It was 1851 that the discovery of gold took place in the colony of New South Wales, a short period after the precious metal had been found in California.
As may be conceived the finding of this new and valuable mineral resource revolutionised society.
All classes were infected with the mania, and young and old, rich and poor, thought and talked of nothing but the diggings.
Of course this excitement soon found a level, and those who had, at first news, set off to the diggings, a large proportion soon discovered that digging for gold was not their vocation.
They returned to their shops and their counting-offices, and left the hard work to the labourer, the runaway seaman, the reckless spendthrift, the determined, the desperate, who all beheld in the gold-fields a possible means of easily acquiring wealth which some sought for independence, others that they might renew the debaucheries which had been their social ruin.
Out of this incongruous congregation of men, the large class now known as the mining class was created.
As time went on and the calling resolved itself into a permanent occupation, and less excitement of gambling attached to it, the rascals and ne'er-do-wells, who had taken to it, dropped away from the old fields and sought those new rushes where surface working generally preludes the deeper sinking.
These form the class which is now the first to rush to a new field, scrape it off its surface gold, and then, too lazy to seek further by deep sinking, denounce the rush as a 'shicer'.
Of those who are only the loafers among gold diggers we will have nothing further to say.
We desire to represent the genuine gold-digger both in his successful and unsuccessful aspect; or, as he would probably express it, "as he appears after making a pile," and again, "when down on his luck."
These are two very common extremes incident to his occupation.
Just as the successful gambler is usually he who stakes his money, without care or forethought, so the unfortunate is usually he who expends much time and thought on the calculation of that mysterious science known as the doctrine of chances.
At any rate, it is a firm belief with your digger, that while some are born to good luck, others are fated to bad; and the two classes are common on every alluvial diggings, for your genuine digger is no quartz crusher, who is one of more stable character, and who calls to his aid more resources of engineering science than the other would have the patience to engage.
The gold-digger may be of any class - a labourer or a gentleman, a sailor or a University prizeman, a Cornish miner or an ex-cornet of dragoons; but whoever he may have been, and however he may have fallen by folly or vice, he usually carries with him courage, endurance, perseverance, and hope.
He is usually a broad-shouldered, deep-chested fellow, with a large head and brow, clear eyes, bronzed cheeks, and flowing beard.
He has a deep voice, and can sing a merry song and laugh merrily at a joke.
For the most part he is fond of good liquor, or failing good liquor any kind, so that it be strong enough.
Then, when this is in his head and fires his brain, he is good humoured or quarrelsome according to his kind.
But under all aspects, and in all positions of success or non-success, he is the representative of a sturdy, plucky, hard-working class of men - men who, when they settle down, and this they are doing more and more each year, become a valuable population.
Like sailors, diggers, when they take to farming, make the best tillers of the soil of any.
But the successful digger rarely cares to settle down.
He has made his pile, and the spirit moves him to spend it, and this he will do very much as the ideas of enjoyment which his former condition of life may have given him, prompt him to.
In the good times when nuggets were as plentiful as gooseberries, so to speak, and when the vulgar folly of eating five pound notes as sandwiches actually did occur, not once or twice, but dozens of times; when change of a sovereign was a thing unheard of; when, in short, everybody, more or less, made an ass of himself, the digger came out in grand style.
Coming down to Sydney here with a thousand pounds or two in his pocket, he never stopped drinking, driving in cabs, treating his whilom sweetheart to all kinds of absurd finery, and indulging in every description of course and idiotic revelry.
Nor indeed was this confined to those whose former associations were not of a character to educate them to bear prosperity.
Even educated men, bitten by the low madness which inspired the digging class, gave way to similar extravagances.
It was Saturnalia of folly for a short period.