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A Toast to the Days of Gold

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On the evening of Friday, July 20th, some 200-odd people attended a symposium called "A Toast to the Days of Gold" at the Australian Stock Exchange Theatrette in Melbourne. It was sponsored by the Australian Stock Exchange, and jointly presented by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and the Sovereign Hill Museums Association of Ballarat, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Victoria.

The audience heard four very different speakers on a variety of themes related to the impact of these discoveries, although (perhaps understandably) much of this interpretation was slanted towards a western Victorian perspective. The following is a brief report of the four presentations.

Social historian Professor Weston Bate OAM began by examining the impact that the discoveries had on Victorian social, political and economic life. He pointed out that the 1850s saw the arrival of 300,000 English migrants out of a total migrant intake in that decade of some 400,000, and said that they indelibly influenced social life in Victoria for much of the ensuing century. The discovery of gold, he said, provided a "permanent burst of energy" to civic life in Victoria, and led to the development of a synergistic relationship between the diggers and storekeepers that at times necessarily put both groups at odds with the government.

(He didn't say so, but this co-dependency between diggers and storekeepers was nowhere more evident than in the early history of the exploitation of most of the Gippsland goldfields, which were generally far less accessible on the whole than those in the western and north-central Victorian areas.)

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He characterized the Eureka Stockade movement at Ballarat -- and I'm sure I saw some of the late arrivals in the audience from that area cross themselves when he first mentioned that event -- as the "froth on the top of the very strong beer" of the democratic movement in this fledgling state that eventually (in 1871) resulted in the payment of Members of Parliament -- including the diggers' representative, Peter Lalor -- for the first time anywhere in the world. Top



Mr Tom Dickson, Former Director of the Victorian Geological Survey, spoke next on "Deep Leads, Saddle Reefs, Leather Jackets and Indicators: Victorian Gold 1851 to 1914", which turned out to be the statistical equal of all the other presentations. You might be as surprised as I was to learn, for example, that the gold found in Victoria in the last 150 years represents fully 2% of ALL the gold that's ever been discovered ... anywhere in the world ... ever! Try imagining a cube of solid gold, 5 meters by 5 meters by 5 meters, and you not only have a very attractive daydream, but something approximating Victoria's contribution. Mr Dickson cited the example of one Ballarat claim in the 1850s where a pegged surface area of 24 feet by 24 feet yielded just under half a tonne of gold by the time a number of parties had worked it consecutively.

The major thrust of his presentation, however, was in praise of the capital-intensive nature of underground reef mining. He made the point that in its day, Walhalla distinguished itself by yielding on average one ounce of gold for every tonne of quartz crushed there, and he dated the terminal decline in the industry as stemming from 1885, after which date dividends as a proportion of the value of gold production (which had risen steadily up to that point) began to decline just as steadily.

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Dr Frank Bierlein of Monash University spoke next on the difficulties faced by a geologist charged with the job of finding the next big strike. He explained some very sophisticated geological concepts in relatively simple language, describing Victoria as the second-richest gold province in the world, while explaining that western Victorian gold was "slightly older" than that in the east -- where "slightly older", in geological terms, means a difference of some 40 million years (and you might have been thinking that the historians had a stranglehold on the long view!). The most intriguing suggestion of the night, however, came in Dr Bierlein's following series of observations:

  • The nearest geological analogies to Victorian goldfields are those surrounding Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and Witwatersrand in the Republic of South Africa.
  • In Kalgoorlie, for every ounce of surface gold found, 110 ounces were found below the surface.
  • In South Africa, for every ounce of surface gold found, 300 ounces were found below the surface.
  • In Victoria, more than half (60%) of that massive amount of gold that was extracted -- 2% of all the gold ever discovered anywhere in the world, remember -- was surface gold.
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Finally, Professor Geoffrey Blainey AO rightly raised a laugh when he made the sardonic observation in beginning his presentation that "we've now got the theory, but they got the gold!" This led to a further laugh from his offhand suggestion that what he called the "dark greens" of the environmental movement were unreasonably and universally opposed to all mining, a suggestion that was perhaps misplaced, considering the significant, if not pivotal, role of the dearth of economically-accessible nearby timber in the final days of the industry in Walhalla, when the surrounding hills had been stripped so bare that timber had to be trucked in on tramways running as far as 30 kilometers away.

He also pointed out, however, that as a result of the rush to the diggings, the new state of Victoria became home to half of Australia's population by 1859, and Melbourne remained our most populous city until after the start of the 20th century. Gold led wool for export earnings from 1850 to 1869, and the wealth that it produced made Victoria enviably independent of international borrowing to fund its critical early growth and development. In fact, in 1853, with a population of only 600,000, the wealth of Victorian importers alone paid for a full 15% of the exports of Great Britain, then the world's leading trading nation. And while Victoria led Australia in manufacturing, by 1885, there was vastly more horsepower at work in the mining industry than in all of the state's factories combined.

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A copy of the complete proceedings of the symposium can be obtained (when published) for an estimated price of $20.00, on request from the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Post Office Box 660, Carlton, Victoria 3053.

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