LIFE ON THE GOLDFIELDS
During September, October and November of 1858 an estimated fifteen thousand
people passed through Rockhampton on their way to Canoona Station, about 65
kilometres to the north. Times were hard for the pick and shovel miners of the
Victorian Goldfields, so the report of a new strike in the far north of N.S.W.
caused great excitement and lack of caution. A man named Chapple was given the
dishonour of first discovering gold at Canoona in July of 1858 and causing men
to dream big dreams. Unfortunately their dreams turned to dust when it was
realised that although there was gold in payable quantities, there was not
enough for more than a few hundred men. The news of the discovery had spread
like wildfire, but the disappointment of the first miners failed to do likewise
and so shiploads of people kept flowing in. The small settlement of Rockhampton
with its Native Police Camp and two buildings was now overflowing with tents and
huts all along the riverbank as far as the eye could see. With the arrival of
more people than food to feed them, prices quickly soared and in no time the
stores on the goldfields were emptied. Many men had sold all they owned to pay
their passage north and. were now walking away with nothing and not knowing
where their next meal was coming from.
When the first Police Inspector arrived on the diggings he
found that a small band of Diggers had gotten together and made up a code of
laws that seemed to be working quite well. In his first report to the Inspector
General of Police he told of the sorry plight of most of the diggers, but also
of the good luck being experienced by those of the first rush who were early
enough to acquire the best claims. An early miner, Mr. Hall estimated that his
party had dug over 2,000 ounces with more to follow. The most gold was found
within the depth of 12 inches from the surface.
With disappointed and destitute miners returning to
Rockhampton, the now overflowing township was thrown into social and economic
chaos. Before the end of November more than seventy ships had sailed into Keppel
The failure of Canoona was perhaps the real beginning of
Rockhampton as many broke and starving diggers took jobs on properties, in
stores and any other local work they could find. Canoona was also a lesson to
hopeful miners of the future. Whenever a new goldfield was discovered in the
district, the miners were a little more cautious.
Although the miners of the l858 rush believed they had been
duped, the fact remains that quite a lot of gold has been extracted from Canoona
and weekend prospectors are still earning pocket money there today.
The following names are mentioned in J.T.S. Bird's account of
"The Canoona Rush"
Mr. H. Friend
William Ellis (hotelkeeper)
Daniel Martin (butcher)
Mr. Till, Dr, Robertson
Const. Frederick Woods
Mr. G.P. Pilkington
Lieutenant G.P.M. Murray
Mr. Albrecht Feez
Mr. W. Kasch
Mr. Justice Milford
Mr. Johnson (sole survivor of the 1857 "DUNBAR" wreck)
William John Brown
Capt. A.E. Sakes
NEW SOUTH WALES
(Canoona, Port Curtis.)
Ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be Printed,
7 October, 1858.
M. C. O’Connell, Esq., C.C.L., to The Colonial Secretary.
27 September, 1858
received this Mr. Elyard’s letter of the 18th instant, (No. 58-435,)
intimating to me, as well as to the Bench of Magistrates at Rockhampton, that
had been considered expedient, in consequence of the numbers of persons now
proceeding to the Fitz Roy Gold Diggings, at once to proclaim this place as one
for holding Petty Sessions; and that a Clerk of Petty Sessions, who was also a
Gold Receiver, and who had a deputation from the Customs, had likewise been
2. I was also
informed that a mounted inspector, 3 mounted troopers, with 1 sergeant, 4 foot
police, and 1 detective, had, under instructions to the Inspector General of
Police, been ordered to proceed to this district.
3. I have now
to apprise the Government of the arrival this afternoon of Mr. Maxwell
Hutchinson and the detachment of police above-mentioned at their destination;
and I have to express my thanks for the aid which has been provided for this
district under the trying circumstances under which it now is placed.
4. Within the
last few days there have arrived here, by eleven vessels – five of which were
steamers – about 1,043 persons (according to the best information I can
obtain), and I understand about 700 of these have already proceeded to the
Canoona Diggings – distant thirty-five miles from hence.
addition to the numbers I have given, there may be computed about 300 as
arrivals overland, who are also at the diggings; and the distribution of the
populating in this neighbourhood may be said, at the present moment, to be
situated thus, viz:- 1,000 at the diggings, and between three and four hundred
6. I must
remark, however, that of the 1,000 persons supposed to be at the diggings, 700
are about arriving, or have been there only one or two days.
7. But I am
given to understand that some thousands of persons are already on their voyage
hence from Sydney, and that considerable numbers may be expected from Melbourne
and other ports.
8. This is an
announcement which, I confess, causes me considerable anxiety for the peace and
good order of the district, as the pressure of such a vast increase of
population on its means of subsistence must, inevitably, in the first place
cause much inconvenience, and, no doubt, much individual distress.
9. I am also
bound to take into consideration the fact, which is notorious, that many have
come up into this newly located country with but trifling means of support,
under a vague hope that gold is to be obtained without that expenditure of time
and labour which its very value ought to teach them is necessary to its
10. There has
yet to be solved also the problem whether the Gold Field which has been
productive to the few who as yet have been working it, will prove equally
profitable to the much larger numbers who now appear inclined to look to
it for a means of livelihood, and this is a question, momentous as it is, which
nothing but experience can resolve.
11. There are
elements of disorder here which induce me to ask you for an increased force of
police, of 1 sergeant and 6 men mounted, and 4 dismounted men.
12. I propose
to station the Inspector and all the mounted men together, with three dismounted
men, on the diggings, the remainder of the dismounted men being at Rockhampton.
13. I am
happy to be enabled to state, that up to the present moment I have received no
information of any outrage having been committed, wither here or at Canoona,
beyond an assault which occurred on board one of the vessels in the river this
morning, and which I have to inquire into to-morrow.
14. The cause from
which I apprehend most discontent at the present moment is from a possible
scarcity of flour, through the difficulty of obtaining a sufficiency of carriage
for goods hence to the Gold Fields; but as I trust, from the best inquiries I
can make, there is a sufficiency of this necessary article here, or on board the
vessels in the river, I hope some means will be devised of transporting it,
either by land or by water, to some point within reach of the consumers.
15. I add a
few memoranda on a separate paper upon some points which appear to me worthy of
immediate consideration, should the present influx of population to this
district continue. And I beg to assure you that no effort on my part shall
be wanting to secure, as far as practicable, the peace and good order of this
I have, &c.,
M. C. O’CONNELL,
C. C. L.
The Colonial Secretary,
MEMORANDA upon some points which appear to me worthy of consideration, if
the present influx of population to Port Curtis should continue.
A Harbour Master ought to
be appointed, with jurisdiction extending from Port Curtis to the head of
navigation on the Fitz Roy. He would require a crew, with a decked boat of
twelve or fifteen tons, as well as a whaleboat.
A Custom House should be
established at Gladstone, to compel all foreign vessels to call in there.
Vessels of large tonnage, or drawing more than nine feet six of water, cannot
easily navigate the Fitz Roy; and for foreign vessels to unload in Keppel Bay,
where there is no settlement, nor much probability of one for some years to
come, would, it appears to me, open the door to many frauds upon the revenue.
Moreover, there are several dangers about the entrance into Keppel Bay, and
large vessels with passengers would lose very little in time, and gain much in
comfort to their people, by transhipping them in the harbour of Port Curtis,
instead of in Keppel Bay. I fear there will be some sad loss of life if
passenger vessels continue to use the entrance by Keppel Bay in bad weather.
There ought to be a
lighthouse erected – I think on Gatcombe Head.
The Fitz Roy River and
the inner passage between Keppel Bay and Port Curtis ought to be surveyed and
Two different townships
on the river might be laid out and sold at once, in addition to Rockhampton,
which, as it is surveyed, ought to be offered for sale as soon as possible.
The townships I allude to
would be one at the crossing place of the river nearest to Canoona, and the
other on the north bank of the Fitz Roy, some eight or ten miles below
Rockhampton – at least this latter place is worth examining, to discover
whether it offers any advantages over Rockhampton itself.
M. C. O’CONNELL
C. C. L.