The Marchesi Family and the Australian Gold Rush


Here we describe the discovery of gold in Australia, and the conditions in the goldfields where the miners worked, because it shows why our ancestors and others from Valposchiavo, the Valtellina and Canton Ticino were attracted to the country. It also shows the harsh lives that they led where very few made fortunes, but many were able to send money back to their families. Others remained and made a new life in a country where plenty of opportunities existed for those who worked hard.

Prior to the discovery of gold, Australia was regarded as little more than a penal colony. Gold was found as early as 1814, but this was kept very quiet, because the authorities thought that this might destabilize the economy and cause anarchy in the pre-1850’s Australian convict society. The first Swiss settlers arrived in Sydney, Australia in 1833, and many more followed when gold was discovered. Settlement at Melbourne, named after the Prime Minister of England, commenced in 1835, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay. This was an area occupied by Aboriginal people for at least 45,000 years. They were ruthlessly pushed off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining. Melbourne was virtually a "wild west" town with muddy streets and rough living conditions, but it grew quickly. In 1851 the area separated from New South Wales and became a new colony named after Queen Victoria. Gold was discovered at Bendigo Creek, northwest of Melbourne, in late 1851, and it is recorded that 20,000 diggers arrived in the first six months of 1852.

The Aboriginal people knew that a shiny gold mineral could be found along rivers and in rocks. However, it was not regarded as a useful commodity in the lives and economies of these people – until the arrival of the Europeans. Contrary to popular belief, Aboriginals were active participants in daily life on the diggings, often acting as guides, so for many of them, the goldfields brought new opportunities for economic gain and for cultural exchange. There were also many negative effects, because by 1851, their lands had been taken over by sheep farmers and squatters. These people suffered terrible oppression and hardships in the form of alcohol, begging and disease and there was massive environmental damage in their homeland. The discovery of gold accelerated the abolition of convict transportation to Australia.

Farmers and wealthy landowners were afraid that if word got around that gold had been found, many of their lowly paid workers and labourers would leave their jobs. However, when the gold rush in California began in 1849, people from all over the world went to America which caused labour shortages in Australia, so Australia’s governors began to look at gold differently. The first publicised discovery of gold occurred at Bathurst west of Sydney in 1851. An Englishman called Edward Hargraves who had been to California but returned empty handed, thought that the Australian and Californian terrains had many similarities. In February 1851, he went to Bathurst in New South Wales where he believed gold existed. He met local men called John Lister and brothers James and William Tom who took him to where the gold was. Hargraves called this place Ophir and always gave the impression that he had made the discovery, but his companions claimed that he was not present when the gold was found and did not even know its location.

Hargraves, who was born in Gosport, England in 1816 and had gone to Australia in 1832, seems to have been a man with a large ego. In his autobiography, he claimed:  "it was never my intention ... to work for gold, my only desire was to make the discovery, and rely on the Government and the country for my reward." Hargraves got himself appointed as Crown Commissioner of the Goldfields by the government of New South Wales and was awarded a pension by them. He never shared his wealth with Lister or the Tom brothers and the dispute over who was responsible for the first discovery of gold has never been resolved. The government officially declared the gold discovery in May 1851, and thousands flocked from across the world to the Bathurst plains. Prospectors who had planned to go to California and many other workers left their jobs for the Australian goldfields.

Hargraves, who was born in Gosport, England in 1816 and had gone to Australia in 1832, seems to have been a man with a large ego. In his autobiography, he claimed:  "it was never my intention ... to work for gold, my only desire was to make the discovery, and rely on the Government and the country for my reward." Hargraves got himself appointed as Crown Commissioner of the Goldfields by the government of New South Wales and was awarded a pension by them. He never shared his wealth with Lister or the Tom brothers and the dispute over who was responsible for the first discovery of gold has never been resolved. The government officially declared the gold discovery in May 1851, and thousands flocked from across the world to the Bathurst plains. Prospectors who had planned to go to California and many other workers left their jobs for the Australian goldfields.

Hargraves correctly identified the likelihood of finding golf in the Bathurst region and he introduced some simple mining methods that he had seen in California, like sifting the sediment from the riverbed in a pan or separating the gold using a cradle. This was a cheap to make wooden box on two rockers with a metal sieve. As the gold was heavier, it sank to the bottom, leaving the remaining debris to be discarded. Anyone could search for gold which was washed down over many years and trapped in the bed of creeks to form alluvial deposits.

Gold could also be mined from former underground watercourses, but this required the digging of shafts and miners soon decided to band together to work these deposits. From the early 1860s, the individual miner was replaced by the company employee who worked for a regular salary.

Early diggings in the goldfields were often worked with crude tools such as picks and pans until the surface gold was depleted. More advanced forms of mining such as large-scale dredging, hydraulic sluicing and hard rock mining then began. Within a year, large deposits were discovered at Ballarat, 68 miles (110Kms) northwest of Melbourne, and 10,000 miners from many levels of societies all over the world had arrived. The other major find was announced at Bendigo Creek in December 1851 and by June 1852, it is said that five to six thousand diggers were arriving each week. Founded as a sheep run in 1840, the city’s official name was Sandhurst until 1891, when it was formally changed to honour a local prize-fighter who compared his own prowess to that of the English pugilist known as Bendigo.  It became a city in 1871. It was called the richest city in the world, with more gold found there than anywhere in the world, between 1850 and 1900. Victoria's goldfields around Ballarat and Bendigo, cover an area northwest of Melbourne about half the size of Switzerland. In World War I, Australian and New Zealand soldiers proudly bore the name ‘diggers’ and were noted for their teamwork in the trenches of Gallipoli and France.

Most of the immigrants were from Great Britain and Ireland, and they wanted to escape the poverty of large English cities, or starvation in Ireland caused by the potato blight. Many had the experience and skills of the Industrial Revolution, so this brought rapid changes to the new country. Others came from Europe, America, and China, to improve their economic circumstances and the discovery of gold accelerated the abolition of convict transportation to Australia. Victoria was the epicentre of the Australian gold rush for several years. Most able-bodied men worked as miners in the gold fields, but many others provided supplies or services like forestry (pit props), catering, laundry, blacksmithing, and shop keeping, which was very important. They often made more money with much less risk!

Ballarat was a particularly prosperous field. The gold was sitting just below the surface and could be extracted in nuggets without much effort. These larger pieces of gold had to be melted down and sold soon after being found. A gold nugget was found in 1869, just under the soil at the base of a tree, 38 miles (60 kms) west of Bendigo. It weighed 11 stone (72kg) and was 24 inches (61cm) long. It was called the Welcome Stranger Nugget and was worth £10,000 so today's value would be worth over £2 million. It was then the world's largest-known gold nugget and had to be broken on an anvil before it could fit on the bank's scales.

Life on the diggings in the summers of the 1850’s was rough. The miners needed housing and many miners erected tents or open bark-shelters which were cheap and portable. Some merchants even made a livelihood from selling tents on the fields. Some who stayed longer, brought their families, and built their own homes made from materials found in the local area. The most common of these was the wattle and daub house, which was a very old method of building.

The work on the goldfields was exhausting, and there was a shortage of water for drinking and personal hygiene, as well as for filtering the river sediment. Temperatures were around 35 degrees centigrade with very high humidity and the miners worked and rested in alternate half-hour periods. Flies spread disease and dysentery was common.

Early in May the rains came and the whole diggings became a quagmire, but it did not deter the diggers, although many of them struggled to cover the licence fee of thirty shillings a month in 1851. The first arrivals were mainly young men in search of a quick fortune but with little mining experience. They searched for alluvial gold in creeks and rivers, using their picks and pans and within a few months, Bendigo was a bustling town of 40,000 people. Some prospectors formed small groups and each miner had to obtain a license, which in 1854, cost two pounds for three months. The license system caused considerable unrest on the diggings as it was applied regardless of the success or failure, and diggers who could not produce a license were fined or arrested. A “claim” worked by 4 men was marked by pegs and measured about eight-by-eight metres, and if it was abandoned for more than 24 hours, anyone could take possession of it. In 1854, an ounce of gold was worth four pounds sterling, which would cover all expenses for three months.

The alluvial gold on the goldfields soon became exhausted, and by 1854 the days of easy "pick and shovel" or sluice mining by individuals or groups of mates, were clearly numbered. There was a switch towards underground mining, requiring more equipment and capital investment, and the work was much more difficult and dangerous. The miners required technological knowledge and with fortunes at stake, claim jumping was common in the goldfields. Most of the miners conducted themselves properly, but with liquor available, brawls were a common occurrence, and tension in the goldfields was often high due to clashes between the various races. It was therefore important for the authorities to control this environment.

There was a small police force in Victoria before the gold rushes of 1851, but after this date it had very little control of events outside Melbourne. The situation became even more serious when policemen also joined the gold rush, so wages were doubled to attract recruits to the force. Some ex-convicts and prison warders then joined, but they were often brutal and corrupt, using bribery to increase their income. In January 1853, the new Victoria Police Force was formed, based on the Metropolitan Police in London, but with one major difference that they could carry firearms. Following a serious uprising of the miners against the licensing laws and corrupt policing at Ballarat in 1854, known as the Eureka Rebellion, a fairer licensing system was introduced, and the miners gained the right to vote.

When the gold became harder to find, the miners searched for antimony, which was found in significant deposits near Melbourne. This was used in industrial processes and was in demand for export, but the primitive work conditions in the mines and long exposure to dusts caused respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis, and cancer. Antimony became the second most important metallic commodity after gold in Victoria, but it took decades to realize how toxic it was, and adequate protection for the workers did not exist. The State of Victoria contributed more than one third of the world's gold output in the 1850s and in just two years, its population had grown from 77,000 to 540,000 - 45 per cent of the Australian population.

Until 1890’s, emigration from Valposchiavo and the Valtellina was to Victoria and New South Wales. By then, the Victorian goldfields had become much harder to work, but large deposits were now discovered in Western Australia. People came from all over the world and by 1900, the population of that region increased from about 50,000, to more than 180,000. The knowledge gained in Victoria, enabled better working methods and conditions in the mines. Queensland, which had also separated from New South Wales in 1859, also had a gold rush in the 1870’s although this was smaller than Victoria’s.

Many people who went to Australia during the gold rushes decided to settle in the new and wealthy country. Those who made money from gold, put this wealth into farming, manufacturing, the retail business or property. For those who did not, there was plenty of work in these industries where income was much more reliable. Many who went from the Valtellina and Southern Switzerland worked in agriculture, timber extraction, construction and other ancillary activities like accommodation, catering, and laundry services. Pit props, tools and equipment for the mines like tents, shovels, picks and gold pans, were in constant demand. New towns and cities grew quickly leading to demands for housing, new goods, and transport. The railways and telegraph had reached the Victorian goldfields by 1862, stimulating rapid growth in many industries. Whilst conditions in the goldfields were often very harsh, as can be seen from the photographs in this chapter, the huge wealth created in these times became evident well before the turn of the century, in the fine Victorian architecture of Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo and other towns. This wealth enabled many immigrants who endured these conditions to send money back to their families, thus helping them to buy property or land and improve their living conditions. Many corresponded regularly and their letters revealed the close ties existing in these families and gave information about their daily lives in the new country.

SWISS AND ITALIAN PEOPLE

 Over half of the ‘Italians’ who arrived at the Victorian goldfields in the mid-1850s were from the Italian speaking Ticino and Grigioni Cantons of Southern Switzerland and the Valtellina. A travel agency in Campocologno near the border was very active in promoting Australia as a place to make money, which attracted those from regions of endemic rural poverty where seasonal migrations were traditional. Political upheavals in Italy and disastrous agricultural seasons at that time, including a mildew of the grapevine in the Valtellina, encouraged emigration. Young men left these regions in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because there was no work for them locally. Federico Marchesi 1839-1922 was the first in our family to go to Australia in 1858, and his three brothers Giuseppe, Tomaso, and Adolfo followed. He worked as a miner and was the only one who remained in Australia. You can read about them later in this article, and you can also see details of the ships in which they sailed, on the Emigrants page.

These migrants were acknowledged to be good workers, who could adjust to the Australian climate well. They had extensive knowledge of Mediterranean-style farming techniques, which were better suited to cultivating Australia's harsh interior. Much of the land was very poor or heavily timbered, and the immigrants worked to clear it and make it productive. Joseph Gentilli,[1] in his book titled “Swiss Poschiavini in Australia,” noted that a high percentage of those who settled there turned to agriculture, got less sick, lived longer, and married more English and Irish women. In subsequent years, migrants followed family and friends who had settled in Australia. Today, people of Italian heritage comprise the sixth largest ethnic group. The Italian language is commonly used in their homes, and their cuisine is very popular.

More than 160,000 women were among the 600,000 who arrived in Victoria between 1851 and 1860. Those who were married looked after their families and homes, and others worked in the goldfields. Although life was hard, the rules of society were a little different and women had freedoms they couldn’t have imagined in their former lives. Some of the most successful shopkeepers, cooks, and boarding house owners were women. Others became teachers in the early schools established by groups of parents.

AUSTRALIA’S ABORIGINAL PEOPLE

 Victoria has produced 2 per cent of all the gold ever mined globally, but as we have said, it did not bring prosperity for all. When European settlement began in 1788, there were at least 750,000 Aboriginal Australians, but they were forced off their traditional lands where they had been for tens of thousands of years. Diseases such as measles, smallpox, typhoid, influenza, and tuberculosis had a terrible impact on these people, who had no resistance to the deadly viruses brought in by the sailors and convicts. It is estimated that by 1900, the Aboriginal population of Australia had reduced to less than 100,000. [2] At least 20,000 of them were killed as a direct result of colonial violence against them during this era of Australian history. [3]

Aboriginal people lived by hunting and gathering and always managed their environment carefully to ensure a steady supply of food and water. They still believe that they do not own the land, rather the land owns them.  Perhaps the modern world has much to learn from them! In the 1770s, there were over 250 Aboriginal clans or “nations” and each had their own language. Aboriginals could be jailed for speaking their native tongue in public, and many of their languages nearly died out in the 20th century.

Between the 1860s and 1970s, it was government policy to remove Aboriginal children from their families, as the idea was that mixed-race children could be educated and trained to work in white society. Over generations, they would marry white partners and be assimilated into the European-Australian society. The “Stolen Generations” refers to the period in Australia's history when this happened, and it is thought that about 100,000 children may have been forcibly taken from their families and communities and put into special homes for this reason. However, it became apparent that there was no tangible improvement in the social position of the children who were removed.[4]

Hundreds of indigenous Australians served in the Australian armed forces during World War Two, but most were denied pension rights. ­In the 1960s, they gained the same rights as other Australians, including full citizenship and voting rights. For the first time, indigenous people were also to be counted in the national census. In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a national apology for the country’s actions toward them and since then, some progress has been made in reducing social disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.[5]

Australia's indigenous peoples are the world's oldest living culture, and their unique identity and spirit continues to exist in every corner of the country. Aborigines of today go to school, have jobs, and families just like any other group of people. It is true to say that they are more respected and treated better than in the past, but many think that they are still disadvantaged in many ways.

In 2016, it was estimated that there were 798,000 indigenous people – 3.3% of the total population of Australia of 24.4 million people. In recent years, the description "First Nations " has become more common and is considered the most acceptable.

The various nationalities amongst those who came to Australia in the 19th century brought customs, traditions and skills that enriched their communities and began the move towards a multicultural Australia. The gold exported to Britain in the 1850s paid all her foreign debts and helped lay the foundation of her enormous commercial expansion in the latter half of the century. Australia’s huge reserves of gold made the country a destination for people from around the globe and by the end of the 19th century the goldrushes had helped to create a wealthy, liberal society with a standard of living that was the envy of the world.

IMMIGRANTS FROM VALPOSCHIAVO

Four of our ancestors went to Australia in the Gold Rush, and we give some detail about them, but first about Hans Semadeni whose experiences give some good insight into life for a young man in the Victorian goldfields.

Hans Semadeni 1836 – 1913

Hans was born in Poschiavo and like many other young people in the region, he had to seek employment abroad, so at the age of 15, he had gone to Italy to work in a grocery store. His wages were low, and he read articles about the money that could be made in the Australian gold mines, but his father did not want him to go there. Nevertheless, in 1856, he embarked with 15 Poschiavini and arrived in Melbourne when he was 19. He sold his watch to buy a miner’s license, but soon learned that only a few were successful in finding gold and there were easier and less hazardous ways of earning money. He realized the miners’ demand for water, especially in the summer months, so he obtained a horse and cart and began work as a water merchant. With the drought continuing, his income increased, and he bought another horse and cart, but then his luck ran out. He arrived at the mines on a day when there was a storm and there was no demand for his water. He sheltered from the rain but when it passed, his horses and carts had gone. Once again, he worked in the mines, but after some limited success he decided to leave Australia. He returned to Europe, embarking on the ss Dover Castle at Melbourne, on 1st July 1866 and there were 10 cabin passengers and 177 in steerage accommodation. Then he travelled to France and stayed with his brother at Charleville in France, learning the trade of pastrycook. You can read more about him in the chapter about Swiss Cafés in England because he was one of the first Poschiavini to come to England and open a Swiss Café.

Our great uncles who emigrated were sons of Giuseppe and Anna Maria Marchesi-Gaigher, who lived and worked at the Aino Mill in San Carlo, and we described in the chapter about emigration why they had to seek work abroad. We think it most probable that they were all born at the Aino Mill property.

 Federico Marchesi 1839 – 1922

At the age of 18, he was the first in our family to travel to Australia in the Victorian Gold Rush. He sailed on the SS Scottish Chief arriving in Melbourne on 8 May 1858. He went to Kangaroo Flat, a suburb of Bendigo in Victoria, which derived its name from the large numbers of Kangaroos encountered around gold miners' campsites near Bendigo. Like many of his compatriots on this ship, he was described as a labourer, but we think that he became a miner, because he was listed as one when he returned to Europe in 1875. The miners were relatively well paid due to the dangers and later immigrants could not get these jobs. Other emigrants worked in the ancillary services supporting mining. Federico married first, Mary McKenzie who died shortly afterwards, possibly in childbirth, and second in 1867, an Australian lady, Elizabeth Claxton, 1845 - 1922. Their eldest son Giuseppe was born in Heathcote, near Melbourne in 1867, and two more sons and a daughter were also born in Australia. However, the last three - all daughters, where born in Poschiavo and San Carlo, as we know that Federico had returned to Switzerland in 1875. By this time the gold mining was becoming much more difficult, and he obviously felt that opportunities must be sought elsewhere.

Several Poschiavini had already established successful catering businesses in England, and Federico decided to follow them with his family in the early 1880’s and seek prosperity. He opened a bakery in Broadstairs, Kent, and shortly after this, he also established a restaurant, which became very successful indeed, employing our two grandfathers, Erminio Marchesi and Louis Rocca. At this time, seaside resorts were becoming very popular, and could be visited easily, due to the opening of the railway lines. The photo that you see shows Federico and Elizabeth in 1909, at the wedding of their daughter Ida and Emilio Crameri. You can read about them all in the pages on Swiss Cafés in England. The grave of Federico and Elizabeth is still in Poschiavo cemetery.

Giuseppe Marchesi 1842 - 1920

At the age of 18, he followed his brother Federico to Australia on SS Morning Light, arriving in Melbourne on 22 Jan 1861 We know no more about his journey, but he and his countrymen were described as labourers and hoped to prosper from the gold mining activities at Bendigo in Victoria. In due course, when the gold became harder to find, he returned to Switzerland, but we have not been able to find details of the return journey from Australia. After his return to Poschiavo, Giuseppe became a much-respected local councillor, and in October 1883, he married Maria Mengotti, 1838-1907. Giuseppe died aged 79 after a brief illness, mourned by his family and his wide circle of friends and colleagues. Sadly, there is no more detail of Giuseppe. His brother Adolfo (Dolph) who remained in Australia, corresponded with him and a letter from Dolph in Italian and one from Dolph’s wife Elisabeth in English are shown at the end of this paragraph.

Tomaso Marchesi 1851 – 1897

At the age of 21 he followed his brothers Federico and Giuseppe to Australia, to work in the gold mining industry. He sailed on SS Somersetshire arriving in Melbourne on 1 March 1873. Tomaso was described as a miner on the passenger list, but we cannot verify this. We cannot trace a return voyage from Australia, so we do not know whether he remained there or returned to Poschiavo. Sadly, he died at a relatively young age, and we have no more detail about him.

Salvatore Adolfo Marchesi 1853 - 1921

Adolfo was 23 when he journeyed first to England and sailed from Gravesend, London, arriving in Melbourne on 18 March 1876. His was described as a gold seeker. Dolph, as he became known, married an Australian, Elizabeth Ann Hester, 1862-1947, and they lived in Heathcote, 120 Kms north of Melbourne, near the Costerfield goldfield, where their descendants are today. Costerfield was rich in gold but also had significant deposits of antimony, which as we have said, became a very valuable commodity. The miners were relatively well paid due to the dangers and when the gold became harder to find, they searched for antimony, which could cause serious diseases. Working conditions in the mines were primitive and the risks were not fully recognised at the time of the gold rushes of the 19th century.

Eventually, Dolph and many others became very ill with respiratory problems known as “the miner’s disease,” and he died in 1921. We have copies of letters to his brother Giuseppe, who had returned to Poschiavo from Australia. The first letters are in Italian but when he became too ill to write, his Australian wife Elizabeth took over, giving the news to her brother-in-law. The letters show great affection between the brothers and provide a brief insight into the way of life for many in those days. Dolph worked in a mine at Mundy Gully, about 10 Kms south of Heathcote. We have found a copy of a local newspaper article published in April 1900 indicating that successful mining in Mundy Gully was becoming much more difficult, and in a letter in February 1913, Elizabeth told Joe (Giuseppe) that the mine had been sold for £205.

The letters were found in a drawer by Milena Rossetti-Marchesi in the Mulino di Aino (Aino Mill) property where the brothers were born. The Mulino was owned by Gioan Antonio Marchesi (1777-1839), our great x 3 grandfather. It was functioning until the 1960’s, is now fully restored to working order as a museum and is visited by the public. You can read about this in another chapter.

LETTERS FROM DOLPH

A reasonably literal translation has been made with minimal amendment to punctuation, to give the flavour of these letters written by our forbear, who probably left school at the age of 10-12, as most boys would have done in Poschiavo at that time. Some English words and names are written as an Italian speaker might pronounce them (eg: letter of 12 Aug 1913; Siney – Sydney, and letter of 5th March 1911; maener complent – (miner’s complaint). In other examples, the Pus’ciavin dialect is used rather than Italian.

Click here for original letter in Italian from Dolph to Giuseppe (Joe).

Click here for English transcripts of Dolph's letters.

Click here for original letter from Elisabeth to Joe.

Click here for transcripts of letters from Elisabeth.

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TRANSPORTATION

Federico Marchesiand his brother Giuseppe returned to Poschiavo, and Federico later came to England. We do not know what work they did in Australia or what happened to Tomaso.Federico married Elisabeth Claxton, the daughter of Charles and Catharine Claxton nèe Hart. They were transported to Australia in 1831 and 1837 respectively, for minor offences. You can learn about their story by clicking: -

History of transportation

Charles Claxton and Catherine Hart