Bushfires and the 19th-century Victorian goldrushes

Douglas Wilkie, University of Melbourne

Come, see! … They are the four elements: fire, wind, water, and dust … and from them come gold and silver and copper and iron.

— Shim‛on ben Yohai, 2nd-century C.E.

There are numerous connections linking the pre-1851 Port Phillip District of New South Wales and the post-1851 independent British colony of Victoria. The first of July 1851 — Port Phillip’s ‘Independence Day’ — was not merely the end of one chapter and the beginning of another — nor was the ‘discovery’ of gold in Victoria a few days after separation from New South Wales simply an accident or coincidence as many historians have portrayed it.

The ‘discovery’ of gold in Victoria in mid 1851 was not simply a convenient coincidence that came a few weeks after Port Phillip’s separation from New South Wales; it was not merely the result of panic caused by a rush to New South Wales after Edward Hargraves’ announcement of gold near Bathurst — indeed, it can be argued that there was no rush from Melbourne and no panic; nor was it the result of a £200 reward being offered by the Melbourne Gold Committee in June 1851. Similarly, the occurrence of the Victorian gold rushes so soon after Black Thursday was no mere coincidence.

The discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 was a consequence of a sequence of events that began several years earlier, in particular, the 1849 rush to the Pyrenees which confirmed the existence of substantial gold deposits, heightened expectations that more would be found, and encouraged exploration — despite a public reluctance on the part of the government. When that opposition was no longer tenable, one of the factors that facilitated the relatively easy rediscovery of gold in 1851 was the convergence of four elements — earth, wind, fire, and water — in a way that allowed the pre-clearing of the goldfields by the fires of Black Thursday; and delivered an abundant water supply necessary for successful alluvial mining through the floods that followed. Without these, the discovery of gold in 1851 would undoubtedly have been much harder.

A sunburnt country

Contemporary newspapers, letters and books not only give detail about what people were doing or saying, but also describe the environment in which they were doing it. On one hand, Port Phillip became a popular destination for pastoralists and immigrants because of its climate and pastoral lands — hence the appellation Australia Felix — but on the other, it was also seen as a harsh environment by many colonists, who suffered frequent droughts, floods, and bushfires. It was the land of droughts and flooding rains celebrated by Dorothea Mackellar in her 1908 poem, My Country — but, in 1848, sixty years before Mackellar wrote her poem, the people of Port Phillip were still coming to terms with those droughts and floods.

In February 1848 — the middle of a long, hot summer — the Argus correspondent at Seymour reported, that, ‘the whole country is parched up and … stock are suffering from want of food and water’. By September the weather had been ‘extraordinary, alternating between hot winds and raw damp cold atmosphere’. Then in October — ‘the present season has been more unsettled than any previous one … settlers will have no occasion to complain of the want of grass and water this summer’.

In the same month, the Geelong Advertiser noted that ‘almost unceasing rains’ had caused both crops and grass to grow to ‘unprecedented height’, but at the same time urged that precautionary measures be taken by farmers to protect their crops against bushfires in the coming summer. At Mount Macedon during November there was ‘a succession of violent storms’ and a ‘most fearful hurricane of hail and wind’.

By mid-December a brief period of fine weather was followed by ‘a wintry aspect’ in what was the ‘strangest and most changeable season ever experienced since cultivation was begun in the province’. Nevertheless, by mid January ‘beautiful weather’ had again returned, and by February the usual hot summer dominated.

While newspaper reports may sometimes exaggerate extreme weather events, such reports still provide a picture of significant oscillation between flood, drought, and bushfire — and it must be kept in mind that in 1848 most of Port Phillip had been settled by Europeans for only thirteen years and the variations in weather later regarded as ‘normal’ were still seen as remarkable. The effect of this variable weather pattern was to promote an abundant growth of grass in the months before the late hot summer set in.

The discovery of gold in 1848

Early in 1848 a shepherd named Thomas Chapman discovered gold at Daisy Hill Creek on the Glenmona run of squatter Charles Browning Hall, near the Pyrenees Ranges of Port Phillip. Many had found random pieces of gold during the 1840s, but none knew how to efficiently recover the tiny specks of that lay in creek beds all across the country, or the best way to remove the gold from the quartz in which it was often embedded.

Most gave up gold hunting because it was hard work, or they simply did not know how to go about it — finding the occasional nugget lying on the surface was too much of a lottery to be considered a serious occupation. As Governor Charles Fitz Roy observed, the surface gold was widely scattered and most people thought the effort to find more was not worth the time involved. Thomas Chapman had been lucky — and in December he brought thirty-eight ounces of the gold to Melbourne and sold it to two jewellers, Charles Brentani and Alexandre Duchene.

Chapman took Brentani, Duchene, and silversmith Joseph Forrester, to the site of the discovery where they hoped to find more gold. But Duchene, recognising the difficulty of the task, decided on a different strategy and returned to Melbourne, leaving Brentani and Forrester to press ahead with their quest.

One account of the expedition suggests that, after taking them to Daisy Hill, Chapman returned to his duties as shepherd while Brentani and Forrester, ‘set to work in earnest, but soon found how ignorant they were of the means required to secure the precious metal’. Brentani ‘returned to town and procured large sledgehammers to break the stone, but it never once entered their heads to wash the dirt the nuggets were found in’.

Breaking the quartz with sledgehammers may have retrieved some gold, but manual labour was no match for the crushing machines that were later used. Nevertheless, as jewellers and silversmiths, Brentani and Forrester were familiar with using heat to manipulate metals, and for this reason it may have occurred to them that fire could be used to separate gold embedded in quartz. The Cornwall Chronicle thought something similar when trying to discredit the Pyrenees find as being stolen gold dust or plate ‘disfigured by being liquidized in a bush fire’.

But the work continued, and the gold seekers eventually had large piles of stone picked out to burn, hoping by this means to melt the gold they could see plainly enough with the naked eye. After long absence, Chapman gave them a call, and being informed of their intention to make an immense fire, he was very much alarmed for his master’s grass, and told them in pretty strong language he would not permit anything of the sort, for Chapman knew too well the meaning of a bush fire.

1849: A summer of ‘fearful violence’

Libby Robin has observed that Australian fire events are often ‘spatially and temporally unpredictable’, and such unpredictability was cause for comment by the early settlers of Port Phillip, however, by the mid 1840s some events seemed more predictable than others — as Charles Griffith noted in 1845 — ‘All parts of the country … are exceedingly apt to catch fire in the summer time’.

The summer of 1849 was a period of extreme bushfire danger and in December 1848 the Melbourne Morning Herald reported ‘there has never been a season since the colonization of Port Phillip in which the native grass has been so abundant … as a consequence, those ravages by fire which almost of annual occurrence, may be anticipated with fearful violence … precautionary measures are always judicious, and those who do not avail themselves of the present hint may have reason to regret their negligence’.

On Wednesday 24 January a fire was reported burning near the Loddon River but extinguished itself after burning a few acres of ‘good feed’. Daisy Hill Creek, where Brentani and Forrester were contemplating lighting a fire, was a minor tributary of the Loddon.

The potential danger of the situation emerged in press reports. At Warrnambool, Friday 26 and Saturday 27 January 1849 ‘were the hottest days we have had here. The north wind blew a perfect sirocco for thirty-six hours’. At Moonee Ponds, a farmer ‘was almost ruined by the destruction of thirty acres of wheat, occasioned by the obstinacy of some draymen, who … persisted in lighting a fire amidst the dry bush grass’.

The Herald called upon the Legislature in Sydney to pass laws outlawing the lighting of fires on public roads. By early February ‘some twenty patches of bush were on fire about Melbourne … too much caution cannot, therefore, be exercised’, and the Herald urged that pastoralists be found guilty of ‘criminal negligence’ if they failed to control the risk of bush fire on their properties; advocated the ploughing of fire-breaks around properties; and called for a ban on lighting fires during certain high-risk months. The Argus also observed that the ‘horizon is beginning to be dimmed by the smoke from the burning bush’, and urged those in the country to take immediate measures for the safety of their crops and homesteads’.

Charles Browning Hall at Glenmona was acutely aware of the dangers of fire — his southern neighbour, James Hodgkinson of Woodstock, was in regular dispute with Hall and fellow squatter Alexander McCallum for grazing his sheep on their properties. Hodgkinson’s excuse was that his pasture had been burned by fire and he had no choice but to take his sheep across the vaguely marked boundaries near Chapman’s Daisy Hill hut.

Charles Brentani and Joseph Forrester were at Daisy Hill during the hot weather of the last week of January 1849 and, despite warnings about the risk, were intent upon making a fire to extract their gold. Brentani spent his early life in Italy and England; Forrester grew up in Scotland before living for a few years in London — they would have little practical understanding of bush fires. As Libby Robin observed, Europeans were often ignorant of the power of bush fire because, ‘Europe is itself a fire-starved place’.

Indeed, in January 1854 the Argus warned that ‘tens of thousands who know very little of what a bush-fire in Australia is, or how frightful a thing … it may become’, had arrived in the previous two years. The same concern was expressed in February 1855. The warning applied just as much in 1849, and it is little wonder that Thomas Chapman was alarmed by the prospect of the gold seekers lighting a fire. Brentani and Forrester both spent many years as convicts in Van Diemen’s Land — working at their trades in shops — and even then may have had little appreciation of the dangers of lighting a fire in the bush.

Coincidentally, at the very time Brentani and Forrester were at Daisy Hill, Superintendent Charles La Trobe, on his way to Portland via Cape Otway, was caught in a bushfire and had to take ‘refuge up to his neck’ in a creek. But while La Trobe was escaping from a fire, and Brentani and Forrester were contemplating lighting a fire, Alexandre Duchene returned to Melbourne where he reported the gold discovery to government officials; told the story to the press; publicly displayed the gold he had purchased from Chapman; and told would-be gold seekers exactly where to find the treasure — all of which immediately started a major rush of hundreds from Melbourne to the Pyrenees.

The rush that never started

Brentani and Forrester arrived back in Melbourne on 2 February, having passed hundreds of gold seekers heading towards the Pyrenees following Duchene’s announcement. Charles La Trobe returned to Melbourne on 5 February 1849 and immediately despatched Captain Dana, Sergeant McLelland, and all the available the police, to take control of matters. After obtaining more details from Duchene, La Trobe sent Commissioner Frederick Powlett and his mounted troopers to assist Dana and McLelland at Daisy Hill.

Powlett’s intimidating presence had an immediate effect in dispersing most of the gold seekers, but after his departure those who were determined returned. Sergeant McLelland had much greater difficulty, and claimed many set fire to bush to hide their tracks, creating a shortage of fodder for the police horses, and causing what Edmund Finn described as ‘an intense bush conflagration’. McLelland reported ‘the grass is entirely burned up for miles around this place’.

Squatter D. C. Simpson reported Aboriginal people burning the grass on his run at Glenisla, ‘to avoid their tracks being seen’ after stealing sheep — the Aboriginal police with McLelland may have thought this was the motivation of the gold seekers at Daisy Hill. Some of the gold seekers who returned to Melbourne in the second week of February also said they had ‘set fire to the bush to prevent their tracks being followed’, but they also claimed to have seen enough to convince them they ‘were in the golden country and they only await a clear field to start afresh’. Others found ‘inferior specimens of the gold ore’ despite ‘the vigilance of the Black Mounted Police who watched their movements with untiring zeal’.

When Charles La Trobe later described his experience caught in the Cape Otway bushfire to his daughter Agnes, he said that though ‘the whole country was a blaze’, it was a blessing in disguise, for once the fire passed it ‘would clear away some of the impediment in our way’. Sergeant McLelland’s scorched-earth gold hunters may have burnt the undergrowth to hide their tracks from the Aboriginal police — but they might also have burnt the grass to ‘clear away some of the impediment’ in their way and make it easier to find the gold-bearing surface stone.

The effect of fire, whether deliberately lit or from natural causes, in clearing the grass cover from the underlying surface deposits, and its role in assisting the discoveries not only of January and February 1849, but also of mid 1851, should not be underestimated.

After Superintendent La Trobe and Governor Fitz Roy discussed the Daisy Hill gold in March 1849 they decided to maintain a police presence at the site for several more weeks, but this, and other recent discoveries, prompted Fitz Roy to request a qualified minerals surveyor be sent from England.

Distance and slowness of communication meant the geologist, Samuel Stutchbury, would not arrive in Sydney until January 1851, however, the 1849 discovery had triggered an ongoing search for gold in Port Phillip District with both squatters and shepherds actively looking for the precious mineral. They were hindered by a lack of knowledge and relied upon the chance discovery of scattered surface nuggets. Lack of success led the sceptics to dismiss gold as non-existent or simply a hoax, but those who had faith urged La Trobe to initiate a systematic search by qualified geologists.

Black Thursday, 1851

In January 1851 Samuel Stutchbury was about to commence a survey of the Middle District of New South Wales, closer to Sydney — his appointment was a direct outcome of the 1849 discoveries — but that would do nothing for the Port Phillip District, which was about to be separated from New South Wales. Coincidental with Stutchbury’s plans to survey the Middle District, in Melbourne Dr George Bruhn announced he was about to carry out a survey of the Pyrenees, Macedon and Plenty Ranges of Port Phillip District — he was supported by the Victoria Industrial Society, and its patron, Charles La Trobe. However, before Bruhn could start his survey, the Pyrenees, Macedon and Plenty Ranges would be visited by something that was also a direct result of other events of 1849, and would be remembered long after Bruhn was forgotten.

In October and November 1848 the weather in Port Phillip had been described as ‘very boisterous’, and ‘very changeable, one day quite sultry, and the next freezing’. The heavy rainfall of 1848, followed by extreme temperatures and drought, had heightened the risk of bushfires in January and February 1849. However, by August 1849, ‘the inhabitants of Melbourne were astonished at beholding the streets and housetops covered with snow to a depth of several inches, being the first occurrence of the kind since the existence of the town’. After the thaw ‘the streets became almost impassable’; the Yarra was ‘swollen to a considerable extent’, and residents prepared for a major flood. In country areas the snow was heavier and widespread flooding occurred. Overland mails were abandoned; sheep farmers lost new born lambs, and bridges were damaged.

Port Phillip’s unusual and damaging snow storm in September was not the last the weather had in store for 1849. By the end of November more was to come — ‘Since the year 1840 we have not been visited with so sudden a deluge of rain as within the past two days … the rain fell in torrents, and the wind blew a perfect hurricane’. Reports of storm damage filled the papers for days and, as William Kyle recalled — ‘The floods of 1849, which were the result of a general rainfall throughout the colony, caused an excessively dense growth of vegetation, and much grass’.

But the floods were followed by drought and by February 1850 the land was again ‘completely dried up’. The Argus even suggested that ‘no smoking should be allowed’ along the Sydney Road to minimise the risk of fire. The drought continued and the summer of 1850-51 was long and hot. By November 1850 Daniel Bunce described the plains of the Loddon as presenting ‘a most sterile and cheerless aspect as [if] they had lately been visited by the plagues of Egypt’.

On Saturday 1 February 1851, almost two years to the day after the announcement of the Pyrenees discovery, Dr George Bruhn advertised he was about to undertake an expedition to the Pyrenees to look for ‘subterranean riches’ and asked the pastoralists of the district for their assistance. What happened next was described by T. A. Coghlan as ‘a curious prelude to the events that followed’. But in fact, the events that followed were made more likely by what happened next.

Five days after Bruhn’s announcement and after weeks of scorching temperatures, at midday on Thursday 6 February the thermometer at Charles Brentani’s shop was 110°F (43.3°C) in the shade and 129°F (53.9°C) in the sun. Similar extremes were not reached again in Melbourne until 1876 (43.7°C in the shade), 1939 (45.6°C) and 2009 (46.4°C). A resident of the Pyrenees arrived in Melbourne the next day and reported that ‘the conflagration he witnessed exceeded all the powers of the imagination’:

for 50 miles of his route a chain of fires ran along each side of him, even to the very margin of the road he traversed, the scrub and grass were blazing … 20 miles from town, to the Pyrenees, are traces of desolation … Mr John Mooney … was proceeding in the direction of the Loddon and suddenly found his progress to be completely barred by a chain of bush fires.

The Macedon, Pyrenees, and Plenty Ranges were ablaze, and Melbourne was surrounded by fire — it was Black Thursday. The bushfires did not suddenly start and finish on Black Thursday — the Plenty fires had been ‘raging on the mountains for a month’. They would continue raging until burnt out, and although an inquest into the deaths of the McLelland family (not Sergeant McLelland) could find ‘no evidence of the origin of the fire’ — and it may have been a lightning strike, or other natural causes — there had been people searching for gold in the Plenty Ranges since February 1849. When Tom Griffiths asked whether prospectors may have started the Black Thursday fires he left the question unanswered — but, while conclusive evidence may never be found, it is certainly a possibility.

For the town dweller the blood-red sun and low visibility were frightening — perhaps doubly so for those at Kilmore who, on the previous Saturday, had rushed into the streets fearing the end of the world when an unannounced eclipse of the sun occurred. The Geelong Advertiser said ‘the calamity was one which defied precaution’. Edmund Finn recalled that Mount Macedon was ‘lit up in numerous places in a style that would gladden the hearts of the Druids of antiquity’. Even those in Launceston experienced black rain and ash falling from the sky.

For the pastoralist the fires were catastrophic and a relief fund was quickly established; but for the gold seeker, a fire that swept away the thick undergrowth and tall dead grass was a blessing in disguise. Regrowth of ground-covering vegetation in the Macedon, Plenty and Pyrenees Ranges would be slow. Good rains at Portland late in February brought hopes that ‘the burnt ground will be covered during the winter with luxuriant feed’ — but that would take many more months. Frederick Powlett reported that fires had burnt grass in the Police Paddocks at Kyneton and an increased allowance for forage for ‘the next three or four months is most necessary’.

Bushfire and the 1851 Victorian goldrushes

Edward Hammond Hargraves had spent just over a year in California during 1849 and 1850 and returned in January 1851 believing he could find gold near Bathurst. He left Sydney on 5 February, the day before Black Thursday. George Bruhn had already announced his own expedition on 1 February, and left Melbourne a few days later. On 10 February Hargraves arrived at Bathurst and remained there looking for gold until early May. By early April George Bruhn had completed his exploration of the Macedon Ranges and was ready to move on to the Pyrenees, ‘where gold most undoubtedly is, and where he is pretty sure to find it’.

When Geoffrey Blainey said ‘the first condition for mineral discovery was accessibility’ he was referring to factors such as distance, transportation and population distribution, and noted that most early discoveries were ‘within one mile of … homesteads, shepherds’ huts, and … roads’. Maybe so, but even within those parameters, for the individual searcher accessibility is made easier or harder — to the extent of being possible or impossible — by the density of ground cover.

When Tom Griffiths observed that fires ‘opened up the forests’ for prospecting, he was referring to later gold seekers rather than to George Bruhn’s early search. But, as Emily O’Gorman observed — ‘fires that tore through the Victorian ash forests in 1851, aided by drought, revealed gold deposits and allowed miners to access them easily’. Similarly, Stephen J. Pyne noted that the ‘1851 Black Thursday fires coincided with the Victorian gold rush’; and ‘preceded by days a gold rush’. That coincidence between the Black Thursday fires and the gold rush that followed has not been investigated in detail — yet a connection can be clearly demonstrated.

Much of the area searched by Bruhn had been burned and regrowth was still minimal. In late February, near Geelong ‘the young grass is just touching over with green the blackened plain’, while at Kilmore in April, ‘the whole country’ was still ‘a parched and arid desert’. Some twelve months after Black Thursday, when ‘thousands of gold-seekers were toiling through the Black Forest on their way to the diggings’ early in 1852, the ‘charred trunks … put forth a fresh display of leafage’.

We have already seen how searchers at Daisy Hill in 1849 used fire to reveal the surface gold, and how governments were urged to outlaw the deliberate lighting of bushfires — but fire was still a valuable resource even when not deliberately lit. James Flett recorded that in 1874 ‘the eastern branches of the Morwell and Trafalgar rivers were worked for gold after bushfires had burned the whole area’. In the mountainous ash forests fire may have ‘opened up the forests to miners’, but, Tom Griffiths adds, ‘in the end it chased most of them out’.

Nevertheless, during the 1840s and 50s, before fire lighting was regulated, as David Ashton observed, ‘The way to find the gold was to burn the country and see the quartz and see where the gold was’. Or as Donald Clark put it in 1904, ‘The combined action of clearing and fires will enable a great deal more ground to be prospected than could have been done otherwise’. The use of deliberately lit fire by gold seekers in Tasmania during the 1850s has also been reported by J. Von Platen. In Alaska, as in California and Australia, ‘miners used fire to clear the vegetation from their claims’. In the early twentieth century, some gold hunters at the Porcupine field were ‘accused of starting fires to burn off the ground so they could search for the surface gold showings faster’. Similarly, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, ‘prospectors demonstrated the easiest way to remove this unwanted obstacle [heavy underbrush]  was simply to burn it’. In some

In Alaska, as in California and Australia, ‘miners used fire to clear the vegetation from their claims’. In the early twentieth century, some gold hunters at the Porcupine field were ‘accused of starting fires to burn off the ground so they could search for the surface gold showings faster’. Similarly, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, ‘prospectors demonstrated the easiest way to remove this unwanted obstacle [heavy underbrush]  was simply to burn it’. In some cases the fires were ‘specifically intended to lay waste to the forest so that an assessment of the area’s mineral wealth could be made more easily’.

At Daisy Hill in 1849 the gold seekers deliberately lit their fires, but in 1851, George Bruhn did not have to lay waste to the forests to find his minerals, because nature did the job for him within a week of his announcement, and by May he had explored the region between Daisy Hill, Burnbank and the Clunes station and was ‘fortunate enough to discover the existence of gold’. Bruhn’s plan was to return to Melbourne to give lectures about his discoveries — just as Hargraves did at Bathurst on 8 May — but before he could do that other events overtook the potential significance of his expedition, and by July further major discoveries had been announced.

While Bruhn was exploring to the north-west of Melbourne, others were continuing the search in the Plenty Ranges, which had also been cleared of undergrowth by the fires, and by early June extensive deposits of gold were reported there. All of these discoveries occurred even before the Melbourne Gold Committee met to offer a reward for the discovery of a payable goldfield on 10 June.

But even with the vegetation cleared, and with more efficient techniques, finding the gold was not guaranteed. As William Lewis wrote in October 1851, ‘gold digging appears to be a lottery. One party will be getting many ounces in a day, while those in close proximity are scarcely procuring a particle’. Of course, by late 1851 serious miners were clearing away the ground cover themselves, and digging below the surface. Prior to 1851, however, as Charles Fitz Roy observed, ‘The specimens … then collected, were apparently so thinly scattered over the surface of a great extent of Country that it was considered the occupation of gold-seeking would not be remunerative’.

Nevertheless, anything that made the location of those scattered surface specimens easier to find — such as the removal of the ground cover by fire, as happened at Daisy Hill in February 1849, and as happened across Victoria in February 1851 — would also increase the chances of winning the lottery.

Whether or not the fire and water events between 1849 and 1851 were unpredictable, they were certainly capricious — and having first assisted the discovery of gold through a hot, dry summer and the Black Thursday bushfires, Victoria’s weather then provided rain and floods. Diggers left the Plenty Ranges, ‘Shivering with wet and cold, and without the bread which they expected to drop on them from the trees, the gold had lost its charms’.

For Charles La Trobe it was both a reprieve and a frustration — ‘The unusually tempestuous state of the weather during the whole of the month of August and the early part of September, and the heavy floods which prevailed in every part of the colony … interposed a check on those who had already commenced to search for gold … [and] … made it almost impossible for the Government to … estimate the real value of any of the alleged discoveries’. But, after having the surface gold revealed by fire, a good water supply was the next essential ingredient if shallow alluvial mining was to be successful over the coming summer months.

Fire and the Victorian goldfields

A logical question might be whether the huge influx of gold seekers to Victoria after 1852 led to an increase in bushfires related to gold digging. During the summer of 1852-53 there were significant fires and in January 1854 the Argus, concerned at the arrival of ‘tens of thousands who know very little of what a bush-fire in Australia is’, published a detailed account of the precautions that should be taken in the country districts, including the burning of firebreaks around dwellings and other important buildings. In February 1855 the Argus republished the 1854 article and, ‘without wishing to claim … any credit’, observed that Victoria had passed through the long hot summer with relatively few bushfires. Most of the credit was attributed to education and to the passing of ‘stringent laws’ punishing anyone who lights fires. The ‘Act to Restrain the Careless Use of Fire’ had been passed in February 1854.

The optimism of the Argus was perhaps a little premature as a report from Geelong four days later described the ‘ravages of the bush-fire’ that had destroyed all the buildings on the run of P M Arthur, and another at the Fryer’s Creek diggings where ‘the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, alarmed at the progress of the flames, lighted fires around their dwellings to counteract the influence of the bushfire, and in this manner a very large extent of country has been burnt up’. By March the Argus attributed ‘the greater part of these fires have their origin in the carelessness of the thousands of people who are continually travelling through the country’ and that ‘it must be admitted that the act of the Legislature is not sufficiently stringent’.

During the gold rushes to Colorado in 1859, ‘Intentionally set fires allowed prospectors to clear the vegetation to expose the rocks and geology of the landscape … accidental fires were commonplace’, and it was ‘probably not coincidence that 1859 was a year of widespread forest fires in the region given the influx of miners looking for metals and very dry climatic conditions’. The incidence of bushfire reporting in the Melbourne Argus rises significantly during the mid to late 1850s, however, the reports do not specifically link this increase to gold mining activity rather than to a general increase in population.


Recent scholarship on environmental events and the discovery of gold in Australia sometimes touches upon a relationship between the two, but rarely investigates in detail. Bushfire was integral to the story of gold discovery in colonial Victoria both before and after seperation from New South Wales in 1851.

The two eras merged and overlapped, and many of the events of 1851 were set in motion in 1849 and earlier — in particular, an almost forgotten gold discovery in Port Phillip in 1849 was inseparably linked to the never forgotten discoveries of 1851.

The connections between these events are complex, and involved not only human, but also environmental factors. Geology, weather, fire, and flood — earth, wind, fire and water — had a significant influence in determining the ease and timing of the gold discoveries of 1849 and 1851.

Dr Douglas Wilkie is an Honorary Fellow of the School of Historical & Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and a Member of the Professional Historians Association (MPHA) (Victoria). His most recent book is Duchene/Hargraves: Alexandre Julien Duchene, Edward Hammond Hargraves and the discovery of gold in Australia three or four days from Sydney.

This essay is an edited version of Douglas Wilkie, ‘Earth, wind, fire, water: Bushfires and the origins of the Victorian gold rush’, History Australia, vol. 10, no. 2, August 2013, pp. 95-113.

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