained at places such as Mt. Alexander (Castlemaine). When
the news of gold discovery reached England early in 1852 many skilled
tin and coal miners from Cornwall, Scotland and Wales decided to set
out on the six or seven month journey to Victoria. These men were wise
in the ways of mining and realised that gold was being found at
ever-increasing depths. And so shafts were dug to depths of 100 feet
(over 30 metres) through wet, waterlogged ground to reach rich 'wash
dirt'. Many men became unexpectedly wealthy. This started the second
rush to Ballarat.
In the rush for gold, many men left their jobs and headed for the
diggings. When gold was first discovered there were no roads to the
goldfields and when the people arrived there were no towns, houses or
shops. Everything they needed had to be carried by horses, bullocks or
by the people walking or pushing wheelbarrows holding belongings. Life
on the goldfields was not easy. People had to be prepared to suffer
every conceivable hardship. Heat, dust, rain, cold and outdoor
exposure, bodily fatigue and muscular exhaustion were part of diggings
Men, women and children lived in tents or shanty huts made from
canvas, wood and bark. Food and other goods had to be brought in by
cart and were expensive. Overcrowding also meant that contagious
diseases spread quickly.
Because so many people rushed to the goldfields all the necessities
such as food, clothes, tools and horses were scarce. The merchants who
sold these things could charge high prices. A few diggers were lucky
and became rich quickly but most remained as poor as they were before.
The people who did become rich during the gold rush were tradesmen and
merchants who sold food and equipment to the diggers; or they were
landowners who sold property to diggers who wanted to build houses
when the gold rushes were over.
The population of the goldfields was almost exclusively male. In 1854
there was one woman to every four men. As Ballarat began to become
more established women and children came to join their men but there
was still an imbalance in the population.
During the gold rush decade people swarmed into Australia. However,
many of them did not see themselves as immigrants. Their intention was
to make their fortune by finding gold and then return to their own
countries as wealthy citizens. The journey to the colony took up to 7
months. At the port of embarkation emigrants were exposed to a great
variety of infections, from whooping cough, cholera, measles to
typhus. A compulsory but inadequate medical inspection overlooked many
illnesses. In an effort to stop bed bugs and lice, it was forbidden to
bring bedding on board. Occasionally epidemics spread through the ship
amongst both passengers and crew sometimes resulting in many deaths.
Those passengers who survived the journey often arrived, sick,
exhausted and unfit for life on the goldfields.
Although life on the goldfields was difficult, the diggers still found
time for entertainment. Horse-racing and fighting were popular. Often
in the evenings the diggers told yarns or played musical instruments
around a camp fire. Other goldfields entertainment included singers,
actors and dancers. They performed in tents, hotels and theatres.