Wilkie, Douglas: Melbourne reacts to Bathurst gold discoveries, 1851

Wilkie, Douglas

Exodus and panic: Melbourne’s reaction to the Bathurst gold discoveries of May 1851‘, Victorian Historical Journal, 85, 2, December 2014, pp. 189-218

Sober consideration of the evidence confirms what was known at the time – that reactions to the gold discovery west of the Blue Mountains varied considerably – although the story or myth that has come down to us is that large sections of Melbourne’s population skedaddled to Bathurst.

Even the most objective of historians, when faced with the need to write abbreviated accounts of what happened, have used words such as “exodus” or “panic” to sum up Melbourne’s reaction … In stories, alarm, rather than calm, captures the imagination.

The article looks at rivalries within the then single colony of New South Wales (the Port Phillip District became Victoria on 1 July 1851), earlier news about alleged gold discoveries, and the reactions to the news from Bathurst as it was gradually confirmed.

The problem with accounts written over a century after the event is not so much that later historians were influenced by biased reports in the contemporary press, but that they seem to have relied largely upon colourful secondary accounts, written some time after the event, rather than confirming that terms such as “exodus” and “panic” actually reflected the feeling of mid-1851 …

The “sudden exodus of the population in Melbourne to the gold diggings” at Bathurst in May and June 1851 did not happen in the way that has been suggested by many. Such were the words ofchattering alarmists” and “prophets of evil”. But people like a good story, especially if it contains sensation, panic and the mass exodus of people—and “panic”and “exodus” were sensational words to use when later historians tried to reduce months of complex events down to a sentence or two. And those words were passed on to others—after all, as the Argus said at the time, “Nothing is so contagious as panic”.

In 1851, in any case, Victoria found its own gold. Another article by Douglas Wilkie questioning received wisdom in the field of convict history.


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