News National On This Day: An Irishman discovers gold in Australia

On This Day: An Irishman discovers gold in Australia

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Nearly 200 years ago, a man called James McBrien made a discovery that would dramatically change Australia.

The assistant surveyor from Ireland was assessing land at Fish River, between Rydal and Bathurst in New South Wales when he came across an unusual substance.

While holding the little pebbles in his hands, McBrien noticed they had a shiny, golden glint.

This was no ordinary rock.

Writing in his diary on this day in 1823, McBrien wrote that he “found numerous particles of gold convenient to river”.

It was the first discovery of gold in Australia.

Demonstration of panning for gold at Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill. Photo: Getty

But it wasn’t until two decades later that others would come flocking.

That’s because the colonial government wanted to keep his discovery a secret.

Authorities feared convicts and free settlers would abandon their assigned work to try their luck panning for gold, leaving the up-and-coming pastoral industry in tatters.

About 16 years later, Polish-born explorer Paul Edmund de Strzelecki discovered traces of gold near Hartley and Wellington, beyond the Blue Mountains in NSW.

Strzelecki, who famously named Australia’s tallest mountain Mount Kosciuszko, was also forced to keep quiet.

A gold nugget from Australia. Photo: Desmond Morris Collection

Then in 1851 – 28 years after McBrien first found flecks of gold at Fish River – a man named Edward Hargraves discovered a “grain of gold” in a billabong near Bathurst.

This time, it was no longer possible to keep it a secret.

The find was proclaimed on May 14 that year and the first Australian gold rush officially began.

Road over the Blue Mountains to the Bathurst gold district. Photo: Universal History Archive

By June, there were more than 2000 people struck with gold fever digging around Bathurst, with thousands more on their way.

In 1852, the Great Western Road to Bathurst was packed with men from all walks of life, carrying their belongings on their backs with hopes of striking gold.

Gold seekers began pouring into the colonies from all over the world, boosting Australia’s population and economy, and igniting a new sense of national identity.

It was the most sensational outpouring of wealth Australia and the world had ever seen.

Gold diggers at Mount Alexander, Port Phillip in Victoria. Photo: Getty