The Dandenongs Goldfields: Early Signs
From the earliest days of settlement, rumours of gold abounded. Throughout the 1840s, as squatters and their shepherds spread over the colony, followed by explorers, splitters, surveyors and stock assessors, scattered finds were made all over Victoria. But squatters had no wish to see their runs taken over and their pasture dug up. Men who did report finds were ignored, actively discouraged, even arrested.
“During the idle part of the year, and when sheep shearing was over, small parties were made up, nominally looking for pasture, but really for prospecting purposes. To avoid ridicule the true purport of these parties was kept secret.”
When a Collins Street jeweller bought a gold nugget as big as an apple from a shepherd, the news leaked out, but people scoffed. A similar sale in 1849 even caused a brief rush, but when the site could not be located it was regarded as a hoax. Such finds were hushed up for dread of the consequences. Van Diemen’s Land with its convict population lay just across Bass Strait.
When the colony’s labour force began to disappear, however, the picture changed. After 1849, California’s newly discovered bonanza drew men across the Pacific. Then New South Wales had its first strike, and drained more labour from Victoria.
In Melbourne, in 1851, the Corporation marked the changed circumstances by offering a £200 reward for a gold discovery – and within weeks its labour force had gone.
Spreading from near Melbourne to the remotest regions of the colony, men struck by gold fever began to penetrate into areas where no white man, and perhaps few aborigines, had ever been.
Before the year was out, rewards were claimed simultaneously for finds at Warrandyte, Clunes and Ballarat. Yet at Clunes, policemen were still taking the names of diggers, and the Aboriginal Protector complained of “notoriously unlicensed” gold diggers on his station.
Although the great majority of the diggers were decent men in search of a living, a steady stream of Tasmania’s convict population crossed Bass Strait. There were plenty of safe hideouts for criminals. Organised gangs of murderers and robbers preyed upon honest diggers. Women, children and the aged were left to survive in a town where social organisation had broken down. The police, too, ran off to the goldfields.
Most diggers were content to dig up a living wage; it has been estimated that less than a hundred men overall won enough gold to retire and live in comfort. Among these, apparently, were the “lucky Germans.” “The Germans say they will be off as soon as discovered,” reported the paper. They returned to Melbourne after only a month with “a great amount of gold.” In this short time they banked thousands of pounds, before returning to their homeland without bothering to claim a reward.
Others followed them out, travelling along Barkers Road, across White Flat (Croydon), past Fletcher’s homestead on the Mooroolbark run, but had no luck. Gold Commissioner Fenwick searched for the spot without success.
Later stories leaked back of a few parties making fortunes “on the Moondie Yallock”, but still none claimed the reward. The exact spot discovered by the Germans remained unknown.The Lucky Germans
In October 1851, most of Melbourne’s population of 25,000 streamed out instead to the rich new field at Mount Alexander.
At the same time, a party of Germans explored the remote creeks of the Dandenong Ranges, and struck gold around the junction of the Woori Yallock and Menzies Creeks. They lodged several thousand pounds in Union Bank, but returned home without revealing their secret location.
“The whole of the gullies and creeks rising from the Dandenong Ranges contain gold in greater or less quantities,” reported the noted German mineralogist, Dr. Bruhn. But there was no great rush to the Dandenongs. While the Germans dug quietly somewhere near Butterfield Reserve, Melbourne and the larger diggings endured oaths, murder, and every crime in between. Although the men seldom took the law into their own hands as the American diggers so often did, there was at least one lynching. There was piracy in Port Phillip Bay, resulting in the loss of a gold shipment. The worst fears of the authorities were realised.
Reports of digging in the Dandenongs continued to come out throughout the 1850s. When the alluvial gold was beginning to give out on the main fields in September 1854, there were parties still doing well in the Dandenongs. Monkey-dung Creek , a small tributary of the Ti-tree Creek, (or possibly of Menzies Creek), has been spoken of as the first site prospected; but nothing further was heard of the prospectors. Some may have become lost, and died of exposure and starvation. Diggers who attempted the journey on foot were particularly likely to have met such a fate.
During 1855-6, surveyors Selwyn and Daintree found a few diggers in the area. Their Geological Survey of Victoria included a look at the headwaters of the Woori Yallock Creek, and noted the likelihood of gold deposits.
On the 15th February 1859 the Melbourne Morning Herald carried a letter telling of a visit during the previous few days, when diggers were found occupying ‘the locality of lucky Germans who worked during the earliest days of Mount Alexander’. The unnamed creek was identified as ‘an eastern tributary of the Moodeeyallock or Pickaninny Yarra’.
Extensive sale of Crown lands ‘adjacent to Dandenong’ were advertised on 28th February but then withdrawn. It was hoped that diggers would use their savings to purchase freehold in district. While money was scarce, forced sales would only benefit large grazing purchasers.
Court cases held at ‘Dandenong’ were often delayed for want of second Magistrate. Cases were so often postponed that there were please for a local resident of adequate intelligence who could act if appointed.
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- C&W Reports 2/12/51
- Herald 14/10/1851
- Herald report
- Early settlers referred to koalas as “monkeys”