The Adelaide to Melbourne Road surveyed for the Gold Escort Route

Gold escort cover
Gold Escort Atlas

Historic Tracks – Gold Escort Route

This is the story of the Gold Escort Route, a little-known track which helped to spread the wealth and prosperity of Victoria’s gold rush, into the almost bankrupt colony of South Australia. Today the Gold Escort Route is an excellent alternative drive from Adelaide to Melbourne. Most roads are sealed but some sections include deep sand and are suited only to 4WD. These sand sections are not suited to caravans.

Mount Elgin
Part of the Gold Escort Route, Mt Elgin Victoria

Gold rush in Victoria leads to near bankruptcy in South Australia

Victoria’s golden years began in 1851 but Victoria’s good fortune almost became South Australia’s downfall. Gold was discovered at Clunes in July 1851 and soon Warrandyte, Bunninyong and Ballarat had active fields. However, it was the huge Mt Alexander field (now Castlemaine) that focused international attention on Australia. By Christmas 1851 more than 20,000 people were living at Mt Alexander on fifteen square miles of, what later proved to be, the richest and most easily worked alluvial goldfield in the world. Rushes to places such as Bendigo, Heathcote, Wedderburn, St Arnaud, Stawell and Ararat attracted more than 170,000 people to Victoria by the end of 1852. This gold rush almost caused the bankruptcy of South Australia.

South Australia’s struggling economy

At the time the colony of South Australia was struggling. A severe and prolonged drought decimated the agricultural sector. As a result, wages fell and unemployment rose to unheard of levels. Homeless and destitute families sought shelter in hastily re-purposed Military barracks. News of huge gold finds gave men hope of a better life in Victoria.

The Exodus

Gold discoveries in California and New South Wales had little effect on South Australia, mostly due to distance and cost of travel. However, the size and scope of the Victorian finds drew prospective miners from South Australia in large numbers. Those with money travelled by ship – the fare was equivalent to three weeks’ wages. Most walked for five to six weeks along the 600-mile coast-road to Melbourne and then to Mt Alexander. By the end of 1851 more than 15,000 hopeful diggers from South Australia’s total population was 63,000 had left. Before leaving they emptied the banks of their meagre savings.

Gold no use in South Australia

The effect was devastating to the economy. To stem the flow of money, banks cut credit and called in loans. This caused the almost immediate bankruptcy of more than 100 businesses. Businesses had no labour and no money. Two of the state’s largest employers, the copper mines at Kapunda and Burra closed due to lack of workers.

In yet another blow to the economy, miners returning from the gold fields with gold in their pockets were unable to use it. Banks couldn’t exchange it for cash and shops could not accept it as legal tender. Goods remained stacked on shelves. South Australia languished as other states bought gold, reselling it in England at a profit. The South Australian government did not have the legal framework to do the same.

Government forced to act.

The Assay Bullion Act passed on January 28, 1852 in a special session of parliament. South Australia could now buy gold, issue coins and under some circumstances use gold as legal tender.

Making a gold escort route

Lack of a direct route to Adelaide also had a detrimental effect on South Australia’s economy. South Australian miners lodged their gold in Melbourne banks rather than making the long journey home. A direct route between Adelaid and Mt Alexander became critical. John McLaren, South Australian Deputy Surveyor-General formed a survey party to investigate and map a direct route. Sappers from the Royal Engineers accompanied McLaren. They were to survey the road, put down wells or find permanent water every twelve miles and develop maps and signs. McLaren left for Victoria on January 26, 1852.

Kangaroo Flat
Waterhold, Kangaroo Flat Camp, near Coonalpyn, South Australia

Bushrangers

Bushranging was common along the disputed country between the borders of South Australia and Victoria. Alexander Tolmer, South Australian Commissioner of Police, was well aware of this practice. Tolmer wrote to the government offering a police escort for a gold-carrying coach service from Mt Alexander to Adelaide.

Establishing a track.

Receiving government approval, Tolmer, two police troopers and an Aboriginal guide left Adelaide soon after. From Adelaide they followed the road south to Wellington where a ferry operated across the Murray River. Tolmer’s party soon passed McLaren whose team were sinking wells and erecting signs. Both parties followed station tracks south-easterly towards Mount Monster. From there they travelled to Tintinara and Bordertown. This section of track is about 15 to 20 kilometres south of the present Dukes Highway.

Tolmer continued south of the present-day towns of Kaniva and Nhill through the Little Desert to Polkemmet Station. Crossing the Wimmera River near Polkemmet, Tolmer followed the river in a sweeping bend to Horsham. At the time Horsham was a village of less than 20 houses, mostly bark huts owned by teamsters. Established tracks past the present-day towns of Navarre, Avoca and Newstead led Tolmer’s team onto the Mt Alexander goldfield.

A Golden future

historic drawing
First Gold Escort leaving the Victorian Diggings. Photo courtesy State Library South Australia.

Between 1852 and 1853 Tolmer directed eighteen successful gold escorts. More than 325,000 ounces of gold, almost 10 tonnes, from the diggingsmade its way into South Australia. Wives and families of the diggers received most of the consigned gold parcels. At the time, an ounce of gold was the equivalent of two week’s wages. The government received a commission of 2%. Using 2021 values the gold escorts delivered $650 million to the South Australian economy. The increase in South Australia’s collective wealth enabled many miners to return and purchase land. This in turn led to a more stable and successful long-term economy.

For more information about the Gold Escort Route check out these products:

Gold Escort Route Atlas

Gold Escort Route digital map for use with OziExplorer mapping software

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