State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 67 Autumn 2001


‘River-bed Claim on the Turon’. Illustrated London News, 21 August 1852, p. 124. Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Gold in Australia: Image and Text in the Illustrated London News

A Rich source of imagery relating to Australia during the gold rushes is to be found in the Illustrated London News, with the paper carrying 60 relevant images for the period 1851-54. (These images are listed in the Appendix to this article.) By contrast, in the 11 Australian papers launched during the decade of the 1850s, there are only 26 images relating to gold.1 The reason for this discrepancy was that none of the Australian illustrated newspapers was in circulation at the time of the initial gold rushes to the Bathurst region in New South Wales, and slightly later, to Mount Alexander and Ballarat in Victoria. Most of the illustrated Australian papers were not launched until the second half of the 1850s, after the excitement of the initial gold rushes had died down and many diggers had returned to their former professions and trades, including those relating to the press: journalism, illustration, compositing, printing and wood engraving. By contrast, the Illustrated London News was already a well-established paper when the news of the discovery of gold in Australia reached London.
Yet there was to be a paradox to this coverage. For in mid-1852, when the gold rushes in Victoria were first reported, there was a perplexing mismatch between image and text in their representation. This mismatch can be understood by considering the definition of an illustration as a pictorial image which complements the text of its accompanying article.2
Before mid-1852, illustrations in the Illustrated London News depicting the gold rushes to the Bathurst region had conformed with this definition in their depiction of adventurous young men swarming to newly discovered goldfields: gold-seekers en route to the diggings, landscapes of the country being passed through, and life on the goldfields. A particularly good example of this type of image is ‘Fitzroy Bar, Ophir, at the junction of the two creeks’ from the Illustrated London News of 20 December 1851 (see p. 26). It depicts a hive of activity with gold-seekers strung out along the edge of a creek, panning or cradling for gold, whilst in the middleground, on the left, there is a collection of tents and bark huts which can be readily imagined to extend beyond the picture frame. In the accompanying article, the scene is described:
[The area was] dotted with tents and gunyahs of bark and branches, each with its fire in front sending the blue smoke up into the clear frosty morning air; some under the noble swamp oaks at the water's edge, others behind and under box and blue gum trees … [It was] occupied by about fifteen parties [who with] their busy movements, digging, carrying earth, and working cradles at the edge of the water, with the noise of the pick, the sound of voices, and the washing of shingle in the iron boxes of the cradles, I could scarcely believe that barely two months ago this was a quiet secluded gully in a far-out cattle run.3

‘Fitzroy Bar, Ophir, at the junction of the two creeks’. Illustrated London News, 20 December 1851, p. 724. Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Image and text combine to give the reader in Great Britain an idea of what a gold rush site in its infancy may have looked like.
However, with the discovery of gold in Victoria, the articles accompanying images, plus text-only articles, grew increasingly anxious in tone as English commentators consider the impact that the discoveries might have on the colonial work force. In late January 1852, the Illustrated London News reported the discovery of gold at Buninyong near Ballarat:
deposits had been met with at Buninyong … apparently far exceeding in value any that have yet been found within a similar space either at Sydney or in California. The whole population were [sic] removing towards the district … Many cases of individual success were most remarkable … The consequence was a far greater desertion from all ordinary occupations than had been witnessed at Sydney. Hundreds of all classes were leaving daily, including labourers, mechanics, clerks, shopkeepers, merchants, and professional men. There was hardly any possibility of getting ships’ crews.4
At this stage, there were mixed feelings in England about the impact of gold. Whilst its discovery in Victoria was likely to compound the labour shortage that had long been a problem for the colony's expanding wool-based economy, it was also recognised that gold might make emigration to Australia more attractive. Indeed, from reading the Illustrated London News, if there was one issue with regard to Australia at this time that was more pressing than the discovery of gold, it was how to persuade a greater number of Great Britain's poor to make the penultimate sacrifice for their land of birth by leaving it, both for their own good and for the greater well-being of those who remained behind.
Following the initial reporting of the discovery of gold in Victoria, there was to be a tantalising three-month break in the receipt of news from Australia due to the
vagaries of relying on ship-borne mail for news. Thus it was not until early May that the scale of the discoveries and their impact on the young colony came to be appreciated. There followed a four-week period (from 22 May to 19 June) when the possibility of gold having a beneficial effect on the emigration of the poor receded into the background as commentators grappled with what was happening in Victoria itself and the implications for Great Britain. The crux of British concern, expressed in the lead article of the Illustrated London News of 22 May 1852, titled ‘The gold fever in California and Australia’, was that gold had become a magnet for Australia's pastoral work-force, thereby threatening the collapse of its pastoral industry, which in turn could lead to the downfall of the Yorkshire woollen industry:
that great centre of the woollen manufacture of the world, sees before it the gloomy prospect of bankruptcy for mill owners, and pauperism for many thousands of labourers.5
So it was that a defining feature of this mid-1852 period of anxiety about the Australian gold rushes was their interpretation solely in terms of their potential impact on Great Britain rather than of their benefits for Australia.
Several factors contributed to this extreme negativity about the possible effect of gold on Great Britain. In the first place, there was considerable uncertainty about what impact new supplies of gold would have on the world economy, particularly in terms of price levels, interest rates, balances of payment and volume of employment.6 There were two camps in the debate, which, it must be remembered, occurred at a time when the study of economics was still in its infancy. This helps to explain why much of the debate, to a present-day reader, appears to blow out of all sense of proportion the impact that gold would have. One group of economists believed more gold would result in price increases, inflation and the waste of resources, given that gold-seeking was seen to be a non-productive use of labour compared with agriculture and manufacturing.7 By contrast, an opposing group believed gold could be an instrument for social improvement and reform in Great Britain, its rationale being that gold would accelerate the emigration of surplus population, meaning higher wages for those who remained behind, especially when gold would be a stimulus to manufacturing. There was even a particularly optimistic argument that manufacturing would be stimulated to the extent of raising employment levels and thus reducing emigration.8
The issue of emigration leads to the second factor, for in 1852 the centre of the British Empire was still struggling to shake off its ‘Condition of England’ syndrome from the previous decade, despite the extraordinary success of the Great Exhibition in giving a boost to the spirits of the nation. One of the key features of this syndrome had been concern about the poor being a drain on Great Britain's wealth — the Irish who had been devastated by the Potato Famine, the Scottish Highlanders displaced by the clearances, and the English agricultural labourers usurped by the growing mechanisation of farming9 — a concern which, at the beginning of the 1850s, was made all the more acute by the knowledge that for the past decade the Australian colonies had been calling for more immigrants in order to boost the size of their pastoral work force. In the article previously quoted, the Illustrated London News also observed:

Illustrated London News, 29 May 1852

Buninyong Hill

Washing Gold


Gold in Australia — Port Phillip District

Gold Diggers Resting

Modes of Carrying the Gold

For the past eight or ten years … Australia has complained of the want of labour, and offered in vain her almost boundless pasture lands and corn fields to the enterprise of men with thews and sinews, and strong hands and hearts not afraid of hard work. England has been overburdened with such men and has groaned in bitterness of spirit at being compelled to maintain them and their families in bastiles [sic] and union workhouses; yet… no attempt has been made to send the surplus and damaging excess of population in the old country to the relief of the clamorous colony.10
A final factor was the unease felt by many British commentators that Australia could sacrifice the sanctity of cultivating the soil in favour of the lottery of gold.11 These were commentators who found it distasteful to think that men could become independent and wealthy more by dint of good luck than by steady, industrious labour over many years. Mind, it was also this latter path to prosperity which fitted in neatly with the concern of landed wealth in Australia to preserve a subservient pastoral work force which at best aspired to a yeoman farmer ideal.12 To quote again from the lead article, ‘The gold fever in California and Australia’:
California has no treasure but its gold; but Australia possesses that which is better than gold … It possesses flocks and herds in countless abundance; it grows corn, and wine, and fruit; and produces every article necessary for the subsistence, the health, the comfort, and even for the luxury of man. It has a fine soil, a splendid climate, harbours and rivers, and every natural advantage to make it the seat of one of the most powerful empires that ever existed on the globe … But its gold fields with their glittering prizes, by the discovery of which men hope to gain, and very many do gain, rapid fortunes in periods of time that to our sober judgements on this side of the world look incredibly short, appear to be destroying a far truer and more valuable source of wealth that mere unsupported gold can ever become.13
Despite its editorial position, the paper continued to include illustrations which depicted men who were seized by the spirit of adventure, freedom and independence that was invoked by gold. Hence the mismatch between text and image, most evident in the Illustrated London News of 29 May 1852, in which four illustrations accompany the second instalment of a two-part article on the rush to Buninyong, contributed by Edward Dunn, a Western District pioneer from Mount Emu, south-west of Ballarat (see pp. 28-29).14 The first image depicts a Buninyong landscape when it was still being used for pastoralism; a lone shepherd tends his flock. The next three images depict different aspects of daily life and toil on the goldfields. Dunn's accompanying description of Buninyong marvels at the gold seekers revelling in the opportunity to reap the rewards of hard work for themselves rather than having capitalist squatters and merchants benefiting from their labour. In the process, he pinpoints what the English author of the previously discussed lead article had failed to appreciate about gold; that gold seekers were former pastoral workers, tradesmen and clerks, who had exchanged a life of wages and deference to social superiors for one of independence and, hopefully, wealth:
I need hardly tell you that a township composed of tents and huts capable of sheltering 7,000 people, and erected in less than a month, must form rather a singular sight. … The
sight of such a vast number of people actively employed, either digging, working with the pick-axe, carrying earth in tin dishes to the water, wheeling it in barrows, carrying it in trucks or carting it — each man working for himself, and therefore doing his utmost [my italics]; the confused roar of upwards 500 cradles at work by the streamside; and the sight of the township, every spare foot between hut of tent in which was a yawning pit, the whole covered over by the canopy of the lofty forest, formed a scene that can hardly be paralleled or described.15
It was the twin attractions of wealth and independence which not only became beacons for a tide of emigrants to Australia as the news of gold spread throughout Great Britain and the Continent but, more immediately, catalysts for a period in Victoria when society had all the appearance of having been turned upside down.
Of the four images, then, ‘Gold diggers resting’ is of particular interest because the scene depicted could readily serve as the setting for a widely circulated story about the inverting of society in the early days of the gold rushes. This was the period before the first emigrants from Great Britain arrived in September 1852, and hence a time when the only emigrants to the goldfields were men from other colonies.16 However, in the conceit of wanting to stay free of the taint of convicts, there was considerable fear in Victoria of a deluge of Vandemonians. The guardians of law and order did not want reformed convicts free to roam as they pleased in pursuit of gold. Despite this concern, in the last four months of 1851, of an estimated 4,500 arrivals from Tasmania 40 per cent were ex-convicts. Most would have been honest, hardworking men.17 Nor would they have been slow to show off their new-found independence. It is not difficult to imagine them being the protagonists in the following story:
Some curious anecdotes might be picked up out of the unnatural state of the labourmarket here. One which I heard lately from a member of our club was an odd one. The gentleman, a large landowner … being in great trouble about shearing his flocks, went to party of shearers at the gold diggings to ask them to engage to shear his flock. He fancied in his innocence that by offering high wages they would come for a few days, and had finally make up his mind to give whatever they asked. He found the men lying about indolently round their fire, and told his wishes. The men went aside and consulted with each other, and their speaker then advanced with gravity, and said they would do it. ‘Well,’ said our friend, ‘let us have a written agreement,’ and produced ink and paper. ‘Now, what are the wages to put in?’ ‘All the wool!’ and on no other terms would they come, so he was going away in disgust; but they called him back, and he, thinking the men had relented returned eagerly. The man then said, ‘Master, we want a cook; and if you will take the place, we will give you 15s a day.’18
It is conceivable that the net effect of the anecdote in the issue of 1 May, further reports of the growing level of social upheaval caused by gold in the issue of 22 May,19 and Dunn's two-part account and accompanying illustrations in the issues of 22 and 29 May led to the doleful tone of the next article to be found in the paper concerning gold in Australia, ‘Australian gold diggers and Yorkshire weavers’. Whilst its clinching argument was the potential of gold to disrupt the Yorkshire woollen industry, much of the article was concerned with the short-sightedness of Great
Britain's emigration policy over the past two decades, whereby Australian squatters had asserted their preference for single men over married men. The following article celebrates in part the benefits that could have flowed for Australian squatters if they had been more appreciative of the advantages of encouraging married men who aspired to be yeomen to emigrate to Australia:
The wandering bachelor vagabond class of shepherds, once so much in favour, have deserted to the gold-fields en masse; while the married shepherds, settled in their nice cottages, with gardens … have stuck to their duties, or amicably arranged how and when to try their luck, leaving their families to perform their shepherding. The great flockowners, or squatters, who once demanded an able bodied, subservient serf — if single all the better, if drunken none the worse, without family ties or independent spirit — are now imploring the Emigration Commissioners to send the oldest, the feeblest, the fathers with the largest families. The appeal is late, and the consequences to Australia and to this country will be serious indeed … If we were to lose our Australian wools and we shall soon lose half the supply, at the value of a million sterling, very soon, without more vigorous efforts than have yet been made, we shall lose, and perhaps never regain, valuable foreign markets. The effects of their mismanagement of emigration will soon be felt in Yorkshire.20
Whilst there is very much a sense that the writer was clutching at straws in seeking to apportion blame for the seemingly unavoidable collapse of the Yorkshire woollen industry, this article also points to how the British response to the discovery of gold was inextricably entwined with the longer standing issue of encouraging emigration to Australia. Yet it still comes as a surprise to find in the following week's issue, the Illustrated London News doing an about-turn in its approach towards gold and its implications for Great Britain. In a lead article titled ‘Our colonial empire’, the paper was now considering the broader issues concerning Australia in the wake of the discovery of gold by saying that the time was ripe for a reappraisal of the empire, and of the Australian colonies, in particular. The article then proceeds in two directions; firstly, by considering the value of Australia as a new home for destitute and discontented labour:
Australia, that has long had cause for complaint, has for the present forgotten most of her grievances, in gratulations over the abundant wealth that has recently been dug out of her streams and mountains. Her great want is men. She suffers one engrossing misery — the insufficiency of human hands to turn her resources to account, and prevent her real and tangible wealth — better that gold, and of which gold is purely the symbol, from being lost to herself and the world by the too great prevalence of the auro-mania among her scanty population.21
Secondly, there was the potential for gold to stimulate an increase in the volume of trade between Great Britain and Australia, an issue which was explored further in the following week's issue in an article titled ‘Gold in Australia’. It begins, though, by acknowledging that gold no longer posed a serious threat to the Yorkshire woollen industry:
Already upwards of two millions sterling has been realised by the rude exertions of parts of a population which has never yet exported more than three million of raw produce; and with the evidence now before us, we may confidently assert that although there will be temporary diminution in the exportation of Australian wool under new arrangements, the flocks of Australia will no more be destroyed than the corn-fields of England were abandoned in consequence of the repeal of the Corn Laws.22
The article then goes on to discuss how trade could provide a boost to British manufacturing, with the stimulus being, of all things, an increased demand for the best quality female attire:
Two very healthy signs [for manufacturing] are displayed by the Australian diggers — the multiplication of marriages and the large consumption of female attire … The first luxury to which the successful gold-seeker treats himself on his return [to Melbourne] for a holiday is a wife, and the wife is then treated to the best gowns and shawls that the shops can afford.
It was this perceived cure of Great Britain's manufacturing woes which sets the scene for one of S. T. Gill's best-known images of the Victorian gold rushes in all their heady glory: ‘The Diggers’ Wedding’. Its depiction of two newly married diggers and their wives cavorting in an open carriage being drawn through the streets of Melbourne is testimony to there being at least a grain of truth about an anticipated increased demand for quality female attire coming from Australia.
With the future of the Yorkshire woollen industry no longer an issue for the Illustrated London News, the tension between image and text concerning gold in Australia disappeared. For the remainder of 1852 and on into 1853, the paper continued to devote full pages and double pages to various scenes of life on the Australian goldfields, from both Victoria and New South Wales, in a style similar to those depicting Buninyong (pp. 28-29 above). Yet it is these same Buninyong images which drew my attention to the mismatch between image and text in the Illustrated London News of mid-1852, and how they contradicted the definition of an illustration as a pictorial image which complements the text of its accompanying article. On the one hand, the images convey a sense of novelty and excitement of the goldrushes as young men search for gold as the means of undreamt-of wealth and independence. On the other hand, most of the stand-alone articles from this same brief period were preoccupied with predictions of the dire consequences that gold would have for the Yorkshire woollen industry. We are left with a perspective of the Victorian gold rushes 150 years later which has perhaps been lost sight of in all that subsequently happened.
Peter Dowling


Images of Australian Gold in the Illustrated London News, 1851-54
Date Page Article title/Illustration title(s)
13/9/51 327-28 Discovery of gold in Australia
— Road over the Blue Mountains to the Bathurst District
— View in the gold district — Bathurst
25/10/51 520-21 The Australian gold district
— The Paterson district, from Morpeth
— Camerallyn, the residence of C. Boydell
— The gold digging at Ophir, County of Wellington, New South Wales
— Mr E. H. Hargreaves. The Australian gold discoverer
— Lump of gold from Ophir diggings, actual size; weight 31b 10oz.
15/11/51 597 ‘The Australian “diggins” and the road to them’
— “Off for the diggings,” at Bathurst
— Ascending a pass in the Blue Mountains
— Washing cradle
20/12/51 724 The Australian gold district — Bathurst to Ophir
— Gold seekers arriving at Bathurst on their way to Ophir
— Fitzroy Bar, Ophir, at the junction of the two creeks
24/1/52 72 Australia — The Bathurst gold district
— Arrival of the Government gold conveyance at the Colonial Treasury, Sydney, on August 21, 1851
— Bathurst Plains from the White Rock School House
— Coombing Sydney, forty miles beyond Bathurst where gold was found in 1849
— Elswick, four miles from Sydney, on the Great Western Road
22/5/52 401 The gold fever in California and Australia
— First escort of gold
— Gold Commissioners issueing licences, and weighing the gold-dust
— Gold in Australia — The Ballarat diggings
29/5/52 430 Gold in Australia
— Buninyong Hill
— Gold diggers resting
— Map of the Port Phillip goldfields
— Washing gold
— Modes of carrying gold
26/6/52 501 Gold in Australia
— The road to Mt Alexander gold fields, through the Black Forest, Province of Victoria
3/7/52 8-9 Diggings at Forest Creek, Mt Alexander, in the colony of Victoria
— Mount Alexander gold diggers at evening mass
— The Forest Creek diggings, Mt Alexander, Port Phillip
— The Golden Point, Ballarat
— Mr. Sutchbury, the Government Geological Surveyor
— Mr. Hardy, the Government Commissioner for the gold district
— Shipping detained in Hobson's Bay, Williamstown, Port Phillip
10/7/52 21 The ‘King of the Nuggets’, the largest specimen of pure gold found in Australia
21/8/52 124-25 Sketches from the Turon gold fields, New South Wales
— Dry digging on the Turon
— River bed claim on the Turon
— Cradler
— Children cradling
— Washing the gold
— Removing goods
— Dodging the Commissioners
— The Post Office, Sofala, Turon River
— The disappointed gold seeker
— Gold-seekers’ graves on the Turon
22/1/53 56-7 The Turon gold diggings
— Commissioner issuing licences to dig for gold
— Gold-buyer's hut
— The Victoria nugget of gold
— Assistant-commissioner receiving gold for escort
— Corporal George Suttor [Aborigine]
— Sofala, Turon River — General view
— Junction of the Oakley Creek with the Turon River
— Part of the township of Sofala, Turon River
26/2/53 160-61 Sketches from the Victorian gold diggings
— Gaol and Commissioner's station
— Sabbath at the old Post Office, Forest Creek — Bishop Perry preaching
— Travelling to the diggings
— A winter journey to the diggings
— Escort of gold
16/4/53 296 Exhibition of a 42 lb nugget of gold, at Melbourne
14/5/53 386-87 Account of the goldfields by a digger
— Diagramatic soil profile
— View of a tent
29/10/53 372 Victoria bank, Melbourne — Exhibition of mammoth nuggets of gold
3/6/54 504 News store in the Ballarat gold-fields

Top: ‘The Forest Creek Diggings, Mount Alexander, Port Phillip’.

Bottom: ‘Mount Alexander Gold Diggers at Evening Mess’.
Both images:
Illustrated London News, 3 July 1852, p. 8. Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.


P. Dowling, ‘Destined not to survive: the illustrated newspapers of colonial Australia’, Studies in Newspaper and Periodical history, 1995 Annual, 1997, esp. pp. 86-92 for the history of these 13 papers from the 1850-62 period.


J. Mulvey, ‘Pictures with words: a critique of Alain-Marie Bassy's approach’, Information Design Journal, 5/2, 1988, pp. 156-58.


‘The Australian gold district — Bathurst to Ophir’, Illustrated London News, 20 December 1851, p. 724.


‘Australia — the Bathurst gold district’, Illustrated London News, 24 January 1852, p. 74.


‘The gold fever in California and Australia’, Illustrated London News, 22 May 1852, pp. 401-02.


C. D. Goodwin, The Image of Australia: British perceptions of the Australian economy from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, Durham: Duke University Press, 1974, p. 36.


Ibid pp. 37-41.


Ibid pp. 42-44.


R. Broome, The Victorians: Arriving, Sydney: Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, 1984, pp. 41-44.


‘The gold fever in California and Australia’, Illustrated London News, 22 May 1852, pp. 401-02.


D. Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994, pp. 106-10. With the term, ‘cultivating the soil’, Goodman is referring to an agrarian approach to the land that encompasses both pastoralism and agriculture as opposed to a distinctly agricultural approach. After all, pastoralism in itself does not involve cultivating the soil, yet it certainly uses the land.


Ibid pp. 115-18 & 156-58. The yeoman farmer ideal that was projected onto the pastoral worker represented a neat entwining of the ideologies of agrarianism and domesticity.


‘The gold fever in California and Australia’, Illustrated London News, 22 May 1852, pp. 401-02.


J. Kerr, ed., The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, sketchers, photographers and engravers to 1870, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 228. The entry for Dunn is quite brief, but it could be surmised that he was probably a squatter.


‘Gold in Australia’, Illustrated London News, 29 May 1852, p. 429.


G. Serle, The Golden Age: A history of the colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1963, p. 38.


R. Annear, Nothing But Gold: The diggers of 1852, Melbourne: Text, 1999, pp. 23-24.


‘Social effects of the gold discoveries in Australia’, Illustrated London News, 1 May 1852, p. 331. Goodman, Gold Seeking, p. 132, quotes a variation of this story from J. Sherer, The Gold Finder of Australia, 1853. Sherer wrote his book despite never having been to Australia and it could be surmised that the source for this particular anecdote was the Illustrated London News.


‘The goldfields of Australia — The disorganisation of society’, Illustrated London News, 22 May 1852, pp. 401-02.


‘Australian gold-diggers and Yorkshire weavers’, Illustrated London News, 19 June 1852, p. 492.


‘Our colonial empire’, Illustrated London News, 26 June 1852, pp. 501-02.


‘Gold in Australia’, Illustrated London News, 3 July 1852, p. 8.