Barossa Goldfield, South Australian History

The Barossa Goldfield.


The existence of gold in the Barossa Valley had long been suspected. As early as March 1841, a paper prepared by Johannes Menge, dealing with the possible occurrence of minerals there, was read before a Select Committee in London. In 1860, Captain Richard Rodda, who had worked for the Barossa Range Mining Company in 1847 and later the Kanmantoo, Wheal Maria and North Rhine mines, had made a reward claim for the discovery of gold in the Valley on the Reserve at Bethany. In 1866 John Chambers and others were willing to prove it and promoted the Lyndoch Valley Mining Company.

Barossa Goldfield 1885 (SLSA)

Two years later, a company was formed in Kapunda to mine gold near Mount Rufus where a few specks had been found. Several attempts were made to locate the reef. In 1869 as many as 40 diggers were still at work around the Mount and a few of them were making good wages too. Most diggers were still convinced that payable gold would be found once they had located the reef.

Job Harris, publican of the Sandy Creek Hotel, and some of his friends also went prospecting. They had previously been at Jupiter Creek but this time Harris had more luck and found a considerable quantity at Spike Gully on 3 October 1868, creating the largest gold rush seen so far anywhere in South Australia. The newspapers had a field day once again. Now all agreed that the Barossa Ranges had always been looked upon as gold bearing country.

On the same day Job Harris discovered gold at Spike Gully, the Commissioner of Crown Lands received a telegram from W.T. Hipwell of Lyndoch, which stated that Samuel Potter and John Lawes Springbett had discovered ‘alluvial gold, water worn and nuggetty’ in considerable quantity about a mile north of the Para River.

Within days at least 400 men had made their way to the field. Most were inexperienced, yet in spite that gold was found. Jesse Button, Asa Butterfield and C.T. Scown were among the lucky ones. They found nearly an ounce of gold each. Others were trying to make their gold by supplying the diggers. Friedrich Bevilaqua of Lyndoch was the first to open a store and display the usual sign that ‘Gold is Bought Here’.

Being in a settled district, most of the early prospectors were locals and 462 Miner’s Rights were issued during the first days and nearly 1,500 men were digging by the end of the week. By the end of the month this had swollen to 4,000. Towns in the Barossa Valley temporarily lost most of their male population. A little later the number of licences issued had increased to 658 and still more diggers kept arriving, including some from Jupiter Creek.

About a week after Harris’ discovery the first, albeit unofficial, figures had become available about the amount of gold obtained. Several diggers had taken as much as a pound weight of gold to their homes. The South Australian Bank at Tanunda weighed and bought a total of nine pounds of gold from local residents. Other banks in nearby towns reported much the same story. In Gawler, L. Bevilaqua, who had been on the field for a whole week, weighed nearly five pounds of gold which had been brought in and bought 12 ounces of it. James Harris bought 13 ounces and J.W. Excell acquired 9 ounces from Foster of Port Adelaide.

Although the goldfield was still in its infancy, its appearance after only two weeks had already changed quite dramatically. Canvas and calico tents were now everywhere on the hillsides. Most of the tents though were of a very primitive construction. The hills were covered with trees but rapidly cut down indiscriminately for tent posts, fuel and any other purpose. The tops of the young wattle trees were cut for bedding on which the diggers spread their clothes and blankets.

Almost anything and everything was soon available on the field. A Lyndoch blacksmith had built a temporary workshop and was busy sharpening picks, and a number of booths had opened for the sale of every kind of merchandise. The only commodity lacking, but needed most, was water. The shortage of water became a real problem for those working away from the creek, as they had to carry their soil in bags on their backs for up to two miles.

An open air monster meeting, attended by at least 1,000 diggers was soon organised to petition the government for a water supply in some form or another. Among the speakers were Carl Von Bertouch and Captain J. Trestrail. After a number of proposals John Baptist Austin was elected secretary. He was most likely the very best they could have picked.

After the diggers’ meeting Austin set to work and drew up the petition and had it printed the very next day. A deputation, consisting of the Hons J.H. Barrow, W. Morgan and J. Fisher, MP, L. Bevilaqua, J. Souttar and Rischbieth went to see the Commissioner of Crown Lands but were told that it was really up to private enterprise to supply water. The government could not be expected to expend large amounts of money on diggings, which may not even last a week or a month.

Job Harris (SLSA)

Regardless of this, and other setbacks and disappointments, enough gold was found to make it possible for Job Harris to claim his £5,000 reward. Unfortunately for him, he never got it! On 22 October there were as many as 5,000 people on the field and licence no. 2,844 was issued that day. Early November saw the first long tom at work on the Yatta and several puddling machines had been ordered.

Some unsuccessful and disgruntled prospectors were leaving and hoping to recover their losses put their holes up for sale. One party bought two such holes, which had been sunk to 30 feet, together with a windlass and other fittings, for £2.14. They worked one with success and sold the other for £25. Many diggers made far more than just wages in the early stage of the rush and almost 500 ounces of gold were sold to the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank (ESACB) in Adelaide in the first week of November.

At the South Australia Bank Carl Von Bertouch received 32 ounces and Bevilaqua deposited 39 ounces, which had been bought on the field. Both J & G Wilcox and T.O. Jones displayed parcels of gold in their Gawler establishments, which spoke well for the continued success of the field.

Although many more diggers had left, there were still thousands on the field, many of whom started to work further away from the original location and were quickly rewarded for their enterprise. When some of the men started digging in the sides of the hills rather than along or in the creek bed, they were amazed at the amount of gold that was found.

On 25 November Corporal Birrell informed the Commissioner of Police that a fresh rush had taken place several miles south east of Yatta at the back of Hamlin’s at Humbug Scrub. Three men were discovered there digging away quietly and pocketing 20 ounces of gold. Before long it was believed that Humbug Scrub would prove the true El Dorado of South Australia.

With an increase of the area in which gold was located more men arrived at the field often replacing the numbers that were leaving. Farmers in particular had done well and most planned to return after the harvest. A week later, Wilcox of Gawler sent 247 ounces by mail steamer to England and Mitchell a further 69 ounces. The combined value of the two parcels amounted to £1,200.

Oscar Wehrstedt bought 90 ounces and a further 70 ounces during the following three days. Three weeks later he bought another 55 ounces. As a great deal of gold was quietly taken away from the Barossa diggings, besides what was sold on the diggings, the true value of the field will never be known.

Apart from the many successes in the quest for gold, there had also been many failures. Among those who were utterly unfit for the work or totally ignorant of what to do. Many also had unreasonable expectations. By the end of the year a suspension of work was granted from 21 December until 2 January 1869 on all South Australian goldfields making it possible for men to go home and have Christmas with their families.

The amount of gold bought on the field had declined during the last few weeks as most diggers were hanging on to it to sell before Christmas. Even so, Wehrstedt was still able to buy 71 ounces and the ESACB had bought a total of 800 ounces since the start of the rush.

The Barossa Valley had now also acquired two new towns. Yatta and Victoria Hill had sprung up when many diggers established their wives or families on the field. As there were many old hands from Victoria among them, it was only natural that one of the new spot was named Victoria Hill because of its similarities to these fields. It grew substantially during the first few weeks and soon had a hotel, two blacksmith shops and a butcher.

The third, and private, town named Barossa had been laid out in 1865, at the junction of the Williamstown and Mount Crawford roads and adjoined the public pound and the government water reserve. After four years of very little development, Barossa now also gained a substantial population and notoriety. Barossa became the largest of the three and had a population of several thousand by the middle of 1869. It had seven hotels, seven general stores and a dozen other establishments as well as an Institute, school and post office. It remained populated until the early 1900s.

As more and more diggers arrived, the scarcity of water became severe and with the added problem of excessive summer heat, conditions on the field became almost intolerable. Surprisingly though, in their eagerness to get to the yellow stuff, most diggers would put up with almost any condition and the unrelenting backbreaking work as long as they got enough of the precious gold.

Conditions on the field were much harder for the women. When not helping their husbands they had to do the cooking, cleaning and washing and some also had to look after small children. Most of them were only too willing to put up with these conditions and support their husbands in the quest for the magical gold.

Conditions and life on the Barossa and other South Australian goldfields may have been hard, but gold was certainly being found. When the Glen Osmond left for London in 1869 it had more than a thousand ounces of gold on board from the Barossa and 195 ounces from the Jupiter Creek goldfields.

By the end of January the diggers started to complain in earnest about the shortage of water on the field, which made washing, puddling or crushing, all backbreaking work at the best of times, also very expensive or completely impossible. Even so, the El Dorado Company, managed by James Goddard, had obtained some gold from its latest crushings and now decided to buy its own second hand crusher. Two weeks later it awarded several contracts for sinking shafts on its property.

After the formation of a number of crushing companies and promises of others to do the same it was G. and H. Britcher who finally put up the first crushers, with the help of engineer James A. Whitfield, at Green Gully on the Yatta Creek. Theirs was a seven horsepower engine with two batteries, one with three and another with four stamps, which would be able to crush 100 tons of cement a week.

Crushers had become one of the most important means of separating the gold from its conglomerate or cement on the Barossa goldfield. Almost all the gold of the Barossa, and most other goldfields, had to be crushed to separate it from its host rock. After crushing it had to be washed across plates coated with mercury. The gold adhered to the mercury and had to be separated through a heat process. Although a very inefficient process, it was the best available until the introduction of the cyanide process.

After the cooler weather set in and the arrival of the first rain, working the numerous claims became a lot easier. It was now also possible to start both crushing and washing. E. Springbett of Lyndoch washed 50 buckets and got half an ounce for his efforts. Several other diggers did worse than that but all hoped that larger crushers would soon be finished and give much better results for their hard work.

When the winter rain really set in about 120 diggers signed an agreement to give two days’ work each towards the construction of a dam at the head of Spike Gully. With George and H. Britcher also building a crusher, water would be needed in great quantities.

More gold was discovered on Goddard’s Hill and Watson’s Reef claim was also showing good returns. The best results though came from Goddard’s own claim on Victoria Hill. This hill had been rushed in May 1869 after a few prospectors bottomed the hole, which they had been sinking, at the lower part of their claim. When they washed a small bucket of stuff in the presence of several other men everyone proclaimed it the best result yet obtained. Eventually more than 3,000 ounces of gold were obtained from claims and mines on this hill.

Soon more than a hundred shafts had been sunk in an attempt to reach the ancient river channels, buried below nearly 75 feet of sand, gravel, clay or cement. Success seemed to be everywhere that month and was clearly shown by the fact that the ESACB bought 115 ounces of gold from the diggers in one week. A government gold prospecting party found enough gold to make £240. After crushing ore from a claim on Victoria Hill 100 ounces of gold were obtained, including a lump of 28 ounces.

Two months later the ESACB bought as many as 130 ounces in one day. By June 1870 the bank had bought a massive 4,091 ounces, with a total of 3,200 ounces from the Barossa field. During the first week of August J. and G. Wilcox had bought about 100 ounces on the field while the ESACB had bought gold worth about £10,000 during the last 12 months.

Generally many people regretted that so far the government had been unable to devise a scheme of arriving at a weekly or monthly gold yield of goldfields. It would have given prospectors, miners, investors and especially speculators some reliable idea of its richness. Up to this time nobody could be sure about the amount of gold that was obtained and often could only go by rumours and the information provided by the banks. At the same time it was very difficult to claim a reward, as it was impossible for any discoverer to establish beyond doubt if all the requirements had been fulfilled.

Although credit should be given to the Britcher brothers for having their crushers completed and working, the problem was that most diggers could not afford their charges. The brothers would only crush a minimum of five tons at a rate of 15 shillings per ton to be paid in advance. Disappointed miners soon had another meeting organised at Lowe’s Hotel in the Victoria Township to form a rival crushing company. The issue of 1,000 shares of £2 each would raise the proposed capital of £2,000 for this venture and form the Victoria Gold Quartz & Cement Crushing Company.

A committee was formed, which included some hardworking and capable men. Among them were James Goddard, John Kelly, Alfred Hulbert, H.E. Bright MP, James Martin JP, James Harris, Dr George Nott and Joseph Jones. It was proposed to buy a steam engine of at least 20 horse power capable of working 14 or 15 stamps. J.B. Austin was elected secretary and a large number of shares were applied for.

By the middle of August as many as 900 shares in the proposed Victoria Gold Quartz and Cement Crushing Company had been applied for and it was decided that the company would be floated. Its first directors, who had to hold at least 15 shares, were Bright, Martin, W.F. Wincey, Harris and J. Noltenius.

Within a few weeks J.B. Neales, John Chambers and W.T. Dalwood had formed a rival company. They called it the Barossa Gold Quartz & Cement Crushing Company. Its prospectus included a report of the diggings by Captain Henkel, in the hope that his name would help to raise the proposed £4,000 by selling 4,000 shares of £1 each.

At the Hamlin Gold Mining Company, they not only tried to get gold but also a reliable water supply. By the end of April 1869 they had completed ‘a fine dam across the principal creek and anxiously looked for rain to commence sluicing operations’. There were still more men, and companies, wanting to try their luck in and around Hamlin Gully. The Kapunda Gold Venture had a trial crushing yielding about one ounce to the ton.

During the next few months, impressions about the quality of the Barossa field differed greatly. One reporter stated that he would not advise any one to come up, unless he had patience, perseverance, a little cash and preferably some experience. Regardless of his opinion, work at the Victoria Gold Quartz and Cement Crushing Company was progressing well and all shares had been applied for by the end of August. A few weeks later the new company had bought a 25 horsepower engine and other machinery and accepted a tender to put it all together and build a dam.

Still, not everyone was happy at the Barossa. Nine months after the first gold discovery, no reward had yet been paid by the government. As far as the government was concerned there was no proof that 10,000 ounces had been raised. On 18 August 1869, R.C. Baker, son of John Baker, moved in the House of Assembly a resolution that the discoverers of the Barossa Goldfield were entitled to some reward, whether it was Harris or J.B. Miller.

On the field itself there was still a general dissatisfaction among some of the miners. The Warden had gone to the Murray Flats to declare it a goldfield from which T.J. Monro had returned and reported on very favourably. He had been ‘all over it’, and wherever the earth had been turned up ‘gold was discernible’. He had counted about 40 men at work and assays from the reefs had given 15 to 46 ounces to the ton.

Because of the Warden’s absence, there was no one left at Barossa to settle disputes, which proved rather costly in both time and money. There was also another problem confronting a few of the miners who wanted to try their luck at the South Rhine or Murray Flats.

To go there they would have to go first to Adelaide to obtain another licence, as their current one was only valid for the Barossa field. The life of the early gold diggers, and their families, was certainly not an easy one. Whichever way they turned, regulations, licences, fees and a myriad of other requirements obstructing their quest for gold surrounded them.

Part two

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