Australia and Irish settlement: Gold

Word that gold had been found in Australia in mid-1851 spread quickly as it had done in California three years earlier. The result was a massive movement of people from Britain, Europe, China and America but also within Australia and Victoria’s ports bustled with new arrivals. In just four months in 1852, 619 ships arrived in Hobson’s Bay carrying 55,057 passengers; 1853 saw the arrival of 2,594 ships. In March 1851, Victoria’s population was 80,000, not including its indigenous population; by 1854, it had tripled to 237,000 and doubled again to 540,000 by 1861. [1] The population of the Victorian gold fields was 20,000 in 1851; 34,000 the following year; 100,000 in 1855 peaking at 150,000 in 1858. The majority of migrants came from the United Kingdom; [2] between 1852 and 1860, 290,000 people came to Victoria from the British Isles. Of the other migrants, less than 15,000 came from other European countries and 6,000 including some Irish Americans migrated from America. In December 1851, E.E. Griggs wrote from Sacramento City, California to the Rev. J. Orr in Portaferry

It appears that her majesty’s dominions are not destitute of gold; and if the reports from Australia are true, a great rush will be the result; in fact many have already left this [California], for that land of promise.[3]

The NSW gold fields were poorer but the state’s population increased from 200,000 in 1851 to 357,000 ten years later. By 1861, 29% of the population was Australian born, 60% were from the United Kingdom and 11% were from other parts of the world. [4]

Irish immigration increased with the discovery of gold. Between 1851 and 1860 roughly 101,540 of them had arrived in Australia with the vast majority finding their way to the goldfields.[5] John Sherer, commenting on the inhabitants of the goldfields, observed that

…many of these were the offspring of the teeming soil of Ireland, which seems to throw off its population with the same degree of prolific spontaneity that it shoots forth the riches of its vegetation.[6]

Unlike their Welsh, Scottish and English neighbours, most of the Irish lacked mining skills. Initially this was not a problem since alluvial mining required little expertise. However, as surface deposits of gold were exhausted and alluvial mining gave way to deep, shaft mining, mining skills became essential. Lacking these, the numerous Irish on the goldfields became a ready source of unskilled labour for large-scale mining. A few miners did strike it rich on the goldfields but for most, their experience was similar to that of Hugh Maguire of Strabane, Co. Tyrone

As far as my own success upon the diggings I must candidly say that up to the present time it has fell far short of what I expected. I was fourteen months in the diggings … yet I have been only able to come to Melbourne with about sixty-five pounds sterling.[7]

For the vast majority a short, fruitless stint as a miner soon gave way to more profitable occupations as grocers, publicans, cartage operators, brewers, domestic workers, policemen and general labourers and the wealth of available work meant that many of the Irish enjoyed a standard of living far exceeding their experience in Ireland. The abundance of available work, fuelled by the needs of the diggers, meant that many of the Irish enjoyed a standard of living well beyond that they had left behind in Ireland. Reporting on the Daisy Hill diggings near Castlemaine, the Cork Examiner informed readers that

Young Irish Orphan girls who scarcely knew the luxury of a shoe until they put their feet on the soil of Victoria lavish money on white satin at 10/- or 12/- a yard for their bridal dresses and flout out of the shop slamming the door because the unfortunate shop keeper does not have the real shawls at ten guineas a piece.

The Irish had a large impact on the goldfields communities that sprang up quickly earning a reputation for their colour and flamboyance on the diggings. The rapid rise in population caused by the influx of gold seekers and their followers was still insufficient to populate the vast ranges of Australia, which still had a dearth of general and domestic labour. Miners were too preoccupied with digging for gold, and besides, they were mostly male, exacerbating the gender imbalance

Women are the only scarce people that is here, in a city of some 10,000 Inhabitants, you will not see more than twelve or twenty women in a day there are only about 300 in the whole city.[8]

The familiar Irish brogue could be heard issuing forth from hotels with iconic names such as Brian Boru, Harp of Erin and Shamrock. The legacy of the Irish immigrants who came to the Victorian goldfields is diverse ranging from the leading role they played in the Catholic institutions of the major gold rush towns to the iconic Queensland beer, XXXX, originally brewed by two Irish brothers in the early days of the Castlemaine diggings. However, a perception persists that few of the Irish had the skills or inclination, or would risk their money by setting up manufacturing plants.[9] In fact, immigrants from practically every Irish county and culture established a wide range of manufacturing businesses in Victoria during the nineteenth century. Although not all were successful, many Irish-owned businesses not only survived, but prospered. The number of Irish-born manufacturers was not proportional to the Irish population in Victoria, but the individual and collective contribution and legacy of these industrial pioneers to the colony’s social, civic, and industrial life deserve recognition.

Nonetheless, political discontent was never far from the surface and of the diggers that took part in the 1854 Eureka rebellion,[10] one witness at the Gold Fields Commission claimed that, ‘quite half of them were Irishmen’.[11] Withers stated:

There were among the insurgents men who hated British rule with a hereditary hatred. There were Irishman who felt that feeling, and there were foreigners who had no special sympathy, if any at all, with British Government’ and reported that one of the Eureka leaders later said ‘Most of our men were Irishmen. [12]

It was estimated by one witness, Mr G. C. Levey, that about 863 men had actually taken up arms and that about half of them were Irish. [13] H. R. Nicholls stated, regarding the Stockade on the morning of the day before the battle that ‘the movement at that time seemed to have become almost an Irish one’. [14] There is, however, no evidence that the Irish diggers had a republican design; they may have used the rhetoric of rebellion but they produced no republican political statement. In 1940, H.V. Evatt claimed ‘A democracy was born at Eureka’, and credited the Irish with fathering it. The initially reluctant leader of the Eureka protest was Peter Lalor, the brother of James Fintan Lalor, the Irish patriot and the list of the dead featured a great many Irish names.[15]

[1] Knott, J. W., ‘Arrival and Settlement 1851-1880’, in ibid, Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, pp. 367-370; Broome, R., The Victorians: arriving, (Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates), 1984, and Goodman, D., Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, (Allen & Unwin), 1994. See also, ibid, Brown, Richard, Three Rebellions, pp. 346-363.

[2] Jupp, James, The English in Australia, (Cambridge University Press), 2004, pp. 52-86, especially pp. 71-74.

[3] Ulster American Folk Park, serial no: 9701195, copyright John McCleery, Belfast.

[4] Beever, A., ‘From a Place of “Horrible Destitution” to a Paradise of the Working class: The Transformation of British Working class Attitudes to Australia 1841-1851’, Labour History, no. 40, (1981), pp. 1-15, examines how and why Australia became the place where British workers wanted to emigrate.

[5] Coughlan, Neil, ‘The Coming of the Irish to Victoria’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, Vol. 12, (1965), pp. 64-86, MacDonagh, Oliver, ‘The Irish in Victoria, 1851-91: a demographic essay’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 8, (1971), pp. 67-92 and McConville, C., ’The Victorian Irish: emigrants and families 1851-91’, in Grimshaw, P. et al. (eds.), Families in Colonial Australia, (Allen & Unwin), 1985, pp. 3-7.

[6] Sherer, John, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, (Clarke, Beeton), 1853, p. 254.

[7] Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, D1420/2.

[8] Ulster American Folk Park, serial no: 9701190, copyright John McCleery, Belfast.

[9] Pescod, K., The Emerald Strand: Nineteenth-century Irish-born Manufacturers in Victoria, (Australian Scholarly Publications), 2007.

[10] Of the many studies of Eureka, Gold, Geoffrey, (ed.), Eureka: Rebellion beneath the Southern Cross, (Rigby Limited), 1977 and Molony, John, Eureka, (Melbourne University Press), 1984, 2nd ed., 2001, are the most useful. Of the earlier studies, Turner, Henry Gyles, Our Own Little Rebellion: The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Melbourne, (Whitcombe & Tombs Limited), 1913, retains its vigour. Ibid, Brown, Richard, Three Rebellions examines the rebellion, its causes and consequences in detail.

[11] Anderson, Hugh, (ed.), Report from the Commission appointed to inquire into the Condition of the Goldfields, first published 1855, (Red Rooster Press), 1978, p. 45.

[12] Withers, W. B., History of Ballarat from the First Pastoral Settlement to the Present Time, 1st ed., Ballarat, 1870, 2nd ed., Ballarat, 1887, p. 159.

[13] Ibid, Withers, W. B., History of Ballarat, p. 109.

[14] Nicholls, H. R., ‘Reminiscences of the Eureka Stockade’, The Centennial Magazine: An Australian Monthly, (May 1890), in an annual compilation, Vol. II: August, 1889 to July, 1890, p. 749.

[15] Turner, Ian, ‘Peter Lalor (1827-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 5, 1974, pp. 50-54 provides a concise biography. Berry, A., From tent to parliament: The life of Peter Lalor and his coadjutors: history of the Eureka Stockade, (Berry, Anderson & Co), 1934; Turnbull, Clive, Eureka: The Story of Peter Lalor, (The Hawthorn Press), 1946, and Blake, Les, Peter Lalor: The Man From Eureka, (Neptune Press), 1979, are more detailed. See also, Currey, C. H., The Irish at Eureka, (Angus and Robertson), 1954.

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