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Introduction

By far one of the most colourful characters in the gold rush era was Edward Hargraves. It can be said of Hargraves that he single-handedly started the gold rush in New South Wales. Hargraves was definitely responsible for a major wave of immigration when he announced that he had found payable gold in New South Wales.

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Larger than life

Born in Skipton, England in 1816, Edward Hammond Hargraves was a larger-than-life character in every sense. A big man, weighing about 114kg, he was a sailor, publican, shopkeeper, adventurer and eventually a gold prospector.

Hargraves started his search for gold as a prospector in California. Appointing himself leader of an expedition to the goldfields in 1850, Hargraves learned several prospecting techniques including panning, cradling and excavating, although he was relatively unsuccessful in his search. See image 2

On his return to Australia in 1851, Hargraves was struck by the similarities between the goldfields of California and the landscape of New South Wales. Hargraves reasoned that if the landscapes were so similar, then surely there must be similar deposits of gold waiting to be discovered.

A foolish adventure?

When Hargraves announced his intention to find gold in Australia, he was roundly criticised. This was not surprising, typically those who had returned from California empty handed were virtually ignored. The Inspector General of NSW police called the search for gold `wild' and `unprofitable'.

Hargraves set out in search of the gold that he was convinced lay waiting to be discovered.

He travelled directly to the plains of Bathurst, NSW. On his arrival, Hargraves met John Lister, a man who had already discovered gold in the region and who led Hargraves to the site of the finds.

Encouraged by the discoveries, Hargraves promptly assembled a mining team consisting of Lister and two brothers, James and William Tom. Hargraves instructed them in panning techniques and mining methods he had learnt in California.

The small operation was soon successful. Between them they excavated 13 worth of gold from the Summerhill Creek area. Hargraves rushed back to Sydney with the gold finds. When pressed for the exact location of the gold, Hargraves cleverly negotiated a reward for himself, 500.

Hargraves's discoveries on the goldfield that he christened Ophir, had an immediate and significant effect upon Sydney society. Business and commerce ground to a halt almost overnight as clerks, bankers, labourers and servants downed tools and rushed west to the goldfields. Within three months over 1000 hopeful prospectors had converged upon the Ophir goldfields. See image 3

New South Wales proved to be a bonanza for prospectors. In 1852, the State yielded 26.4 tonnes (850,000 ounces) of gold. It did not take long for word to reach neighbouring colonies. Alarmed by the effect the news had upon the people of Melbourne, Victorian authorities promptly offered a reward of 200 to anyone who discovered gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. In 1851, just months after the announcement, gold was discovered at Ballarat and shortly afterwards at Bendigo.

Fame

Hargraves was appointed 'Crown Commissioner of the Goldfields' and received a reward of 10,000, plus a life pension. He capitalised on his new-found fame, travelling to England on a lecture tour as a self-titled 'gold expert'. Hargraves wrote books about the goldfields and was also presented to Queen Victoria of England .

Hargraves never acknowledged the contributions of the Tom brothers or James Lister to his success. In fact he went to court when they demanded to be acknowledged as the first discoverers of gold in New South Wales. Hargraves won the case brought against him. He also was quick to silence his original financier to ensure that no claims could be made upon his wealth.

Despite his jealously-guarded wealth and success, Hargraves died in relative poverty in 1891. He remains one of the most colourful and controversial characters to emerge from the gold rush era.

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