Australia's 134 Pound Gold Nugget
Last Updated: 9th Jan 2009
The Leg Of Mutton Nugget:
The Discovery of Australia's Famous
134 Pound Gold Nugget (1853)
by Daniel E Russell
134 Pound Gold Nugget (1853)
by Daniel E Russell
On June 2nd, 1852 John Evans and his cousin Daniel Evans, natives of Oldham in Lancashire, England, set sail from Liverpool on board the ship Lady Head. Like the other nearly 400 men and women on board the ship, they were headed for Melbourne, Australia, eager to seek their fortunes in the newly discovered gold fields of Australia. Unlike most of the passengers who would find only disappointment and deprivation, the two cousins would strike it big by uncovering one of the single largest gold nuggets in Australian history: the “Canadian Nugget”, also known as the “Leg of Mutton Nugget”.
The journey to Melbourne took 83 days on board a cramped ship. When the ship finally disgorged its passengers, they discovered that the town was bursting at the seams with people caught up in the frenzy of the gold rush. Food prices were grossly inflated. The streets of the town had been reduced to quagmires. Shelter was scant, leaving many to sleep in the streets even in driving rains. One anonymous writer described the arrival of the Lady Head in Melbourne:
Daniel Evans would himself recall of their first days in the chaos of Melbourne:I may give you an instance of the utter destitution which some of these people are thrown into on their arrival here. When the Lady Head arrived here from Liverpool the weather was most inclement; wet pouring down in bucket-fulls, and the dirt, slop, and mud more than knee-deep, not only the thoroughfares, but in every spot where it was possible for human beings to set foot. In this state of affairs I saw more than four hundred poor people thrust upon our wharves, without food or shelter, but what their scanty bedding supplied. In this state of affairs Mr. Cole allowed the poor sufferers the use of the sheds on his wharf; but which, from the traffic upon them previously, were wet, damp, and muddy, to an inconceivable degree, under foot. Happening to be there in the early part of the night, I was informed, and subsequently ascertained for a fact, that a young woman, the wife of an intelligent Scotchman, gave birth to her first-born child. And, oh, such a plight! such a situation for an anguished mother to be in! Porters roaring, carters swearing, men, women, and children clamouring and screaming, and none, no not one, but the faithful husband and partner of that poor afflicted woman, to render either medical aid, or to minister the slightest consolation under the circumstances. It is melancholy to reflect on the increased amount of human suffering, which is patiently endured by new-comers here. (Earp, 1853)
The “big nugget” which Evans mentions may have been discovered near Bathurst as there is mention of the discovery of a mass of gold in quartz worth £4000 shortly before they arrived in Australia.We found hundreds of people without shelter; many lay in the streets, and many in the watch-houses. We found out a fellow townsman, and he let us sleep on the floor of his kitchen. We didn't stay long there; just enough to see about. Things were very high then, but the diggers spent money like dirt. Almost the first man we met on shore was drunk, and swore he'd spend £500 before he left the spot. We saw the man who found the big nugget. He was drunk, too, on horseback, and shouted out "I'm the boy who sold the nugget for £4000." They told us he was always drunk since he found it.
Both Daniel and John were eager to begin their search for gold. They bought a tent, a blanket and some tools, and poked around a few of the diggings to the north and east of Melbourne. They moved with a loose-knit band of fellow argonauts for mutual protection. John Lees, who would later partner with John and Daniel Evans, described the appearance of the gold-seekers as they set out for the diggings -
In a placer field known as Sheepshead Gully the two Evanses were allocated a 16 foot square claim to work. In six weeks they had managed to recover a fair showing of gold, but the physical conditions of the site made further work impossible. There was no clean drinking water available, and soon both men were crippled with dysentery.“...dress'd in colonial style blue flannel slops, belts and billy cocks, some arm'd with revolvers, in fact all arm'd up to the teeth, with revolvers, double barrel'd rifles, pistols double and single, daggers &c all looking and feeling volumes of valour, bidding defiance to, and predicting the probable fate of any bushrangers that might interrupt our progress, we were like so many beasts of burden loaded with weapons of defence blankets tools et cetras and grub... I reckon this as romantic a scene as I have ever seen, the river the beautifully wooded and slopeing sides of the valley, the numerous fire, with here and there a tent scatter'd along the valley, the groups of fortune hunters standing round the fires, and spinning yarns cracking jokes, speculating upon their doings at the diggings, a scene not to be forgotten in a day ” (Anon, 1978)
When both were well enough to travel, they heard of a new gold rush at Ovens and decided to try their luck there. They were joined by John Lees, a fellow native of Oldham who had possibly emigrated to the gold fields with them aboard the Lady Head (accounts differ). The relationship between the Evanses and Lees was clearly close. Lees would write that Daniel and John “behaved like brothers to me.” When Lees was short on cash, one of the Evans cousins loaned him the 11 shillings he needed to pay for his digger's license. Lees was beaten nearly to death by a drunken digging partner and abandoned in the bush, and managed to stagger into the Evanses' camp where his injuries were tended.
Pooling their money, they purchased a horse and cart for £84, guns to both protect themselves from highwaymen (“bushrangers”) and to hunt for bush meat, and a three month supply of provisions. Flour cost 1s 6d a pound and salt cost 2sd 6d a pound; butter was a luxury item at 5s 6d a pound. After a 225 mile trek into the wilderness, they decided that Ovens held little more promise than the earlier diggings had offered and returned to Melbourne.
At Melbourne, William Poulton Green joined the party as its fourth member. Green had been a railway clerk for the London and Northwestern Railway at Wolverhampton in the UK before emigrating to Australia, and upon his arrival in Melbourne discovered that there was little demand for clerical staff. The four men heard rumors of good diggings opening up near Ballarat, west of Melbourne, and decided to try their luck there.
On November 17th, 1852 Daniel and John Evans, John Lees, and William Green caught the first steamboat across Melbourne's Harbor for the port town of Geelong. Throwing their blanks and rifles over their shoulders, they walked the 65 miles through the bush to the new diggings. Daniel Evans would later recall “We had hard work here to get food. We couldn't obtain any for love or money. We had no flour or damper, no salt; and for two days we lived only on what we shot, and very awkward it was to cook it too.” (Damper is the Australian name for an unleavened soda bread cooked in the ashes of a campfire – a variant of this rustic staple appeared on the dinner plates of prospectors world-wide under a host of different names.)
They arrived at Ballarat on the 20th of November, and pitched camp just outside the diggings. At the time, the government of Victoria demanded that every gold hunter purchase a license to dig from the local gold commissioner or his agent, at the outrageous price of 30 shillings a month. The policy would, a little more than a year later, result in an armed insurrection by a group of Ballarat miners.
The four men spent the next ten days exploring and taking in the lay of the land. In the Ballarat diggings, the rule of thumb for gold mining was to sink a shaft downward through the barren earth until the gold-bearing strata of sediment was reached, then begin to tunnel horizontally to mine out whatever gold was present. Both John and Daniel Evans had practical experience as miners, having worked in the collieries of Lancashire. Their technical knowledge would stand them in good stead in the months ahead. Daniel Evans would later recall:
As their small claim played out in december of 1853, the men searched for promising new ground to dig. Evans later wroteI was out one day and I thought I would have a look at some of the old holes, and I went down many of them between 30 and 50 feet deep. I liked the looks of two of them, and we set in to work and got about 11 lbs. of gold in about a week. We marked where the dip in the strata was, and began driving a level tunnel. The first day we got gold. We tried other holes after that. In one of them I went down I found a pillar left for support, so we cut down some trees and made props, took the pillar away, and got more than a pound of gold out of it. Then we thought we would try two new holes, but we didn't like the looks of them we began to sink; so we deserted them, and tried the old ones again till the find began to fall short.
When the shaft reached a depth of roughly 66 feet the men hit bedrock, and began to drive a horizontal level. The tunnel was a mere 30 inches high and 36 inches wide, and the Evans cousins worked in rotation digging while Lees and Green carted away the waste earth. In one area Daniel Evans stuck a patch of ground that yielded some handsome nuggets.One morning I threw my gun on my shoulder, and started off for another ramble, and about three miles off came to a likely place called Canadian Gully. I liked the looks of this amazingly, and went back and reported. Next morning all went over with the tent, and marked out two spaces. We began two shafts, 37 inches in diameter. Cousin Jack and I dug and sunk; Green and Lees hauled and carried. We soon came to good soil, and worked away in earnest at our hole. We found gold very soon, and worked night and day; in a few days we got down 50 feet, and got 8 lb or 9 lb of gold. Then we had a good offer for the hole, and sold it, and set to work upon the other shaft. This was a troublesome one, for the water rose at 20 feet, but we got more timber, cut and cased the shaft, and then got rid of the water, and soon came upon the clay and gold.
“This is the way to get gold,” Daniel told his cousin as he showed off the rewards of his efforts, then chided him “you don't know how to get it."
The two men switched places. Not long after John Evans had crawled down into the hole, at roughly 5 pm on the 31st of January, 1853, his partners heard a commotion from the tunnel.
“I heard him laughing like mad and calling me,” recounted his cousin Daniel. “I leant over the shaft, and he could hardly speak.”
“What is it. Jack?" I said.
"I've found it!" said he."And it's a big'un."
“Softly... for God's sake, keep quiet,” Daniel begged his cousin, concerned that they would be overheard by other miners and mobbed by a stampede. “How big is it?”
"Three or four hundred weight," John Evans replied, and laughed again. While his estimate of the weight of the mass of gold was high, it was still clearly an enormous nugget by any standard.
Leaving Lees to watch the massive nugget, Daniel Evans walked the two miles to the ersatz office of the licensing agent for the area to ask for help in protecting their discovery.I went and called Lees, and took him away from all the tents, and told him Jack had found a big nugget, and we must keep it dark. So I got an old sack, and sent it down the hole, and Jack soon sent up the gold; I slung it over my shoulder, and walked quiet-like through all the diggers till I came to our tent, and then I threw it down outside on the dirt heap, and went inside to consider what was best to be done.
Telling the agent that they had found a large nugget, the agent asked “How big, forty pounds?”
"Well, sir," Evans said. "I think it's twice forty."
“Oh, you're romancing,” the agent replied. He did however dispatch three policemen and a mounted rider to return to the diggings with Evans. News of the enormous nugget had already begun to filter through the camp. At sunset, the policemen slung the sack bearing the huge mass of gold from a pole, and carried back to the government station.
The four men were immediately inundated with offers from other miners to buy the claim. One man offered £250, but they decided to hold out for at least £300.
The next morning John and Daniel Evans went to the government station to weigh their find. It was licensing day and the place was swarming with would-be miners eager to get their first digging permit, and with established miners seeking to pay their monthly fees. The two men waited until the crowd had dispersed before washing off the nugget. They they placed it on an old pair of potato scales to get a proper estimate of its weight.
The nugget weighed in at 134 pounds, 8 ounces.
Cleaned of mud, the giant nugget was roughly shaped like a leg of mutton, and it became known as the “Leg of Mutton Nugget” (other sources prefer to call it the Canadian Gully Nugget, or the Canadian Nugget). It was certainly an unromantic and uninspired choice of name for what was then one of the largest gold nuggets in the world.
While they were at the station, Lees and Green remained at the diggings guarding the claim. The Evans' sent word back to sell the hole if an acceptable did was offered. A group of miners from Lancashire offered £300 for the claim provided that Lees and Green would allow them to make a trial of it first. One of them climbed down into the hole and began passing up earth. In the second basket, Lees discovered a nugget that weighed a respectable 55 ounces, 8 pennyweights. The Lancashire miners closed the deal on the claim without further hesitation. “
Chaos descended on the diggings as news of the discovery spread. The frenzy brought thousands more to the area, and soon the region around Canadian Gully was pock-marked with gopher holes. The gold commissioners for the area sagely advised the four men to take their gold back to England, which they
enthusiastically agreed to do. “...as we went through the diggings they told us our mates had found another big nugget, but we didn't believe 'em, there's always so many romances flying about there,” Daniel Evans would recall. “But we found 'twas true this time.”
The gold commissioners arranged for the nugget to be carried to Melbourne under armed escort. The four men returned to Geelong, and caught the steamboat back to Melbourne. During the crossing, they were offered more than £10,000 for the nugget. Refusing the offer, they packed the Leg of Mutton and the rest of their gold for transport. The four men set sail for England aboard the Sarah Sands. After a long, but rather uneventful voyage, they arrived at Plymouth. The Leg of Mutton nugget was whisked away to the protection of the vaults of the Bank of England.
The amazing gold specimen was placed on exhibit for a brief time. One of the places at which shown to the public was “Wyld's Great Globe” in London's Leicester Square. This was a rather eccentric structure designed for the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851... a large building which contained a 60 foot diameter spherical chamber, the inside of which was decorated with a scale globe of the Earth. The Leg of Mutton was on display there as early as July 6th of 1853, less than six months after it was discovered (and probably less than three months after its arrival in the UK). Myles Pennington, a railway officer who had known John Lees before he struck it rich in Australia, recalled that it cost visitors six pence to see the nugget.
Ultimately, the enormous nugget was sold for its bullion value to the Bank of England, where it was melted down and cast into gold bars.The nugget was so smooth that it could be made to shine by rubbing it with the hand. What struck everyone at the first sight was its smallness compared with its weight, but when attempting to lift it you found that you had got hold of something as regarded weight, that you had never handled before. The nugget was placed on a bench in the best possible position for being lifted and by placing it against my chest I did manage to raise it from the bench. There was on exhibition, at the same time, models of the largest nuggets on record, but they all sunk into insignificance when placed beside the famous nugget of Canadian Gully.
The Leg of Mutton nugget was not the last gigantic gold nugget discovered in Australia. It was eventually eclipsed by the Welcome Nugget, weighing 184 pounds, was discovered in 1858, and in 1869 the Welcome Stranger nugget weighed in at 190 lbs.
The colony of Victoria had started as a tiny penal colony in 1803, consisting of 308 convicts, 17 free settlers, 51 marines to serve as guards, and 12 government officials. The gold rush that began in the early 1850's swelled the population from 77,000 to 540,000.
Precisely what happened to Daniel and John Evans and William Poulton Green after their return to England is unclear. John Lees voyaged at least once more in search of Australia gold, with mediocre results, then settled in Oldham to a life of financial comfort. His son was Charles H Lees, FRS, a prominent English physicist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Manuscripts: A letter from the Victorian Gold Fields by John Lees, 1852
Latrobe Journal, No 21 (April 1978) pp. 15-16
How The Great Gold Nugget Was Found
Mining Magazine Vol. 1 No. 3 (Sept 1853) pp 285-287
Earp, John Butler
What We Did in Australia: Being the Practical Experience of Three Clerks in the Stock-yard and at the Gold Fields London, 1853
Withers, William Bramwell
The History of Ballarat: From the First Pastoral Settlement to the Present Time
Railways and Other Ways: Being Reminiscences of Canal and Railway Life
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