This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Diocese of Melbourne. Following the approval of the Holy Father, Pope Pius IX, the Diocese was officially erected on 25 June 1847. To celebrate this significant anniversary, Melbourne Catholic will be publishing a series of articles that explore the life and times of our Diocese (later Archdiocese). We’ll look at what life was like in Victoria in the mid-1800s; how and when the first parishes (“missions”) were formed; how our beloved St Patrick’s Cathedral has developed over time, and; the various men and women from all walks of life who’ve contributed to our community of faith since its inception.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are not a child of the twentieth or twenty-first century. Imagine instead that you are in 1851, either in an Australian colony or, better yet, back home in Britain. Times are tough, naturally; the life-expectancy is about 35 for Australia and 42 for England, so you don’t have long. Neither do you have the means, materials or mentality to “live your dreams” or “follow your heart” or “live your best life”. There’s not much life to live, and you’ve spent yours working hard, scraping by, doing what you can to keep your family alive and well.

Then, rumours begin to circulate. You’ve heard people talk about gold, dream of it, wonder how different life would be if they had a small fortune to build a real future with. You’ve always dismissed these as fantasies. You know your lot in life and it isn’t much. Still, rumours swirl and soon enough they’re confirmed as fact: stories of gold are coming in from around Australia, and people are packing their things, emigrating to the colonies to chase dreams of gold. You know friends who are going.

Suddenly, the cramped corner of your life is flooded with a great light: hope. Hope of a future beyond the struggles and toil and misery of Britain’s backwater stink.

The question is: What would you do for gold? Would you be willing to take the four month trip across the ocean, in cramped and spartan conditions, risking disease, storm and death with your family? What if you had an infant? Would you still go? How would you even get the money? Could you scrape together enough, or will you have to borrow some?

More to the point: What would you do with gold once you found it?

A melting pot of all-sorts

The gold-rush is such a fascinating period of Australian history. It marks in many ways – politically, culturally, technologically, and economically – the point of transition in which the colonies gained more independence, prosperity, and progress than they could have possibly imagined.

It is also a period in which we get tremendous insight into another time, when gold captured people’s imagination and they went on great adventures and harrowing quests to find it.

Although early in European settlement the colonies were made largely of Irish and English convicts, when the gold-rush began all sorts of people made the arduous journey across the sea.

On 17 July 1852, Charles Dickens wrote about the people gathering to board a galley for Port Phillip:

Old men with grey hairs and faltering steps; young girls, pale from the factory or the garret; countrymen in smock-frocks; lean-faced artisans; mothers with infants in their arms; stout servant girls . . .; two or three newly wedded couples . . .; a knot of oily-headed, sleek-visaged shopmen, and city clerks; a few hale-looking country lads and lasses . . .’

Discovery of gold in California nearly ten years earlier had teased hopes of gold in Australia, too (although, since dreams of treasure-hunting would rouse the passions of the criminal underclass, authorities were quick to put an end to loose talk on the subject). Any gold that had been found, if in the possession of a convict, was presumed to have been stolen (putting a real dampener on things, since punishment for that was 150 lashes).

When news of gold reached England in 1851, everyone was caught in the spirit of adventure – the poor, the rich, the journalists and the artists.

There was a spirit of comradery, too; an aura surrounded “the diggings”, that place where everyone could work for their fortune, regardless of nationality. As one diarist wrote:

Men from all nations sit down and drink from the same bowl, they each talk and sing in their own tongue, get drunk according to their own fashion, quarrel, jangle, fight and embrace as their various natures dictate . . .’

So many people came to Australia from 1851 that in a mere ten years the population of Australia trebled, and the population of Victoria exploded to seven times what it was. Victoria alone contributed to around one-third of the entire world’s gold supply, if you can believe it.

Gold meant, to a large extent, work and independence and self-sufficiency and freedom.

Edward Roper Gold diggings Ararat 1854
“Gold diggings, Ararat” by Edward Roper (1858) Source: Wikipedia Commons

The underbelly

It wasn’t all fortunes and melting pots, though. With wealth comes crime, and with underdeveloped cities comes poor hygiene.

The new world to which emigrants travelled was, upon arrival, shocking in its squalor. Port Phillip was a horrifying display, and many writers described the scene. Slaughterhouses lined the river, with decapitated heads on clear display and pigs feasting on the flesh of their lost friends. Rotting animals could be found in the water, creating a nauseating stink as the boats arrived. Broken bottles, stripped carcasses, plants, tanneries, and fellmongers all contributed to the nickname: ‘Smellbourne’.

Criminal activity was common, too. Gold would have to be escorted from the diggings to the treasury by armed escort for fear of bushrangers, who frequently made their fortune through the time-honoured practice of thievery and murder.

One writer, a woman by the name of Ellen Clacy, who travelled with her husband to dig for gold, wrote of what nights at the diggings were like, and it is well worth quoting in full:

But night at the diggings is a characteristic time: murder here – murder there – revolvers cracking – blunderbusses bombing – rifles going off – balls whistling – one man groaning with a broken leg – another shouting because he could not find his hole, and a third because he had tumbled into one – this man swearing, another praying – a party of bacchanals chanting various ditties, to different time and tune, or rather minus both. Here is one man grumbling because he has brought his wife with him, another ditto because he has left his behind, or sold her for an ounce of gold or a bottle of rum.’

Human nature being what it is, the emergence of an Australian El Dorado (as some of the digging sites were nicknamed) brought plenty of strife.

Not to mention the government: if you didn’t have a proper license on you at all times, the “traps” (police) would fine you heavily or chain you to a tree without any due process until a magistrate had the time to see you. Plenty of people didn’t have the gold license, because the government made them exorbitant in price, trying to prevent people from abandoning their jobs and leaving the economy in turmoil. This heavy-handed, “cold-blooded” approach to the diggers was one of the initial sources of resentment towards the authorities.

Cultural foundations

For a period, the excitement, adventure and prosperity came with its cultural downsides, too. One visitor to Melbourne, Catherine Spence, wrote at the height of the rush:

Religion is neglected, education despised, the libraries are almost deserted . . . everybody is engrossed by the simple object of making money in a very short time.’

What effects this would have on Australian culture is hard to say, since in the judgment of some historians, the colonies of Australia were some of Britain’s most literate in the world.

Still, we return here to our questions: What would you do for gold? And what would you do with gold, once you found it? When it comes to the for gold part, people clearly gave up a lot, travelling from around the world, risking their own lives and health to chase the dream of gold.

But what to do with it?

John Dunmore Lang, in his 1852 ‘Emigrant’s Manual’, encouraged people to ‘assist in laying the broad and deep foundations of what will ere long be one of the mightiest empires upon the earth . . .’

Technologically, economically, and politically, the foundations of today’s Australia were being laid. It was in the 1850s that the first railways began construction, the first telegraphs began operating, and the first steamships travelled between Europe and Australia. In 1854, the newspaper The Age was founded. It was also in the 1850s that Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, and South Australia all received their own constitutions at the hands of the British government, inaugurating a new era of democracy, self-government, and independence.

But what about religion? No culture has truly deep foundations unless there are religious foundations.

This is where we properly meet James Alipius Goold OSA, the first bishop of Melbourne, at whose hands, in timing with the gold-rush, would see Catholic life in Melbourne completely transformed. Because of his work and vision, deep religious foundations were laid for us today.


Gold: A Pictorial History of the Australian Goldrush by Geoff Hocking (The Five Mile Press, 2006)

A Concise History of Australia by Stuart Macintyre (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

A History of Victoria by Geoffrey Blainey (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

The Rush to be Rich by Geoffrey Searle (Melbourne University Press, 1971)