Guns n Gold Rushes: arms in colonial New South Wales

H6741 Revolver, pinfire, Navy, colt, America, c. 1870.(OF). Thuers conversion, 6 chamber revolver, No. 207161. Calibre .36.(SB).
H6741 Revolver, pinfire, Navy, colt, America, c. 1870.(OF). Thuers conversion, 6 chamber revolver, No. 207161. Calibre .36 2010/31/1 Set of assaying equipment, weights (8) and wooden storage box, portable balance and wooden storage box, metal / glass / wood, made by L Oertling Ltd / W & T Avery Ltd, London, England, c. 18602010/31/1 Set of assaying equipment, weights (8) and wooden storage box, portable balance and wooden storage box, metal / glass / wood, made by L Oertling Ltd / W & T Avery Ltd, London, England, c. 1860

Save for sparse and sporadic failed convict rebellions and escapees who stole arms and turned them on their British overlords, prisoners and Aborigines had been the foremost human recipients of firearm discharges prior to the Australian gold rush. Free settlers and freed convicts were able to arm themselves; however, this was for culling native animals and humans, not specifically for self-defense. The gold rush changed this.

Charles Fitzroy the Governor of Australia, in his first dispatch to London about the Sydney gold rush said it was ‘unhinging the minds of all classes of society’. And in a society where wealth is exceptionally disproportionately distributed, the idea of literally digging wealth from the raw earth is appealing to all who can conceivably dig.

The more sycophantic entrepreneurs saw their advancement in capital not in simply heading straight to the goldfields but in supplying the fevered masses as well.  Men who had come from the American goldfields to dig in Australia brought with them the arms they’d needed to protect their property on those fields; and many brought extra arms, knowing that the Australian market would have a limited supply and that the demand would be enormous.

Samuel Colt, an American gun maker, had organised a display of his firearms at the Great Exhibition of 1851 held at Hyde Park in London. Along with several fortune-seekers about to embark to Australia, Colt also sold pepperbox revolver, an early version of what would become the revolver more recognisable today, was much cheaper firearm. The revolving characteristic of the pepperbox was multiple barrels, which would turn after each barrel was fired. These weapons were small and affordable, but not very reliable, and there were so many varieties that compatibility was not an option for parts. They could also be a danger to the person firing due to numerous mechanical malfunctions. Regardless, they were very popular during the gold rush, and many have found a place in the Museum’s collection.

Civilians were armed quite well in Australia from the 1850s. On the goldfields, one could not trust the police to engender peace and fairness. Miners were required to hold a H9608 Musket, Flintlock, Tower, Brown Bess (AF). Musket, flintlock, India Pattern, Great Britain, 1810-1820

H9608 Musket, Flintlock, Tower, Brown Bess (AF). Musket, flintlock, India Pattern, Great Britain, 1810-1820

Escaped convicts had stolen arms prior to the gold rush; however, by-and-large the arms were stolen for fundamental survival, not to assist larceny of capital. John Caesar, a West Indian born convict who was transported to Australia on the First Fleet stole a 2013/23/14 Poster, Bushranger 'Reward Notice', 1000 pounds offered for each of the following, Ben Hall, John Gilbert, John O'Malley and John Vane, paper / ink / cloth, New South Wales, Australia, 1863

2013/23/14 Poster, Bushranger ‘Reward Notice’, 1000 pounds offered for each of the following, Ben Hall, John Gilbert, John O’Malley and John Vane, paper / ink / cloth, New South Wales, Australia, 1863

The post-gold rush bushranger was undeniably motivated by paucity, but mere survival was coupled with rapaciousness. Ben Hall was involved in several armed hold ups, and although he never killed anyone, was shot dead by police at Junee in New South Wales in 1865. Hall had armed himself with a quite elegant weapon, a The Story of the Kelly Gang’; and Rolling Stones‘ front man Mick Jagger’s sophomore acting attempt was 1970’s ‘Ned Kelly’. The rifle which Jagger used in the film – representing a Gold mining became industrialised and corporatised as alluvial gold became more and more difficult to discover. And although much more gradually, arms have also become again the purview of our overlords.   

Written by Damian McDonald, Curator

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