I was also curious about the so-called ‘lust for gold’. Did it exist and did it really drive people crazy? One of my earlier interviews, around 1973, was with an elderly man who had fossicked for most of his ninety-something life. Rad Dawson was typical of early Australians obsessed with striking it rich by discovering a sizeable nugget. He had a keen sense of humour and said, “Warren, there’s a lot of gold in Australia – and a bloody lot of earth mixed in with it.” The lust for gold was a reality and mining speculation on the stock exchange probably isn’t far removed from the speculation of those early diggers. Some did it with a shovel and others a pen.
We know the discovery of gold in 1851 sent Australia into manic overdrive, adding well over a million people to the population in twenty short years. It opened up the country. As the cry of ‘Rush Away!’ swept over the country, diggers literally raced from one digging to another, sometimes from colony to colony. Small businesses established to service the mining tent cities remained to become the nucleus for a saner, settled community. The roads and then the railways snaked paths to link these growing townships.
The most important aspect of the gold rush was that it saw the majority of men, and it was mostly men, working for themselves for the very first time. Prior to this most men were farm labourers, especially shepherds. Ex Prime Minister John Howard often talked about Australia finding its national identity on the front lines of WW1 but he was wrong. Australian identity was found on the goldfields of the 1850s. Mate-ship was nurtured there too, for miners had to work in teams, one down the mineshaft and another at the mine top lowering the bucket. Men had to watch each other’s backs as gold was a powerful force, and theft, murder and corruption commonplace.
Last year, I published an e-book on some of my findings on the various gold rushes of the 1850s through to the end of the nineteenth century. In the course of my research, I discovered a lot of songs, many published in newspapers, including one which became the title of the book and companion music album. ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ captures the mania created by the discovery of gold in the west of New South Wales. It was originally published in Poems Written In Youth by William Walker (published Sydney 1884) with a note that it was written “at the outbreak of the Gold Diggings in 1851”. Interestingly, it noted the American minstrel tune ‘Oh Susannah’ as the melody. Minstrel troupes were a popular entertainment on the goldfields and many of their songs became parody vehicles, many addressing miner’s grievances.