THE AUSTRALIAN GOLDRUSH

The first Swiss settlers arrived in Sydney, Australia in 1833, and many more followed when gold was discovered. Most came through the Port Philip District of New South Wales, into an area occupied by Aborigines for at least 45,000 years. They were ruthlessly pushed off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining.

Settlement at Melbourne, named after the Prime Minister of England, commenced in 1835, on the shore of Port Phillip Bay. It 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, north west of Melbourne, in late 1851, and it is recorded that 20,000 diggers arrived in the first six months of 1852.

This discovery accelerated the abolition of convict transportation to Australia. Early diggings 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.

Many young men left Valposchiavo, the Valtellina and Canton Ticino for Australia and America 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. You can see details of the ships in which they sailed, on the Emigrants page. You can also read about their lives on the Biographies page.

Most able-bodied men worked as miners in the gold fields around Bendigo, north of Melbourne, Victoria, but many others provided supplies or services like forestry (pit props), catering, laundry, and blacksmithing, which was very important. They often made more money with much less risk!

Conditions in the gold mines were oppressive with temperatures around 35 degrees and very high humidity. The miners worked and rested in alternate half-hour periods and when the gold became harder to find, a very toxic chemical element called antimony was mined.  This has many uses in industrial processes and was in demand for export, but long-term exposure to it causes serious health problems.

The State of Victoria contributed more than one third of the world's gold output in the 1850s and in just two years, it’s population had grown from 77,000 to 540,000 - 45 per cent of the Australian population. Adventurers arrived from all around the world, and tension in the goldfields was often high due to clashes between the various races and with the authorities over the licensing system and police corruption. The 1850's also saw the operation of the first railways and telegraphs.

Only Adolfo Marchesi (known as Dolph) remained in Australia and worked as a miner. He married Elisabeth Hester and their descendants are there today. Eventually, he and many others became very ill with respiratory problems known as “the miner’s disease.” Dolph died in 1921, and you can see photos of him, Elisabeth, and their family on the “Photos” page in the Great Grandparent's section. We have letters which provide a brief picture of life for a miner and his family in Australia at that time. Elisabeth continued the letters when Dolph became too ill to write.

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 Marchesi and 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