12 February 1851: the Australian gold rush

On this day in 1851,  Edward Hargraves discovered a ‘grain of gold’ in New South Wales, and started Australia’s first gold rush.

It was to last the best part of 30 years and come to be described as the founding of a nation.

Hargraves was a seasoned gold prospector. He was born in Gosport, Hampshire and educated at Brighton Grammar School.

He spent many years in the California goldfields looking for his fortune. Ultimately, he was unsuccessful, but when he arrived in New South Wales he had already become familiar with where to look for gold. Indeed, the geological features of New South Wales reminded him of the Californian fields with its quartz outcrops and gullies.

In February 1851, Hargraves and a friend, John Lister, set out to Lewis Ponds Creek. While searching along its banks, they found gold. He named the place of the discovery Ophir. He is quoted as saying, “Once I was in the creek bed I somehow felt surrounded by gold”.

Unsurprising, they were keen to keep the place a secret. Hargraves travelled to Sydney to meet the Colonial Secretary in March to inform him of the discovery and lay claim to it.

It was soon recognised, and Hargraves was appointed the ‘Commissioner of Lands’. He was also given a £10,000 reward from the New South Wales government on top of a life pension and £5,000 reward from the Victorian government. However, because of a dispute with his partners some of the reward was withheld.

Three months later on 14 May the find was proclaimed and within days the first Australian gold rush started with over 100 prospectors rushing to find their share of the gold. In a month the number had risen to over 2,000, with thousands more to arrive later.

The gold rush was not in vain for many – in 1852, 850,000 ounces were mined in the area.

Hargraves settled in Australia and bought a 640-acre farm in 1856. He lived on it till his death in 1891, having started the Australian gold rush.