Inside the Collection

Hargraves Cradle – Used to Make Australia’s First Payable Discovery of Gold

Gold washing cradle
Gold washing cradle, designed by William Tom Jr and Edward Hargraves, made by William Tom, Ophir goldfields, Australia, 1851, Powerhouse Museum H8859

This gold cradle was the first to be used in Australia to discover payable quantities of gold. It was made by William Tom Jr following directions from Edward Hargraves and was based on similar cradles (also called rockers) used to wash for gold in California.

Edward Hargraves was the man responsible for triggering the gold rush in New South Wales in the 1850’s and soon after his discovery even larger finds were made n Victoria. Although Europeans had settled in Australia in 1788 it took over 50 years for them to begin successfully extracting commercial quantities of the country’s vast gold resources.

The slow start was partly due to a lack of prospecting experience but it was also driven by the British Government who felt that, given the large convict population, it would draw people away from more established labouring activities.

Edward Hargraves, etching from frontispiece of his book, Australia and Its Goldfields, 1855
Edward Hargraves, etching from frontispiece of his book, Australia and Its Goldfields, 1855

The main catalyst’s for change occurred in 1848 when gold was discovered in California and thousands of gold seekers learnt how to identify, and extract gold from the newly found fields. In 1849 a newly married Australian prospector, named Edward Hargraves, arrived in California seeking to make his fortune. But after two unsuccessful years working on the gold diggings he had had little success in finding gold. But his newly found experience and talks with other prospectors convinced Hargraves that if he returned to Australia he would find gold in the New South Wales countryside.

In January 1851 he arrived back in Sydney, Australia, and just over a month later set out over the Blue Mountains to an area he remembered was similar to sites where gold had been found in California. After passing through Bathurst and reaching the Guyong Inn he met up with Mrs. Lister, the widow of an old friend. After talking to her about his need for a discrete assistant Mrs. Lister suggested her 18 year old son. She assured Hargraves that he knew the country well and he was then told about the plans to find gold.

On 12 February they started out for the Sumner Hill Creek, a tributary of the Macquarie River. And after travelling about fifteen miles, found the country he had been looking for. After taking a pick and scratching the gravel off he then dug a pan full of earth, which he then washed in the waterhole, and produced a little piece of gold on the first try.

Following this success Hargraves then employed a friend of Lister’s called James Tom and leaving the boys to pan for gold set about finding gold at other locations. After a series of further successes Hargraves informed Mr Stutchbury, the Government geologist, and went with him, accompanied by about thirty-seven horsemen, to Sumner Hill Creek, which he had renamed Ophir. And after washing several pans of earth in Mr. Stutchbury’s presence satisfied the geologist of the truth of his claims to have discovered gold and was given a certificate to be forwarded to the Colonial Secretary. For his efforts in finding gold, and generating new wealth for New South Wales, Hargraves was finally awarded a pension by the government.

Over the years Hargraves’ companions (Lister and Tom) refuted his claims of discovering gold and challenged the awarding of the pension. In 1890 the case went before the Parliament who dismissed the challenges. William Tom however remained adamant about these claims and in 1891 he sent a letter to the Editor of the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal stating

… all Hargraves was rewarded for was the gold got by Tom and Lister (his partners) when he was in Sydney or 150 miles away from where they got the gold. Then again, if those persons who voted against Tom and Lister’s claim had looked over Lister’s evidence they would have seen that Hargraves did not even know where the first gold-field (Ophir) was, when he was directed by the Government to show it to the Government Geologist, Mr. Stutchbury, and had to get Lister to take him to it. I don’t believe the bulk of those who voted against Tom and Lister ever read one word of the evidence.

Detail of side of gold washing cradle
Gold washing cradle, designed by William Tom Jr and Edward Hargraves, made by William Tom, Ophir goldfields, Australia, 1851, Powerhouse Museum H8859

While this dispute over who was actually responsible for the first discovery of gold has never been laid to rest there is little doubt that the cradle itself was made by Tom under Hargraves instruction.

It is made from cedar, possibly off-cuts since some pieces of wood have nails embedded in them that do not relate to its construction. In his 1855 book Australia and its Goldfields, Hargraves gives the following description of how to make a cradle

I now proceed to speak of several modes of washing prevalent in California and Australia, those in fact which are generally in use, but which require the labour of more than one person; such as with the cradle, the long-tom, the puddling or dolly-tub, and the sluice. For the cradle, so many thousands of them have been made in this country of various materials—as iron, zinc, copper, and wood—that it may appear almost unnecessary for me to describe the implement itself; yet as some of my readers may not have seen such a thing, and as they will better understand the mode of operation by knowing its construction, I will give as succinct and clear a description of it as I can. I may liken it to a baby’s rocker with the lower part open, and two slips of wood fixed inside to the bottom; one at the lower end, the other in the middle. In lieu of the wood, a square frame with a perforated iron plate, called a hopper, is dropped on the back part, at the top, for the reception of the raw material; a wooden slide is fitted underneath the front part of this frame, and extends to within two inches of the back of the cradle, at an inclination of thirty degrees. When in work the cradle is placed on an inclined plane by the side of the requisite supply of water, be it stream or tank. We will suppose that the united party of gold-washers consists of four persons. Two will be employed in digging the auriferous soil, one in carting or wheeling it from the pit to the cradle, and the fourth in rocking.

The latter fills the hopper with the soil from time to time, then with his left band rocks the cradle, at the same time that, with his right, he dips water from the reservoir and pours it on the soil. This brings the earth into solution, which passes through the perforated holes of the hopper, and falls on to the slide beneath; from thence it passes to the bottom of the cradle and out at the end. If the cradle is well worked, the first slip of wood at the bottom stops the whole of the gold, or nearly so. Bat before the metal is taken out the hopper is frequently refilled, thirty buckets of soil being ordinarily washed for one washing. The person rocking from time to time throws out the stones from the hopper; carefully examining however, if there are any nuggets amongst them. When the requisite quantity of stuff has been passed through the cradle, a few tins of water are poured through it, the sediment being previously stirred up. The gold mixed with emery, minute particles of quartz, together with crystals and rubies, is now taken out and subjected to the process of pan-swashing. In a few minutes it is fit for the market.

Although Hargraves is credited with the first discovery of gold in Australia, in fact gold had been found by Europeans as early as 1823 (by James McBrien). But the real legacy of Hargraves was his application of Californian prospecting methodology and the introduction of a simple mining technologies, like this gold cradle.

Australia and its Goldfields, E. H. HARQRAVES. London, December, 1855
Report from the Select Committee on Claims of William Tom, James Tom, and J.H.A. Lister, as the First Discoverers of Gold in Australia : together with the proceedings of the Committee, minutes of evidence,and appendices, Sydney : C. Potter, Govt. Printer, 1890.
William Tom, The Golde Discovery, Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal,30 December 1891

Geoff Barker, 2012

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