It was 8.20pm on 9 June 1858, and no doubt as chilly as Ballarat night can be, when a shout rang out and history was made.
Richard Jeffery, one of a party of 22 young Cornish tributers working the Red Hill Mine, has just unearthed a gold nugget larger than any ever found at that time.
He was alone, 180 feet underground, with a discovery that would change his life and that of many others.
The Red Hill Mine, near Bakery Hill in Ballarat East, was just one of the deep lead alluvial mines which made Ballarat a fabulously rich alluvial goldfield. The nugget was aptly christened the ‘Welcome’ because it was found at a time when local newspapers openly lamented that declining gold yields had threatened Ballarat’s supremacy as ‘Queen of the Goldfields’.
The discovery did much to repair Ballarat’s reputation and soothe its collective ego. Indeed, it was deep lead mining which gave Ballarat and Victoria great wealth and fame.
The Welcome Nugget remains the second largest gold nugget ever found, weighing a whopping 69 kilograms!
By 1858, gold mining in Ballarat had developed well beyond the early shallow alluvial mining represented on Sovereign Hill’s diggings. Miners had discovered the treasure-troves of gold buried deep underground in a maze of ancient rivers known as ‘deep leads’.
These buried watercourses contained rich deposits of alluvial gold lying loose in gravel and sand. Mining deep leads was extremely dangerous because men were excavating waterlogged and unstable layers of loose rock, gravel, sand and clay.
Deep lead miners were called ‘mudlarks’ because they were coated in slimy black and grey mud. An inrush of water was a constant danger, and a sudden collapse of earth and rocks could cause timbering to cave in. Even the air was deadly – damp, reeking of rotting vegetation and potentially suffocating.
The nugget was displayed to raise money for the school and the hospital, and caused a great stir around town. It first sold in Ballarat, in 1858, for just over £10,000 and was finally sold in London where it was melted down for sovereigns at the Royal Mint.
The Welcome Nugget made a fortune for the Wittkowski brothers, local tobacconists and gold buyers, who were properietors of the Red Hill Mining Company, having funded the purchase of an engine and timber for the mine.
Likewise, it was a wonderful windfall for the young miners involved.At the time, a simple timber miner’s cottage in Ballarat cost around £35 pounds and £400 purchased a substantial brick villa.
Red Hill Mine at Sovereign Hill
Sovereign Hill‘s Red Hill Mine was inspired by the story of this famous nugget and the men who risked not only capital, but life itself, in pursuit of a dream. The Red Hill Mine is based on an 1858 lithograph of the original mine, by Hermann Deutsch, which was commissioned by the Wittkowskis to commemorate the discovery.
Above ground, visitors find the buildings and machinery typical of an early deep lead mine, looking as though the men have just ‘knocked off’ for a break.
Venturing underground, they find a mine shaft and steep winding stairs leading them on a high-tech adventure into the dark and dangerous world of deep leads. In low, narrow tunnels, lit only by lanterns, and brought to life by innovative special effects, they follow the voices of miners who risk their lives in search of an elusive glint of gold.
Suddenly, a bedraggled miner emerges from the darkness, grumbling as he battles mud and slush to hack away at the rock face. His grumbles quickly turn to shouts of joy as he calls his mates to share the excitement by unearthing the fabulous Welcome Nugget.
Over 160 years following the discovery of the Welcome Nugget, Sovereign Hill still celebrates its discovery in one of the ancient riverbeds which hid so much of Ballarat’s golden treasures.
This article originally appeared in Sovereign Hill’s ‘Rush’ magazine, issue 9, 2019.