Category Archives: Goldrush History

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:



Duchene / Hargraves


ALEXANDRE JULIEN DUCHENE was not even four years into a fourteen year sentence in Van Diemen’s Land in 1840 when Major D’Arcy Wentworth, the Police Magistrate at Launceston, described him as ‘a man of most exemplary conduct’.

Edward Hammond Hargraves, was less than two years into enjoying his claim to have started the Australian gold rushes, when, in 1852 D’Arcy Wentworth’s brother, W C Wentworth, a member of the New South Wales Parliament, described Hargaves as an ‘imposter’ in support of George McLeay’s opinion that Hargraves was ’a shallow and impudent pretender’.

After conducting a highly successful business in Launceston, Duchene moved to Melbourne in 1848 and became involved in the discovery of a rich goldfield in the Pyrenees Ranges, about three days west of Melbourne, but he decided not to dig for the gold. Instead, he publicized the discovery in the press, gave detailed directions to gold seekers, and applied to the government for a reward and appointment as Goldfields Commissioner. Port Phillip Superintendent Charles La Trobe quickly acted to disperse the gold rush and later consulted with Governor Charles Fitz Roy, who refused Duchene his reward and commission, but secretly asked London to send a qualified minerals surveyor to ascertain the truth of such reports, not only at the Pyrenees, but also closer to Sydney.

Rejected by the government, Duchene sailed for California in April 1849 and was soon followed by Edward Hargraves, who was desperately looking for an easy way of making money—something that had eluded him for years. Coincidentally Hargraves visited the Californian Goldfields at the same time as Duchene, and met people who willingly shared their knowledge, and secrets. On the goldfields Duchene willingly shared how he found gold ‘three or four days journey from Sydney’ (most Americans had never heard of Melbourne) and had unsuccessfully sought a reward and government appointment. By remarkable coincidence, or perhaps not, Edward Hargraves now decided he would return to Australia where he would not only look for gold west of Sydney, but also ask for a reward and government appointment.

In January 1851 Hargraves travelled three or four days from Sydney, and with the help of others, found widespread indications of gold. Like Duchene, he decided not to dig for the gold himself, but publicized the discovery in the press, and gave detailed directions to gold seekers. Like Duchene, he also applied to the government a reward and appointment as Goldfields Commissioner.

Instead of immediately acting to protect the gold field, as La Trobe had done in 1849, Fitz Roy consulted with his newly-arrived surveyor, but by then was too late to disperse the rush instigated by Hargraves. Nothing could be done but allow the goldfield to be exploited. Within months the value of the goldfield originally reported at the Pyrenees by Duchene was also confirmed. In the end, Hargraves’s wish was granted; Duchene’s was not.

This book looks at the lives of Duchene and Hargraves, lived entirely separately, until they both arrived in San Francisco towards the end of 1849. It also looks at the reasons that Duchene was considered ‘a man of most exemplary conduct’, while Hargraves was dismissed by many as an impostor and impudent pretender. Importantly, this book also raises the question of whether Hargraves developed his plan to look for gold west of Sydney only after hearing about Duchene’s earlier quest.

Reviews of Duchene/Hargraves

Reviewed by Babette Smith, OAM, Adjunct Lecturer in History, University of New England; author of Australia’s Birthstain; A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson & the Convicts of the Princess Royal; and The Luck of the Irish.

“Was Edward Hammond Hargraves, known to Australians as ‘the discoverer of gold’ in fact pre-empted by an ex-convict Frenchman named Alexandre Duchene? Douglas Wilkie’s research demonstrates he was. In a fascinating untangling of fact from fiction he deconstructs Hargraves claims and character by tracking him from his first decade as a free settler during the forties in New South Wales, through his time on the Californian goldfields and the familiar story of his return and the subsequent gold rush

“Far from noting geological features in California that were similar to Bathurst, as he later wrote, Hargraves almost certainly heard Alexandre Duchene’s story of his 1849 discovery and his rejection by the authorities in Victoria when both men were on the same goldfield in California. … Duchene’s find in Victoria started a ‘rush’ which was quickly squashed by Lieutenant Governor La Trobe. The Frenchman received no reward and his application for appointment as Gold Commissioner was rejected. A year later, Hargraves by comparison triggered an unstoppable ‘rush’ and gained credit as well as reward for his ‘discovery’. No small factor in his success was how he ensured that the rush started on a grand scale before he negotiated with the authorities.

“This is no simple story however.  The detail Wilkie has uncovered reveals a complex situation in which politics, economics, greed and self-aggrandisment all played their part. Politically the separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales (1850) was a factor of local significance. London on the other hand was concerned that nothing should disrupt the profitable wool trade. At a personal level, achieving stability, let alone making a fortune, was a precarious business for free settlers in New South Wales who had arrived since the penal colony ended. Wilkie vividly portrays their interrelated land speculation, business opportunism, profits and bankruptcies, particularly on the Central Coast where Edward Hargraves was active.

“Duchene, Hargraves and their claims about gold form a picaresque narrative of people surviving on their wits. Infused with Wilkie’s humour and founded on deep scholarly research, it is a treasure trove of detail. For the specialist like this reviewer, every morsel of information is relished and potentially valuable. For instance, Wilkie’s examination of European settlement on the Central Coast not only casts light on the tenor of Australian society in the forties, it also provides useful context for understanding early land speculation in New Zealand.

“Mark Twain described Australian history as ‘full of lies’. Unfortunately we didn’t deconstruct the lies early enough.  For too long we accepted a conformist pioneer story that emphasised exploration, ‘tame’ Aborigines, valiant European battles against an unfriendly wilderness and a parade of hollow heroes. Historians detected the lack of authenticity but could not explain it. Douglas Wilkie has researched deeply enough to expose a version around the discovery of gold that is both factual and more colourful than the superficial respectability previously offered.”

Duchene/Hargraves has also been reviewed by Babette Smith in The Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 18, Jul 2016, pp. 229-230

Reviewed by  Dr Julie Kimber, Senior lecturer in History and Politics, Swinburne University; Co-editor, Journal of Australian Studies

“Douglas Wilkie’s book is an intricate portrait of the parallel lives of two men who would play a significant role in the gold rushes on the east coast of Australia: Alexandre Julien Duchene, unheralded and largely unknown; and Edward Hammond Hargraves, a controversial figure, whose name remains etched in the school books of the nation. In tracing their lives, Wilkie delivers to us a vast portrait of the European personalities who populated the early colonies of eastern Australia, among them prostitutes and politicians, petty villains and political prisoners.

Wilkie begins by unpicking long accepted elements of Hargraves’ biography—laying bare, in minute detail, contradictions in his story and offering up alternatives to its distortions. In doing so we see Hargraves as both fabulist and opportunist, a man on the make intent on leaving his mark. The story moves to Duchene, a Frenchman transported to the colonies, and documents his attempts first to be reunited with his wife, and second, to make his fortune.

Through dogged archival research, Wilkie broadens his focus and by examining the connections between these two otherwise unconnected men we can discern the complicated lives of early settlers, the vagaries and misfortunes, and the opportunities of dubious integrity offered up by the colonial project.

This is a story of how ordinary lives shape a society and how differing political realities shape the fortunes of ordinary lives. It is a fascinating story for a number of reasons, not least because of where this takes the reader: its geographical scope extends from the streets and court rooms of Britain, to the colonies of Australia and New Zealand, and to the gold rushes in North America.

Duchene/Hargraves is a story rich in intrigue and innuendo, the inevitable consequence of the ‘narrow habitations’ of the European colonies of Australia. It is brought to life by Wilkie’s historical imagination and his prodigious research. And, because of its intimate lens and expansive nature, it will be of great interest to those curious about the east coast’s transition from convict to “free” society.”

Reviewed by Beth D Kicinski, Content and Design Manager, Ballarat and District Industrial Heritage Project (Federation University Australia)

Duchene/Hargraves is a true readers’ book. And not just any old readers, but those who seek to lose themselves in the dark corners of intrigue. This is not the typical dry history of the genesis of Australia’s industrial heritage, but an absorbing “Who Dunnit?” styled unfolding of the past. What is revealed is an ensemble cast whose lives intersect in the most remarkable of ways to create a complex narrative of hope and disillusionment. Like all truly memorable crime thrillers Duchene/Hargraves resolves the central storyline through carefully constructed reveals, but happily leaves several incidental moments of the story unresolved. The reader is left with possibilities of more.

“This book is a firm move away from histories of the first and the greatest to stories of people who were just doing what people do. In Alexandre Duchene we see the way in which “the other” has become an integral part of us; and the sensitive re-presentation of the recognisable figure of Edward Hargraves subtly interrogates the role of such diabolical heroes in the Australian identity.

“Douglas Wilkie’s dedication to researching with carefully balanced heart and mind these two important figures in Australia’s nineteenth century history is obvious throughout Duchene/Hargraves. He cross-examines the evidence with the thoughtfulness of a well-tried barrister. He self-consciously pushes at, but never breaks, the boundaries of believability. And his rich use of carefully-referenced factual information makes this a proper go-to resource that will sit proudly in any library.”

Reviewed by Derek Abbott: ‘Discovering the discovery of gold’ (review of Wilkie), Honest History, 3 April 2017 .

“Douglas Wilkie sets out to do a number of things in this book. Foremost, he wishes to set the record straight on the type of man that Hargraves was and, by implication, to chastise earlier writers who had merely repeated the work of their predecessors without attempting to verify the sources on which they relied. The author also tells the story of Alexandre Duchene, a transported convict made good who, by Wilkie’s telling, has a better claim than Hargraves to be the first ‘discoverer’ of gold. In pursuing these objectives Wilkie seeks ‘to give substance to the names of people whose paths crossed those of Duchene and Hargraves’. Underpinning all of this is an immense amount of archival research in government papers, court documents, shipping manifests, newspapers and journals, as the author tries to nail down his characters and the events of their lives. The voluminous footnotes attest to the effort. …

… Wilkie provides plenty of contemporary comment to demonstrate that Hargraves was widely disliked; he was greedy, rude, presumptuous and lacking in the practical knowledge to actually discover gold for himself. Wilkie’s detailed research certainly achieves his principal objective of providing as detailed a description of Hargraves’ life and character as we are likely to get. …

Wilkie has ensured, … that future writers on this period will have no excuse for regurgitating the familiar Hargraves story.”


Prologue  4

The Story   4

Maps & Illustrations  13

Part One

Edward Hammond Hargraves  26

The Arrival 29

The Wave & The Enchantress  32

William Northwood   36

The Clémentine  37

The Red Rover  45

Captain Thomas Hector  49

The Arrival of the Canton   56

Part Two

Four Fashionable Foreigners  62

59 Yards of Lavender Silk   63

Qui moi?  65

The Chère Amie of a Noble Lord   69

Ernest de Mircourt  72

The Trial 73

The Appeal 76

The Journey of the Henry Porcher  77

Justice In England   78

The Concerns of Brutus  80

The Mysterious Madame Victoire  84

Part Three

Connections  88

Parramatta  97

Dapto Creek   100

Alfred Holden   103

Launceston   104

Speculators & Private Towns  105

Toongabbie  108

Brisbane Water  110

Eliza’s Dowry?  113

The Hay Smith Family   114

New Zealand   120

The Treaty of Waitangi 129

Part Four

A Man of Most Exemplary Conduct  137

The Abercrombie  148

East Gosford   151

Financing the store  156

Dissatisfaction sets in   161

Desperate Measures  167

The Elusive Fox   168

Moveable Hotels  175

Part Five

A Foreigner of Great Respect  182

Court Appearances  188

John Lewis Crabb   190

Hanged, drawn and quartered   202

Charles Brentani 206

Part Six

Hard Times  211

Simpson Davison   215

Selling the Store  215

Robin Hood & Little John   218

New Zealand Again?  218

John Mackie Departs  220

Real Estate  220

Dr Ludwig Leichardt  222

Part Seven

Thomas Chapman   229

Cattle, Land & Timber  232

Selling the Store – Again! 235

My Cattle Station on the Manning  238

J F B Marshall 240

Robert Searle  243

Douglass vs. Horsburgh   247

William Bucknell 250

Edward Gostwyck Cory   251

Susannah Freshney   256

Fat Cattle  259

Getting Rich Without Working  261

Port Phillip   264

Part Eight

California  274

The Death Ship   276

The Elizabeth Archer  278

San Francisco  282

Three or Four Days Journey   283

Marysville  290

Let no man leave his wife. 292

Grass Valley   294

Hargraves Announces His Plan   296

The Boy in the Dog Star  302

Surveyor Stutchbury Arrives  306

Part Nine

Three or Four Days from Sydney   309

James Norton’s letter  313

William Northwood   316

Enoch Rudder  317

Bathurst  319

William Northwood’s Fortune  344

The Coarse & Tasteless Mr Hargraves  348

Part Ten

The End of an Earthly Career  358

Gentlemanly Characters  361

Sources & Annotations  369

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Duchene/Hargraves (ISBN: 9781366781116) can be purchased here for $25 AU plus postage.

Duchene/Hargraves (ISBN: 9781367097360) (both editions are identical) is also available through major online retailers such as Book Depository, Booktopia, Wheelers, Barnes & Noble, Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US) – but compare the variation in prices first.


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Exodus and Panic

S T Gill, Successful diggers on way from Bendigo, Ballarat Gold Museum Collection

S T Gill, Successful diggers on way from Bendigo, Ballarat Gold Museum Collection

Exodus and Panic: Melbourne’s reaction to the Bathurst gold discoveries of May 1851

Commendation1This article was shortlisted for the “Best Peer Reviewed History Article” in the 2015 Victorian Community History Awards.

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…

This is an extract from the full article which can be downloaded from Unimelb Minerva or  Academia.

[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.


Ten Thousand Fathoms Deep

S. T. Gill, Forest Creek (Castlemaine, Victoria) 1852

S. T. Gill, Forest Creek (Castlemaine, Victoria) 1852

Eighteen fifty-one was the year in which Port Phillip was separated from New South Wales and became Victoria. It was also the year in which the great Victorian gold rushes started. Many historians, and even a greater number of non-historians, believe these two events occurred within weeks of each other simply by coincidence. However, the origins of many of the events and decisions of 1851 can be found in events that took place over the preceding two or three years.
In particular, this article discusses the extent to which Charles La Trobe’s response to a largely forgotten 1849 gold discovery in the Pyrenees Ranges of the Port Phillip District may have been influenced by Port Phillip’s anticipated separation from New South Wales, and the inequitable financial arrangements that existed between Sydney and Melbourne.

Originally published as – Douglas Wilkie, ‘Ten Thousand Fathoms Deep: Charles Joseph La Trobe’s decision to postpone gold exploitation in the Port Phillip District until after separation from New South Wales in 1851’, La Trobeana, The Journal of the C. J. La Trobe Society, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2015, pp. 6-14.

Download the full article.


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

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

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