‘A Most Splendid Discovery’: The Canadian Nugget

Towering above the skyline, the massive timber poppet head of the Sovereign Quartz Mine is a Ballarat landmark, and a striking reminder of a truly golden past.

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Surrounded by roads, housing and businesses, it is easy to forget that our goldfields township rests on land that yielded gold during the 19th century gold rushes that changed the face of Australia forever.

The ground below Sovereign Hill is riddled with shafts and tunnels. Visitors can inspect original artefacts such as the Farr & Hancock Shaft at the top of Main Street, and the mullock heap and original workings of the Normanby North Mine.

Sovereign Hill’s name was taken from a mine that operated on this site. Even today, we regularly hear (and feel) the rumble of blasting carried out deep below by Castlemaine Goldfields.

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Ballarat’s Golden Point diggings, 1852, Thomas Ham (artist) (State Library of Victoria collection, acc no H7797)

The great gold rushes began for Ballarat in 1851 with the discovery of gold at Poverty Point, just a stone’s throw north-east of Sovereign Hill. And so, the local goldifleds became the frenetic scene of the greatest alluvial gold rush the world has ever known.

Interestingly, revelation of its discovery was followed by news that two other nuggets had been found on 20 and 22 January, within several feet of the Canadian Nugget.

Ballarat was now, literally and figuratively, a city built on gold. By early 1853, they had dug shafts down 50 feet. Then, on 31 January, four men discovered the largest nugget ever found anywhere at that time (inside what is now our boundary).

Map (circa 1885) showing the Canadian Lead’s close proximity to the Sovereign Quartz Mine – Sovereign Hill’s namesake (The Sovereign Hill Museums Association collection, acc no 05.0144

Revealed at 60 feet, the Canadian Nugget remains the fourth largest nugget ever found after the Welcome Stranger (from Moliagul), the Welcome (Bakery Hill, Ballarat), and the Blanche Barkly (Kingower).

“The discovery of this splendid mass will doubtless check the foolish cry of those who would fain persuade us that all the gold has been taken out of the soil”

– The Argus, 3 February 1853

Weighing 120 pounds, it must have created quite a stir as it was hauled from Canadian Gully to the Gold Commissioner’s tent, slung from the middle of a sturdy pole carried on men’s shoulders. The four lucky diggers soon found buyers for their claim and retired to enjoy their fortunes.

Two had been in Australia less than three months, and they took the nugget back to England with them on the steamer Sarah Sands. Melted down in London, it yielded 1,319 ounces of gold after quartz and other contaminants were separated away.

Canadian Gully continued to yield sizeable nuggets, but by May 1853 weather had saturated the ground such that three or four men were needed simply to bucket water from a shaft. Bendigo proved more attractive.

Originally published in Sovereign Hill’s ‘Rush’ magazine, issue 3

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