Disruptive impact & moral panic

Victoria’s rapid growth brought about a change in society that threatened the ideas of stability and order. Tensions between England and Russia that developed into the Crimean War inspired fears in the public of an invasion. George Rowe, a painter and signwriter at Bendigo captures this fear, but also a growing confidence in the colony:

As to any army coming to the goldfields, it must indeed be a larger one than any nation can conveniently send as we can muster 80 to 100,000 hardy fellows already armed with rifles and revolvers...There are in the banks of Melbourne several millions in gold but that can be removed into the bush in a few hours. It is a great bait, but they would find themselves in a neat trap.

- George Rowe

Rowe, G 1853 Correspondence March 17th 1853 Unpublished manuscript from the State Library of Victoria. MS 8185.

Other fears were more domestic. Gold mining was best suited to those who were physically fit. Builders and labourers could charge high prices for their skills. Those from the ‘lower classes’ and ex-convicts were gaining wealth that had previously only come to those higher in society's ranks. The effects of gold were clearest on the streets of Melbourne where diggers' weddings became known for their excesses of jewellery and champagne. Many contemporary accounts describe a society where every person seemed focussed only on material possessions.

Like so many other visitors, Antoine Fauchery saw the hundreds of empty ships in Port Phillip Bay, 'a forest of masts'. Most sailors deserted to seek gold, sometimes jumping overboard, sometimes even scuttling their ships. Captains had to increase wages tenfold to lure crews back to England.

In an atmosphere that provided so much temptation the colony’s police force and administration were quick to deal harshly with those who broke more serious rules. Public hangings were not new in Melbourne, but in 1853 there were more than a dozen men hanged, many of them bushrangers.

New arrivals were shocked by the prices and the attitudes of those who served them. Equipment and supplies were commonly up to ten times their previous value as shortages were made the most of by lucky merchants. La Trobe increased the wages for his public servants and the police force but good candidates were hard to find:

Thieves proper are a very active class of gentry here...we ourselves have had our mining boots and other boots and shoes stolen.  The mining boots are indispensable to us and cannot be replaced here at less than nine pounds per pair...the police here are supposed to consist largely of these very thieves. In fact, two policemen the other day were convicted of robbery.

- William Howitt

Howitt, W 1855, Land, labor and gold, or, Two years in Victoria: with visits to Sydney and Van Diemen's Land, Ticknor and Fields, Boston.

William Howitt coined the term 'diggerdom' (a portmanteau of 'digger' and 'freedom') to label the new way of life in Australia. He pointed out the waste of this 'new aristocracy’ and the butcher shop and garbage tip quality to Melbourne’s port and Yarra river:

The most revolting sights which I have seen here are the slaughterhouses [...] They are wooden buildings, with a fenced-in yard on one side, in which stand the poor wretched victims, amid mountains of the heads of their predecessors, from which a host of pigs are rending the flesh. On the other side, and half in the river, are equal heaps of entrails and garbage, which other swine are rending […] one of the most shocking and disgusting scenes that can be conceived [...] I have scarcely seen a tree under which do not lie the remains of bottles which have been dashed against it, as they have been emptied [...] The bottles, however, are passable, and only show a recklessness of expense; but the dead horses and bullocks are disgusting.

- William Howitt

Howitt, W 1855, Land, labor and gold, or, Two years in Victoria: with visits to Sydney and Van Diemen's Land, Ticknor and Fields, Boston.

The early years of the 1850s were a chaotic time in Victoria. Most were intent on making a fortune and leaving; some on making a fortune and spending it. The ordinary rules of society seemed to be suspended with the influx of all this new wealth.

Painting of a garish wedding thrown by a wealthy digger.
Government Gazette notice intended to prevent public servants leaving for the goldfields.
Newspaper column showing high wages offered during the gold rush.
Etching of rich diggers spending their money on alcohol.