All That Glitters – Brisbane Gold Rushes

While there have been payable finds of gold in the Brisbane area over the years, in this post I look at three occurrences in the inner southside of Brisbane that gave rise to much excitement but without anyone getting rich.

1851- Brisbane’s first gold rush

There were gold discoveries in Australia from the early 1840s, but there had been no official encouragement of prospecting. After the Californian gold rush of 1848 caused labour shortages in Australia as thousands crossed the Pacific to take part, official opinion changed and a reward was offered by the Governor of New South Wales.

In 1851, Edward Hargraves and his partners discovered gold at Ophir, NSW and the first Australian gold rush began. Through misrepresentation, Hargraves took the entire £10,000 reward himself.

Gold washing at the Ophir diggings in 1851. ( George Angus, National Museum of Australia)

Further discoveries followed in quick succession. With an already existing labour shortage, the small settlement at Moreton Bay soon felt the impact as many left to join the hundreds of thousands from around the world on the southern gold fields.

The Brisbane reward

In an attempt to redress the situation, a group of Brisbane businessmen decided to offer a reward totalling £900 for the discovery of gold in the Moreton or Darling Downs areas.

Moreton Bay Courier, 18th June, 1851 via Trove.

This created much interest as £900 was a sizable sum, and before long numerous parties were claiming to have found signs of gold deposits. Some of the contributors to the reward were nominated to form a Gold Committee to examine such claims and determine whether the claimant should be paid.

Some of those who pledged to contribute £20 each to the reward were later members of the first Brisbane Council. From the left : Patrick Mayne, Robert Cribb, George Edmondston and Albert Hockings.

Doctor Swift

Jacob Meade Swift was born in Dublin in 1815 and graduated with an MD from Glasgow University in 1836. In October of 1850, he arrived in Sydney with his family on the “Kate”. Swift had acted as surgeon-superintendent on this immigrant ship. Early the next year, he was appointed Health Officer and Coroner for the District of Moreton Bay. In July, he began vaccinating children for smallpox under a government programme.

In August, Swift notified the gold committee secretary, John Richardson, that he had found a piece of auriferous, or gold bearing quartz about two feet (60 centimetres) below the surface, near the bank of the river between South Brisbane and Kangaroo Point.

The riverbank between South Brisbane and Kangaroo Point was still bushland ten years later in 1862. (State Library of Queensland)

The committee hastily convened, only to find that Doctor Swift was not present and the sample of quartz was not available to be examined. A newspaper reporter and several others went to look at the piece of quartz but could not see any gold. The reporter also visited the “diggings”.

The Kangaroo Point gold rush

Word had quickly spread and at least 50 prospectors were busy at the site. Some had brought bedding in case they needed to watch over their claim. All sorts of tools were being used, the reporter commenting that “one party we noted with a prospecting pan and another (credit judæus),with a cullander!” All went away disappointed.

An article published in 1897, almost 50 years after the event, describes how “reinforcements bearing shovels, hammers, crowbars and other implements could be seen trudging through South Brisbane on their way to the new diggings.” It goes on to claim that it was a practical joke and the doctor disappeared for over a week “as he deemed it unwise to be seen until the excitement had abated somewhat and the befooled prospectors had cooled down”.

A view of South Brisbane in 1868 showing a part of the riverbank. (State Library of Queensland)

There is no contemporary newspaper report confirming this interpretation of the affair, but given Swift’s respected position in the small community, this is perhaps to be expected. Doctor Swift later worked in a variety of country towns including Dalby, Gayndah and Condamine. Late in 1865 he was conversing with an acquaintance on the verandah of the Bowen Hotel in Roma when he dropped dead from a stroke.

McDowell Street, Roma in 1876. (State Library of Queensland)

Despite numerous other claims, the reward for a gold discovery was not paid out and the four month time limit was reached. The first gold rush in Queensland took place in 1858 at Canoona near Rockhampton, but the gold was quickly cleaned out.

1867 – There ain’t gold in them thar hills

In 1866, Queensland was suffering from an economic depression, exacerbated by a prolonged drought. Unemployment soared. In September, a group of some 500 unemployed men desperate for food broke down the doors of the Government Stores in George Street. Police Magistrate Massie was hit in the eye by a stone while reading the Riot Act under the lamp of the doorway of the Dunmore Arms Hotel. The mob was dispersed by the police.

The Dunmore Arms Hotel stood at the corner of George and Elizabeth Street, Brisbane. (State Library of Queensland)

A desperate Government offered a £3,000 reward for the discovery of gold, hoping it would ameliorate the economic situation. In August of 1867, James Nash, an impecunious fossicker, discovered 2.1kg of gold on the Mary River in just 6 days and claimed the reward. A gold rush ensued and the town of Gympie was founded.

James Nash and Mary Street Gympie in 1868, just one year after the gold rush began. (Queensland State Archives)

An 1868 map of Queensland gold fields. (Queensland State Archives)

Digging on Highgate Hill

Earlier that year, a quartz reef was discovered in the location called “Stephens Paddock” after its owner Thomas Blacket Stephens. Small quantities of gold were found, encouraging various groups of prospectors to start work. Some started digging down from the top and others, including a miner from Cornwall, were digging in to the hill from a gully below. After a few months, there are no further newspaper reports on the “gold rush”.

Thomas Blacket Stephens (Aldine History of Queensland via Trove)

An article on Highgate Hill published in 1930 states that Stephens sank a shaft at the same location, near the corner of Gladstone Road and Gloucester Street, for a depth of 50 feet (15 metres) before abandoning the project. He had found small amounts of gold, but insufficient to warrant further excavation. The article goes on to say that the mine shaft was filled in and a house built over it.

The approximate location of the 1867 Highgate Hill “gold rush” near Emily Street, Highgate Hill. (Map State Library of Queensland annotated by P. Granville)

1925 – Gold in a Highgate Hill backyard

In 1925, Queensland’s economy was again in a poor state. Alarmed London bankers had ceased lending money to the Labour State Government because of its strong socialist leanings and heavy spending. A recession in 1922 led to an unemployment rate of almost 22%. The basic wage was reduced, private investment plummeted, there was a balance of payments crisis and economic growth stagnated for 5 years.

Meanwhile, since the finds at Gympie in 1867, there had been numerous other discoveries in Queensland. The most productive was at Mount Morgan, where 225 tons of gold, as well as silver and copper, were extracted over 99 years of mining in the area from 1888.

Mount Morgan ca. 1910 (State Library of Queensland)

The discovery

In 1925, Mr. C. Williams, a resident of Highgate Hill, found a rock with a peculiar blue colour whilst digging in his backyard. He showed it to an acquaintance who was an experienced miner. He was so impressed that he started excavating.

In 1925, gold bearing rock was found in the backyard of this house on Gladstone Road pictured here in 2016. It has since been demolished. (P. Granville)

One newspaper article describes how within a foot (30cm.) of the surface they found a rock “so decorated with gold that it would not take much of it to place Mr. Williams in Easy Street“. One assay of a small piece returned 50% gold and 40% copper.

Daily Standard 12th May 1925 via Trove.

The article goes on to relate a local legend that gold had been found many years previously on a block across Gladstone Road, when holes for house stumps were being dug. The owner, it was said, had not permitted any further investigation. This would have been close to where the 1867 excavations took place.

Daily Standard, 12th May 1925 via Trove.
Alfred Jones (State Library of Queensland)

Alfred Jones, ex-miner, Minister for Mines, and later Mayor of Brisbane, acted quickly and had a geologist visit to inspect the site the day after the find became public. The investigation found that the lump of ore had come from another location. Also, contrary to early reports, the geologist found no gold but only copper.

Once again, the prospect of gold deposits in the inner Southside proved illusory. There have been numerous gold finds around Brisbane, including at Samford, Mount Coot-tha, Enoggera, Beenleigh and Brookfield. The most productive mine near Brisbane was located at Kingston, 24 kilometres south of Brisbane. Between 1932 and 1950, 612kg of gold was extracted from the Mt Taylor gold mine located there. This blog post gives further detail of the operation.

© P. Granville 2022

One thought on “All That Glitters – Brisbane Gold Rushes

  1. Thanks Paul – once again excellent work.

    In the 1930s there was a gold mine on the slopes of Toohey Mountain, just west of Toohey Road. When I was doing my research into the land-use history of Toohey and his property, a colleague and I found the remains of that mine. I cannot remember how much, if any, gold was discovered.

    What is the address of the house on Gladstone Road that you show?

    I hope that you are well.


    Dr William J Metcalf

    Adjunct Lecturer, Griffith University,

    Honorary Associate Professor, University of Queensland,

    Brisbane, Australia


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