Early gold discoveries in the Adelaide Hills

Early gold discoveries in the Adelaide Hills.

After the gold discoveries at the Victoria mine in 1846 other discoveries were made at Burra and when it was discovered at South Rhine (Eden Valley) it was said that; ‘Our German friends have at last met with what must elevate them to some importance’. By the end of the year it was generally accepted that ‘the existence of gold mines in South Australia was no longer conjectural’ and it seemed that if enough people believed this wishful thinking it would eventually come true. And it did! In 1847 gold was found at Kanmantoo, Sixth Creek and near Balhannah where Charles Adelberg, a Russian by birth, but naturalised in South Australia, found some gold in the Onkaparinga River.

During 1849, more gold was discovered at Balhannah and in the Torrens River near Gumeracha. The Onkaparinga goldfield soon attracted many visitors including Augustus Short, Bishop of Adelaide. He was present with some leading proprietors when a number of practical results of the washing process were exhibited. The cheerful publican of the nearby Golden Cross Hotel at Balhannah was very pleased with all the activity as he was reaping a golden harvest as well.

All these discoveries boosted South Australia’s confidence and increased hopes for better things in the future as it was just emerging from near bankruptcy. That same year G.B. Wilkinson wrote in his Working Man’s Handbook to South Australia, ‘When the affairs of the colony were at the lowest ebb, and little but ruin was apparent on every side, when labourers were too plentiful and almost English pauperism was felt by many, then the first glad news of great quantities of copper and lead, silver and gold, being contained in the mountains and hills, was spread abroad, and from a state of misery, the colonists were aroused to exertion and to this, as much as anything may be ascribed the present welfare of the South Australian community’.

In 1849 gold finds were reported from the South Para River. Little came from it that time, but fifty years later the Gordon Reward Gold mine operated there and produced both gold and precious stones. Regardless of all these discoveries and the short-term excitement and high expectations they created, it was still the copper mines at Kapunda and Burra that provided South Australia and its miners with golden opportunities, newly found confidence, economic recovery and prosperity.

In February 1850, the South Australian Mining Association, owner of the Burra mine, declared its tenth dividend of two hundred per cent, or £10 per share. No other mine or company in South Australia, or even Australia, has ever paid this kind of dividends. Even so, the attraction of gold was still more powerful than that of copper and Alfred Barker, publican of the Smelters’ Home at Kooringa, Richard Snell from Burra and Thomas Hosking of Gawler, in their quest for gold, joined the nearly 600 ‘forty-niners’ from all over South Australia leaving for the Californian goldfields.

The Californian gold rushes, started by Sam Brannan in May 1848, created a ‘giant rush’, the first in centuries, when men from all over the world and all walks of life left their homes, families and trades to make their fortune. This rush soon caused concerns in South Australia because of the large number of young men leaving the colony. In April 1849 John Hart chartered The Mazeppa to make a trip to California. When writing to Captain Henry Roach on 13 December 1849, Henry Ayers regretted that it was so difficult to attract labour. He was convinced that ‘those going to California may wish themselves back at the Burra again before the year is over’.


Among the 200 ships leaving from Australia was the Appleton, which left from Port Adelaide in January 1850. It would take steerage passengers at £15 a head. In an effort to reduce these staggering costs and provide better facilities, it was decided to form a company to enable cheaper transportation to California. Members would have to pay only £14 and would receive much better conditions on board, including the service of a surgeon.

Owen Smith, of King William Street, tried to make his gold at home by advertising his transportable houses for California. They could be ‘taken to pieces and re-erected in 6 hours’. At £12 a room of 10ft x 10ft they were going cheap. In January 1850 there were still three ships scheduled to leave from Port Adelaide for California, including the Broadaxe. However when it was announced that gold had been discovered along the Onkaparinga River Captain Lamb of the Broadaxe suddenly found that he had no passengers. Such was life! Still a total of 10 ships sailed for San Francisco during the first five months of 1850 carrying more than 600 people to try their luck.

That very same month it was revealed that for the past two years ‘gold exploration had been going on silently and cautiously’ which had now resulted in the formation of the South Australian Gold Company, with Adelberg as superintendent and J. Schwonberg as secretary. The company was established for the purpose of buying and leasing more than 2,000 acres for the washing and streaming of gold within South Australia, as it had long been the opinion of ‘practical and intelligent’ persons, both in Europe and in the colony, ‘that large deposits of the precious metal existed in some localities in South Australia’.

The trustees of the South Australian Gold Company were Jacob B. Montefiore, John Bentham Neales and Edward Stephens. Its provisional management was made up of Charles Beck, Alexander Lang Elder, B.A. Kent, J.B. Montefiore, John Morphett, J.B. Neales, and John and G.M. Waterhouse. They proposed to raise £25,000 by selling 5,000 shares of £5 each. With average weekly incomes in 1850 still below £2 it is obvious that schemes like these would only be for the rich. John Morphett, together with John Baker, J.B. Hack and George Stevenson, had been among the early committee members of the first South Australian Mining Association formed in 1841.

During these two years it was reported that Captain John Phillips, an enterprising Cornish engineer, surveyor and miner, had discovered gold in the Adelaide Hills over an area of 300 square miles. As early as 1847 he had tested various localities on both the Torrens and Onkaparinga rivers for alluvial gold. He reported his discoveries to Sir Roderick Murchison and the South Australian Governor. He was the inventor of the first Australian gold washing machine and the model of it, bearing the date of 1848, was in 1887 housed at the Technical Museum in Melbourne.

Phillips, Adelberg and several other men had been at work with great caution. After a most careful examination and analysis, they decided to buy 1638 acres of land and lease a further 400 acres. This gave the company almost 30 kilometres of watercourses open for operation. Specimens had been analysed by Andrew Thomas of Kooringa, and shown a purity of 96 per cent gold. The company’s first announcement said that ‘the sober reality and the fact, that gold in large quantities exist in the soil and alluvial deposits made by the rivers of South Australia’ is now beyond doubt.

When John Phillips was forced by ill health to retire in the 1880’s, one Adelaide newspaper editor wondered why the Government did not recognise the services of its original gold digger and ‘propose a small grant to one who has laboured for the benefit of the country. A gift to him would not only be a graceful act but a useful one’. It would show, he said, that those who endeavour to open up the goldfields of South Australia would ‘not be utterly forgotten’. Unfortunately for Phillips, this plea, like so many others before, and after, fell upon deaf ears.

The recent gold discoveries also led to the formation of the Onkaparinga Gold Mining Company. This company advertised that it would search for gold along the Onkaparinga River and advised readers not to invest in the South Australian Gold Company but to wait until they had seen its own prospectus. A few days later the South Australian Gold Company, in an effort to boost the sales of its shares, reported that as a result of the overwhelming interest, shares would be allocated on 1 February 1850.

A few weeks later, A.L. Elder took some of the gold specimens with him to announce the company in England. Eventually the South Australian Gold Company had to come down a peg or two and inform the public that not all shares had been taken up and as a result no allotment would take place. Instead the property would be retained and worked by the original proprietors.

The reason for this sudden turn about was the fact that they had not done their homework and now realised that the land was private property and had belonged to Osmond Gilles since 1839. Gilles unwittingly assisted in the bidding of his own land, but after discovering his error, or rather that of the Survey Office, he intended to defend his golden territories from intrusion, tooth and nail.


The Run for Gold. Originally published in 1850 when John Calvert arrived in Adelaide to wash gold and some of the leading citizen accompanying him into the field. From left to right; John Bentham Neales, Edward Stephens, bank manager, John Stephens of the Register, James Allen, Alfred Watts, John Morphett, Osmond Gilles, defending his claim and Dr Kent. (Observer, 14 May 1904)

New gold discoveries, even very small ones, were continuously reported in the Adelaide newspapers and they carried the first of many announcements of gold mining companies formed, or about to be formed. One of these, the Gold Mining Company, authorised J.F. Ross to dispose of one hundred shares in that company. As only 200 shares had been issued he advised that early application for any of them would be necessary.

Although no major gold discovery had been made yet, most South Australians believed that it would only be a matter of time. The population of Macclesfield turned out en masse in consequence of a report of an alleged gold discovery in their town. Nothing eventuated but that was not important as most people were now well and truly convinced that gold did exist in remunerative quantities and that ‘within a very short period South Australia would add considerably to the value of her products’. They got soon used to reports of small and large finds of the eternal treasure. When almost twenty years later another discovery was made at Macclesfield, which, it was said, would yield 2,000 ounces to the ton, nobody got excited and only very few showed an interest.

Another newspaper reporter observed that if gold did occur in the abundance anticipated, the diggings would at least be under the control of law and public order and be free from ‘disease and reckless desperation’ seen on the Californian goldfields. One wonders if he knew that Australian diggers were amongst the worst offenders.

On 4 May 1851 San Francisco was burnt to the ground for the fourth time. The Sydney Ducks were suspected and several of them departed the Californian goldfields at the end of a rope. To stop any further trouble it was resolved ‘that no person or persons from Sydney would be permitted to land on its shores’. Time would show that some of the conditions on South Australian goldfields and those of the Northern Territory in particular, which were controlled by South Australia until 1911, were not really all that different from those on the American or any other goldfields.

As these discoveries created more and more interest, the government decided in January 1851 to ask Lord Grey to send out a suitable man to make a geological survey of the Colony. It was then that Lord Grey advised he was sending out Benjamin Herschel Babbage.

Babbage arrived in South Australia, with his wife Laura and children on the Hydaspes, on 27 November 1851. Born in London on 6 August 1815, he had already designed and built railways in England and Italy and been an Engineering Inspector of the Board of Health in England. Although able and competent in many fields, he did not have the kind of background in Geology or geological surveys that would have been an advantage to South Australia. Shortly after his arrival he made a report on the water supply of Adelaide and was appointed both Chief Engineer of the Adelaide-Port Adelaide Railway and Assayer and Head of the Assay Office.

In April 1852 the Adelaide Times stated that once again the search for gold in South Australia had been resumed, this time with spirit. Six returned diggers from Mount Alexander in Victoria had approached John Bentham Neales and offered their services free of charge, on the condition that the government supplied them with rations, tools and free licences. The government offered them a tent and bullock dray, but the rations, it said, would have to be supplied by public subscription. A few months later, on 29 July 1852, a petition for a reward was presented to the Legislative Council from Jesse Chapman, William Chapman junior, Henry Hampton and Thomas Hardiman. They claimed to have discovered a payable goldfield at Echunga.

On 17 August the Legislative Council requested the Lieutenant Governor to place £500 on the estimates as a reward for Jesse Chapman and the others for their discovery. Maybe there was another £500 somewhere else as the official reward still stood at £1,000. Nothing came of it anyway and on 23 August, William Chapman senior claimed a reward on behalf of his son and the others. They had found gold at what had already become known as Chapman’s Gully, Echunga.

The reward of £1,000 or even the £500 was not paid though as the government insisted that there was no proof that the required value of gold had been mined in the specified time. Instead, young Chapman was nearly hung from a nearby gum tree by an angry crowd, among them many returned diggers from Forest Creek and Bendigo, who suspected him of a swindle when he was unable to find gold in the presence of government officials.

That same day, 23 August, William Chapman, Jesse Chapman, Thomas Hardiman and Henry Hampton claimed their reward in writing but were once again unsuccessful. A slightly different account comes from the Register, which reported that on 23 August Chapman and Hampton had ‘conjointly applied to have their names registered as claimants for the £1,000 reward’. Both were sworn in as special constables. It was the government’s intention ‘to swear in as such two out of every ten applicants for licences’.

After William reported his find, the Colonial Secretary, Boyle Travers Finniss in company of Charles Bonney, Commissioner of Crown Lands, Captain Freeling, Surveyor General, John McLaren, Deputy Surveyor General and a number of police went up to Echunga. They went to a spot about three kilometres beyond the bridge over the Onkaparinga at William Warland’s public house, where they stopped a while, naturally. From there they proceeded to where the gold had been found and asked young Chapman and two others to wash a section until they obtained an ounce of gold. The first dishes showed no gold, resulting in many unkind remarks from eager prospectors hoping for instant riches.

However, they did wash more than an ounce in under an hour with only a spade and three tin dishes. ‘I am quite satisfied’, wrote Finniss, ‘that the soil, for some acres at least, is highly auriferous and that there is every probability of this becoming a profitable working. As country of similar formation extends to a considerable distance to the north and stretches away to the south towards Encounter Bay and Cape Jervis, it is not unreasonable to suppose that goldfields may be discovered in other places, even in Kangaroo Island’.

Having satisfied himself that Chapman’s discovery was genuine, Finniss left Charles Bonney with a small party of police and surveyors and instructed him to issue licences to anyone wanting to dig. The first ten licences issued were to, in order, William Chapman Senior, Harry Hampton, Thomas Hardiman, William Chapman, John Chapman, John Grant, R. Pennington, William Coliner, Samuel Chapman and Patrick Boyce Coglin. Patrick Boyce Coglin had not joined his brother at the Victorian goldfields. Perhaps he had more faith in South Australia. His quest for golden treasures led him to Echunga and other places where he did far better than his brother James. He would eventually become a member of parliament for many years.

When word of the 1852 gold discovery at Echunga got around, several hundred men found their way to the field in short order. It was complete pandemonium. Everyone started washing at once, using kettles, billies, saucepan lids, pannikins and even their hats. Some were extremely lucky, quickly finding several ounces. Others did not find even a speck of gold. J.T. Scown and his son were among the lucky ones. They dug and washed seven and a half ounces in their first week on the field.

The Adelaide papers had a field day too. Within days of the official confirmation that gold had been found they published lengthy self-congratulatory and moralising articles predicting on the one hand golden harvests while on the other warning South Australia about the doom and destruction it could or would bring. One editor wrote, ‘Assuming that the recently discovered goldfields contain rich and extensive deposits of gold, government control and regulations become a subject of very pressing importance’.

‘No doubt,’ he went on, ‘this colony will continue to justify the character it has attained of standing at the head of the Australian colonies for intelligence and energy. A spirit of promptitude and liberality on the part of the authorities will be met on that of the people by a disposition and determination to maintain order and the supremacy of the law’.

Just to make sure that every reader knew what he was on about he continued that, ‘With the future now before us, the duty of government becomes most onerous. It will be expected at once to provide adequate and well-paid police protection at the diggings. It is understood that an officer and a detachment of soldiers is to be sent up and as guards to the Commissioner’s tent may be valuable aids to the constabulary. However for the purpose of enforcing order one policeman is worth 20 soldiers. The baton, not the bayonet, is the weapon, which will be respected by the most rude of the diggers’.

Finally the editor suggested that one way of maintaining a perfect control would be the absolute prohibition of spirits on the diggings. Not only should the selling be made illegal, the actual possession should also be prohibited. It was the only way to arm the police effectually ‘so as to banish the accursed thing’. Although it is unlikely that many diggers read this article before they left for the field, at least one did, and commended the paper for its extremely judicious and correct remarks.

Within a few days of the discovery great excitement prevailed in Adelaide. There wasn’t a horse, buggy or cart available for hire, tinsmiths had sold out of pans and dishes and ironmongers were sold out of picks, shovels and spades. At the same time it was reported that a large number of people had visited the field and couldn’t believe what they found there. At Coglin’s claim, which was next to that of Chapman, visitors were not only allowed to take some of the auriferous soils, they were even given a pan to wash it in! Inspector of Police, Alford, on his way to join the gold escort to Victoria, stopped at the field and while looking around was given a small piece of gold by W.K. May who had just washed it, to show the diggers at Mount Alexander.

Even eight years old Alfred Hampton, who had found the first large nugget found another two smaller ones. It was soon generally accepted that the gold which ‘runs large and is found in such quantities as not only to remunerate amply the search for it’, but that it would ‘offer the strongest inducement for an exploration to discover other equally rich deposits’.

Meanwhile Coglin’s party and G. Hawkes had found a little more gold. Naturally these, and the many other reports and often unsubstantiated stories, caused even more men to rush to the valley. On 25 August, Charles Bonney was still on the field and reported that all men were happy and willing to pay their 30 shillings licence fees. He also made it abundantly clear that he ‘would like to be relieved from his duties at the field as he had no means of making provisions for staying and was now suffering from a severe illness in consequence’.

A few days later, A.J. Murray, Assistant Gold Commissioner, replaced Bonney. Hopefully he was better prepared for the cold and wet winter weather of the Adelaide Hills than his predecessor. On 26 August it was reported that as many as 500 men were on the field and another 200 on the road. During the first two weeks 167 licences were issued, but it was well known that many men were digging without one.

After the initial excitement, confusion and madness of the first week it was noticed that many of the eager diggers were ill prepared for the work and few had managed to buy provisions to sustain them for more than a day or two. Nothing was available from Warland’s, who had been cleaned out of everything, forcing some men to go back to town in the hope of finding supplies there.

Many experienced a cold and wet day and night when the rain came down in torrents followed by a violent thunderstorm. Warland’s little rooms were crowded almost to suffocation and a large number of men had to seek shelter in deserted buildings, sheds, under trees or in front of a fire. Next morning the Onkaparinga River was running a banker and most of the adjacent country was under water.

After such a night it is understandable that a considerable number ‘retreated ingloriously from the field, the rough weather having completely damped the ardour which impelled them to leave town without proper tools, provisions or shelter’. The more practical, ‘whose heart and soul were in the sport’ made sure they wouldn’t get caught again and started rigging up their tents but were informed by Murray that they would be charged another 30 shillings a month for the land they occupied. This charge on top of the licence fees resulted in many far from polite comments by the diggers.

Soon the government had a change of heart and only applied the charge to storekeepers’ tents. Of the staunch diggers who remained, only three had a cradle. Within a few days some others had seen a good business opportunity and driven a large number of sheep and cattle to the field for slaughter. A well supplied flour store had opened up as well.

Others with an eye for business advertised whatever service or article they could supply. C.J. Carleton, chemist of Rundle Street, reminded South Australian gold diggers of the importance of taking a few packets of Carlton’s Baking Powder with them. It was the only way to make good bread and baked in half the time required for a damper.

S. Goldsack of Hindley Street advertised his Fine, Digestible Biscuits, especially made for these diggings, which were the most portable provision for diggers. J. Dunn & Son of Mount Barker advised parties proceeding to the South Australian goldfields that they had a tent on site fully stocked with flour, bran, pollard, oats, bacon, hams, tea, sugar and drapery.

With most of the initial visitors finally out of the way, the men who stayed could now get down to some serious work on their piece of ground, measuring eight feet by eight feet. As a Miner’s Right entitled the holder to search almost anywhere, many others started prospecting away from the original site believing that gold could be found in some of the adjacent gullies as well. Before the end of the month gold had been found at Jupiter Creek confirming their opinion. It would take another 16 years before the main deposit at this gully was discovered.

A few months after the initial discovery at Echunga, the field was still covered with tents. Their occupants were well provided to carry on the work. Many of them had cradles; others had made unsuccessful attempts to sink holes. Every hole would rapidly fill with water, making both digging and prospecting impossible.

The damage done to the environment at Echunga, and later at other goldfields, was often catastrophic and quickly evident. Whole areas were denuded of trees and shrubs to supply building material, firewood and timber for lining the shafts. Mullock heaps smothered the vegetation, and creeks were silted and polluted by the muck from cradles and from washing and sluicing operations, first used in Ancient Rome.

Notwithstanding the fact that many early diggers had been very lucky, there were still some observers who doubted the longevity of the field. When Benjamin Herschell Babbage visited the field during the first week of September he stated that they were ‘nothing more than a limited surface diggings and were not likely to be remunerative, unless the working of them was confined to a few individuals’. In other words, too many cooks would spoil the broth!

On 14 September A.J. Murray reported 37 working parties at the diggings, making a total of 113 men. Only 43 had a licence. A general store and a blacksmith had opened for business. Blacksmiths were often among the first to set up shop on a new goldfield. They made their money mainly from sharpening miners’ tools and constructing or repairing other basic equipment. After two German diggers, Rudolph Miller and Frederick Wrinkle had obtained one pound and four ounces of gold in eight days, diggers were informed on 18 September that anyone digging without a licence would be prosecuted.

This had the desired effect and by the end of the month Murray had issued 296 licences. This increased to 356 by 2 October when Murray reported that there were as many as 400 men on the field. He also reported that many respectable families had arrived and were living in comfortable and commodious tents.

The presence of well-dressed women and children, he thought, gave the diggings ‘a character distinguished for decorum, security and respectability’. A few days later the digging population had increased to well over 600 and by the end of October, Murray had issued more than 700 licences. Murray also noted that Chapman and Hampton had been indefatigable in their endeavours to open up new diggings.

More licences were requested and Murray issued another 219 within a short time. He also counted 130 tents on the field. Tents were easy and quick to build. Most men would use two branches; each forked at one end, and dig them into the ground. A third branch would then be fixed horizontally between the two forks and a sheet of canvas, or calico, thrown over it. This in turn would be secured with ropes to boulders or nailed to heavy logs. At its peak, more than a thousand men, women and children lived on the field, most of them in tents.

As a result of the outrageously high licence fees, there was a high turnover of diggers. If they were not successful in the first two or three weeks few were able to afford the fees for another month. Diggers continued to come and go. Some just had a look but were not interested in paying 30 shillings for a lot of hard work with only a small chance of reward. Others had tried but thought they could do better at the Victorian diggings. Regardless of the high cost and the increasing summer temperatures, more than 1000 licences had been taken out by the end of November. So far the diggings had proved a real bonanza for the government coffers.

Still, some men did have enough spare time and money to visit the sly grog sellers. On 27 November Murray, after listing all the statistics and prospects of the field, regretted to report two cases of drunkenness and violent conduct, the first reported on the diggings. Warland had to ask for police assistance in consequence of the riotous conduct of two men, who had broken the windows of his hotel with their picks and were discharging their firearms. Drunkenness was, and remained, a problem on the field and several requests were made for police to be stationed on the field. One of the first to make such a request was Jacob Hagen on 1 December 1852.

On 4 December Murray reported that he had issued a further 87 licences since 27 November, making it a grand total of 1,098. He estimated that there were still some seven hundred men and 244 tents on the field. By the end of 1852, and after the issue of 1,200 licences, as much as 5,000 ounces of gold, valued at £18,000, had been recovered. There is no way of knowing how many unlicensed diggers had been at work or how many ounces had been dug up which had not been declared. Going by the above official figures it averages out at £15 per man over six months.

A rather poor result! Naturally some had made much more than that but others far less. However there was always that chance to strike it rich and that kept many going, always hoping that the next tin of dirt would reveal that large nugget. A large number of diggers left the field, including a number of storekeepers. One major source of discontent was that many diggers thought that much more gold could be located on the surrounding land, which happened to be private property and was out of bounds.

Governor Henry Edward Fox Young had been instructed by the Imperial Government to adopt the same legislation as that used in New South Wales and Victoria for mining on private property. However, a bill introduced in the Legislative Council in 1852 to allow mining on such land was narrowly defeated in November. It would take another 36 years before a bill making provisions for mining on private property was passed.

By the end of the year it was reported that the diggings, which were so recently a scene of great activity, were now nearly deserted. Several men had gone home to help with harvesting and others to spend Christmas with their families. However all of them promised to be back early in the new year. A few parties could still be seen working and a good number of cradles were still in use, proving that gold in remunerative quantities was still to be found. Several parties were prospecting in other directions and gold had been found near Hahndorf, but those in the know kept quiet about its precise location.

More than 30 years after its initial discovery, Government Geologist Henry Yorke Lyell Brown published his Notes on the Echunga Goldfield. William Chapman was much annoyed when he realised that it contained a number of errors. He wasted little time writing to the editor of the Observer, who had printed Brown’s article. ‘I think Mr Brown might have taken a little more trouble to ascertain facts before putting into print what will probably become a part of the history of South Australia’ he wrote.

It has become part of South Australia’s history and the chance discovery at Echunga led to the development of South Australia’s first real and substantial goldfield. It yielded more than £100,000 worth of gold in the first year, rewarding those who had stayed during the next six months. Within the first three years about £250,000 worth of gold was recovered.

The total value of all the gold mined at the Echunga diggings, up to 1871, was about £300,000. More than a year after their initial discovery, Chapman and his friends were still waiting for their reward. In August of 1853, the parliamentarians once more debated the matter.

Most of them, and even some who had no direct interest in the subject, believed that the petitioners had complied with the requirements, as could be seen by the testimony of gold brokers and others, that not £20,000, but nearer to £30,000 worth of gold had been raised and more than 1,500 licences issued. John Baker agreed and was satisfied that a large quantity of gold had been raised and that it was not right ‘to throw the entire onus of proving the exact quantity upon the discoverers’. Eventually, after a long frustrating wait, the South Australian government paid William Chapman a reward of £500.

If you would like to find out more,
please go to HOME PAGE for more information.
Thank you for visiting Flinders Ranges Research,
We hope you enjoy your stay and find the information useful.
This site has been designed and is maintained by FRR.