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Migration and the gold rush

Charles Fahey
Email: c.fahey@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Australia became settled as a British colony in 1788, initially as a convict outpost. In later years, free settlers migrated to the shores and began the gradual push into country Australia. I'm Matt Smith and you're listening to La Trobe University podcast.

My guest today is Dr. Charles Fahey, a historian from La Trobe University and one of the authors of the book Gold Tailings. He discusses the migration into country Australia and how it was affected by the Gold rush.

Charles Fahey:

The first thing that's sort of drives people inland is of course the pastoral frontier. Places like Victoria were settled in the 1830's. First of all, as overlanders looking for ways from getting to New South Wales to South Australia, I think it was the drought of the 1830's, brought their have flocks of sheep and herds of cattle in overlanded from New South Wales to South Australia and discovered wonderful grazing land which had been created by generations of fire-stick farming.

So, from the 1830's and with the sort of rise of the industrial revolution in wool production in England, there's a market for wools. So pastoralists moved out of New South Wales they overstrait from Tasmania and push up into the Western District of Victoria up into the Northern Plains to pasture their sheep and cattle in those areas.

The first great inland movements as opposed to driven by the pastoral industry. In the first phase of migration into inland Victoria, you tend to get a fairly wealthy group to occupy pastoral estates. You needed a fair amount of capital because you had to be able to buy a flock of sheep. You have to be able to wait six to 12 months while the wool was growing then you have to dispatch it to Britain and again wait until you got your wool cheque.

What we tended to get is a sort of frontier made up largely of fairly well-to-do men who employ mainly male pastoral servants. They get sort of shepherds. So, there's no fence lines or anything like that so most of the stock is watched by shepherds. Places like Western Victoria, you had a head station and from the head station a squatter would go out and watch what these various shepherds were doing, supply them with food, make sure that they were looking after the sheep. And then, they would all come together I suppose at shearing times. So, what you get is a labour force basically made up of single men. Very few women in the countryside in the 1830's and 1840's.

Matt Smith:

With those sort of people that were going out there, they'd had to be very much self-sufficient wouldn't they? They have to be self-reliant. Would you get much community out there?

Charles Fahey:

You could imagine the sort of boring life, most boring life I supposed being a shepherd spending week after week watching sheep during the day.

Folding them into compounds during the evening. Being visited once a fortnight by the overseer or squatter, who provides you a few rations which would have been pretty nasty sort of rations. Basically just damper and mutton and meats and not much in a way of vegetables.

So it's a very lonely sort of life. I think that's one of the reasons why you get to a situation in Australia of the usual term of employment is probably from six months to a year. And you probably get paid at the end of that time. You might get a bit for sort of tobacco and things like that.

So the end of that time, having to live that sort of lonely life for a year you'd probably go to the nearest shanty and blow it on grog and have to go back into the routine again that's how you get I supposed the idea of sort the drunken bushman. They probably didn't drink much during the year but when he gets out of his contract, he spends most of his pay in...

Matt Smith:

Making up for lost time.

Charles Fahey:

Making up for lost time, getting to the nearest shanty you can. I think we have a great disadvantage on that industry is that the squatters basically don't want women and children because there's very little work for women and children to do. They're simply a liability.

Matt Smith:

Another mouth to feed.

Charles Fahey:

You have a mouth to feed. It's a strange frontier. It's sort of frontier made up of basically single men.

Matt Smith:

Now after that initial push in the 1830's, what happened after that? How did things start to develop from there?

Charles Fahey:

I think the Gold rushes are incredibly important for opening up inland Australia. I suppose the first Gold rushes are to New South Wales but they're very ephemeral affairs. It's really the central areas of Victoria if you take a line going from Ballarat across to Bendigo. That's sort of main area of the gold diggings.

What the gold diggings do is it increases massively the amount of migration coming into Victoria, but more importantly I think it pushes people inland and so you get the creation of the first great inland towns of Victoria.

Matt Smith:

So what sort of area where they moving into then? They just coming out and settling these areas, focused around where the gold was?

Charles Fahey:

I'm not sure, at this stage, we should be using the words settling. Camping in the initial stage. I mean, there's no ability for them initially to own land. The 1850's land is offered for sale at auction. But most people just take out what is called a miner's right, after the Eureka rebellion. That gives them the right to occupy a certain amount of area, put a residence on it so you get people occupying crown lands digging for gold.

Matt Smith:

Are you getting families at this point?

Charles Fahey:

That's the interesting thing. Traditional picture of the Gold rush is that you get a largely male population. A lot of our work for the book "Tailings" look at the patterns of migration. What we found is that say you might get two brothers coming out. They often come with their sister or you might get them coming off a cousin.

While men predominate, there is a very significant proportion of women coming out to the Goldfields in the 1850's. Say, I suppose about one in four of the population is women, a similar proportion is married. So there are beginnings of families. Common pattern might be for a sister to come with her husband and then her brothers just sort of join that party.

You get the sort of makings of family groups that way. I supposed the most important thing is that in the years after the mid 1850's, there is a tendency for men to call for their girlfriends, wives to join them and the government also sponsors migration to Victorian colonies and the other colonies. And you get a massive marriage rate by the end of the 1850's, nearly 1860's

For example, by the census of 1861 in Victoria, almost every woman who reaches the age of 40, 45 is married. Which is quite staggering if you say it compared to England at that time. This massive family formation occurring towards the end of 1850's and into the 1860's.

Matt Smith:

For a perspective of a Gold rush, was it worth that their money to be made out here?

Charles Fahey:

If you got here early, if you're lucky, you maybe made a couple of hundred pounds, which is more than you could make for several years working in England. Very few people made really big fortunes by the early 1860's. Most of that gold is working as cooperatives. So you get a few men coming to give it a try and sink the shafts.

Then you draw in extra capital from the local shareholders and you form companies. I would argue personally that by the early 1860's in a place like Ballarat, most of the gold is being dug by working miners. We're getting by the late 1850's, early 1860's significant migration from mining areas of England such as Cornwall.

Matt Smith:

With the Australian Gold rush then, it might not have been all that it was chalked up to be, but it was clearly enough for word about it to spread around the world. What effect did this have in building the population? How diverse were the people that were coming to regional Victoria then?

Charles Fahey:

Incredibly diverse. Let's look at this way, in the 1850 census I think Victoria has a population of about 70,000 and a sort of fairly large town Melbourne pastoral estates in the non sort of metropolitan areas. Now with the discovery of gold, there's a mass migration.

I think something like half a million people come in that ten years. If you think of that population probably multiply by a factor of five. I mean it's a huge sort of explosion of population.

Historians they've just sort of debated who were the people who come to the Goldfields. They tend to often come to self-funding. They pay their own way. For that reason, you tend to get people who are not poverty stricken from Europe. People who have skills, who have a bit of capital to finance their way out here.

My forbearers are the Irish. One of the great myths of the Irish is that they are fleeing the famine. In a case of Victoria, lots of them are coming self-funded. So they're not the most poverty stricken. And then when we look at the Scots and the Irish, a lot of those people are coming to Australia tend to have trades: blacksmiths, carpenters, masons. We're getting a fairly skilled group of migrants. If you think about places like Bendigo and Ballarat, they go from nothing in 1851 to sort of rather significant towns by the 1860's.

Matt Smith:

So you're getting the English, Irish, Scottish people coming out here in search for gold.

Charles Fahey:

And very significantly, we're getting Chinese people. If you were to wander around Bendigo in the mid-1850's and sort of going to the Goldfields, possibly every one in four diggers was a Chinese settler.

Matt Smith:

That's a lot.

Charles Fahey:

Yeah. It's a huge amount. Just looking at the Goldfields. For a brief moment in the mid-1850's the Chinese are very, very significant proportion of the populations at Goldfields.

Matt Smith:

Do all the different groups get on back then? How was the working atmosphere of a goldfield?

Charles Fahey:

These stories have often spoken about rights buckling in places like this against the Chinese. One of my students, Val Lovejoy has been looking at the Chinese in Bendigo.

There were attempts to sort of isolate to put the Chinese into protectorates but when you actually come to look at their day to day life, they often used to work side by side with the European people in times of crisis. If a sort of fault in a mine collapses, everybody sort of throw in their muscle to help people out.

There is a fair degree of intermingling. There are also significant numbers, not great in terms of proportions, but there are significant numbers of continental Europeans particularly Germans who come out in that period.

Matt Smith:

After the Gold rush, what was the next thing that factored in migration? You said that there was a big push from the government to get people out to regional areas later on?

Charles Fahey:

If you're looking us sort of moving into regional, I supposed one of the prime pushes for pushing people into rural areas would be a move from Victoria to South Australia. If you think the sort of geography of South Australia, there's a large parts of rural South Australia which have close proximity to waterways to the sea. So what we get in South Australia from the 1840's, we get people taking up rural and growing crop.

I oppose to first great wheat frontier is in South Australia in the 1840's and 1850's. Then I suppose it extends in Victoria. I mean, you imagine a guy whose come to Victoria hasn't had the ability to own land in England but comes to Victoria and finds a bit of gold and he wants to do something with it. So there's a push in the 1850's for people to buy a land. And then by the end of the 1850's, there's a push by people to force the government to sell crown land at what they consider cheap prices so people can settle in inland Australia.

Matt Smith:

And from that point on, you start getting the development of communities and towns really. You'd have towns established by then, wouldn't you?

Charles Fahey:

Yeah. If you look at modern Australia, if you compare say Victoria and South Australia and New South Wales, I think you will notice that there are a greater number of inland towns in Victoria. What initially creates those towns is the Gold rushes and then from those Gold rushes people start to farm the areas around those towns. And then push into more inland areas in the 1860's and 1870's.

Matt Smith:

You've put this together into a book that came out last year?

Charles Fahey:

Yeah. The book is called Gold Tailings. Its subtitle, Forgotten Histories of Family and Community in Central Victoria.

Matt Smith:

Tell me a bit about that book. What is the story that you are trying to tell in this?

Charles Fahey:

The story I've been trying to tell in the book is that gold was not just an ephemeral sort of thing. What came out the Gold rushes was the creation of towns, communities. We're trying to get away from the idea that gold was simply the domain of single men but the Goldfields were populated by women and children and that what we get is creation of family groups.

We get the creation of community. I mean, one of the most significant things about the Goldfields is you got Cornish migration coming from declining areas of England. Now, those Cornish people bring with them cultures. They bring the culture of Methodism. The church becomes a focus of for that area.

They also bring with them not just a sort of non-conformist religion, but they also bring an adherence to sort of self-help. So when a Cornishman moved to Bendigo, one of the first things you do would be go to local friendly society where he get medical benefits.

They also create trade unions to help out injured miners or to battle for better wages and conditions. I think the important thing is that gold is not just an ephemeral phenomenon that lasts for a couple of years. What these people are doing is attempting to create durable communities, communities in which they can bring up families, educate families.

For example, I think one of the most potent symbols of the Goldfields is that because there's all this crown land that could have gold in it, the government is reluctant to sell that land. So what the government does is they set up this system known as Miners Rights, miners residence areas. Right across the Goldfields, you can get very cheap land rented from the government I think something about five shillings a year on which you build your own house, almost owner-occupied house which is simply wasn't available to most people in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Creating communities we think is very important in those areas.

Matt Smith:

Well, that's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other you can send us an email at podcast.latrobe.adu.au. Dr. Charles Fahey, thank you for your time today.

Charles Fahey:

Thank you.

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