1849 The Rush That Never Started: Forgotten origins of the 1851 gold rushes in Victoria

06 May

1849 Blurb 5x8 Cover 006

Many people have the impression that the Victorian gold rushes not only began in mid-1851, but also occurred in response to discoveries earlier in that year near Bathurst, west of Sydney. Not so! The Victorian gold rushes of 1851 were a direct consequence of a largely forgotten gold discovery two years earlier in the Pyrenees Ranges of the Port Phillip District.
This is the story of how, in the summer of 1849, one shepherd and three ex-convicts started a gold rush involving hundreds of Melbourne residents. It is the story of how the shepherd disappeared leading to speculation about whether he was murdered or left the country with a fortune. It is the story of how one of the ex-convicts, a Frenchman, publicised the discovery, started a rush, and claimed a reward from Superintendent Charles La Trobe. La Trobe refused; the Frenchman went to California where he told his story; and Edward Hargraves returned to Australia and did exactly the same near Bathurst. It is the story of how another of the ex-convicts subsequently denied there was ever a gold field, but suddenly became very rich and, within three years, purchased no fewer than twelve Melbourne properties. These are the little people, forgotten by big histories.

Many histories have portrayed Charles La Trobe, the Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, as an indecisive and ineffective governor. Again—not so! This book explains how how La Trobe’s attitude towards gold exploitation prior to 1851 originated in his desire to advance the interests of Port Phillip as an independent colony, and how La Trobe discouraged gold mining until after Port Phillip’s separation from New South Wales to ensure the revenue would be expended solely for Victoria’s benefit. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the inequitable distribution of Port Phillip revenue by the New South Wales government in Sydney. This was one of the causes of ongoing competition, even antagonism, between Sydney and Melbourne that still exists today. To open a gold field while Port Phillip was still part of New South Wales would be to hand the benefits to Sydney.

This book demonstrates that the actions of those accredited with the 1851 gold discoveries, such as Edward Hargraves, were influenced by the actions of those involved in 1849 Pyrenees discovery, and shows how natural environmental events such as drought, flood and bush fires also played an influential role the discovery of gold both in 1849 and in 1851—it was no so much gold-mining that affected the environment, but environmental factors that actually facilitated gold discovery.
In particular this book challenges the explanations given by such eminent historians such as AGL Shaw and Geoffrey Blainey – hence the title that alludes to Blainey’s history of the Australian mining industry, The Rush That Never Ended.

Not only does this story provide a new insight into the origins of the Victorian gold rushes, but also provides a fascinating account of the lives of several key protagonists in the 1849 episode – Alexandre Duchene a Frenchman and a watchmaker; Charles Brentani, an Italian and an entrepreneurial businessman; and Joseph Forrester, a Scot and a silversmith. All were ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land And there was Thomas Chapman, the shepherd, and an ‘exile’ to Port Phillip. These were the little people—long forgotten in big histories. This is their story.

The narrative that forms the central part the book provides a more nuanced picture of the social, political and environmental connections linking the old pastoral society of 1849 Port Phillip to the emerging minerals based economy of Victoria after 1851 than has previously existed, and explains the circumstances of the Victorian gold discoveries of 1851 in ways that challenge many long-standing traditional explanations.

After reading 1849 The Rush That Never Started, Professor Geoffrey Blainey, author of The Rush That Never Ended, wrote the following in a letter:

‘Congratulations on “1849”. You are a talented researcher. You must continue at your craft.’

What the critics say:

Professor Emerita Susan Ballyn, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain: “…covers new and unexplored ground regarding the first discovery of gold in Australia and of the socio/politics of the time that left this event relatively unexplored and relegated to mere references even in the work of historians such as Blainey.” “How does one collate such a huge amount of material into a coherent narrative without the main thrust of the thesis becoming blurred, obscured and basically a mere compendium of facts. Wilkie has managed this extremely well by the rigorous way he has dealt with the material.” “Wilkie discusses to a degree the reliability of historical narrative, the uncertainties that appear and how they must be dealt with and he points out that “The process of determining the degree of possibility, probability and certainty surrounding some of the events described in the narrative required … not only inductive logic, but also a degree of historiographical intuition”. At this Wilkie is not only exceptionally good, but also extremely careful as to how far one can push both inductive logic and historiographical intuition. His narrative is free of over hypothesisation or substantiating facts which cannot be determined by the documents used. Wilkie ends by stating ‘…while acknowledging that further analysis and research may provide explanations that differ from mine, I believe the narrative that follows does provide a reasonably sound and complete mechanism for understanding the events and decisions of the period.’ This is undoubtedly the case as Wilkie does fill the historical gap regarding the 1849 discovery of gold in a very credible way. In terms of the originality of this thesis and Wilkie’s ability to engage both with the wealth of material to hand and the production of a clear, constrained narrative uncluttered by unnecessary theoretical jargon, there is no doubt in my mind that he has produced a very finely wrought thesis. One of the things that is important to me as a thesis examiner is that I should be on a learning curve while reading … In the case of Wilkie’s thesis, this has certainly been the case…”

Dr David Roberts, Senior Lecturer, University of New England, Armidale, NSW: “… engaging and satisfying … I found this work somewhat refreshing … it demonstrated an intimacy and depth of knowledge that was persuasive and sometimes compelling … allowed us to get beneath the skin of the people, and to see possible connections between a variety of episodes, many of which have certainly been underappreciated and misunderstood in existing literature.” I liked the manner in which it moved from the revealing of an obscure and unappreciated episode—an 1849 gold discovery in the Pyrenees Ranges—to a broader exposition of political and social circumstances shaping the Port Phillip district in the troubled years preceding its separation from New South Wales. [The author has succeeded] in presenting a vast accumulation of data in a manner that was coherent and convincing, with sufficient signposting of both story and argument, and that is an achievement not to be underestimated.”

Purchase this book:

1849: The Rush That Never Started (ISBN: 9781320625470) can be purchased through Blurb: 1849: The Rush That Never Started

1849: The Rush That Never Started (ISBN: 9781320575751) can also be purchased from Amazon USA; or Amazon UK; Wheelers (Aust); Readings (Aust); The Book Depository (UK); and other online retailers.


1849: The Rush That Never Started can be found in the following libraries:

Bailleau Library (The University of Melbourne)

State Library of Queensland

State Library of Victoria

 National Library of Australia

 Prahran Mechanics Institute Library

Click the cover image to preview the book:


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