To understand the thousands of people who chose to come to Ballarat during the gold rushes, we need to look at their motivations for leaving home for the dirty diggings. When gold was discovered in Ballarat in 1851, there were about 80,000 people living in Victoria. You can fit more than that in the MCG today! The population increased dramatically over the next ten years; by 1861, there were more than 500,000 people here! While most no doubt had their own unique, personal reasons for moving to Victoria during this time, let’s take a look at some of the things that may have pushed people out of their homes and pulled them towards gold mining towns like Ballarat.
‘Push factors’ – things that push people away from their homes – include wars, natural disasters, food/water shortages, a lack of paid jobs, and nasty community leaders. For example, if your country runs out of food and your family is hungry, you might decide to move to a new country where your family is less likely to suffer hunger again. This means that food shortage is your motivation to move; it’s the push factor for you and your family.
‘Pull factors’ – things that pull people to a new home – include safety, food/water security, good job opportunities, and good community leaders. For example, if there’s not much opportunity for you to get a good job in your country, you might decide to move to a country with a strong economy and low unemployment, where you have a high chance of getting a great job. This means that good job opportunities is your motivation to move; it’s the pull factor for you.
The chance of finding a huge Ballarat gold nugget (which could make you so rich that you never had to work another day in your life), was a HUGE pull factor for people who wanted to improve their lives in the 1850s and 1860s. Thousands of people from all over the world heard about Ballarat’s rich alluvial goldfield and decided to try their luck on the diggings.
The kind of people who came in search of gold were usually young and usually male, but of course many brought their families. This gold-seeking adventure was often a one-way trip, and the work was hard and dangerous. Most people who came to Ballarat during the gold rushes were motivated by more than just gold – there were lots of push and pull factors for each person!
If you were from England, things that may have pushed you to Australia might have included overpopulation (lots of English cities were very crowded at this time thanks to the Industrial Revolution), limited social mobility (little chance of improving your life; if you were born poor in England in the 1850s, you were likely to stay poor, no matter how hard you worked) and frustrations with the government (the ‘Chartists’ were trying to improve democracy during this time in English history, but weren’t having much luck). Pull factors for the English, apart from gold, could have included Australia’s good weather (lots of English people still come for this reason), and the chance to buy land (almost impossible back in England, unless you were extremely rich).
If you were from Ireland, the biggest push factor at this time in history would have been the ‘Great Hunger’ (also known as the Irish Potato Famine). Between 1845 and 1852, over one million Irish people died of starvation due to a disease called potato blight which destroyed their main food source: the potato. As a result of the Great Hunger, two million Irish people left Ireland and never returned – some moved to the United States of America and Canada, while many others came to Australia, in particular to Ballarat.
If you were from Scotland in the 1850s and you were the second son in your family, your big brother got to keep the family home and any land your family owned. That meant second sons had to make their own fortunes. This could have been one of the main push factors for the Scottish.
If you were from China, it was likely you were a peasant farmer in the 1850s. At this time in China, you didn’t have much chance of improving your life (limited social mobility), and opium was a big social/health problem (thanks to the [English] East India Company – who bought this highly addictive drug from India to sell in China for huge profits). This led to two wars between England and China during this time. These were the major push factors
for the Chinese miners. While gold was the major pull factor, the Chinese commonly had a different motivation than the Europeans when it came to spending their gold wealth. The Europeans tended to find gold to benefit themselves and their families, and many decided to stay in Australia after finding their fortune. The Chinese instead tended to find gold to take home to benefit not just their families but their entire villages; Chinese communities often worked together to pay for a ship ticket for just one or two miners, so that any gold they brought home was for the benefit of everyone. Some historians say that most of the Chinese miners were not really immigrants for this reason.
If you were from the United States of America, it was possible you had been a miner in the 1849 gold rush in San Francisco, California, or wished you had been. The pull factor of gold was probably the main reason Americans came to Ballarat.
If you were an Aboriginal Australian, you may have been on the Ballarat goldfield because this had been your family’s home for thousands of years, or you may have come from another part of Victoria as you had been forced off your homelands by invading farmers and miners. In terms of pull factors, some Aboriginal People did make money from gold during the gold rushes, while others worked as Native Police or farmhands. However, Aboriginal People had few choices at this time in history; it was very difficult to live their traditional lives any more whether they were on their homelands or not, thanks to the changes the new arrivals introduced.
Australia – in particular its population – changed dramatically during the Victorian gold rushes of the 1800s. When did your family arrive in Australia? If you’re an Aboriginal Australian, your ancestors may have arrived 60,000 years ago. If your ancestors were convicts sent to Sydney, Hobart or (later) Western Australia, they may have arrived around 230 years ago. If your ancestors came during the gold rushes, they may have arrived 160 years ago.
Regardless of when your family arrived, the Australian story is a story of immigration.
Links and References:
A great TEDed video about push and pull factors: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdtQgwOOiBg
An overview of the impact of the Australian gold rushes: http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-gold-rush
Simple English Wikipedia on the Great Hunger: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Potato_Famine
Why do famines happen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sgae8SA-rcI
The influence of the Irish on Ballarat: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2014/07/09/goldfields-immigration-3/
The influence of the Scottish on Ballarat: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/06/24/goldfields-immigration/
The influence of the Jewish on Ballarat: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2014/03/31/goldfields-immigration-part-2/
Research notes about the experiences of the Chinese in 19th century Ballarat: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-chinesesballarat-notes-ss1.pdf
The impact of the Victorian gold rushes and 19th century immigration on Aboriginal People: http://sovereignhillhiddenhistories.com.au/
Australia’s immigration history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_history_of_Australia