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All that glitters

Nina Morgan recounts tales of fortunes made and lost during the gold rushes of the 1800s

Words by Nina Morgan
1 March 2021

The American River in Coloma, California, attracted would-be miners during the state’s gold rush

When gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill on the American River at Coloma, over 80,000 would-be miners from all over the word descended on northern California in the hopes of striking it rich. Although a few of these ‘49ers’ did make their fortunes, for most, gold fever turned out to be a fatal disease. Nevertheless, the ‘infection’ soon spread to other parts of the world.

One who did strike lucky was Edmond Hammond Hargraves [1816-1891], who travelled to California in 1849 from his adopted country, Australia. Although he didn’t find much gold there, he gained a valuable knowledge of prospecting. Recognising that there were geological similarities between California and New South Wales, Hargraves returned to Australia in January 1851 hoping to make his fortune by claiming a government reward for the discovery of a payable goldfield. A few weeks later, in February 1851, while working with John Lister, Hargraves found specks of gold in Lewis Ponds Creek in New South Wales. He revealed his find in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, and within two weeks 300 men were at work at what became known as the Ophir goldfield, and an Australian Gold Rush took off. Prospectors also flocked to other areas, including Castlemaine and Forest Creek in Victoria, to dig for placer, or alluvial, gold.

Although Hargraves had exaggerated and falsified his finds, the government awarded him £10,000 and from 1877 he received an annual pension of £250. He was also showered with testimonials, and valuable trophies. In 1851, he became a commissioner of crown lands for the gold districts and a justice of the peace.

One of the unlucky ones
But most who joined the Australian Gold Rush found gold mining to be hard and unprofitable work. Writing from Melbourne in 1853 to his brother-in-law in England, Thomas Spencer Niblock [1820-1853], who travelled to Australia to try his luck in the gold fields of Castlemaine and Forest Creek, described the process:

“Having selected the spot and marked the hole – oblong or circular, but generally circular for a deep hole, and about 4ft diameter, [miners] set to work by turns with pick and shovel until about 8ft down when they can throw up no earth more conveniently. They then erect a crude windlass over the hole and draw up the earth in a bucket – and do not suppose (like I and most new hands) that all this earth is gold dust more or less. No such thing – none of it will pay for washing it until the ‘washing-stuff’ is reached – in some places 3ft, in others 90ft below the surface…

“Having reached this washing stuff and carefully tried a few handfuls of it by washing it and picked out what nuggets are visible, the earth is carefully laid by itself (and the rock well scraped as there the gold lies) and then well ‘puddled’ with water in a tub and then washed by hand in a large dish exactly the same as a large shallow milk pan or in a ‘cradle’ which does it much quicker so it is amazing what gold is sometimes found in a pail of earth, which to an unpractised hand would appear valueless.

“As each man has a right to a plot of ground 12ft square, when he gets to the bottom he undermines so far – should the hole prove worth proceeding with; and often if it proves rich, one man will trespass and undermine for yards under his neighbours’ who perhaps have not yet got to the bottom.”

A sad end
Alas, Niblock never reached pay dirt: “After six weeks steady application the result has been nothing – we have not even made our living and our party has separated and returned to Melbourne one by one.”

By April 1853, Niblock too had given up, and rejoined his wife and child in Melbourne. But he found conditions weren’t much better there. Although his wife had “made many strenuous efforts to obtain some employment or situation… [these were] in vain, for Melbourne is crowded with single females looking for employment.” And unable to find a job himself, Niblock was reduced to selling his “long cherished ‘old’ books” to put food on the table and a roof over his family’s heads.

Hoping to find a means of making a living, in May 1853 the family took a passage to Sydney on the American-built single screw steamer, Monumental City. On Sunday 15 May 1853, the vessel ran aground in calm weather off Tullaberga Island, Victoria, and 37 people, including Niblock and his family, were drowned.

The legacy lives on

But the Niblock gold mining legacy lives on. One hundred and forty years later, his great, great, great nephew, Jeremy Burton [b. 1952] having earned a degree in geology, tried his luck in 1993 in a placer mine in California.

“We had to drill and blast our way into a mountain to reach a supposedly gold-rich palaeo-channel,” Burton recalls. “But in spite of our state-of-the-art equipment, we were about as unsuccessful in our search for gold as Uncle Tom was in his!”

Jeremy Burton, the great, great, great nephew of prospector Thomas Niblock, at his own California gold prospect in 1993

Happily, Burton has lived on to succeed in other ways and is now enjoying a bit of metal detecting in rural Oxfordshire, where he still hopes to make a fortune by discovering a large hoard of gold coins!

I thank Jeremy Burton for information and references about gold mining, and providing me with pictures and a transcript of ‘Uncle Tom’s’ letter.

• Nina Morgan a geologist and science writer based near Oxford. www.gravestonegeology.uk

Further reading
• Gerber, D.A. (2006) Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century. NYU Press. ISBN 9780814732007/ 9780814731710
• Mitchell, B. Hargraves, Edward Hammond (1816 – 1891). The Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 4.
• Salway, L. (1978) Lance Salway’s book of Gold and Gold-Hunters. Kestrel Books. ISBN 0722654197
• The Australian Maritime Museums Council
• The Victorian Heritage Database, Australia



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