Thursday, October 8, 2015

Making tracks - to the goldfields

So following on from my previous post, what route or routes did those first gold diggers take on their journey from Geelong to Buninyong and Ballarat following the discovery of  gold in July, 1851 at Hiscock's Gully? Within only a few months of the find being announced, thousands of diggers had flocked to Buninyong and nearby Ballarat. They came from all over the world, by any means available and to get there in those early days, they followed the old bullock tracks, forged by the squatters and the early settlers of the district.
Immigrants arriving by ship had two choices. Those who arrived in Adelaide faced a lengthy overland trek. The alternative was to disembark at the port of Melbourne, but once on land, the prospectors faced another choice. Did they travel straight to the goldfields - a journey of over 75 miles in the old units - or were they better off to travel by boat to Geelong, leaving only about 50 miles to travel?
Both towns were desperate to reap the benefits of the gold rush, so a fierce battle developed over which was the best route to the goldfields. The newspapers from late 1851 are filled with claims and counter claims about the time taken, the distance travelled and the state of the roads, with The Argus and the Geelong Advertiser taking direct aim at each other in the ongoing dispute. Despite the best efforts of the Melbourne propagandists, thousands chose to take the steamer to Geelong and then make their way to the goldfields as best they could.
The rush to the Ballarat goldfields 1854 by Samuel Thomas Gill. Image held
by the National Library of Australia
For many, this meant tramping the miles on foot, carrying their belongings with them on their back or sometimes even in a wheelbarrow and from what I have found in the newspapers of the day, the path they followed was the existing route from Geelong to Buninyong, well-established as early as 1840 and the route taken by the earliest private mail coach between the two towns in 1846 as mentioned in my previous post.
For those who could afford it, this was also the road taken by coach passengers. With the discovery of gold, the number of coach services running between Geelong and Buninyong soon increased from a two-horse conveyance in 1849 running Mondays and Thursdays, to a number of four-horse carriages operating over a range of days. Often they sported names such as Red Rover or The Digger's Pride.
The Estaffette line of coaches carried mail and passengers between Geelong
and the goldfields of Ballarat. Image held by the Victorian State Library
All this information was of interest, however I had to dig rather deeply to find any real detail about the specifics of the route taken. Whilst various modern sources use phrases such as "the maps show", those maps to which I have access show very little. The map below is a section taken from Alexander John Skene's 1845 map of Victoria. The track to Buninyong is shown, however the scale is such that little detail can be seen and the track in some places does not quite correlate with what others have said.
Section of the 1845 map of Victoria by the influential
surveyor AJ Skene. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
In general terms then, the oft mentioned bullock route was in general terms similar to today's Midland Highway, however the are a number of points of divergence and I suspect some modern misunderstandings too, which will be the topic of the next few posts as I attempt to follow in the diggers' footsteps.