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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Esmond, James William (1822–1890)

by Louis R. Cranfield

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

James William Esmond (1822-1890), gold discoverer, was born on 11 April 1822 at Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, son of Michael Esmond, merchant, and his wife Mary, née Moran. He migrated to Port Phillip in 1840, worked on Westernport stations and then drove a weekly mail coach between Buninyong and the Horsham region. In 1849 he was stirred by news of gold in California and decided to try his luck there. He arrived too late to prospect much on his own as the best claims were occupied, so he worked as an overseer. In 1850 he sailed for Sydney in the same ship as Edward Hargraves.

Esmond returned to Buninyong and was contracting on stations when he met Dr George Hermann Bruhn, a German physician and geologist who was examining the area. He told Esmond of quartz reef he had seen at Burn Bank near Clunes. Esmond hurried there with his workmate, James Pugh; satisfied that the area was auriferous they enlisted the sawyers, Burns and Kelly, to work the claim. On 5 July 1851 Esmond went to Geelong and showed a few ounces of their gold to Alfred Clarke of the Geelong Advertiser. To questions about the locality of the find his reply was 'up among the mountains'. He went to Melbourne to buy iron for a cradle and returned through Geelong where on 15 July he told Clarke the locality of the find. Clarke published the news on 22 July and the rush started. On 22 August Esmond sent Clarke fourteen ounces (435 gm) of gold which were later sold in Melbourne, the first marketed in Victoria.

Esmond later moved to Ballarat where be became an influential miner. He fought as section commander under Peter Lalor at the Eureka Stockade. In 1865 he started a venture known as the New North Clunes Goldmining Co.; it was not a success though he persevered and sank some deep shafts. He finally sold it in desperation, only to see the buyers strike it rich in a few months. In his last years Esmond suffered much from Bright's disease and had financial difficulties. Because of his service to the community in first discovering gold, government aid was sought for him, but without success. A public subscription for him at Ballarat had raised over £150 when he died on 3 December 1890. The money was used to build a cottage for his widow Margaret, née McAuliffe; they had three sons and six daughters.

Esmond's repute as the first to discover gold in Victoria is doubtful. William Campbell and others had found gold before him but kept it secret. In 1853-54 the Legislative Council select committee on claims for the discovery of gold in Victoria accepted Esmond's evidence that he had found gold on 28 June 1851 and that his site was revealed on 22 July. However, Louis John Michel had made his find and given full particulars of his site at Anderson Creek (Warrandyte) on 5 July. The committee recommended rewards of £1000 to Michel for discovering and publicizing an available goldfield, to Esmond 'as the first actual producer of alluvial gold for the market'; other rewards were recommended for Campbell, Thomas Hiscock and Bruhn but were not paid for ten years. In defence of Esmond's claim, his find was worthwhile and was later sold in Melbourne, while Michel's was very small and given to the mayor of Melbourne as a souvenir. Esmond's find also led to the development of one of the world's greatest gold-producing centres at Ballarat, whereas the goldfields of the Upper Yarra were never important.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 1 (Melb, 1888)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1859-60, 1, 310
  • L. Cranfield, ‘The First Discovery of Gold in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 31, no 2, Nov 1960, pp 86-96
  • Geelong Advertiser, 1 Feb 1856
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 Dec 1890.

Citation details

Louis R. Cranfield, 'Esmond, James William (1822–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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