Gold Gold Gold
Although the discovery of gold in 1851 was officially given to several finds in the area between Ballarat and Bendigo, it was not until 11 years later that Gippsland started to produce some of the wealth that gold created. The financial rewards from the North Gippsland Goldfields went mainly to already wealthy investors of the Melbourne ‘establishment’, who were able to finance the cost of setting up machinery to efficiently extract the ore from the underground reefs. Consequently, there is very little of substance remaining in Gippsland to indicate the extent of wealth produced from this area. Towns like Port Albert, Rosedale and Toongabbie, were significant and active in their heyday, but declined once their major purpose as transit points to Gippsland and the goldfields ceased to exist. Surviving brick or stone buildings in Rosedale give some indication of its past. Buildings in Toongabbie were built in timber, with the Mechanics Institute and St. David’s Church the only buildings remaining. Surviving buildings are permanent reminders of the activities, and often wealth, of the past. A major impression, however, is of the prospectors, miners [and their families], traders and enterprising women of the times, who helped shape our heritage and culture, but of whom there are very few visible reminders. Their achievements, and failures, were under most difficult and trying circumstances, especially in the North Gippsland Goldfields. Emphasis, therefore, should be on the people behind the various events and activities.
The goldfields closest to Gippsland in 1862 were those in the upper Goulburn River area around Woods Point, and the newest discovery on the Jordan River. Although it was a much shorter distance, ‘as the crow flies’, to towns like Sale, prospectors and miners obtained their supplies from Melbourne through Wood’s Point. Sale traders were concerned by this situation and paid rewards to men by the name of McEvoy and Campbell. These men created two new tracks to supply these goldfields as they progressed further south towards the Walhalla area, along the Aberfeldy & Thomson Rivers and the many streams that fed these rivers.
New discoveries were being made regularly. Ned Stringer was among the men making these discoveries and searching for more. Late in 1862 he, and two mates, William Griffiths and William McGregor, made the discovery that would lead the Walhalla goldfield into over 50 years of intense activity, the remnants of which can still be seen today. Ned Stringer, however, did not live long enough to see the results of the discovery, passing away at Toongabbie late in 1863, aged 44 years. He died, on his return trip to Stringer’s Creek after seeing a doctor in Sale, from a haemorrhage caused by a coughing spasm due, it is thought, to tuberculosis. The news of his death quickly spread to Stringer’s Creek. Sixteen miners proceeded quickly to Toongabbie to give Ned a proper miner’s burial service. He was buried on land close to where he had died. A Cemetery did not eventuate at Toongabbie until about 1870. His remains were transferred to the Cemetery in 1885.
The mountainous terrain and isolation presented many difficulties in achieving access, with Port Albert being the closest entry point for both equipment and miners, many with families. It could take weeks, and sometimes months, for heavy equipment, to arrive at Walhalla from Port Albert. It was common for a team of 10 bullocks to cart around 3 tons of supplies, etc. Port Albert started to decline, with the completion of the Gippsland Railway in 1879, and a branch line to Toongabbie in 1883. At its peak in the 1880’s, Toongabbie had a population of several hundred people, mainly conducting business activities, including hotels and accommodation houses, trades [blacksmiths, wheelwrights, saddlers, etc.], stores supplying tools, provisions, etc., sawmill, Mechanics Institute, and people operating pack-animal teams and the railway. In the very early days, the track to Walhalla was only suitable for pack-animal teams. There were 600-700 pack animals engaged in this trade. One accommodation house had a sign “Lodging here for all that passes, Horses, mares, mules and asses”.
Toongabbie was a very busy town in 1883, when the railway arrived, and Walhalla was flourishing. The Railway Station became the second busiest in Gippsland at that time. This level of activity eventually started to decline until 1910, when another branch railway between Moe and Walhalla was opened. By this time, Walhalla was also well into its period of decline, so the railway arrived too late for any significant benefit to the gold-mines. It was also the final factor in Toongabbie steadily reducing in size and activity.
It took only a short time to realise the significance of the find at Stringer’s Creek. Plans were made to install crushing batteries for the quartz from the subsequently discovered ‘mother lode’ [Cohen’s Reef], which was the source of the alluvial gold being found in Stringer’s Creek. Two prospectors, John Hinchcliffe & James Meyers, were given the credit for this discovery. The only person named Cohen [John] in the area was the Seaton store/post-office manager, who had not been to the Walhalla area. The story is that John Hinchcliffe agreed to name the Reef after Cohen, in exchange for supplies. Both men were unable to exploit their find. Like others, such as Ned Stringer and his group, neither of these gentlemen appears to have substantially benefited financially for their significant discovery. The amount of capital required to develop their claim was beyond their resources. It was left to others with capital to take on this task and reap the financial rewards. Griffiths, McGregor and the Estate of Ned Stringer were eventually given a Government reward of 100 pounds each for their discovery.
The Walhalla Gold Mining Company [derived from the Scandinavian ‘Valhalla”, from which the mine and new town were named in 1865] was the largest mine to commence battery crushing in the early years. It had capital of 1,800 pounds, but by December 1869 had paid dividends of 103,678 pounds to its shareholders, nearly 6,000% return over about 5 years. The Long Tunnel Mine was operating by 1865, and eventually became the largest and most productive mine. It was also paying similar large rewards to shareholders, who received dividends totalling 100 times their initial investment, over the 50 year life of the Mine. The Long Tunnel Extended Mine did not commence operations until 1873, but at times, was producing more gold than the Long Tunnel Mine. The Walhalla Goldfield produced an estimated total of approximately 2.5 million ounces [70 tons] of gold, with a present day value of approximately $A1.5 b
illion. These figures were likely to have been under-estimated, due to a lot of gold not always being disclosed by the many prospectors working in the area. The Cohen Reef alone produced approx. 1.5m. ozs. [42 tons worth $A900m.], more than half of which was from the Long Tunnel Mine. Both of these achievements were unequalled by any other underground goldmine in Australia.
Whilst such recorded history seems to suggest there was only the male sex involved, there were many women doing their best as wives and mothers, often existing under extreme hardship and isolation, especially between Wood’s Point and Walhalla. They were the only two towns providing anything like civilised conditions. For those who venture these days into the area between these two towns, it is easy to imagine the conditions that these women tried to contend with. Although goldmining in any area in that era was difficult, the rewards from the North Gippsland goldfields were achieved at a much higher personal cost.
Most creeks and rivers were prospected and numerous mining settlements created. Living quarters could be a tent, ‘humpy’ or, if lucky, a quickly erected hut of timber with bark or shingle roof, very inadequate for the extreme weather conditions that would have been experienced! Prospectors, miners, and families, were constantly moving from one place to another as ‘new finds’ were made, so they seldom enjoyed any ‘permanent’ type accommodation and facilities. Under such conditions, it would be very difficult to achieve adequate health hygiene. It was most unlikely, because of isolation, that any medical assistance would be received in the case of illness, or childbirth. It is obvious from research that this was generally accepted as a ‘fact of life’. The nearest doctor, in the early 1860s, was probably at either Woods Point or Sale. It also appears that loss of life, especially in infants and children, was accepted as to be expected. It was not until the mid-1860s that the first doctor arrived in Walhalla. Most adults failed to live beyond what we now consider to be middle age. Burial was, quite often, very close to where death took place, or in any nearby land considered to be a burial ground.
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