SBS is screening ‘New Gold Mountain’, the homegrown series set in the period after the Eureka Stockade on the Ballarat gold fields. Chinese miners feature heavily in the story. Daylesford and Hepburn too have a fascinating history of Chinese and Swiss Italian miners. We reproduce an extract from Mary Grant’s Environmental History of Daylesford that illustrates the history.


In 1842 the Melbourne land boom collapsed and the pastoral economy faltered. At this stage local properties changed hands with monotonous regularity, but the area managed to ride out the depression and by 1851 the Loddon and its tributaries were dotted with homesteads, many near headwaters. It was on one of these properties that gold was first found in the district. Early in August 1851, John Eagan of Corinella found gold at Wombat Flat near the head of the present Lake Daylesford. A little later, gold was found along a 15 mile stretch of Sailors Creek and then in virtually every creek and gully in the near locality.

By 1855 the Daylesford diggings spread over almost the entire area of the present Shire and was Victoria’s most diversified and long-lived field as well as the largest in the area, containing 300 square miles of auriferous ground.

Much of the initial and longer small scale mining was carried out by digging down to bedrock in creeks and gullies. All the main creeks and many gullies were worked this way from 1851 up until World War I. Chinese miners particularly favoured this type of mining of alluvial gold, possibly because little capital was required. Self-employed alluvial diggers of the 1850s could make up to 1 pound per day on average – about double what they could earn in wages – providing the rains gave them enough water. Sometimes the rewards were greater. In 1863 W.E. Stanbridge allowed two young milkmaids to work six feet of ground on the western boundary of Wombat Park from which they got 300 pounds (136 kg) worth of gold.

Parts of the Shire are riddled with tunnels dug by miners following deep leads, that is, alluvial deposits buried beneath younger sediments or basalt flows. The land all around the western side of Mt Franklin was tunnelled by miners following the leads down to the Jim Crow Creek. These tunnels passed beneath cultivated paddocks, sometimes close to the surface, and the story is told of a horse, plough and farmer disappearing into a collapsing tunnel. The Shakespeare Company sank a shaft south of Mt Franklin and discovered one such lead at 127 feet.

A Mining Registrar’s Report gives an interesting breakdown of the mining population and techniques in the Hepburn Division in 1859. Of 2,763 European miners, 950 were tunnelling, 780 alluvial sinking, 590 sluicing, 273 puddling, 21 quartz crushing and 47 quartz mining. Alluvial mining was all important at this time as quartz mining was hampered in the early states of its development by lack of water in summer for the quartz crushers. Quartz reefs were first exploited in 1854 by the Mauritius Open Cut Reef Company. The quartz was crushed by a Chilean Mill, a large rolling stone pulled by a horse around a circular track, but by 1860 water wheels began to operate quartz crushers around the hills and creeks, and later, steam batteries fuelled by local timber became the norm.

The water necessary for the water wheels, puddling machines and sluicing boxes was brought to the claims by water races, of which there were 240 miles (386 km) by the late 1860s. The local Mining Warden’s Court regulations gave water race leases, which could be used for selling off water, to miners. Many ran for miles and still survive today. Hunt’s Race into the Dry Diggings at Mt Franklin was 15 miles (24 km) long, and Lewis’ or Menadue’s Race ran for 12 miles (19 km) through Eganstown into Basalt.

Deep lead mining companies appeared in the 1860s, including one which exploited the Corinella lead at Eaganstown. The Royal Oak Company worked a huge lead which ran under W.E. Stanbridge’s property out towards Coomoora, and the Exchequer Company worked another lead in the same area which had 240 shareholders and employed 47 men working in three shifts.

Swiss Italian, Chinese and other groups in the goldfields

Like every large digging, Daylesford had its share of French, German, Danish and Austrian diggers fleeing the revolutionary upheavals in Europe. Ticinese, Irish, Welsh and Cornish miners were well represented too, but the Chinese were the largest group of foreign nationals on the diggings. By the 1858 the Chinese comprised 18.8 percent of the colony’s mining population, but on the Daylesford diggings the proportion of Chinese diggers was much higher. The 1859 mining register figures showed that one third of the total number of miners were Chinese. The Chinese worked in groups of 10-12 sluicing bedrock along the Jim Crow, Spring and Sailors Creeks and sending most of the proceeds back to their syndicate heads in Canton.

After 1855 the Chinese on the Victorian goldfields were forced into a protectorate system supposedly to reduce friction between themselves and Europeans. The chief camp at Daylesford was at Hepburn but it appears that they had congregated there prior to a petition to Parliament from Jim Crow diggers dated 19 August 1857 complaining of being over run by the “Celestial miners”. Certainly their camp containing a Joss house, opium dealers shops, a general store, hotel and gambling dens were much frequented by Europeans at weekends when a carnival atmosphere prevailed. It seems that thereafter relationships between Chinese and Europeans were friendly and by the 1890s the Chinese were becoming “Australianised”. Si Que was a member of the Shepherds Flat Cricket Team and his compatriots took part in the 1906 Empire Day procession. In 1906 a huge bushfire burnt the Chinese camp, leaving only the Joss house. After this, the remaining Chinese left the district.

The other major ethnic group which collected on the Daylesford diggings was the Swiss-Italians from Ticino in Switzerland. Between 1854 and 1855, 2000 Ticinese men came to Victoria after Swiss shipping agents advertised passages to the Victorian goldfields. More than 1000 were on the Jim Crow diggings in the mid 1850s. Like the Chinese, the Ticinese were predominantly single men with the intention of returning to their families after making their fortune but, unlike the Chinese, the majority of Ticinese put down roots and stayed in the new country. After the gold began to run out, the Ticinese took up firewood contracting, charcoal burning or entered into a service industry like store or hotel keeping. Very early on some began to realise the peasant dream of becoming landowners.

The Lands Act (1862) allowed land selection at 1 pound per acre for surveyed allotments of 40-60 acres. The first naturalisation of Ticinese was predominately brought about by this opportunity to own land. The immigrants bought small family blocks, built houses and resumed the traditional life-style they had left behind.

They married Catholic women, often Irish-Australian, and raised large families who kept milk cows and pigs, made butter and cheese (much for export), bullboar sausages and wine, grew wheat, vegetables, fruity trees and vines. The great achievement was to build a two storey house with a wine cellar and cheese room, just as the better off folk had back home. The typical houses are still standing at Yandoit. “Locarno” at Yandoit is two storeyed with an enormous wine cellar containing wooden barrels and other wine making equipment.


From Mary Grant’s Environmental History of Daylesford.