Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Finding of Gold

Near the town of Bathurst there lived a farmer called Hargraves. He had suffered much from the droughts, and at last, tired of the struggle, he gave up his farm and sailed away to California. He went to try his luck at the goldfields which had lately been discovered there. But in California Hargraves was no more lucky than he had been in New South Wales. Although others around him made fortunes, he made none. However, as he dug, and shovelled, and toiled in vain, a strange thought struck him. The hills and valleys of California were very like the hills and valleys of New South Wales, he said to himself. If there was gold to be found in the one, why not in the other?

When this idea had once taken hold of Hargraves he could not get rid of it. So at length he made up his mind to leave his useless toil and go back to Australia to find out if there was anything in his idea.

He had now very little money left, but he managed to get back to Sydney. He arrived there penniless, and had to borrow money in order to hire a horse to take him to the Blue Mountains, for in those days there were no trains.

At a lonely inn on the slopes of the mountains he put up his horse. There he found a boy who knew all the creeks and streams about, and, with him as guide, Hargraves started out early one morning carrying a trowel and a little tin dish.

Soon he came to what he thought was a likely place in which to find gold. Digging up a little of the greyish, sandy soil he went with it to the nearest stream. Here he dipped and dipped his tin in the water until all the sand was washed away. Then, there at the bottom, too heavy to be floated away by the water, lay a few small grains of dull, glowing gold.

As time after time Hargraves filled his little tin pan, and saw the tiny grains of precious metal glow at the bottom, his breath came fast, his eyes sparkled, his cheeks glowed with triumph. He knew that he had found what he sought, and that fortunes for thousands lay hidden in the hills around him.

Tired, but rejoicing, he went back to his inn and wrote down all that he had done, very sure that he had found out something great, not only for himself, but for all Australia.

For two months Hargraves remained among the lonely hills making quite certain of his discovery. Then he went back to Sydney and wrote a letter to the governor, saying that for £500 he would show him places in New South Wales where gold could be found.

Many people had pretended to find gold before this. So now the governor was not very ready to believe Hargraves. However, he said that if Hargraves would first point out the place, he would be rewarded afterwards.

This Hargraves agreed to, and in a week there were a thousand people digging and washing for gold in that lonely creek, which, a month or two before, had echoed to the shouts of one man and a boy.

The rush to the diggings was tremendous. Farmers left their farms, doctors their patients. Labourers, servants, clerks, workmen of all kinds, thieves and cutthroats, all swelled the stream which poured along the road over the Blue Mountains. It was hardly to be wondered at that people would no longer toil all day long for a few shillings, when, in the same time they might, by scratching the earth a little, win hundreds of pounds. So business came to a standstill, grass grew in the streets, corn stood in the fields uncut, even the ships remained idle in the harbour, for the sailors deserted whenever they could, and made for the diggings.

But although many who went to the mines made fortunes, others, like Hargraves himself in California, returned in a few weeks disappointed and angry. Others, too, went thinking that they had nothing to do but pick up lumps of gold and carry it home in cart-loads. When these found that they had to work hard, to dig, and shovel, and wash, perhaps for weeks, to live in a tent and "do" for themselves, they were disgusted, and they, too, trooped homewards. All these disappointed people thought that Hargraves had fooled them, and could they have found him they would have gladly killed him. But he kept out of the way.

So over the road between Sydney and the diggings there was a constant double stream of people, some going, eager to begin work, others returning, grumbling and discontented.

But although some returned disappointed, the rush to the goldfields continued so great that it seemed as if all the other colonies would be emptied of men, and that their whole life would come to a standstill. So to stop the rush of settlers out of Victoria, the government there offered a reward to any one who would find gold in Victoria. Gold was found, and found in far richer quantities than in New South Wales. The rush was then turned in another direction, but it still went on. Indeed Melbourne was left at one time with only one policeman on duty. But that did not matter much, as all the rascals and thieves had gone to the diggings like other people. Some marched along with a pack on their back holding all that they possessed in the world, picnicking on the way, sleeping in the open air. Others, a little better off, had hand-barrows in which to carry their goods, while those still better off rode along on horseback or in light gigs or buggies. But all hurried in one direction, all had one object—gold.


"All day long the sound of the pick and the rumble of the cradle were heard."

At first it was only the colonists who swarmed to the goldfields, for it was some months before the news reached home. In those days there was no telegraph to Australia, and boats took three months to cross the seas. But when at last the news did reach home, whole shiploads of men from almost every nation in Europe came thronging to the diggings. There were among them old and young, rich and poor, strong and feeble, and even the lame and the blind.

To find the gold there was little skill needed and few tools. A pick, a shovel, a pan, and a cradle were enough. The cradle was a pan on rockers into which the earth containing the gold was put along with water, and rocked about until all the sand and earth was washed away and only the gold remained.

All over the country new towns sprang up—towns of tents and wooden shanties. There all day long, from dawn to dusk, the sound of the pick and the rumble of the cradle was heard. Then at the sound of a gun all work ceased. The diggers scattered to their tents, fires were lit, and supper was cooked. For a little there was no noise except the clatter of billies or pans in which tea was boiled, and the hum of talk. Supper over, the men sat around the glowing fires smoking and telling tales, and singing songs, while overhead the stars came out and quiet darkness settled all about them. Then after a time the sounds of song and laughter would cease, and silence would reign over the little town till morning.

In those early days many people made great fortunes in a few weeks, or sometimes by some lucky find, in one day. Others returned home as poor as they had set out, and broken in health. And some who made great fortunes spent it as quickly as they had made it. They did all kinds of wild things simply to get rid of their money, such as buying pianos which they could not use, and having champagne in bucketfuls.

Many lumps of gold called nuggets were found, some of them so large that one was enough to make a man's fortune. One called the Kerr nugget was found by a black shepherd near Bathurst. He had heard how white men were going almost mad seeking for gold, so while he guarded his sheep, he amused himself by poking about with a stick to see if he also could not find some of the mysterious treasure. And in this way, one day he came upon a lump so large that even he, who knew nothing of the value of it, grew excited.

Running back to the farmhouse he burst in upon his master and mistress as they were sitting down to dinner. "O massa!" he cried, hardly able to speak for excitement and breathlessness, "white man find little fellow, me find big fellow!"

When the shepherd had explained what he meant, his master put to his horse and drove off to see this wonderful nugget. There, sure enough, was a huge lump of gold sticking out of the ground where every one might see it, and only needing to be picked up. It was truly a "big fellow," and so heavy that it had to be broken in two before it could be carried away. It afterwards sold for £4000.

But although the Kerr was one of the first large nuggets, it was by no means the largest. Others worth more than double were found later, to which people gave names such as Blanche Barkly, Welcome Nugget, and Welcome Stranger.

Soon the tented mushroom towns grew larger and more numerous. Theatres, hotels, and even churches were built. But when a mine became exhausted, or when news of a richer mine reached the diggers, the township would be deserted, and the country sink back to its former peace, only hundreds of little sand heaps being left to show where men had lately toiled like a swarm of busy ants.

Things were not always quiet and orderly on the goldfields. The greed of gain and the thirst for gold brought out man's evil passions, and often dark and dreadful deeds were done.

Every digger, too, had to pay thirty shillings a month to the government for leave to dig. To the lucky ones who were making fortunes that seemed nothing. To the unlucky ones who toiled for days finding little it seemed a great deal, and they tried to avoid paying it. Upon every goldfield there was a force of police. These police could demand to see a man's licence, and if he had none they carried him off to prison. So many of the diggers came to look upon the police as their enemies, and there were often fights between them.

But those days have long since passed. Gold digging still goes on in Australia. But it is very different now. The men no longer work with pick and shovel, they no longer make fortunes in a single day. The mines are owned by companies, the men are paid wages like any other miners, and the work is done by machinery with all the latest improvements and inventions. And the news of the opening of a new mine or the finding of a large nugget no longer drives people from their offices and their desks to seek their fortunes at the diggings.

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