Exodus and Panic: Melbourne’s reaction to the Bathurst gold discoveries of May 1851
Originally published as:
Douglas Wilkie, ‘Exodus and Panic: Melbourne’s reaction to the Bathurst gold discoveries of May 1851’, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 85, no. 2, December 2014, pp. 189-217.
When news of potentially rich goldfields near Bathurst, west of Sydney, reached Melbourne late in May 1851, there was a ‘migration of the population to New South Wales and … panic [was] created throughout the whole Colony’. At least, that is what a Victorian Legislative Council Select Committee reported in March 1854.[i] By contrast, in October 1851, just four months after the Bathurst news, Victoria’s Lieutenant Governor, Charles La Trobe believed that although the discoveries at Bathurst had ‘unsettled the public mind of the labouring classes … few comparatively of the labouring classes’ actually left Melbourne for Bathurst.[ii] La Trobe’s description of comparatively few leaving Melbourne, does not match the panic and exodus of the Committee’s report; yet historians have repeated the report’s sentiments and ignored La Trobe’s ever since.
This paper investigates the initial response of Melbourne, between late May and mid July 1851, to the news of the Bathurst gold discovery. News between Sydney and Melbourne was usually sent by the overland mail or on the regular steamer Shamrock. The time taken for despatches to arrive varied considerably, depending upon whether the mail was about to leave and unforseen delays along the way. An example of this uncertainty followed the publication of a vague report of gold near Molong in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 March 1851.[iii] Apart from this unconfirmed gold news, the Sydney correspondent for the Argus had several other reports to send back to Melbourne, the most important concerning a debate in the Legislative Council about the imminent creation of the colony of Victoria. The correspondent had the choice of sending the urgent report either by the overland mail, or by the steamer Shamrock, both of which were due to leave Sydney on 1 April. He decided that, ‘The overland mail and the mail by the Shamrock, close about the same hour to-day, and as it is uncertain which will reach Melbourne first, I think it necessary to send you duplicate communications.’ The overland mail reached Melbourne in time for the Legislative Council report to be published on Tuesday 8 April.[iv] The gold report, which he considered of lesser importance, was sent by the Shamrock which arrived on Wednesday 9 April, and was published on 11 April.[v] The correspondent dismissed the Molong gold as simply as ‘another gold mine’ and wondered why ‘nothing seems to come of these wonderful discoveries’.[vi] The gold report appears to have created no discernible reaction in Melbourne; the report of impending separation from New South Wales was of much greater interest…
[i] ‘Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Claims for the Discovery of Gold in Victoria, together with the Proceeding of Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix, 10 March 1854’, Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council during the Session 1853–1854, vol. iii, Melbourne, 1854, pp. 4, 10–12; Hereafter ‘1854 Select Committee’.
[ii] La Trobe to Grey, 10 October 1851, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (HCPP), 1852 (1430) (1508).
[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1851, p. 6.
[iv] Argus, 8 April 1851, p. 2.
[v] Argus, 10 April 1851, p. 2.
[vi] Argus, 11 April 1851, p. 2.