“Disturbing the order of things”: The impact of the Gold Rush on ideas, identity and society in Victoria

The first discussion in the series is titled "Disturbing the order of things": The impact of the Gold Rush on ideas, identity and society in Victoria. 

This discussion explores a significant period in the early years of the State of Victoria, Australia. It was a period of rapid, opportunistic development that included expansion of settlements, population and economic growth. 

Arguments about how the gold rush shaped Victoria and contributed to Australian identity and our political and social institutions have exercised Australian social community historians and others since that time. Our understanding of First Peoples and their relationships to these events and outcomes has been better understood in more recent years. The impact of this time on identity and culture remain significant, and we do not have settled answers or interpretations. 

A key reason for debating these issues is to build better understanding of what were the impacts of these events in the formation of this State, why did particular outcomes and characteristics develop and what is their significance for our current State.  Such understandings are touchstones for key societal values. What can we learn from our history that should be foundational for our future?


A facilitated discussion and conversation. The facilitator will introduce the topic and call on speakers.

Three speakers will each present a question to the group, which they will explore in a short presentation. Following the presentation guests will be invited to participate in a facilitated discussion to further explore the topic.


The Honourable Maxine McKew AM

Honorary Fellow of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.


Robyn Annear, Author and Historian

Professor Richard Broome AM, Emeritus Professor History, La Trobe University

Professor David Goodman, Professor in History, Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne

Background information

The gold rush in Victoria is generally described as occurring over the period from around 1851 to the late 1860s.

In 1850 the British Parliament passed the Australian Colonies Bill which provided for the establishment of a new colony.  The Colony of Victoria was declared on 1 July 1851, marking its separation from the Colony of New South Wales where it had been designated as the Port Phillip District from 1836 to 1850.

The announcement of the discovery of gold on 2 July 1851 in Victoria in Mount Alexander near Castlemaine was coincident with the foundation of the new colony.  The role of government was immediately significant, with Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe introducing the gold licence system on 23 August 1851.

The first two decades of the new colony, Victoria, were marked by this phenomenal and transformative change.  The gold rush brought intense activity and movement of people, changing the landscape through clearing and digging, and changing the development of the colony by the creation of many temporary settlements and eventually a series of new permanent settlements and towns, as well as a burgeoning and marvellous Melbourne. 

Victoria’s First Peoples were involved in and materially affected by the rapid expansion of settlement and diggings, coming as it did after the conflicts and displacement of earlier settlement prior to the separation of the colony.

Immigrants from other nations, principally Europe, the UK, Canada and the USA, but also from China, flooded into the new colony.  This added to the significant migration of people from other colonies.  Between 1851 and 1861 it is estimated that the population of Victoria grew from 75,000 people to 500,000.  In 1855, around 19,000 Chinese immigrants were in Victoria.

Art, music and writing attempted to capture and respond to the ferment that the gold rush occasioned.  There are bush ballads, many drawings and some paintings created at the time, speaking to the time.

David Goodman (1994:xiv) argues that contemporaries agreed that the gold rushes “were a disturbance to the normal order of things” most particularly the disturbance occasioned by the opportunity to become very wealthy without much work or effort. 

There was also a unique event, the Eureka Rebellion, which encompassed the Battle of the Eureka Stockade on 3 December 1854.  It is clear this event affected the constitution of the parliament of Victoria, that it was marked by dissemination of Chartist ideas and led to adult male suffrage.  However, its long-term significance and its representation is contested. 

Was there a lasting impact on Victoria as we know it today?  And if there was, how did it affect our society, politically, socially and culturally?

    Recommended reading

    • Robyn Annear, ‘Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852’ (Melbourne, Text Publishing, 1999), Chapter 1 and Chapter 23. 


    • Richard Broome, ‘Aboriginal Victorians. A History since 1800’ (Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2024), Chapters 1-5. 


    • David Goodman, ‘The Gold Rushes of the 1850s’, in Alison Bashford and Stuart Macintyre (eds.) The Cambridge History of Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 170-188.


    • David Goodman, ‘Gold and the Public in the Nineteenth-Century Gold Rushes’, in Benjamin Mountford and Stephen Tuffnell (eds.), A Global History of the Gold Rushes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018) pp. 65-87

    Further reading

    • Claire Wright, 'We Are the Rebels: The Women and Men Who Made Eureka' (Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2015)
    • Bain Attwood, 'The Good Country: The Djadja Wurrung, the Settlers and the Protectors' (Melbourne, Monash University Publishing, 2017)