Victoria supplied most of the world’s gold production between 1852 and 1855. At the 1862 International Exhibition in London, an obelisk 13 metres high, covered in gold, represented the 800 tons of gold extracted from Victoria over the previous ten years:
The competitive spirit between colonies, particularly Victoria and New South Wales, was evident in the high degree of ‘showing off’, with colonial exhibits vying to create the greatest display. Victoria’s gilded obelisk […] became legendary in international exhibition circles. From 1851 to 1939, a continuous theme, designed to encourage immigrants and investment to the undeveloped colonies, was the promotion of Australia as a sunny, bountiful land of opportunity.
- Louise Douglas
Douglas, L, 2010 'All the World’s a Stage', The National Library magazine, National Library of Australia, Canberra, A.C.T.
Australia, once known primarily as a penal colony on the other side of the world, had become an almost mythical land where fortune awaited those willing to work. The Victorian fields had exceeded the output of the California Gold Rush and Melbourne had become a city of over 500,000 people.
In London, Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine Household Words would regularly publish letters from ‘colonials’ like John Pascoe Fawkner and columns of advice to those who were thinking about emigrating. Tales of miraculous finds, of diggers throwing nuggets on stage at the theatre were not fictional and they were reinforced by the gold arriving in English ports. Large nuggets would be exhibited to the public before being made into sovereigns at the London Mint. Two of Dickens’ own sons would emigrate to Australia in the 1860s; spurred on by the new opportunities that wealth had brought to the colony.
In Melbourne, the Botanic Gardens, the Royal Society and many grand public and commercial buildings all imitated their older English models. Victoria’s regional centres, always productive agriculturally, had become industrialised. Railways and deep lead mining required boilers, engines and pumps. These demanded steel and coal and the knowledge to repair and improve upon these systems.
By the time Mark Twain visited Australia in 1897, most of Australia’s gold was coming from company mines in Western Australia. But it is the stories of individual miners in towns like Stawell, Bendigo and Ballarat that still capture his attention:
Forty-five years ago the site now occupied by the City of Ballarat was a sylvan solitude as quiet as Eden and as lovely [...] A few days later the place was a hive - a town. The news of the strike spread everywhere in a sort of instantaneous way spread like a flash to the very ends of the earth. A celebrity so prompt and so universal has hardly been paralleled in history, perhaps.
- Mark Twain
Twain, M 1899 Following the equator: a journey around the world Harper, New York.
As Twain's words show, the gold rushes had focussed world attention on Victoria: 'It was as if the name BALLARAT had suddenly been written on the sky, where all the world could read it at once.'