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.
When word 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 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, ‘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. He was convinced that South Australians would behave themselves. It was ‘the worthless, abandoned, outside barbarians, men from elsewhere who had no conception of the proper value of money and no taste for the blessings which the right use of it could bestow, it was also from the inevitable intrusion of such unwelcome adventurers and from them alone that a disturbance of the public order and acts of violence and outrage could be expected’.
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 P.B. 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’.
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 on the field and reported that all men were happy and willing to pay their 30 shillings licence fees. 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 on the field. Many experienced a cold and wet day and night when the rain came down in torrents followed by a violent thunderstorm. 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 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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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. At its peak, more than a thousand men, women and children lived on the field, most of them in tents. 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.
By late December, 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!
At the same time 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.
It has become part of South Australia’s history that 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.
No major new deposits were uncovered at Echunga or elsewhere. At the beginning of February 1853 the government announced that as, over the last four weeks, less than 4,000 ounces of gold had been taken to the Assay Office, it would be closed after 17 February. That decision would not have upset many people. Apparently it had been nothing but trouble. As far back as March 1852 it had been reported that long delays had been the order of the day. Many depositors had been waiting more than a month for payment.
When licence fees were finally reduced many more men combed the hills around Echunga. During December 1854 more than 500 men were again prospecting, washing or digging. In January 1855 it was reported that one group of diggers had amassed ten pounds of gold and another party of four men as much as 24 pounds in only six weeks.
Charles Bonney, who liked to be where the action was, promptly visited Echunga and by the end of the next day had issued 177 licences. Poor Man’s Hill was rushed in 1855 and again in 1858, both times with mixed results. After a number of years the yield on the Echunga field had declined so much that in November 1856 a petition, signed by 121 aspiring gold diggers and settlers, was presented to the Legislative Council recommending that a sum of money be placed on the estimates, sufficient to pay parties of diggers to thoroughly test the country round the only spot where paying gold had yet been found.
After the existence of gold in the Echunga area had been proven by the thousands of individual miners, several companies were formed to continue the search, but on a much larger scale. Some of these dug deep shafts or large dams, brought in machinery, stampers or puddlers and employed several men on wages.
With the return of many experienced diggers from Victoria, several gold discoveries were made in and around the Adelaide Hills, including some new ones at Forest Range and Echunga, which attracted hundreds of prospectors and miners. None was big enough to qualify for the £1,000 government reward, but now very few South Australians doubted that gold in large quantities would be discovered somehow, somewhere sooner or later.
Some of the early miners and later settlers found their final place of rest at one of the three Cemeteries.
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