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The discovery of payable gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 brought change to Australia more quickly than at any other time in its history except for European settlement in 1788. On the promise of instant wealth, towns sprang up seemingly overnight where, once, lonely shepherds had grazed their sheep. New people, new money, new technologies and new ideas challenged the old order in both colonies, and the ‘Developing Democracy’ section of this book shows how that played out in the democratic reforms that originated in the goldfields of the 1850s. Amidst all of this, however, how can we apprehend the personal experience of the many thousands of people who rushed to the goldfields to seek their fortune in those tented settlements and frontier towns?

Many fortune-seekers knew they were witnessing enormous change, and inevitably that awakened a very human desire to make and keep records. The UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register includes two outstanding, complementary collections which offer the most vivid insights into life in those turbulent times. One is a diary kept between 1849 and 1859 by engineer, artist and gold-seeker Edward Snell. The other is a collection of 3500 photographs of goldfield towns in New South Wales and Victoria in the 1870s made by the American and Australasian Photographic Company.

Edward Snell was born in Barnstaple in Devon in 1820 and trained as an engineer. As quite a young man he kept a diary documenting his early career success during England’s railway boom of the 1840s. In 1849, after a downturn, he decided to try his luck in in Australia, and he marked the moment by beginning a new volume of his diary. Although not meant for publication, he inscribed the title page ‘The Life and Adventures of E. Snell’ in whimsical lettering typical of the title pages of novels of the day. He did indeed have many adventures in Australia, for it was his ambition to make a ‘small fortune’ by the time he was 30. He arrived first in South Australia and undertook many jobs and trades without much success, until the news of the gold discoveries lured him east. With a group of friends he drew up a partnership and arrived by foot in Mount Alexander (Castlemaine) in March 1852.

Snell spent five months as a miner in various Victorian diggings, and luck ran with him. Despite the dangers and drudgery, he was there at a time of the greatest opportunity for alluvial miners, when there was still plenty of surface gold and before the influx of British miners to the goldfields. By mid-July he had accumulated about 100 ounces of gold which he cashed in in Melbourne for £341, and he decided to end his mining career there. With investment flowing into the colony, there were more lucrative opportunities for an ambitious and energetic man, especially one who knew how to build railways. He negotiated a job as a contract engineer with the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company to help build a line between the two ports, which opened in 1857. Snell also took private work as a draftsman and surveyor in Geelong and for a few years, until recession hit, made a lot of money from it.

Most of his diary is dedicated to his early years in Australia before he settled in Geelong. It is copiously illustrated, often with quick and witty caricatures of his fellow diggers in the style of S.T. Gill, and with scenes at the goldfields. There are panoramic views, and sketches of insects and animals, and sometimes we find technically skilled drawings of buildings, ships and engineering works. Illustrations and text work together harmoniously, and it is no wonder that later generations of Snell’s family treasured the diary (he had married in 1853 and had three children, one dying in infancy).

In 1857 Snell decided to return to England with his family. He had made the fortune he had dreamed of and was able to settle down to a more leisurely life. The Geelong to Melbourne railway had been found to be unsafe, possibly in part because of Snell’s desire to push ahead rapidly to get the job done, so his departure was timely. Historians have noted also that the pages of the Australian volume of his diary were running out, and so too might Snell have decided that his Australian ‘adventure’ should draw to a close.1 In England he continued a successful career in design and architecture and died in 1880.

Meanwhile the social and economic effects of gold were by no means played out in Australia. In New South Wales a firm of photographers, the American and Australasian Photographic Company, was busy travelling the colony recording every building in every town visited. In October 1872 photographers Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss had the good fortune to be in Hill End when the gold rush was at its peak. The 286 kilogram ‘Holtermann nugget’ was unearthed from the Beyer and Holtermann mine and Merlin and Bayliss were there to record it.

In a surprising act of patronage, the wealthy Bernhardt Otto Holtermann then commissioned the company to make an extensive collection of photographic views of the scenery and public buildings in New South Wales and Victoria. His hope was to exhibit the images in Europe along with specimens of agricultural and mineral wealth, including gold, as a way to promote Australia to the world. Tragically, Merlin fell ill and died in September 1873 but Bayliss carried on and toured Victoria in 1874. He returned to Sydney in 1875 and made giant panoramas of the city from the tower of Holtermann’s mansion in north Sydney (now part of Shore School). The venture cost Holtermann £4000, but resulted in the production of the world’s largest wet-plate negatives and several panoramas.

The photographs document ordinary people – miners, shopkeepers, clerks, butchers, hairdressers, wheelwrights, school teachers, doctors, publicans and policemen. They record the lifestyle of women and children, their homes and some of the relationships between the inhabitants of each town. Few nineteenth-century photographic collections of the size of the Holtermann collection have survived anywhere in the world.

The Snell diary and the Holtermann collection have both been significant sources for researchers interested in many aspects of nineteenth-century Australian social history. The diary was purchased by the Public (later the State) Library of Victoria via a book dealer in 1935. The Holtermann collection was found in 1951, stored in a garden shed belonging to Holtermann’s daughter-in-law, and was donated to the State Library of New South Wales in 1952. Both collections have been digitised and are available on the Libraries’ websites.


Edward Snell, The life and adventures of Edward Snell, edited and introduced by Tom Griffiths with assistance from Alan Platt, Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1988.

Tom Griffiths and Alan Platt, ‘Edward Snell: sketching a fortune’, in Iain McCalman et. al (eds), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, Cambridge University Press and the National Museum of Australia, 2001, pp. 285-98.

Keast Burke, Gold and silver: photographs of Australian goldfields from the Holtermann Collection, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic, 1977.

Brian Jinks, Goldfields life: in the photographs of Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss, Brian Jinks, 2005.

Page from Edward Snell's Diary

Page from Edward Snell’s Diary.

Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

1.Tom Griffiths and Alan Platt, ‘Edward Snell: sketching a fortune’, in Iain McCalman et. al (eds), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, Cambridge University Press and the National Museum of Australia, 2001, p. 296.

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