The impact of migration

The settlement at Port Phillip was less than twenty years old in 1851. With around 95,000 people, the colony was already considered a success and relied mainly on wool and wheat exports for its income. That this success had come at the expense of the lives and lifestyles of traditional owners of the land was only acknowledged by a few progressive thinkers.

With the discovery of gold in New South Wales in 1851, the new colony of Victoria lost many of its men to Bathurst. A reward was offered to the finder of gold within 200 miles (320 kilometres) of Melbourne. Within a few months Victoria had its own goldfields at Clunes and Warrandyte. These in turn attracted South Australia’s male workforce and Victoria would soon lure many from New South Wales.

Victorians were eager to know what those in England would think of their good luck. The news travelled only as fast as ships could carry it but six months later they were not disappointed by the English response:

Australia possesses that which is better than gold. It has every natural advantage to make it the seat of one of the most powerful empires that ever existed on the globe. But it has one great want — that of human arms.

- Illustrated London News, 22 May 1852

Illustrated London News, 22 May 1852.

The Illustrated London News ran from 1842 to 2003. It was popular with people of varying levels of literacy because of its woodcut prints. It was also the first paper in the world to publish colour supplements in 1855.

Campaigns to promote emigration had existed for decades with moderate success in attracting settlers. Suddenly the 3 month journey to the other side of the world began to look far more attractive. In some weeks, 3000 men and women would leave Liverpool bound for Port Phillip. In the two years between 1851 and 1853, Victoria added another 150,000 men and women to its population.

The different groups of people that headed to the fields can be seen as Australia's first experience of a multicultural society. The idea that all were equal in the pursuit of gold was a revolutionary thought for many:

As they dig shafts next to one another, their outward appearance does not signify their previous importance, worth or mental attainments. A colonel pulls up the earth for a sailor; a lawyer wields not a pen but a spade; a priest lends a match to a Negro's pipe; a doctor rests on the same heap of earth with a Chinaman; a man of letters carries a bag of earth; many a baron or count has a drink with a Hindu, and all of them hirsute, dusty and muddy, so that their own mothers would not be able to recognize them. Many a one would not, a short while before, bother to look at a fellow with whom he now works. Here we are all joined by a common designation: 'DIGGER'. Only various shades of skin colour and speech denote nationality and origin, but it is impossible to guess previous station in life or background...

- Seweryn Korzelinski

Korzelinski, S 1979, Memoirs of gold-digging in Australia; translated and edited by Stanley Robe; foreword and notes by Lloyd Robson University of Queensland Press, QLD.

Over the same period, the colony's export value rose sevenfold, and it was not uncommon for goods to be either unavailable or sold at ten times their 1851 price. The range of problems led Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe to remark in private: 'I would to God that not a grain had ever been found'. By 1858 there were over 500,000 people in Victoria.

Decorated kerchief showing a family travelling to the goldfields.
Detail from a printed kerchief showing emigrants leaving for Australia.
Humourous illustration produced on the long voyage from England to Australia.
Excerpt from a guidebook written for emigrants heading to the goldfields.