A new exhibition telling 20 turbulent tales of Victoria’s gold rush is now open at the building built on gold: Old Treasury Building

Presented in partnership with the state archives close archives Definition Records considered to have continuing or permanent value that have been, or will be, transferred to the custody of an archival organisation; also used to refer to the buildings in which archival records are stored and to organisation that have responsibility for archival records. of Public Record Office Victoria, Gold Rush: 20 Objects, 20 Stories presents Victoria’s gold rush through the individual stories of just 20 objects. From tiny original manuscripts to a replica of the largest gold nugget found, each object provides a unique insight into the world of gold rush Victoria. 

Some key items in the exhibition include:
•    A pistol excavated from the Eureka lead, on loan from Heritage Victoria
•    Original works by S.T. Gill and diaries of gold diggers on loan from State Library of Victoria
•    An 1850s dress in the style worn by women on the goldfields
•    The ‘Race to the Gold Diggings of Australia’ board game from the National Library of Australia.

These are displayed alongside gems from the state archival collection, many on show for the very first time, including letters written by philanthropist Caroline Chisholm and documents throwing new light on the active role of the Native Police Corps in policing the early goldfields. Also from the archives a petition from the Chinese gold diggers protesting a tax placed on their arrival at the goldfields.

From the experience of children and the involvement of women in goldfields history, to the Aboriginal people acting as guides to miners, fossicking for gold and working in the Native Police Corp, there is a treasure trove of stories to be discovered and the 20 objects of this exhibition show just how varied they can be. 

This is a FREE exhibition, no bookings required. 

 

Background

Gold was first discovered in Australia in 1851 – first in New South Wales and then in Victoria. The finds caused a sensation. Men throughout Australia immediately downed tools to ‘rush’ to the goldfields, soon joined by others from New Zealand. By the following year thousands began to arrive from Britain, Europe, America and then China. The impact on farms and businesses was devastating at first. As Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe wrote to his superior in England:

‘Cottages are deserted, houses to let, even schools are closed. In some of the suburbs, not a man is left.’

The lure of gold was huge. It represented the opportunity of a lifetime to escape from the relentless cycle of hard work and low pay that was the lot of most people. As stories circulated of fabulous finds literally picked up from the ground, gold fever gripped the imagination of thousands on both sides of the globe. Soon every available vessel had been commandeered for the long journey to Australia, and Victoria was inundated by eager gold seekers. In 1851 Victoria was still a sleepy little outpost of Britain, with a population of just under 100,000. Over the next decade this would double, then double again, to reach 537,847 in 1860, and that only included those who had stayed! Many more had come and gone.

Although the stories of gold made it sound easy to make a fortune, the reality was very different. Writer and miner William Howitt described gold digging as:

‘A lottery, with far more blanks than prizes.’

And many who had travelled half way around the world returned home disappointed. At the same time prices on the diggings were ruinous – not least for the gold licences each miner had to buy. Disappointment fuelled resentment. Agitation against the gold licences spread throughout the diggings in 1854, culminating in the short-lived, but bloody Eureka Stockade. 

 

Location

Old Treasury Building
Spring Street, Melbourne

 

Image Gallery

painting of a gold digger
This Eugene Von Guerard painting entitled 'I Have Got It' features in the exhibition courtesy of the State Library of Victoria. As depicted in this image, most miners lived in tents - canvas thrown across a timber frame, pegged to the ground with a dirt floor. Mining was hard hazardous work with no certain return at the end of it. 

 

a petition
This is the front page of a Royal Charter Shipping Register, from our archival collection. On 25 August 1859 the Royal Charter left Melbourne for Liverpool carrying some 480 passengers and crew, many were miners returning from the goldfields carrying gold sewn into their pockets. Sadly the gold-filled pockets turned out to be a curse for passengers when the ship hit a storm on the 26th of October. The ship was driven onto rocks only 50 yards from shore and broke in two. Of those listed on this page, only one survived, John Bradbury.
PROV VPRS 948 P1 Unit 17 page 1. 

 

photo of a blue ceramic pot
This chamber pot from Mayor Smith's house is on loan from the Museum of Victoria. Smith was Mayor during the time of the gold rush, displaying wealth (real or otherwise) within the household. 

 

a ladies dress
This day dress on display is from the 1850s and is indicative of what women would have worn during the time of the goldfields. The style was known as crinoline, from the wide, bell-shaped skirt. Women of all ages and all classes of society wore this style of dress in Victoria, though they were not very practical for everyday on the goldfields.