Home Melbourne Stories The men who found Victoria’s first Gold

The men who found Victoria’s first Gold

James Esmond

When Gold was discovered in Victoria in the early 1850’s, Melbourne was a little pastoral settlement, the prosperity that came with gold, transformed the little settlement to Marvellous Melbourne in a few years. Wool ensured the survival of the early years of European settlement in Melbourne, but it was Gold that brought prosperity. In the pursuit of Gold, some made a fortune and others lost it all.  The biggest loser of it was Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe. His tenure would have been considered a success but for the Gold.

Edward Hargraves

Both national and international events influenced and propelled, the discovery of Gold in Victoria. Edward Hammond Hargraves, a British migrant to Australia, left for the United States in July 1849 to participate in the Californian Gold Rush. It is estimated that around 400 people left Australian shores for California. Hargraves was unsuccessful in his pursuit for Gold but returned in January 1851 to continue his search for Gold in Australia, armed with the knowledge of prospecting technics.  Hargraves with John Lister, William Tom and James Tom, found five specks of gold in Lewis Ponds Creek in New South Wales on 12th February 1851. Victorians flocked to New South Wales and the newly formed Colony of Victoria watched with jealousy. If New South Wales had Gold, Victoria must have it too, as both shared similar landscape; so was the discussions going on in Melbourne.

Small amounts of Gold were discovered by shepherds in Port Phillip since 1847. But squatters feared, if the news spreads, fortune seekers would rush to their runs, so the discoveries were kept a secret. In 1848, a discovery at Daisy Hill by a shepherd named Thomas Chapman was much publicised.  The Surveyor Robert Russell, from plotting the boundaries of Glenmona, wrote that Thomas Chapman (one of Hall and McNeill’s shepherds) had found gold and sold a quantity to a Collins Street Jewellers. Further additions to the story – The story of Thomas Chapman, appeared in the Argus in 1882.

Gold Diggings – Courtesy: SLV

In 1882, The Argus published a letter sent by Mrs Ann Brentani, the wife of jeweller Charles Brentani who bought the gold from Chapman. Mrs Brentani described the incident of the day as it happened and the contents of the letter are as follows,

My husband, the late Charles Brentani, and I settled in Melbourne in the year 1845. He carried on business as a jeweller in its premises in Collins-street west, near Queen-street, and subsequently he removed to the premises now occupied by Messrs. Bergholl and Touzel as tobacconists.

In the month of May 1849, a shepherd, then aged about 22, entered our shop, and asked me to buy a lump of yellow metal weighing between 12 oz. and 13 oz. I did not then know the value of the article, but handed it to a Mr. Garrow, one of our employees, who tested it, assisted by a Mr. Forrester, who was a working jeweller in our employ. They told me it was gold. My husband was away at Geelong at the time on business, and I did not know the metal’s worth but pending his return I made him a small advance, but my husband afterwards paid him for it. This shepherd was Thomas Chapman, a native of Whitechapel, London, and he told me that he found the gold under the following circumstances: — He was employed at the time on Messrs. Hall and M’Neal’s Station, Daisy Hill. One Sunday morning in the month of May, while at a creek watering his sheep, he saw the sun shining on the nugget, which was sticking out of the bank of the creek, and he later in the day returned and took it away with him and brought it to Melbourne. On, my husband’s return he questioned Chapman about the place where he found the gold, and he volunteered to show Mr. Brentani and some friends the place. A party was accordingly made up of some five or six friends.

Gold License Victoria – Courtesy: SLV

About three days after I had started, Thomas Chapman, to my surprise returned alone, and gave as his reason that he was afraid of the foreigners and had given them the slip. He said he wished to go to Sydney, where he had friends, and he proceeded by a steamer (I believe the Shamrock), commanded by Captain Gilmour, It will be in your recollection that a rumour got abroad that Mr. Chapman had been made away with, and met an untimely end. I never again heard of him until the year 1874. In that year he, having heard that my eldest daughter, Mr. Sabelberg, was living at St. Kilda, called at my son-in-law’s house, and my daughter sent for me to see him.

Although time and privation had left their traces, I remembered him at once, and to make quite sure I asked him several questions relating to the incidents of his early life, which he answered without hesitation. Although in Australia during its palmy days, fortune had not smiled upon him, and he was poor, feeble, and apparently in ill health. I helped him in a small way, and he afterwards proceeded to a station owned by Mr. Buckley, of the firm of Buckley and Nunn, where he obtained employment, and very shortly afterwards I heard of his death. This is the story of the first gold found and sold in Victoria, and Thomas Chapman was the finder, but he found no reward here. I understood from Chapman that he left a family somewhere in New South Wales in a state of poverty, and that his wife had died a short time before my last interview with him. If there is to be any reward paid for the first gold discovery in Victoria, it seems to me that poor Chapman’s descendant’s ought not to be overlooked.”

James Esmond

When the news of Chapman’s Gold discovery reached Lieutenant Governor of Melbourne, Charles Latrobe, he dispatched a force of 16 native police under Captain Dana to prevent mining for Gold in Daisy Hill.

But the Government’s attitude towards Gold prospecting in Victoria changed dramatically after Gold was found in New South Wales. Victorians began flocking to New South Wales, and this could spell trouble for Victoria, which needed able hands to survive.

On 9th June 1851, a meeting attended by nearly 500 people, chaired by the Mayor of Melbourne was held at the Mechanics Institute in Melbourne.  The objective was to raise a subscription to be presented as a reward to any person or persons, who should within a given period make known the locality of a Gold mine within the district of Port Phillip capable of being worked to advantage. £200 were offered for the discovery of workable goldfield within 200 miles of Melbourne.

In March 1850, William Campbell of Strathloddon run, who later became a member of Parliament, found gold at Donald Cameron’s Clune station. But he kept it a secret for the fear that the rush of Gold hunters might prove injurious to the squatters. Fearing a rush of diggers, Donald Cameron applied to have 480 acres of his station measured for sale under right of pre-emption in December 1850.

In February 1851, German Physicist Dr George Herman Bruhn had set out on horseback from Melbourne to explore the mineral resources of the colony. In April 1851, Bruhn found Gold around two miles from Parker’s station and was shown specimens of Gold found on quartz reefs of Cameron’s Clunes station.

Dr Bruhn spread the news of Gold find widely and James Esmond was among those who got inspired by it. About this time James Esmond was engaged in erecting a building on James Hodgkinson’s station. After hearing about Bruhn’s report, Esmond went on to prospect Gold.

James Esmond discovered Gold at Clunes, which became Victoria’s first Goldfield. Esmond was a mail coach driver, who left for California when Gold was found there. When he returned to Victoria to search Gold here, he was in the same ship Hargraves returned from California. Esmond was one of the very lucky pioneer prospectors. On his way back from Melbourne to his claim at Clunes he stopped at Ballarat and with his mate Cavanagh, recovered more than 600oz obtained in two days in a pothole but down to about 6ft.

It was only after 1851, when James Esmond submitted his claim for the reward for finding Gold at Clunes, Campbell publicised his discovery to the Rewards Committee. Campbell’s claim was lodged seven weeks before the discovery of Gold in Buninyong or Ballarat. In 1854, Campbell was awarded £1000 by the Committee for his discovery.

Gold was found in Plenty Ranges on 1st July 1851. It was on that day, the Legislative Council of the newly created colony of Victoria was established. Many from around Victoria, sent the Gold Rewards Committee samples of Gold they discovered.

By the end of June 1851, Louis John Mitchell of Williamstown headed a party of six, which discovered Gold in Quartz rocks in the Yarra Ranges at the Anderson’s Creek. On 5th July 1851, Mitchell showed the gold find to Webb Richmond a member of the Gold Discovery Committee.

On 3rd August 1851, Thomas Hiscock discovered Gold at Ballarat. Inspired by the report by Rev. W. B. Clarke, and the discovery of Gold nugget at Pyrenees district in 1849, Hiscock put his efforts prospecting for Gold. He discovered an auriferous deposit in the gully of the Buninyong ranges.  In November 1851, Henry Frenchman’s discovery changed the fate of Bendigo forever.

On 20 July 1851 Thomas Peters, an employee of William Barker’s Mount Alexander station, found specks of gold at Specimen Gully. The news of the Gold find resulted in a rush to the Mount Alexander and Forest Creek centred on today’s Castlemaine. Castlemaine Goldfields were known as the richest alluvial goldfield in the world at that time.

The entire population of the colony of Victoria were heading for the digging and this resulted in country towns and Melbourne itself almost deserted. Most of the Government employees left their jobs and headed for the goldfields.

On October 10, 1851, Lieutenant Governor La Trobe wrote to Earl Grey, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies

“Within the last three weeks the towns of Melbourne and Geelong and their large suburbs have been in appearance almost emptied of many classes of their male Inhabitants; the streets which for a week or 10 days were crowded with drays loading with the outfit for the workings are now seemingly deserted.

 Not only have the Idlers and day laborers in town and country thrown up their employment and run off to the workings, but responsible farmers, trades men, clerks of every grade, and not a few of the superior classes have followed. Cottages are deserted, houses to let, business is at a standstill, and even schools are closed. In some of the suburbs not a man Is left, and the women are known for self-protection to forget neighbour’s jars and to group together to keep house’’.

Gold rushes threatened to destroy social stability. La Trobe’s actions to stem the flow of men to the Gold fields later resulted in rebellions.

Discovery of Gold in 1851 brought prosperity to the state, which made the paltry sum of £200 offered by the Gold rewards Committee for finding Gold in Victoria, looked absurd. The Victorian legislative committee of 1853-54 recommended to distribute £10,000 for discovery of Gold. The legislative council found it extremely difficult and complicated to distribute the £10,000 to discoverers of Gold mines. For years rival claims of diggers were discussed.

The committee recommended distribution of the £10,000 in the following proportions:

H. Hargraves – £4000 – Gold discovery in NSW

Rev. W. B. Clarke – £1000 – considered as Scientific discoverer of Australian Gold.

Louis John Michel – £1500 – the discoverer and publisher of Victoria’s first available gold field

Thomas Hiscock – £1500 – the substantial discoverer of the Ballarat deposits

William Campbell – £1000    – ‘originally discovered the Clunes field.

James Esmond – £1000 – the first actual producer of alluvial gold for the market

Dr. George Hermann Bruhn – £500 – his services in exploring the country for five or six months and diffusing information of the discovery of gold.

Parliament later modified this recommendation and reduced Hargrave’s share to £2500 and Esmond’s share was reduced to £500, after listening to many other sections of representations.


The Temora Star (NSW: 1881 – 1883; 1899 – 1906; 1914; 1925; 1933) Sat 3 Jun 1882 Page 3 THE FIRST DISCOVERY OF GOLD IN VICTORIA.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957) Sat 24 Dec 1932 Page 8 THE FIRST GOLD FOUND.

The Royal Australian historical Society, JOURNAL AND PROCEEDINGS.  Vol.   VIII.  1922.  Part   VI.   Discovery of and Later Developments in the North-Eastern   Portion   of   New   South   Wales.

Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1954) Mon 12 Jan 1931, Page 2 THE DISCOVERY OF GOLD

Talbot and Clunes Conservation Study, Part B, Background Information, Richard Aitken 1988.


Gold Fever by Kimberley Webber

Gold Fever! Life on the Diggings 1851 – 1855 – A travelling Exhibition presented by the National Library of Australia and Sovereign Hill

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      When Gold was discovered in Victoria in the early 1850’s, Melbourne was a little pastoral settlement, the prosperity that came with gold, transformed
      [See the full post at: The men who found Victoria’s first Gold]

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