Australia’s Gold Rush in pictures

By Amy Middleton 31 May 2013
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Images from the late 1800s depict the heady excitement of Australia’s Gold Rush period.

THE EARLY 1870S WAS a surreal period of Australia’s history. The Gold Rush had seized the nation. Make-shift towns were springing up throughout New South Wales and Victoria, to support miners seeking wealth and prosperity.

It was around this time that German-born entrepreneur Bernhardt Otto Holtermann set up shop at Hill End, near Bathurst, NSW. Holtermann made a fortune mining gold, and discovered what is known as the Holtermann Nugget, the largest specimen of gold ever found. It was 1.5m long and weighed 286kg.

But Holtermann’s true legacy lies in a series of photographs he commissioned as a sort of marketing campaign, intended to promote Australian colonies to the rest of the world. The images now present possibly the finest visual relic of this heady and chaotic time.

English photographer Beaufoy Merlin and his assistant Charles Bayliss took masses of photographs for Holtermann’s project, documenting the colonies and pop-up towns including Gulgong and Hill End in New South Wales, which were newly established to support gold diggers.

Life in Australia during the Gold Rush

After the Gold Rush, the photographs were stored in a garden shed in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, not to be rediscovered until 1951. The collection was then carefully restored by the State Library of New South Wales.

Alan Davies, photographic curator at the State Library, says the photos depict a fascinating time, “where pies and coffee were available 24/7, gold nuggets were pulled out like potatoes and people of all classes and nationalities mingled together.”

“The Holtermann collection is Australia’s most significant 19th century photographic archive due to its sheer size – 3500 negatives – and its unrivalled visual record of life in Australia,” says Alan. “Few photographic collections such as this have survived anywhere in the world.”

In May 2013, the collection was included in the UNESCO Memory of the World register, an international initiative which aims to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity.