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Early arrival and success

The first record of a Chinese miner that shows up in an Assistant Gold Commissioner’s regular weekly reports for the Waranga goldfields appears in late April 1854. An unnamed Chinese man brought two nuggets into the Gold Office (which was then located in a tent). The nuggets weighed 17 oz 10 dwt (almost exactly half a kilo-gram) and 8 oz 10 dwt (nearly 250 g) respectively. For obvious reasons, the miner “would not disclose the (exact) locality” where he found the gold.1 This means that, although the majority of Chinese miners arrived later, there had been some on the Waranga goldfields in the very early days. The fact that the Assistant Commissioner’s report in April expressed no surprise that a Chinese man should sell his finds to the Gold Office would seem to indicate that there were other Chinese miners already there. These men may have been in Australia at the start of the gold rushes or could have arrived by ship soon after they had heard about the spectacular new finds. Apart from these Chinese discoveries, there had been other amazing finds in the early months of the Waranga rush. For instance, in October 1853 a digger had turned up a nugget weighing 81 oz (2.3 kg) at Whroo – then referred to in the reports as “Wooroor”. The Assistant Commissioner in charge at the time, William Willoby, reckoned “the nugget was the best and richest specimen I have seen on the goldfields.”2 On today’s values it would be worth well over $200,000.

Highly mobile

The population on the goldfields was highly mobile, as evidenced by some of the estimated population figures provided in the Assistant Commissioner’s reports. Willoby’s first report, lodged in August 1853, indicated there were something like 5000 miners already on the ground when he arrived with staff and dray loads of equipment.3 By Christmas though, lack of water meant that only about 700 remained. It was likely that very few of those involved in this first rush were Chinese. There was a time lapse between the gold discoveries, word filtering back to China, then entrepreneurs organising people and the shipping required to bring them out to Australia. Numbers would have peaked later in the 1850s. From mid-1859 to mid-1860, when gold-seeking populations had settled down to a degree, the numbers of Chinese on the Waranga goldfields fluctuated between 150 and 250. The reports listed the Chinese separately from other men, women and children, as though the Chinese were another species that did not fit into those three categories. At the time, the overwhelming majority of those listed as “Chinese” would have been men.


There was still plenty of gold being found at the end of the 1850s, as gold shipments out of Rushworth for 1860 comprised nearly 18,000 ounces (an astonishing $47 million worth at today’s prices). The increase in quartz mining on an industrial scale, as compared to alluvial mining, would have significantly contributed to this. Meanwhile, the Chinese were still largely employed in alluvial mining. Around this time, there were usually 60-70 puddling machines in operation (when water was available). The vast majority of these were operated by the Chinese miners. It is hard to know how much gold they were finding, because there were multiple ways of disposing of the product of their labours. Much gold was transported by the weekly armed gold escort, which took gold from the Waranga goldfields to Heathcote initially, then on to Melbourne. However, it was suspected that much of the gold mined by the Chinese unofficially found its way back to China through a variety of methods. As well as ordinary money, gold was basically legal tender, so could also be used to purchase food and supplies. The result of this was that a fair proportion was in circulation in the local economy at any time. The early and spectacular successes with alluvial mining on the Waranga goldfields were largely over by 1860. To be successful required patience and persistence, a systematic approach and long hours of hard work. The Chinese miners generally displayed these characteristics to a greater degree than their western counterparts.