The Gold Rush

In 1851 gold was discovered in central Victoria.  Immediately thousands of people from all over the world flocked to the diggings.   By the end of the decade Victoria’s population had risen to over 500 000 people, including tens of thousands of Chinese.  Approximately 2570 tonnes of gold had been taken from Victorian soil by the end of the nineteenth century.  This was 2% of all the gold ever mined in the world.  Victoria was one of the world’s most important shallow alluvial gold fields with mines that were the richest in the world at the time.

There were many different ways to win gold from the soil.  To begin with they used pans and cradles in which small amounts of water loosened the sand and gravel and allowed the heavier gold to sink to the bottom.  Gradually more efficient methods were developed.  Puddlers were large circular troughs in the ground in which paddles were dragged through water and soil in order to loosen stiff clays.  Stamp batteries dropped heavy iron weights onto solid rock, crushing it into sand and silt.  Sluicing used hoses directed at hillsides to wash out fine gold from large areas.  By the end of the nineteenth century Victorians were using dredges along the riverbanks, floating conveyor belts that dug up the ground and spat out the mud behind.

Water supply

The miners quickly found that they needed large quantities of water but Victoria has very small rivers and few lakes.  The rain tends to come in in the winter months with prolonged droughts in the summer and autumn.  The miners needed to find new ways of getting water to where they needed it.  They started to build storage dams to hold the winter rains and canals to move the water to the mining areas.  Soon nearly 4000 kms of water races were snaking through the bush.  Water merchants could supply 1.1 billion litres of water to the mines every day, enough to supply the domestic needs of every single Victorian more than four times over.

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Water rights

Water merchants began to make fortunes by selling water to miners.  Access to water was highly controversial.  Rivals stole water at night from competitors’ supply networks, resorted to violence, and lodged claim and counter-claim in the courts.  At last in 1862 the Victorian government passed laws that regulated water rights.  Miners could purchase a 15-year license to a supply of water.  The licenses and the associated infrastructure could be bought and sold on the open market.  The right to water was no longer attached to land ownership.  Over the next decade further laws were passed that clarified the control of water.  It was now owned and managed by the Crown for the public good.  This was a fundamental shift from old British traditions of riparian rights and paved the way for irrigation agriculture.

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Reliable water supplies enabled miners to work at an ever-larger scale.  As they used the water to separate the gold from the ore the water became polluted with sand, silt and gravel.  The colloquial term for these mine tailings was sludge.  Sludge poured from the mines in a flood that engulfed homes and businesses in the goldfields towns, buried roads, choked rivers, and blanketed farmland on the floodplains.  Tens of kilometres downstream from the mines, farmers and graziers watched in despair as the sludge ruined their land.

The sludge is rolling down, like a lava-tide, upon the cities of Ballarat and Sandhurst, threatening to submerge them, and thus preserve them, like Pompeii or Herculaneum’ (Geelong Advertiser, 19 April 1859).

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Controlling pollution

For decades people downstream wrote furious editorials, signed petitions, held meetings and sent delegations to politicians.  Occasionally the clamour became loud enough that the government had to respond.  Numerous enquiries were held all over the colonies.  Commissioners listened to complaints, inspected the drowned land, and took samples from the polluted rivers.  Nothing was done because the mining lobby was simply too widespread and too powerful.  The environmental damage continued for generations.  Finally, in the early years of the twentieth century, politicians began to listen.  Agricultural interests were becoming more powerful, conservation groups were starting to form in the towns and cities, and the mining industry was in decline.  Dredging the riverbeds was the final innovation to try to wring gold from the soil but the damage done was the last straw.  In 1904 Victoria at last passed legislation that began to make the miners responsible for their waste.  The battle was not over but this was a significant first step on the path to environmental protection.

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