The Gold Rushes of Victoria and California Compared

In 1848, three years before Victoria’s gold rushes began, the shiny yellow metal was found in California which made the seaside city of San Francisco in the United States of America (USA) grow rapidly, much like Melbourne did after 1851. These two mining booms were similar in some ways but different in others. By comparing these two rushes we can explore what Victoria learned from California’s experience of rapid population growth and an ‘explosion’ in wealth.

Cradles were used in both gold rushes to separate rocks from gold. Left image: H. Sandham, The Cradle/California, 1883. Reproduced with permission from Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/90713945/. Right image: S.T. Gill, Victorian Goldfields 1852-3, Cradling, 1869. Reproduced with permission from State Library of Victoria.

Similarities

Both of these gold rushes attracted miners from all around the world and in particular from Europe and China. The populations of these gold rush regions grew very quickly; 300,000 people arrived in California between 1848 and 1855, while Victoria’s population grew from about 80,000 in 1851 to 550,000 by 1861. Immigrants arrived by ship and then walked inland to the goldfields. These gold rushes also attracted ex-convicts from the British Empire’s penal settlements in Sydney and Hobart who had a reputation for causing trouble (but also became scapegoats when others caused trouble).

Sometimes goldrush immigrants worked closely with the local First Nations peoples to locate gold, food and water, while others were cruel and even violent towards the Aboriginal and Native American peoples of these two regions.

This wooden structure built over Sovereign Hill’s gold panning creek is called a flume. It diverts river water to where it is needed for mining work.

The same technologies were often used in both locations, including gold pans, cradles and flumes. The clothing the miners wore was also very similar from one place to another, as was the kind of imported food and medicine they typically used. The money that could be made from the trade of such goods often made business owners and merchants richer than the gold miners themselves in both ‘rushes’.

To protect the gold that was found on these goldfields, miners often carried guns and/or kept large dogs to protect their tents and huts (where they might store gold under their pillows or bury it under their beds). The site of a gold rush could be a dangerous place, and the police of the time faced a big challenge in maintaining law and order. This is why many miners took security into their own hands in California and Victoria.

Both of the governments responsible for overseeing these mining booms spent some of the wealth gold generated on building hospitals, schools and later train tracks and stations. However, most of the investment in services that cared for the sick and orphaned actually came from donations from wealthy individuals.

When the gold started to run out, new industries that were first promoted by mining helped to keep people from leaving both of these regions. Money made from gold was used to begin the industrialisation of both Victoria and California, supplying many jobs to those who had once been gold miners.  

Left image: William A. Jackson, Map of the mining district of California, 1850. Reproduced with permission from Public Library of America. Right image: J.B. Philp, Map of the Roads to all gold Mines in Victoria, 1853. Reproduced with permission from State Library of Victoria.

Possible Similarities

It is argued by some historians that both gold rushes were encouraged by the respective authorities for political and economic reasons.

The state now called California was part of Mexico until the start of 1848, at which time the USA took possession of it following the Mexican-American War. The USA immediately encouraged people to start mining there because the fast-growing goldrush population would help the USA keep a claim on this region long-term; Mexico was not able to reclaim it with so many new Californians ready to fight to keep their gold (and the land it was found in). This delivered the USA both political and economic advantages in the short and long-term.

During this time, the British Empire was similarly eager to make what is now called Victoria a more permanent settlement, and did not want or need to make another penal colony (as they had in Sydney, Hobart and Perth). To grow the population and to secure their control of South Eastern Australia (mainly to stop it being colonised by the French who were also keen on empire-building in the Southern Hemisphere), the British Empire would need to attract free-settlers (much like the USA aimed to in California).

Just prior to 1851, Victoria was called the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (NSW); it was part of the Colony of NSW and consisted mostly of large sheep farms owned by Europeans. When the Colony of Victoria was declared in 1851 (which meant it would have its own government and be separate from the Colony of NSW), Governor Charles La Trobe set up a Gold Discovery Committee offering a £200 reward for anyone finding gold as a way to stop the flow of people to the new NSW goldfields. When it was announced that gold could be found in Clunes (33kms north of Ballarat) and Buninyong (12kms south of Ballarat), miners were encouraged to join the ‘rush’ in Victoria. Gold had already been found by Europeans in many parts of South Eastern Australia by this time (and Aboriginal people had known about it for thousands of years), but it was only after 1851 that colonial governments allowed the news to spread and goldrush immigrants were welcomed in Australia.

Other political and economic reasons some historians believe Australia’s gold rushes (in Victoria and NSW) were promoted from 1851 onwards include:

  • wanted to grow Australia’s European population to make it a more permanent military outpost and ensure the whole continent of Australia stayed in British hands (having learnt a painful economic and political lesson when they lost control of their American colonies in the American Revolutionary War, 1775–1783).
  • The industrial cities of England (such as London, Manchester and Liverpool) had filled to the brim with people, which made living conditions dirty and dangerous. Therefore, Britain needed somewhere appealing to send British subjects to live to ‘ease the squeeze’ at home.
  • It was hoped that Australia’s gold rushes would help the British Empire pay back its significant international debts, which it easily did (with a fortune left over which helped to fund the industrialisation of Australia). This enabled the British Empire to remain the world superpower until the mid-20th century when the USA took its place (mainly due to the economic stress caused by the two World Wars).
  • The British Empire thought they should reverse the Australian population drain that occurred when the Californian gold rush began – many European Australians (and some Aboriginal Australians) left after 1848 which impacted businesses like farms and merchant ships. The gold rushes in Australia encouraged many of these people to return to help make money for the British Empire through goldmining and trade.

Differences

Community leaders in Australia during the 19th century mining boom tried to copy the best aspects of the Californian experience, and avoid its worst.

Victoria’s gold licences allowed miners to ‘stake a claim’ (secure a patch of ground) which was not a feature of California’s early gold rush; this stopped many fights from breaking out on the diggings. One of the reasons (pre-Eureka Rebellion) gold licences were so expensive was because Victoria’s government needed money to support the fast-growing population with publicly-funded police forces, hospitals, roads etc. The high cost of Victoria’s gold licences was also designed to keep Europeans already working in Australia in their jobs, but regardless, many workers on Australia’s farms, ports and in hotels and shops dropped their tools and uniforms and headed straight to the diggings when news of the ‘rush’ began. In some ways, the gold licences probably made Victoria’s goldfields a bit more organised than the early years of California’s, however, their price was one of the main reasons the Eureka Rebellion happened, during which more than 30 people died. It could be said that while the Victorian government avoided some of the goldrush issues experienced by California, they created others through the way they chose to manage the goldfields.   

The government wanted Australia’s gold rush communities to be much more polite and orderly than California’s, so along with supporting the population with roads, police etc. they also wanted to encourage women to come to the goldfields. Many Europeans at this time (such as social reformer Caroline Chisholm) believed women were a ‘civilising influence’  and could make goldfields safer and calmer. Victoria arguably did better at managing its new population in comparison to California in this respect. Interestingly, women on both goldfields had a level of social and economic freedom including being able to own businesses, which was not very common back in Europe at this time.

John Leech, Alarming Prospect: The Single Ladies off to the Diggings, Punch Pocket Book, 1853. Reproduced with permission from The Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

By exploring the way Victoria’s gold wealth was spent on new technologies and institutions the differences between the two gold rushes can be understood. While it took California nearly a decade to start spending its gold wealth strategically, Victoria got started straight away. By the mid-1850s, Melbourne had become one of the richest cities in the world thanks to gold. To prepare for the day the gold ran out, community leaders invested in what they thought would make Melbourne (and Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong, Ararat etc.) as beautiful and ‘cultured’ as the great cities of Europe (London, Paris, Rome etc.). This is why many communities in Victoria that were built during the gold rushes feature large, beautiful, neoclassical stone buildings.

As a result of this, the State Library of Victoria (started in 1854) was built featuring huge Greek columns around its front entrance. In the 1850s it was one of the first free libraries in the world, encouraging the people of Victoria to educate themselves, and in turn, the generations to come. The University of Melbourne (founded in 1853) was the second university to open in Australia (the first in Victoria) and is today ranked among the best higher learning institutions in the world. The Melbourne Observatory (started in 1861) was developed to promote scientific research, and by 1869 it was home to the largest fully steerable telescope in the world. All of these investments – along with the State Parliament, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne Museum (now the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere since it moved to its current location), General Post Office (in the Burke Street Mall – now home to a clothing store), and the Treasury Building – were created during this era to promote ‘high culture’ and keep new Australians in this country once with gold ran out.

Architect Joseph Reed, The Public Library, Melbourne, 1854. Reproduced with permission from Libraries Australia.

We can even thank the gold rushes and the wise investments the government made at this time for our sewerage pipes! California did not spend its gold wealth like this in the beginning, which caused many social and health problems for its residents.

While Victoria and California both had gold rushes, they were similar in some ways and different in others. Please add any other similarities and differences you learn about relating to these two ‘rushes’ in the comments below.

Links and References:

Australian historian Dr. Benjamin Mountford explores the similarities and difference between these two gold rushes: https://www.latrobe.edu.au/news/articles/2018/release/how-gold-rushes-helped-the-modernworld  and https://www.impact.acu.edu.au/community/turning-points-in-history—the-gold-rush

David Goodman’s “Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s” also explores both rushes https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Gold_Seeking.html?id=GIgjlWwOPHgC&redir_esc=y

Two brief histories of California’s gold rush: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-california/ and  https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/gold-rush-of-1849

The National Museum of Australia’s take on the gold rushes: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/gold-rushes

The history of Melbourne from the Melbourne Museum: https://museumsvictoria.com.au/longform/marvellous-melbourne/

Other Sovereign Hill Education blogposts related to this topic: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2015/10/22/why-do-i-have-to-learn-about-the-goldrush/ and https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2017/05/18/the-history-of-victoria/ and https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2016/07/28/goldrush-immigration-push-and-pull-factors/ and https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2018/09/14/how-when-why-the-industrial-revolution-in-australia/ and https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2019/03/25/environmental-changes-to-victorias-landscapes/

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