Striking Gold in Australia

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

Striking Gold in Australia

when and where did it begin?

First published in J-Wire March 2, 2021

Sketch of the gold diggings at Ophir, County of Wellington, New South Wales
Ophir 1851 [Public Domain]

A little-known fact is that the very first gold found in 1851 in New South Wales by Edward Hargreaves, was actually given a Hebrew name – ‘’Ophir’’ – the name and place in the bible famous for its gold and wealth.

Victoria’s gold rush began in 1851 and, over the next ten years, close to 600,000 people flowed into the region in search of their fortune. 1,000 tons of gold were found in that first decade, worth 110,000,000 pounds in the currency at the time.

The gold rush years created a huge impact on Australia as a whole, inspiring remote settlements that became large cities. From largely convict colonies, free Jewish immigrants from the world over bolstered local economies and thus grew the development of the modern Australian nation. In the first half of the nineteenth century, 90% of Australian Jews were estimated to be of Anglo descent. In the first years of the gold rushes, Jews would soon make up half of the Jewish population in the colony.

And so came Jewish Settlement on the Goldfields

Ballarat was one of the most well-known Jewish settlements, situated in the heart of gold-mining country, where three million pounds of gold was found in the first four years.

Life was extremely hard, with primitive conditions and few amenities. Water, food and housing was scarce, and business was conducted in tents, sheds, shacks — the crudest of shelters.

Many Jews found it more lucrative to go into business becoming traders and exporters of the gold found. Others opened shops, selling mining equipment, jewellery, tailors, publicans, pawnbrokers, fruiterers, butchers, bakers, grocers, tradespeople, and clothiers.

1854 saw the revolt against unjust government licensing, known as the Eureka Stockade. Charles Dye, a Jew, took a leading part in the diggers’ revolt and later became mayor of Ballarat.

Replica of the Welcome Nugget
The Welcome Nugget (replica)

1858 was a very exciting year, when the Wittowski brothers, once tobacconists, purchased the famous 70-kilogram Welcome Nugget in Ballarat. The brothers took the nugget on tour as well as it being exhibited in Sydney, and it was then transported to Crystal Palace in London. The Royal Mint bought it in November 1959 and minted gold sovereigns out of it.

Another milestone was 1853 when a small group of Jewish miners gathered together to hold a Yom Kippur service in the Clarendon Hotel Ballarat, owned by Henry Harris, a Jewish businessman. The chazzan who led the service wore the red shirt and high boots of the gold digger, and the worshipers were mainly immigrants who no doubt remembered many different kinds of services in their home countries — yet these rough men were committed to honouring their faith and their traditions. A Synagogue was built in 1861 which still stands today. In these early years, Ballarat was regarded as the centre of Orthodox Judaism in Australia.

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​