The foundation of the Australian nation came after the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century. Gold was first discovered in 1851 in NSW then a little later in Victoria. What followed marked the beginning of a radical change in the economic and social fabric of Australia. Gold fever gripped the colonies and as more finds were recorded in the next half century (only South Australia had no gold resources) then more and emigrants came in search of their fortune.
The influx was multinational and the goldfield towns boomed. Goldfield life was however far from idyllic and marked with squalor, greed, crime, self-interest and racism. The hardship endured during the tough times is marked with camaraderie and ‘mateship’ which bonded the goldfield settlers. Angry discontent grew at the ever increasing cost of licensing fees for claims and many digger refused to pay. The authorities empowered the police to bring in defaulters and they used more and more violence to do so.
By 1854 regular clashes between the miners and the authorities took place but it was at Eureka when 1000 armed men gathered on the outskirts of Ballarat under the flag of the Ballarat Reform League (a white cross and stars on a blue field), to burn their claim notices and proclaim their oath to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend their rights and liberties that everything changed.
Tragically Melbourne troops overran the stockade and killed 22 of its defenders. Known as the Eureka Stockade or Rebellion the rebel leaders were arrested and stood trial for high treason but Melbourne juries refused to convict them and when a Royal Commission condemned the goldfield administration and upheld the miners' grievances then the miners were given the right to be political represented. This marked the beginning of the modern Australia democracy and eventually the abolition of convict transportation.
Making a living in the early mining days was hard and much depended on luck and ability to dig or knock. The Australian phrase to ‘knock out a living’ has its origin on the goldfields, where the ‘knocking out’ was quite literal. The phrase later became associated with making something quickly or roughly and was associated with the labours of itinerant knock about men (or rouseabouts). ‘To knock along,’ meant to wander as in the English to knock about (wander aimlessly). Drinking and womanising were common among itinerant swagmen and ‘to knock down,’ or ‘knock it down’ meant to spend a lot of money on drink and riotous living. Invariably once inebriated a fight would ensue and to ‘knock saucepans’ or ‘knock the smoke out of’ was Australian English for a violent assault.
All that digging on the goldfields led to an excess of mining refuse or mullock (rock without gold). The Australian phrase ‘a lot of mullock,’ or ‘load of mullock’ described items of no practical use and ‘mullock’ in Australian English became synonymous with ‘rubbish, or nonsense.’ To be called ‘mullock’ meant you were considered ignorant or worthless. The term became common use in shearers to incompetent or very careless shearing. Mullock was eventually taken to build the first Australian roads.
Another phrase commonly used on the goldfields was ‘to fossick’, meaning ‘to rummage or search around or about.’ Fossick was used in two contexts, either: it meant ‘to search for gold on the surface, sometimes in a desultory or unsystematic way’ or more commonly ‘to steal gold from other miners especially when their claim was left unattended. From the mid nineteenth century onwards in Australian English the term ‘fossick was used in context of stealing something, for example if a neighbour was to take a log of fire-wood from your heap … it was said he had been ‘fossicking’. Another use of the term was to describe someone who always conveniently arrived at meal times and scored a free dinner. This was a fossicker.
In Goldfield talk the term ‘roll-up’ was commonly used to describe a meeting or assembly of miners. By the end of the nineteenth century the term had common currency in Australian English, as in, ‘It is hoped for a big roll-up at next family BBQ.’
Discovery of gold saw a huge influx of migrants many of which were Chinese men. The Chinese attracted particular attention and local newspapers were quick to comment on their distinctive features, clothes, languages and habits. Any admiration of their work ethic was offset by envy and resentment when times got hard. The terms Chinaman and chink became intertwined with one another, as some Australians used both of them with hostile intent when referring to members of the country's Chinese population which had swelled significantly during the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and 1860s They were seen initially as oddities, later as rivals and then as threats to white Australia. The Chinese were often scapegoated by disgruntled European miners as seen in the violent anti Chinese riots at Lambing Flat (1861). A large mob set upon the Chinese, assaulting them and cutting their pigtails off. The Chinese miners’ tents, clothing and furniture were set on fire and their mining tools destroyed. The banner used in the riot created a symbol that began to crystallise the ideologies of racism, nationalism and exclusive egalitarianism in a conceptual process that would manifest itself in the New south Wales Chinese Immigration Act of 1861 and later the Federal Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. It was only after World War II with various changes to immigration policy that the White Australia Policy was quietly dismantled. However, it was only in 1972 that Australia had the full political introduction of official policies of multiculturalism, 100 years after the first anti-Chinese laws.
‘To hump,’ originated in the goldfields and described a long walk but later meant to carry, as in ‘to hump one’s swag.’ This later gives rise to the phrases, ‘to hump one’s drum,’ ‘ to hump one’s bluey,’ and to hump one’s Matilda. A hump(e)y was the name given to a settler’s small primitive house and originated from Aboriginal ‘oompi” with an additional of ‘h’ used by Cockney settlers.