Earth, Wind, Fire, Water – Gold!

Black Thursday StruttEarth, Wind, Fire, Water — Gold: Bushfires and the Origins of the Victorian Gold Rush

Douglas Wilkie

Originally published in History Australia, vol.10, no.2, August 2013


Many historians have noticed the coincidence of the 1851 Black Thursday fires in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (Victoria) with the beginning of the Victorian gold rush but a possible relationship between these events has not been investigated in any depth. This article will demonstrate that the gold rushes in Victoria occurred when they did in mid-1851, not simply as a reaction to gold discoveries at Bathurst, nor because of prevailing economic circumstances, but largely as the result of a sequence of events that occurred over the preceding two years. Foremost among these events was the combination of fire and flooding that occurred before the outbreak of the gold rush.


Come, see! … They are the four elements: fire, wind, water, and dust … and from them come gold and silver and copper and iron.

 Shim‛on ben Yohai – 2nd century C.E.[1]

The ‘discovery’ of gold in Victoria a few days after separation from New South Wales on 1 July 1851 has served as a convenient marker of the end of one era and the beginning of another. The habit of thinking about the Victorian colonial past in this manner, however, has unfortunately hindered our understanding of the origins of the Victorian gold rushes.[2] Many of the events of 1851 were, in fact, set in motion in 1849 and earlier. In particular, an almost forgotten gold discovery in Port Phillip in 1849 was inseparably linked to the never forgotten discoveries of 1851.

The connections between these events are complex and involve not only human, but also environmental factors. This article will briefly discuss the actions and decisions of a number of individuals between 1849 and 1851 — the Governor of New South Wales, Charles FitzRoy; the Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, Charles La Trobe; three ex-convict jewellers and silversmiths, Charles Brentani, Joseph Forrester and Alexandre Duchene; an exiled shepherd, Thomas Chapman; and the man who was later accredited with the first ‘official’ discovery of gold in Australia, Edward Hargraves.[3] But while these characters, and others, form the cast of the drama that played out following the 1849 gold discovery, the emphasis of this article is on the environmental setting in which that action took place — in particular that created by earth, wind, fire and water — and their influence in determining the nature and timing of the gold discoveries of 1849 and 1851.

Geoffrey Blainey has written of the ‘tyranny’ imposed by the vast distances encountered within and surrounding the Australian continent.[4] The distance from Melbourne to Sydney influenced government decision-making in Melbourne during the pre-1851 period when Port Phillip was still a reluctantly dependent outpost of New South Wales, and it was one of the reasons that Port Phillip residents so passionately wanted a separate and independent government. Blainey has also suggested physical distance and a sparse population as environmental and demographic factors influencing the discovery of minerals throughout Australia, but he indicated that ‘economic winds’ were ultimately more relevant in hastening or slowing minerals development.[5] Historians have debated Blainey’s arguments, but most investigation of the relationship between environment and gold has concentrated on the effects of gold mining rather than the origins of the rushes.[6]

There have been admirable studies of the impact of mining upon the environment; the environmental requirements of mining, such as water supply; and the impact of bush fires in general, in studies by Libby Robin, Stephen J Pyne, Donald Garden, Paul Collins and others.[7] Discussing the impact of mining on forests, Tom Griffiths notes that fires ‘opened up the forests, the rivers and outcrops of rock’ for prospectors after the initial gold rushes of 1851, and he speculates whether gold seekers might have started the devastating Black Thursday fires of February 1851.[8] Griffiths’ question possibly eludes a certain answer, but Emily O’Gorman adds that ‘[f]loods and droughts sometimes aided the quest for gold’, citing news reports of floods revealing gold deposits along the Turon River.[9] Leaving aside the observations of Griffiths and O’Gorman, the historiography has been mainly concerned with the impact of mining after the gold rushes began.[10]  This paper will by way of contrast explore in some detail the role of environmental events — in particular drought, flood and bush fires — in facilitating the initial discovery of gold in Port Phillip in 1849 and 1851.

Contemporary newspapers, letters and books not only give detail about what people were doing or saying, but also describe the environment in which they were doing it. On one hand Port Phillip became a popular destination for pastoralists and immigrants because of its climate and pastoral lands — hence the appellation Australia Felix — but on the other, it was also seen as a harsh environment by many colonists, who suffered frequent droughts, floods, and bushfires….

This is a short extract from the original paper. The full article can be downloaded from UniMelb Minerva, from Academia, or from Taylor & Francis.

[1] Raphael Patai The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1995, 162.

[2] See, for example, AGL Shaw, A History of the Port Phillip District, Carlton: Melbourne University Press 2003, 237; AGL Shaw ‘Separation and Federation’, Victorian Historical Journal, 68 ( 1), April 1997, 13.

[3] For a full discussion see Douglas Wilkie, The Rush That Never Started: Forgotten Origins of the Victorian Gold Rushes, PhD Thesis, The University of Melbourne 2011-2013.

[4] Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance, Melbourne: Sun Books 1966, 139.

[5] Ibid, 139; Geoffrey Blainey ‘A Theory of Mineral Discovery: Australia in the Nineteenth Century’, Economic History Review, New Series, 23 ( 2), August 1970, 298.

[6] For example, Barry McGowan ‘Environmental Effects of Alluvial Goldmining’ in Iain McCalman, Alexander Cook and Andrew Reeves, (eds) Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001.

[7] Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds) Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, Edinburgh: Keel University Press 1997; Libby Robin How a Continent Created a Nation, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press 2007 121; Stephen J Pyne The Still-Burning Bush, Melbourne: Scribe 2006, 33; Stephen J Pyne World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, Seattle: University of Washington Press 1997, 38; Stephen J Pyne Fire: A Brief History, Seattle: University of Washington Press 2001, 121; Don Garden Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific: An Environmental History, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO 2005, 77; Paul Collins Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia, Melbourne: Scribe 2009; Asa Wahlquist Thirsty Country: Options for Australia, Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2008, 105.

[8] Tom Griffiths Forests of Ash: An Environmental History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001, 62-73.

[9] Emily O’Gorman Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin, Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing 2012, 66. For fire exposing gold deposits, O’Gorman cites Griffiths, Forests of Ash, 63-4.

[10] In her research notes for Nothing But Gold, Robyn Annear mentions the Black Thursday fires of 1851 at the Loddon and Pyrenees and asks, ‘Instrumental in discovery of gold?’ but the question was not discussed in her book and was left unanswered: Robyn Annear, Research Notes for Nothing But Gold. Accessed 22 April 2012. Available from:

Download the full article from Academia here.

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