If there was one thing destined to end the era of convict transportation to Australia, it was the discovery of golden mineral wealth in a land which for so long had been the dumping ground of Great Britain’s most unwilling form of immigrants. Strictly speaking, the Port Phillip District was never a penal colony, but convicts did make their way there assigned to various work parties, or while holding tickets of leave in other colonies. With the discovery of gold in Australia however, the irony in sending felons to a foreign el Dorado of the south was not lost on the authorities when it seemed that half the world was quite literally falling over itself to get there in a mad “rush to be rich”.
The existence of gold in the Port Phillip District had long been something of an open secret, the facts seemingly supressed by a government fearful of the possible social dislocation of an Australian gold rush. Although it’s not widely recognized now, some of these very first rumours of gold in Victoria occurred in the Plenty Ranges and on the tributaries of the upper reaches of the Plenty River itself. One such story at the start of the 1840s involved an eccentric bushman called John or Jemmy Gomm (“Old Gum”) who was supposed to have lived in a hollow tree on the Upper Plenty on the slopes of Mt Disappointment, secretly prospecting for gold but telling people all along he was hunting for lyrebirds. Old Gum had arrived at Port Phillip in 1835 as one of John Pascoe Fawkner’s servants aboard the schooner “Enterprize” but had “gone bush”. A Plenty River pastoralist, George Urquart, writing much later to “The Brisbane Courier” newspaper in 1882 described meeting Gomm, seeing his gold specimens and the situation of his Plenty Ranges bush camp:
“He had a nice garden, which was well-stocked with a variety of vegetables, and a beautiful stream of water running through the centre of it. His habitation was an old fallen gum tree, which in its fallen state was fully 70ft in circumference. A shell of the stump stood forming the back of ‘Gum’s’ fireplace; the short space between the fallen trunk and the remains standing upright had been covered in with bark, the burnt portion of the tree cleared out with his adze; and he had in the tree a kitchen, a storeroom where he manipulated his gold, and a bedroom. He handed me a small nugget of gold, which I took, beat very thin, and sent to an elder brother in Sydney, who, when acknowledging his receipt, replied telling me, “to mind my cattle and not think of gold-gathering”. ‘Gum’ was a quiet, inoffensive man. He told me he came from Van Diemen’s Land, and appeared very thankful that I allowed my manager to supply him with rations.”
Occasionally “Old Gum” travelled down to Melbourne to dispose of gold, exchanging it for rations, before heading back into the bush. The idea of some whimsical old soul living secretly in the bush and unearthing mineral riches at random quite caught the public imagination at the time and in 1842 the police magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale, despatched troopers to find old man Gomm. They eventually found his camp but Gomm had gone. The bird had flown his proverbial coop in the face of authority, leaving his camp deserted with “crucibles and old bellows, but no gold.”
The first real rush in Australia occurred about a decade later at the Turon field near Sofala in New South Wales in June, 1851, just prior to the official separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales on the 1st July. After Separation the new Victorian government looked for their own gold strike to stem the exodus north and announced a reward of £200 for the first person to find a payable deposit within easy reach of Melbourne. The so called Plenty River “gold” rush actually coincided with the rush to the Turon but would prove to be a Furphy since the actual gold found on the Plenty would turn out to be comparatively very slight, if not altogether non-existent. At any rate, the story of Plenty River gold was perhaps more a reflection of the desire of local business interests in Melbourne to find gold in Victoria, but not so very far away from the town that it would cause a whole scale exodus to the far flung reaches of the interior. In the resulting excitement, stories of gold in the vicinity of Melbourne abounded and there were even reports of Melbourne streets being dug up, in spite of laws specifically forbidding such activities. It seems that people were finding gold everywhere.
“When first we left old England’s shore
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold”
The short lived rush to the Plenty region itself seems to have taken place after a certain Thomas Hewitt made the following claims about gold in the Plenty Ranges in what was nevertheless a pretty percipient letter to “The Argus” newspaper which published it on 30 May, 1851:
“…I can assure you that I myself have seen two men who have been up in our ranges, and showed me a parcel of gold dust; as far as I could judge, of a very good quality; and they told me that they had been up in the ranges for two months, and had done very well on their trip. I have had some little experience in geology, and think that it is most likely that gold may be found in some quantities in the Plenty Ranges, the dip of the rock being exactly like those of the California region; but I hope for the good of the country that no such diggings may be made in our part, as through false representation an idle and worthless population might be drawn to the locality, it might at the same time delude many of our steady worthy labourers, who might thrive at the rate of about ten in a hundred. Hoping that this may not be the case, I am, Sir, yours truly, Thomas Hewitt, River Plenty, May 26th, 1851.”
News of gold on the Plenty and in such close proximity to Melbourne resulted in great excitement. “The Argus” carried almost daily reports on the developments and on June 9 reported:
“The gold on the Plenty still continues the main staple of conversation; it is alike talked of by the merchant and labourer… Several samples of so-called Plenty gold are now shown in town and there are reports on all sides of lucky individuals who have found wealth all in a moment…”
About 300 people were scattered over the Plenty Ranges, washing for gold in the creeks and minor tributaries. With fears of the fields descending into a haunt for the “Dangerous Dan McGrew” stereotype of later poetical fiction, a party of mounted troopers was sent out from Melbourne to keep order, it being reported that there were those in the Ranges “who would steal the nose off one’s face,” (ibid). The report was illustrated by the story of one man who found £17 18s 3d of gold dust only to have £18 worth of goods stolen from his unattended cart while he panned.
The news of gold on the Plenty spread quickly to the other Australian colonies and an article in “The Courier” newspaper of Hobart on June 18 speculated that the Plenty ranges were “a continuation of the Bathurst ranges, where gold is now being found in large quantities…”
As stories of real and richer finds in other parts of the colony soon began to overrun the imaginary Plenty River riches, the story should have died a quiet natural. However Henry Frencham gave it a new lease of life on June 14 when, working as a reporter for the “Port Phillip Gazette”, he claimed to have made his own discovery of gold in the Plenty region. An assay of his specimens revealed no gold but then Henry Frencham also claimed to have found gold at the western end of Bourke Street, Melbourne and would later claim to have also been responsible for the first discovery of gold on the rich Bendigo gold fields. Frencham’s claims might have been questionable but his reports made good copy for the newspapers all the same. One Argus report described Frencham as being “a respectable man, who can have no object in deceiving the public; and although his supposed discovery at the Plenty turned out a mistake, no one doubted his own firm believe in the genuineness of the article discovered.” As the author of this piece was probably Frencham himself, working in his capacity as a reporter, it can only be imagined what the deceived public really thought but interestingly Frencham’s site in the Plenty ranges near what would become Queenstown (St Andrews) would later be worked very successfully as the Caledonia gold field.
The 1850s were a pivotal decade in Victoria’s colonial history and Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge found himself in this mix right at the start. He departed England for the Australian colonies as an intermediate passenger on board the SS Northumberland in 1851, just before news of the first Australian gold strikes were received in England. Arriving at Port Phillip with £25 in his pocket to an economic climate defined by gold discoveries, rumoured discoveries and colonial separation, the 21 year old Thomas Wragge showed no inclination to join the overwhelming exodus to the new Victorian gold fields. The young, ex-Nottinghamshire farmer carried a letter of introduction written by familial connections of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell and had his own ideas about how to go about finding riches in Victoria.
“Thomas and his family would not have heard of the Australian discoveries before he departed, but land and pastoral activities seem to have been his primary concerns… The great influx of gold-seeking immigrants had resulted in soaring prices for meat, and keen demand for agricultural produce.” (Calder: “Class the Wool and Counting the Bales).
The years of the Victorian gold rushes saw a great increase in the worth of agricultural produce in the new colony. For instance, hay which had previously sold for 35s a tonne sold in Melbourne in 1852 for £50. Wheat rose from 2s 8d a bushel to 12s and locally, Michael Butler of Greensborough is recorded as receiving up to £155 per tonne for carting flour to the Bendigo fields. The prices paid for beef and bullocks rose even more.
It is unknown today whether Wragge worked immediately on arrival for John and Robert Bakewell at Yallambee, or at any time thereafter between 1851 and 1854 at which later date he is known to have been on the estate. However, the Bakewells had pastoral interests in other Victorian properties and if Thomas was not at Yallambee he may have been working for them at one of these, possibly at Western Port or on the Campaspe.
Although the only gold found on the Plenty River had by then been proved to be the stuff of fools it seems that there was still enough interest locally for a couple of potential “mines” being attempted at Yallambie. In the additional notes to Winty Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” she mentions a mine shaft that was sunk next to the river close to the location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and another sort of “strike” made in the vicinity of the site of William Greig’s old farm, below present day Allima Avenue.
“There was once a mine shaft on Yallambie, over near the pub. There was also another sort of strike just behind the chooks (i.e. N of the house) – Picol Paddock. The other was at Barn Hill (river paddock).” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, notes).
In spite of these rumoured mines, it seems pretty clear now that nothing was ever found. However, Yallambee at Heidelberg would prove to be fortunately located close to the roads leading to several diggings. A way side inn was established on the Plenty River at the end of present day Martins Lane to capture the goldfields traffic heading to the Caledonia field through Eltham and Wragge, as the Bakewells’ tenant at Yallambee, would find himself well placed to cater to this market.
“Little hostelries sprang up to offer refreshment to the digger at intervals along the way, and a river crossing settlement emerged at Lower Plenty, where a slab hut was built at the ford near Martins Lane.” (Edwards: The Diamond Valley Story, p40).
William Howitt was ostensibly looking for gold when he was in the colony in 1852 and visited his brother Godfrey’s, brothers in law at Yallambee. In the event, Howitt didn’t find much in the two years he spent on the gold fields but his experiences as described in his monumental work “Land Labour and Gold,” are recognized today as an historically important primary document of life in gold rush era Victoria and include William’s description of the Bakewells’ Yallambee, (quoted previously in these pages).
In another primary account with a local interest from that time, Rebecca Greaves wrote a letter to an uncle in England at the end of 1851 from her parents’ farm in Greensborough, just upriver from Yallambee, and giving her own impressions of the early stages of the Victorian gold rushes at a time when it was still considered “that the Plenty all along abounds in gold”:
“…I read an account that a gentleman I know in Melbourne had the first shovel full found a piece of solid gold the size of a duck’s egg whereas there other gents that were with him only found 2 or three grains and Doctor Barker one of the party did not find any at all so it is all chance. I have seen some of it in the stone it is found in is exactly the same as the marble on our land in fact it is thought that the Plenty all along abounds in gold it is on the Plenty one of the places they are finding so much they are finding it in many parts of the country it is thought that Victoria abounds in Gold, “now what do you think of our emigrating to this gold region?” Everyone has left town to go to the diggings there is not a man or boy to be seen in town even the gents at the Bank are “off to the diggings” such an uproar never was known in the colony before not a ship can leave the bay for as soon as the ships get in port the sailors away to the Gold mines go where you will you cannot see a man unless it is an old man like my Father the papers are full of shops to let on account of the owners going to the “diggings” they are exactly the same plight at Sydney they are finding Gold all over the country; it seems to have raised some of the poor faint hearted English cakes now they have heard of Gold being found in quantities in Victoria they can raise courage enough to come out by ship loads but even now I would not persuade anyone to come all I can say is that the farewells of large families are complete soft cakes to remain in England when once they hear of a country that anyone must do work in if I were only a young man would not I go gold digging and even now I feel half inclined to dress in man’s clothes and go I am certain if I could not dig I could rock the cradle only I should be afraid they would know I was not a man as I should not like to part with my curls for that you know Uncle would spoil my beauty would it not and that certainly would be a great pity…” (Extract from a letter written by 23 year old Rebecca Sarah Greaves at Greensborough, dated 25 November, 1851).
In spite of the hopes of men like Frencham and the beliefs of Rebecca Greaves, the Plenty River never really got going as gold country although Victoria as a whole would for a while prove to have some of the richest fields the world has ever known. Although Wragge didn’t try his luck on these goldfields he did eventually find gold of another kind, in the form of fleece from the sheep’s back and he died a wealthy man. By the time he pulled up stumps at Yallambie in 1910, the £25 capital he carried with him on arrival had increased to more than £400,000.
Those golden days are long ended although today the signs of those times can still be seen in the occasional abandoned mullock heaps of the bush and in the presence of grand, gold rush era, inland towns. My father, a Ballarat boy born and bred, was known to point knowingly at times towards the horizon when visiting that town saying, “There’s more gold in those hills than ever came out of them.” He was speaking maybe from family experience since legend has it that, before the war, his family were supposed to have kept a large suede bag full of gold dust and quartz. “It was from the old days when your great grandfather was a miner and it was kept over for a time of need.” His childhood was marked by the years of the Great Depression and by end of the War, that bag and its contents were most definitely gone.
As a kid I used to go bushwalking into the Lerderderg Gorge halfway to Ballarat, using an old miners’ mule track which led down to the river. The Lerderderg is very close to Melbourne but as a lad it was like walking into a world of my imagination not unlike Middle-earth. There was a mine tunnel there which went in one side of a ridge and came out the other, all dug by hand by Chinese miners in the 19th century and held up without timber supports. It used to be a test of courage for us as kids to crawl through the tunnel with small battery torches from one end to the other with the roof and walls gradually getting narrower and narrower until emerging in a scramble on the other side. I went back there a few years ago with my own son but could no longer find the entrance to the tunnel. All that remained of it by then was a big hole in the side of the ridge marking the location of its collapse. Another example in the “what ifs” of life’s story.
Tolkein once noted, “All that is gold does not glitter” which references a much older saying. Whatever the source, its age old meaning remains true. Not everyone who went looking for gold in Victoria in the 1850s necessarily found what they were looking for, even those who like Hume’s Madame Midas found a dash of the precious metal at the bottom of a mine shaft or in a pan dipped into a river. But gold can be found in sometimes unexpected places. It might be the gold in the memory of a childhood adventure in an abandoned mine or in the worth of fleece cut from a sheep’s back. It might be a certain note in a piece of music that you love or it might even be the gold in that moment when your football team gets up by a point with a kick after the siren. And it may be the gold in a simple smile.