The Bendigo Gold Fields 1851-1915

A presentation to the History Interest Group of the Queensland Club

3 July 2015

Click here to download the complete presentation with photographs.

Below is the text of the presentation without the photographs.


There have been many reasons for human beings to migrate around the world – climate change, starvation, persecution, war and a search for wealth.  Fifty thousand years ago, the aboriginals migrated down from Asia through Indonesia to Australia.  Then, in 1788, with a loss of access to North America following the American War of Independence, the British government found their jails were over-crowded with convicts.  This forced them to appoint Arthur Phillip to lead a convoy of thirteen ships and take the convicts to Botany Bay and Port Jackson.  

Following the Second World War, dislocated populations in Poland, Germany, Britain and Yugoslavia moved to Australia and, even in 1969, my family travelled on a migrant ship, the “Angelina Lauro”, which carried 30% British, 30% Italian and the rest Yugoslav as new arrivals in Australia.  The fall of South Vietnam on 29 April 1975 also resulted in a further surge of migration, this time people from South East Asia to Australia.  

However, one of the great milestones in migration was caused by the gold rush to New South Wales and Victoria in 1851.  

This discovery proved to be one of the great milestones in Australian history.  It produced a surge of wealth.  In turn, this resulted in a new financial viability of the colonies.  During these early years after 1851, there was a dramatic increase in the population of the colonies.  At about the same time, convict transportation to Australia tailed off.  The Victorian Era commencing in 1835 was resulting in a huge expansion of the British Empire and the new distant population in Australia was revising their approach to the very individualistic British class system.  We began to see new foundations involving Australian egalitarianism.  It was a new world, different from the old British system and different from the pilgrim origins of the North American society.  

Most migrants travelled from the British Isles.  70% were from England and particularly Cornwall, 15% were from Ireland where the potato famine was still causing starvation, and 5% came from Scotland.  Harry Leigh Atkinson was one of these migrants.  Fortunately, backed by a medical degree, he obtained a position as ship’s doctor on the Blackwall frigate, the “Suffolk”.  This ship followed the classical route.  With sixty passengers and crew, the ship was towed by a steam-powered tug from Gravesend to the North Sea and the final food and livestock were brought aboard at Plymouth before sailing to Australia.  This included cattle, pigs and chickens.  At worst, the trip was expected to take one hundred and forty days. Harry Atkinson celebrated his 28th birthday at this early time in the trip and he was exposed to the greatest solar storm in history while only two days out of Gravesend.  They passed the Canary Islands averaging 12 knots per hour and usually 240 knots per day, but on a particularly good day in the South Atlantic they could make 640 knots.  From the Canary Islands the ship moved to 20 degrees west hoping to avoid the doldrums in the Equatorial region which took about one month to reach.  The ship then moved down the western Atlantic passing well south of the Cape of Good Hope and reaching for the westerly winds at latitude 50-55 degrees south.  

This took them one thousand miles south of Cape Leeuwin and onto the final part of the voyage heading up to the 40 degrees latitude and to Bass Strait.  It was not uncommon to lose up to 10% of the children and one in thirty adults on these trips, although the voyage of the “Suffolk” was death-free.  

The final challenge of this long sea voyage was in the last few days.  It was necessary to identify Cape Otway and navigate through the sixty mile passage guarded to the south by Cape Wickham on King Island.  Bass Strait was a well-known graveyard for many clippers and one notable one was the 2,500 tonne “Schomberg” captained by “Bully” Forbes.  The building of the Cape Otway lighthouse in 1846-48, and later the Cape Wickham lighthouse in 1861, provided some additional support for the navigators.  Harry Leigh Atkinson and his ship reached Port Phillip eighty-one days after sailing from Gravesend.      


The gold rush had caused a great domestic and business dislocation in Melbourne.  Servants, shop workers and factory workers were mesmerised by the promise of gold and wealth and they were deserting their posts. Up to fifty ships lay idle in Port Phillip as the sailors had also deserted.  It was said that up to three ships were arriving per day, unloading and reloading before moving on through the Southern Ocean and the South Pacific to round the southern tip of South America heading back through the Atlantic to Britain.  The road to Bendigo was busy and threatening although only 120 kilometres long.  It passed through Clarkefield, Gisborne, Macedon, Woodend, Kyneton, Malmsbury, Castlemaine, Kangaroo Flat and Bendigo.       

Walking and carry mining equipment took around eleven days while riding a horse was said to take five days and a carriage about seven hours.  

The carriage service was inaugurated in January 1854 by Freeman Cobb, James Swanton, John Lamber and John Peck.  This was the beginning of a transforming transport service in Australia.  Using the American-designed “Concorde Coach”, which was hung on suspended long leather straps, passengers began using the service on 30 January 1854.  It would leave from the Criterion Hotel in Collins Street at 6:00am.  Horses were changed every 15 kilometres and this allowed the coach to average about 20 kilometres per hour.  Up to twenty people would travel on these coaches.  From these early Bendigo days, Cobb & Co expanded and was covering 30,000 kilometres per day by the 1880s.  


While the initial discovery of gold in Australia was made by Hargreaves in Ophir near Bathurst in New South Wales, it was in September 1851 that the wives of two shepherds, Mrs Kennedy and Mrs Farrell, were found panning and finding gold at Mount Bing on the Alexander North Run in a creek bed.  It was hard to keep this discovery confidential and the reporter, Henry Frencham, broke the news in the “Argus” on 5 December 1851.  It is reported that he used the pen name “Bendigo”.  This triggered the subsequent serge of migration to the area.  In time, it would be found that the second greatest gold discovery in Australia would be in an area 15 x 9 kilometres in area in this region.  Still, at this early time, the miners were being encouraged and tempted by the alluvial gold in the creek beds.  The miners put up with disease, poor hygiene, fighting, murder and stealing.  They had to put up with rising prices and primitive accommodation including tents and shanties.  This hard life could be tempered with sly grog alcohol shops while the Chinese turned to opium dens.  Still, Sunday was a day of rest or religious service and there were penalties if this practice was broken.  The miners worked panning in the creek beds and using sluices.  ?

However, by 1854, it was becoming evident that the gold was to be found at great depths in the quartz reefs.  At this time, the German pioneer, Johann Ballerstedt, and other pioneers such as John Watson and Henry Lazarus, turned to mechanical mining, crushing the quartz found in the shafts.  From 1854 onwards, increasing numbers of shafts were sunk in this Bendigo area so that in all there were 5,500 shafts.

A later advocate was George Lansell, the “Quartz King”.  He recognised that the mines had to be deeper and deeper.  After several financial failures and near bankruptcy he found treasure in the Cinderella Mine and the 180 Mine.  In time there were 1,300 companies drilling for gold on these quarts reefs.  It was said that more shafts were sunk in this region than anywhere else in the world.  At the time, the shafts were also the deepest in the world.  Sixty-seven were greater than 600 metres, eleven greater than 1,000 metres and two went down to 1,400 metres.  But, as usual, there were great costs.  It was extremely difficult to ventilate the mineshafts with the current practices at the time.  It meant that it was very difficult to move more than 100 metres on a horizontal shaft.  Then there was the problem of temperature at the great depths.  There was a 1 degree centigrade increase for every ninety feet increase in depth.  Water seepage was a further challenge.  However, as there were 1,300 different companies working these reefs, there was little exchange of information about the geology and in time it would be discovered that there was a very erratic distribution of gold in the quartz reefs.  Still, it was George Lansell who introduced diamond drilling to the area.  This added a further problem, silicosis, and the prevalence of “miner’s lung” (consumption or miner’s phthisis) was reported to be the worst in the world.  It was a major industrial issue certainly shortening the life of miners but, because at least twenty of the directors were members of the Victorian Parliament, little was done.  

Some miners could be ecstatically fortunate with the discovery of nuggets of gold.  Probably the largest one was “The Welcome Stranger” which was found in Bulldog Gulley on the side of a creek probably 60 kilometres from Bendigo.  It was discovered by Richard Oates and John Deason.  It was found to be 61 x 31 centimetres in size and weighed 2,300 ounces of pure gold.  It was valued at the time at £10,000.   

Gold in Bendigo was to prove to be the second largest find in Australia and one of the ten most generous discoveries in the world.  Between the years 1860 and 1950, the average gold taken from the area was 600,000 ounces per year and in all 22 million ounces were brought to the market (over 700 tonnes).  

Looking back, it is difficult to explain why the miners came principally from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and southern China.  Soon after the reports of gold in Australia, the Chinese migration began from the Canton area, Hong Kong and Whampoa.  Of course, American and British shipping were faced with the downturn in the slave trade and in convict trade and they were looking for new markets.  The British and American ships sailed from Hong Kong down through Indonesia and along the Western Australian coast to Port Phillip, still taking over seventy-two days.  

On arrival in Melbourne, the Chinese were obviously seen to be different.  The male migrants averaged 150 centimetres, had shaven foreheads and pigtails, did not speak English and moved in groups of one hundred.  They had a different walk.  Not surprisingly, they were faced with discrimination, prejudice and persecution.  Murders were quite common.  It was the Victorian Parliament that, as early as 1855, passed “An Act to Make Provision for Certain Migrants”.  The Chinese were charged £10 sterling to land and this was the average wage of a labourer in Britain for a year at the time.  It was the cost of a trip to Australia in steerage.  Still, in 1855, up to 1,000 Chinese migrants were arriving per month in search of gold.

With the petering out of alluvial gold, they moved on or moved back to China.  Still, the Chinese left a notable legacy in Sandhurst which was renamed Bendigo in 1891.  In Bendigo there is the Chinese Museum which outlines the comprehensive history of Chinese involvement in the region.  It reminds us of the marketing of Chinese medicine in the area and the generous use of opium dens by the visitors.  They were also fairly dependent on alcohol.  The museum is quite a treasure house of Chinese culture.  It includes a beautiful two-tonne carved carriage and horse in jade.  It exhibits numerous ceramic treasures and sculptures.  It holds the longest dragon in the world, “Loong”.  

So, to this day, Bendigo is the centre of Chinese culture in Australia and this is identified by the magnificence of the museum together with the Chinese Easter Festival.  

Travellers to Bendigo will quickly recognise that there is an architectural character to the city not seen anywhere else in Australia and particularly not seen in the inland cities.   This can be particularly attributed to the German migrant, William Vahland, who was initially trained in architecture and industrial design in Hanover and Saxony.  In 1854, he moved to Sandhurst.  Soon he became a partner with another German architect, Gerschmann, and they worked together until 1869.  Over one hundred buildings are attributed to the architect Vahland in the Bendigo and Ballarat area.  Many of them stand today and have great character.  These include the Town Hall, the Shamrock Hotel which was burnt down and rebuilt, the Mechanics Building, the Princess Theatre, banks and the Alexandra Fountain.  
William Vahland    

St Kilhearn’s Church is the largest wooden structure in the Southern Hemisphere.  He built George Lansell’s home, “Fortuna”, reputed to have forty-four rooms.  He built the Bendigo Asylum.  

Vahland worked in Bendigo until he died in 1915 and this July Bendigo celebrates the centenary of his death.  

He became concerned about the miners living in tents and shanties.  He designed the “Vahland Villas”.  These were identified with the two front windows and the central door together with four supporting posts which held up the overhanging front roofing.  The design spread through country towns of Australia with modifications and upgrades.  
This was William Vahland’s contribution to low cost public housing.  He appreciated the difficulties in raising money for these buildings and he developed the Bendigo Land & Building Society which in time has matured to the Bendigo Bank.  Not surprisingly, with this foresight and social conscience, he subsequently became the Mayor of Bendigo.


George Lansell arrived in Bendigo also in the mid-1850s having moved from Adelaide with his two brothers.  He quickly became involved in the mining activities in the area and bought into several mines and suffered financial distress.  Still, as happens with gold miners, he became consumed with the venture.  He bought Ballerstedt’s 180 Mine and the Cinderella Mine and found great fortune.  He subsequently introduced diamond drilling which quickly enhanced the returns from these mines.  He was the driving force for the mines to be taken deeper and deeper.  He became a great benefactor and a major contributor to many of the struggling mines in the area.  However, he and his wife had no children and then, in the 1880s, she passed away.  

He returned to England, eventually married, retraced his path to Bendigo and went on to have five sons and a daughter.  He moved into “Fortuna” villa, now another famous William Vahland building.  George Lansell became the father of Bendigo and of course he was the “Quartz King”.  He is recognised with a bronze statue sitting over the main street of the city.     


While alcohol and opium were a major distraction for the miners, entertainment was introduced and Lola Montez was quite notable.  Born Maria Delores Lisa Gilbert in Sligo, Ireland, in 1821, she was subsequently educated in Scotland and trained in dancing in England.  She married and moved to India but her husband died and she returned to Europe.
She was reputed to be beautiful, seductive, rebellious, intelligent and as “unsettled as a butterfly”.  Following relations with Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas and Nicholas I of Russia, she settled to be the mistress of King Ludwig of Bavaria who made her Countess Landsfeld for her generosity.  
In 1855, she visited Australia and Bendigo and performed for the miners in the Princess Theatre.  She had a memorable “Spider Dance” in which an invisible spider became tangled in her clothes as she danced.  She was subsequently remembered in Australia with the musical “Lola Montez”.  However, as restless as she was, Australia was not enough and she returned to America in 1856.  She died at the age of 40 in the United States of tertiary syphilis.  


Harry Leigh Atkinson was born in Weaverthorpe, Yorkshire, in 1831.  He was the second of eleven children.  His father, John, was a general practitioner in the area.  Educated in London and Paris, he returned to the York Hospital as a young doctor and he then decided, for unknown reasons, to visit Australia in 1958, arriving in November after the eighty-one day trip on the “Suffolk”.  He was the ship’s doctor for the voyage and he was immediately employed at the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum for six months.  He was registered with an MB and a BS at the University of Melbourne and he was subsequently awarded an MD in 1863.  Harry Leigh Atkinson moved to Bendigo in 1860 to become the medical officer at the Bendigo Benevolent Asylum where he worked for two years.  His reports at that time indicate up to 25% of admissions died.  He began using the newly reported plaster of Paris on patients with fractured femurs and he reduced their inpatient stay from eight-one days to twenty-eight days.  

He subsequently worked as a medical officer in View Street for the rest of his life and he was a visiting medical officer and surgeon at the Bendigo Hospital for the next fifteen years.  He was subsequently recorded in the book “Founders of Australia”.  

Harry Leigh Atkinson was noted for his financial stringency, his emphasis on exercise and a good diet rather than drugs and his dislike of alcohol.  During the early years, he published articles in the Australian Medical Journal on the use of plaster of Paris, carcinoma of the colon and hydatid cysts.  While his focus was on medical practice, he developed increasing interests in gold mining and in property, although he delegated these areas to managers who would work for him throughout his professional career.

In his gold mining interests, he had Mr H Chappell and later Mr Edward Moore as managers.  He became a director in mines including Garden Gully United, Virginia, Great Extended Hustlers, Carlisle, Unity, Ironbark, North Johnson and Pearl.  He invested in mines including Lazarus, New Chum, Unity, Victory, Londonderry, Murchison and Victoria.  As a director, he seemed to focus on the efficient use of time at meetings.  
But from an early stage, he also had an interest in property.  His rooms are still present on the corner of View Street and Mackenzie Street in Bendigo.  He owned and built three two-storey shops and three single-storey shops on View Street on the site where the Bendigo Art Gallery now stands.  He is reputed to have had a fine sense of timing with his investments.  Still, the management again was delegated to his long-term manager, Montgomery.  In 1891, he bought Ravenswood and other properties he owned included “Auchmore”, “Terrick” and “Barwonleigh”.  In all, he had 90,000 acres at the time of his death, mainly involved in sheep farming and wool.  


The origins of this property date back to the 1830s.  Then, in 1851, gold was found in the creek passing through the Ravenswood Run.  The property was finally bought by Harry Leigh Atkinson in 1891 and he moved his family into the area sixteen miles from the city centre.  Again William Vahland was involved in the architecture of the building, which is now heritage listed.  It remained in the family for sixty-one years.  







Lucy Crampton


19 months



Christina Morton


7½ years



Carolyn Evelyn Moulden


4 years



Fanny Boobier


2 years



Kathleen Anne Saunders


26 years



Harry Leigh Atkinson was surrounded by tragedy in his domestic life.  Having left his parents and his ten siblings in Weaverthorpe, he did not return to England.  
Still, he was joined by two brothers in Melbourne.  He was first married to Lucy Crampton, a nurse at the York Hospital, in 1860, but nineteen months later, following delivery of a son, she passed away.  He remarried in 1868 and his wife, Christina, was the mother of three daughters, Amy, Edith and Nell, but, after seven and a half years of marriage, she too passed away in 1877 following the birth of another son who subsequently died.  Evie Moulden he married in 1878 and she was the mother of one son, Leigh, later educated in Oxford as a lawyer, and another son, Rupert, who was born in 1881 and was educated at Rugby before returning to do medicine for three years in Melbourne.  Shortly after Rupert’s birth, Evie passed away from typhoid which was epidemic in the region.  With five children, it was not surprising that he remarried in 1886 but his wife, Fanny, developed peritonitis post-partum and again she and the child died.  In 1889, he married Kathleen Saunders.  She outlived Harry Leigh and died in 1931.  

In his fading years, Harry Leigh continued to work although he developed dementia prior to his death in 1915.  With the complex family background, it was not surprising that his will went to court resulting in an expensive redistribution to his five surviving children.  

By 1915, the deaths of William Vahland and Harry Leigh Atkinson also heralded the end of the profitable gold mines of Bendigo.  Despite expensive efforts to re-establish gold mining in the area over the next eighty years, the ventures were unsuccessful.

The words of David Hill in his book “The Gold Rush” (2010) are worth remembering:

“Depending to a great extent on luck, the gold rushes had the power to improve a person’s life beyond recognition or to completely destroy it”.

In conclusion, the gold rush in Bendigo and Ballarat had consequences for the country.  It produced great wealth.  As a result, there was financial viability for the colony of Victoria and then New South Wales.  It resulted in dramatic increases in the population during the early years.  The demands for transport by the migrants reduced the availability of transport for convicts and this faded out.  David Hill feels that the gold rush “challenged the British class system and produced the foundations for Australian egalitarianism”.  It probably also was the early origins and signs for the White Australia Policy which developed and was later phased out by Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.  It did play a key role in developing Australia as a nation.

HILL, David; 2010 The Gold Rush; Published by William Heinemann.

CHARLWOOD, Don; Settlers Under Sail; 1978, Published by Burgewood Books.

CHARLWOOD, Edward, 2003; The 1862 Shipboard Diary of Edward Charlwood; Published by Burgewood Books.

COBURN, Keith; A Small Portal of Entry; 1997; Lecture to obstetricians, Brisbane Convention Centre.

O’DONOHUE, Annette; His Wealth Could Not Buy Health; 2002; Published by The Terrace Print Service Bendigo.

KENYON, A, c.1937; The Late Dr H L Atkinson of Bendigo; Founders of Australia.

HULL, Rita; Ravenswood Run 1839-2002.

The free online library; The State and Gold Miners Health in Victoria 1870-1920.

ATKINSON, Harry Leigh; Malignant Disease of the Rectum; Australian Medical Journal, October 1861.

CUSACK, Frank; Bendigo: A History; 1973, Published by William Heinemann.



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