The making of Victoria: From Sullivan Bay to the Gold Boom

The discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850s brought people from across the world, pushing the newly formed colony to develop rapidly, throwing some curious characters into the spot light, and ultimately shaping Victoria to this day. In this article, Dr Nick Gordon looks at the history of Victoria, from its early colonies to its sudden explosion during the Gold Rush.

Early colony and expansion

The first attempts to establish a colony in what is now Victoria were motivated by the desire to protect Bass Strait from the French, who were charting the region in the 1790s. Indeed, the knowledge of the Strait in Europe was a carefully guarded secret: Cook seems to have inferred its existence, but only referred to it obliquely in his letters. La Perouse’s 1797 map contains an uncharted area extending from the middle of the Great Australian Bite to the east coast of Victoria, and English maps printed in England show a continuous coastline connecting Tasmania to the mainland. In 1797, however, Bass and Flinders set out to establish the existence of the Strait, exploring the north coast of Tasmania in 1798 and as far west as Phillip Island in Victoria.

Detail of La Perouse’s map of Australia and the South Pacific, 1797
Detail of Laurie and Whittle’s map of Australia and the South Pacific, 1797

From this point on English maps show Tasmania and Australia as separate islands. Two years later, Lieutenant Grant sailed along the coast of southern Victoria on the Lady Nelson, somehow missing the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. Another two years later, Lieutenant Murray, also on the Lady Nelson, entered Port Phillip Bay, and was followed six weeks later by Flinders and his cat on The Investigator. Flinders’ exploration of the Bay – including his ascent of the You Yangs and Arthur’s Seat – established its credentials as a potential colony, especially with fresh water coming down the Yarra. Fears of renewed French interest under Napoleon saw the Calcutta, captained by Lieutenant Collins, and a transport ship diverted from the Cape of Good Hope to establish a colony at Sullivan Bay, about one kilometre from Sorrento in 1803. To the south, in Tasmania, the colony of George Town was established shortly after in 1804.

The HMS Investigator, the first ship to circumnavigate Australia

Both colonies were short lived – the main George Town colony moved up the Esk River to found Launceston in 1806, and Sullivan Bay was abandoned a few months after its foundation due to lack of fresh water. Little remains at Sullivan Bay, except some foundations and tombstones, but it has a strange significance. One convict escaped – William Buckley – and lived among the Wathaurang people, learning their language and customs. More than 30 years later he popped up again, when John Batman (a man whose poor treatment of people shocked even his contemporaries) was busy founding a new colony in Port Phillip. Buckley proved invaluable as a translator and was granted a full pardon. He lives on in Australian idiom – the proverbial ‘Buckley’s chance’.

Portrait of William Buckley – a veritable giant at 6 and a half feet tall

The early 1800s saw a decline of interest in settling Victoria – except for some whaling stations around Portland – and most ships to Sydney arrived on the Roaring 40s via Hobart. Nonetheless, overland exploration of northern and central Victoria continued from Sydney, and the accounts of the landscape and indigenous populations by explorers such as Charles Sturt, Hume and Hovell and Major Mitchell provide valuable information about pre-colonial Victoria.

Change came rapidly in the 1830s, however, with the end of free land grants in Tasmania. Several Tasmanian pastoralists sought a new opportunity to grab pastoral land cheaply on the mainland. The Henty brothers established Portland in 1834, as a base to move inland to the plains of the Western Districts, which had been maintained as light forest and grass lands by its traditional owners. In 1835, John Batman went to Port Phillip Bay, where through Buckley he negotiated the acquisition of pastoral lands on the bay. Shortly after, he took control of a colony on the Yarra River, which had been founded a few months earlier at what is now Williams St by John Pascoe Fawkner, another Tasmanian pastoralist looking to grab land.


The 1830s colonies in Victoria were founded by private companies and individuals, exploiting loopholes in NSW colonial land laws. Governor Bourke acted quickly, and appointed Captain William Lonsdale as Commander of the Port Phillip region and introduced a ₤10 fee on squatting licenses. Nonetheless, squatters had quickly occupied vast tracts of grazing land to the north and west of the Port Phillip Bay. Thomas Austin, for example, whose uncle, James, had been transported to found Hobart, set up a vast run of 29,000 hectares in the Western Districts of the Port Philip Colony (today its less than an hour’s drive west of Geelong). He’s widely cited as the man who let rabbits loose on the continent.

Barwon Park Manor, the 44-room blue stone mansion built by the Austins, now a National Trust property

The colony grew steadily around Melbourne, which was well-provided for by its hinterland – grain and crops on the Bellarine (the National Trust held Arlington Mills is a relic of this past). By the late 1840s, Melbourne had grown enough to consider separation from the colony of NSW; tensions between the new squattocracy and the colonial administration from Sydney only fuelled this desire. The new colony of Victoria was formally established on 1 July 1851 (when Tasmania and South Australia also became separate colonies from NSW), with Charles La Trobe appointed Lieutenant Governor, and a legislative council drawn from the squattocracy. On 2 July, the discovery of gold at Mount Alexander was announced, followed by further discoveries across the region. Many of the towns here retain their origin in their names – Welshman’s Reef, Dry Diggings, Nuggety.

Gold diggings, Ararat, c.1858, by Edwin Roper Loftus Stocqueler, oil painting, presented by Sir William Dixson, 1929, State Library of New South Wales

The findings proved to be substantial and the Gold Rush was on, with people arriving from Canada, the USA, China, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Caribbean. (While driving through the region, you see place names evoking these other places too.) Most arrived at Melbourne, which, through cunning advertising, had proclaimed itself the closest port to the gold, much to the dissatisfaction of Geelong, which was closer and also had a decent port. The exception is the Chinese diggers, who were mostly indentured labourers from mainland southern China sent to Australia: Victoria imposed a ₤10 landing fee on all Chinese arrivals, far beyond the reach of most prospective diggers, let alone indentured labourers. They disembarked at Robe, South Australia, and walked overland to the gold fields.

Marlene Gilson, Chinese of the Goldfields, 2018, Art Gallery of Ballarat. Part of Wautharang Elder, Aunty Marlene Gilson’s series of paintings exploring Australian history

The discovery of gold made Melbourne’s Southbank a tent town, as new arrivals set up there as a staging ground to head to the fields. The ‘towns’ they moved too were also made of tents, at least in their early years – Bendigo, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Daylesford, and Creswick (Sir John Curtin’s home town, and where Norman Lindsay’s parents settled). Artists such as Eugene von Guerard captured the spirit of these settlements – fields of tents, sheep fields and a ragged mountain top or two in the distance. The rapid population growth was because mining – especially once diggers exhausted the alluvial deposits and started going for the quartz reefs beneath the ground – requires a large number of support industries: carpenters, blacksmiths, foundries, provisioners, banks with vaults and lines of credit, hotels, and, much to the dislike of colonial authorities, taverns, breweries and distilleries.

View of the Melbourne tent town in 1850. The road in the middle became St Kilda Road and the NGV now stands near the butcher’s tent on the left

Population boom

The sheer number of people arriving between the 1850s and 1870s –the population of Victoria grew from about 70,000 to close to 350,000 people between 1851 and 1855 alone – created a boom, but also caused shortages. To address this, the new colony opened up lands around Melbourne to selectors, typcially urban working and lower middle-class men and women who would be given an allotment of land on the provision they cleared it and made it productive within five years. Without refrigeration, produce was best grown close to the city: the Dandenongs, Warrandyte, Yarra Valley and beneath Mount Macedon were prime targets. The labour of these men and women became an ideal of a new Australian identity – it’s the hard yakka and stoicism idealised by the Heidelberg school a generation later (in McCubbin’s The Pioneer triptych, for example). Their tools – the axe, the adse and a horse – take on an almost heroic significance in the works of Arthur Streeton.

Frederick McCubbin, The Pioneer, NGV, 1904

It is also unsurprising that this period also saw the systematic creation of Aboriginal reserves, such as Corrunderk, near Healesville in the Yarra Valley. It was initially created to hold the Wurrandjeri people, whose traditional lands are today’s vineyards. Corrunderk became one of the largest missions in Victoria, until it ceased operation in 1924, and most of its remaining residents were sent to Lake Tyers Reserve in then remote south eastern Victoria.

The boom also saw the birth of new regional cities – Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine, for example – which quickly transformed from tent towns into new, centrally planned cities. These plans, usually drawn up by colonial surveyors, reflected the best new ideas of town planning inspired by Paris and Vienna: wide, open boulevards, public parks and green spaces, grand public buildings. By the 1880s, some of these regional towns had ambitions to become bigger than Melbourne and Sydney – Bendigo, for example, aimed to be the Vienna of the south. Key cultural institutions were established: theatres, art galleries, public access libraries, technical colleges, worker’s education institutes, schools. An enlightened public policy on the gold fields – clean air, education, high culture, and opportunity for self-improvement – was mostly driven by the new citizens of these cities who’d made good.

Bendigo Post Office and Law Courts in 1887, designed by Public Works architect George Watson

The architects of this period have bequeathed to us the grand buildings that still line the streets of cities such as Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and Melbourne. Among them was Carl Wilhelm Vahland, one of the most forward-thinking figures of his day. Carl had studied architecture and building in Hanover, before migrating to Australia in 1854, in the hope of finding gold and escaping the political turmoil of the German states. He failed as a digger, but set himself up in Bendigo as a carpenter instead, and by the late 1860s had done well enough to establish an architecture firm with a fellow German. The building boom in Bendigo from the 1870s onwards served him well – he designed the Mechanics Institute, Shamrock Hotel, the Hospital, Alexandra Fountain and the Town Hall (in which he would later serve as a councillor). His style of architecture, which drew on contemporary developments in Europe, incorporated elements of Second Empire, Neoclassical and neo-Renaissance: the perfect fit for the migrant town’s ambitions.

Margaret Preston, Alexandra Fountain, Bendigo Regional Gallery, 1971

But Vahland was also deeply committed to public life, and was considered one of the most trustworthy men of Bendigo – he served on the boards of the hospital, the local cognac distillery, the asylum, the Mechanics Institute, and the School of Mines (where he taught a generation of builders and architects). In his spare time, he was a Lutheran preacher and an advocate for the development of a Victorian wine industry that took advantage of its distinct terroir. Despite being held in high regard by his contemporary Bendigonians, his German birth disqualified him from being elected to the Victorian parliament and he was stripped of his passport in 1914 as an enemy alien. He died the following year.

Violence on the goldfields

The setting for the adoption of policies that aimed to materially improve the lives and livelihoods of the people on the gold fields, however, was bleak. There were frequent complaints of drunkenness and iniquity made by colonial authorities. While the level of alcohol reported to have been consumed allows for an element of truth, it’s hard to not hear the overtones of race and class: the colonial government was mostly drawn from the Anglican squattocracy, while miners were frequently poorer men and women from (Catholic) Ireland, Germany or Ticino, and not infrequently, China.

The most famous episode of colonial repression is far and away the Eureka Stockade. In the early 1850s, the colonial government introduced licensing fees for prospecting and then regularly increased the fee. In 1852, the license fee tripled to ₤3 per month, regardless of if one found anything or not, and the following year saw colonial government increase license spot checks to twice a week. For some among the Anti-Gold License Association, it was a matter of an almost revolutionary principle: the fees constituted an unfair tax burden on a group of people without representation. The colonial government’s attitude towards the miners, according to historians such as Manning Clark, was of a cultured class needing to impose order over a rabble who were incapable of governing themselves.

Marlene Gilson, The Eureka Stockade, 2018

These sort of class tensions bubbling away beneath the surface came to a head when a Scottish miner, James Scobie, was murdered in a hotel and the proprietor, who was believed to have been complicit in his death, was acquitted by the local magistrate. A group of people who believed the magistrate to be corrupt chased the hotel owner out of town and burned down his establishment. Colonial soldiers – there was not a clear barrier between the colonial military and police forces in Victoria yet – were unable to suppress the crowd, and it set a precedent.

In the following months leading up to the Eureka Rebellion, ideas familiar to us circulated, especially among groups such as the Ballarat Reform League. The notion that a wider enfranchisement would be just, that a popular voice in parliament was required, that ordinary people should be eligible to vote – these ideas are part and parcel of Australian life today. It might be tempting to consider them radical in the 1850s, but they weren’t. England began extending its franchise and reforming its political system in the 1830s, after Prime Minister Earl Grey (after whose honour the tea is named), forced the House of Lords to abstain from voting against his Great Reform Act. Furthermore, liberalism and socialism had taken root in the United Kingdom (and across western Europe), and the American Revolution was 80 years old. Victoria’s political system was elitist, and, by Anglophone standards, a bit backwards.

The leaders of the rebellion came from around the world. Those that were tried after the rebellion was squashed were from Ireland, from Africa via Kingston, from New York, from Italy, Scotland and the Netherlands. One was even born in Australia. The public reaction to the rebellion was overwhelmingly in support of it and its principles, and shortly afterwards the Victorian political system was reformed. Peter Lalor, the leader of Eureka, was elected member for Ballaarat, unopposed. In the following years, colonial government was reformed across Australia – bicameral systems were introduced in most colonies, along with the secret ballot, and in 1861 female landowners were enfranchised in local elections in South Australia – an Australian first.

Portrait of Peter Lalor – the leader of the Eureka Rebellion and ancestor of Academy Travel Product Manager, Mark Lalor

Not all violence on the gold fields was politically motivated, and it is easy to imagine the sort of routine, mundane violence fuelled by economic stress, overcrowding and the consumption of moonshine. Social welfare movements had an active presence on the gold fields, ranging from groups preaching for the prohibition of alcohol, to self-help organisations and friendly societies promoting self-improvement. Some of these movements became breeding grounds for political activism, including female suffrage and women’s rights in the 1870s, to unionism and federalism in the 1880s and 90s.

Bendigo: Reverend Backhaus and Imperial Dragons

One of the leaders of social reform on the goldfields was Reverend Backhaus, a Prussian Catholic priest, who’d studied in Rome, spent ten years as a missionary in India, and four years with the Sydney Metropolitan Choir. He ended up in Bendigo in the early 1850s, when the region required a priest willing to slum it for the greater good. He settled in Bendigo in 1852, using a tent for a church, had set up a school the following year, and began his work raising donations from those of his parishioners who’d quite literally struck gold to fund charitable works in the burgeoning city.

The first church he had built collapsed – the workmanship was shoddy; the second stood for a while, but was not big enough for such a populous region, but it was still standing at least when he died in the 1880s (and was buried in the cemetery there). The third church was almost built entirely from funds he’d raised personally through canny investments – Bendigo’s beautiful gothic cathedral, the third largest in Australia.

Bendigo’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

But this very large donation to the city – and at the very least it is a beautiful addition to the streetscape when you drive in from Melbourne – is only a small amount of what he bequeathed the people of Bendigo. During his time there, he worked as a teacher, as a doctor – missionaries often had sound medical knowledge – and as an advocate for all the town’s needy. Notably, he was one of the most powerful advocates in town for Chinese miners (who made up almost 20% of early Bendigo’s population). When asked about his willingness to include them in Bendigonian society, he just reminded his parishioners that he was German.

More importantly, he and others could point to quite vast sums of money that had been raised by Chinese miners to help build the new public hospital. Moreover, in 1871 they had imported costumes, regalia and a dragon – Loong, Bendigo’s first Chinese Dragon – to hold a fund-raising procession to support the hospital as part of Bendigo’s first Easter procession.

The Easter procession is almost 150 years old, and Bendigo’s Chinese-Australian population have been involved since the outset. The dragon Loong retired in the 1970s, however, and was replaced by the 100-metre-long Sun Loong (“The New Dragon”) – handmade using traditional methods in Hong Kong. It was the longest imperial dragon in the world, until 2018, when Sun Loong too retired, to be replaced by Dai Gum Loong who, at 121 metres long, is far and away the longest imperial dragon in the world. (On arrival at Bendigo airport in 2019, Dai Gum Loong was carried 5 kilometres into the city by 150 people.) You might not expect to see the two longest imperial dragons in the world in Bendigo, and they are just two of the exceptional works in Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum.

After Gold

The gold mines beneath Bendigo yielded over 750,000 kgs by the 1950s – making it one of the most productive goldfields in the world. The deep mines were never exhausted – despite having 140 shafts that go down more than 300 metres below surface level – and there is still intermittent discussion of whether to allow mining to continue, deep beneath Victoria’s third largest city.

Replica of the Welcome Nugget, weighing in at 78kgs – the largest single nugget ever discovered

The end of mining in most of the goldfield towns was more sudden. In some such as Maldon and Clunes, mining ended quite suddenly, leaving the small towns with beautifully preserved buildings and street fronts from the 19th century. Others, such as Bendigo and Ballarat, became regional industrial and service centres. These cities have realised more recently the benefits of their ancestors’ investment in art – they are the two first regional galleries in Australia – and their exceptional collections have become drawcards for visitors.

The streetscapes of Maldon today

Bendigo is far and away the leader in this respect – it gets international exhibitions that the galleries in the capital cities don’t. But its success is part of a broader picture of how the goldfields region has changed. Interest in Australia’s own heritage has grown substantially since the 1970s, and the region has it in spades. Regional land prices – and being a comfortable drive from Melbourne – have made it ideal for artists, artisans and small producers, whose work can be found in local markets and boutiques – Daylesford and Kyneton have particularly good reputations. There are also cool climate gardens to visit (Paul Bangay, Australia’s leading landscape designer, lives there for example), and there are several distinct wine regions to be enjoyed, as Vahland said there should be in the 1880s.

Dr Nick Gordon

Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.


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