Suffolk Greats: Suffolk vicar was one of the first people to discover gold in Australia

PUBLISHED: 17:53 14 August 2020

William Branwhite Clarke Image: Australian Museum, Wikimedia Commons

William Branwhite Clarke Image: Australian Museum, Wikimedia Commons

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William Branwhite Clarke of East Bergholt could well have been the force behind the gold rush Down Under

Gold diggings, Ararat, NSW c1858, oil painting by Edward Roper. Image: State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia CommonsGold diggings, Ararat, NSW c1858, oil painting by Edward Roper. Image: State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons

It was the unlikeliest person who first stumbled onto gold in Australia. He was told by the authorities to hold onto his secret. But when the Gold Rush downunder did eventually get underway people worked it out for themselves and went looking for the amiable priest from Suffolk.

William Branwhite Clarke wasn’t much of a bushman. “His friends in the outback were frequently alarmed for his life,” Parade magazine wrote in September 1956. “He was an indifferent rider. Sometimes he would be absent for days. Once, search parties in Muswellbrook, New South Wales found him staggering stiffly through the bush, scratched and dizzy. His horse had thrown him.”

For hours he’d lain unconscious. Then when he came to he could only crawl, his pockets full of specimens weighing him down. He let the settlers carry them for him but they had no idea of the wealth they contained, though he did give them a hint during a sermon. “If you good people knew what a mine of riches is under your feet, you would not rest quiet in your beds.” They thought he was talking about fossils. Later, they realised he’d meant gold.

This disarming Anglican clergyman, the first to realise Australia’s vast mineral potential, never made any secret of his gold finds. In fact, according to Parade, “he announced them in such a woolly manner that no one believed him. In a newspaper article William Clarke casually informed the world that gold would be found at Bathurst, NSW ‘if somebody would look’. Readers dismissed it as the guesswork of an absent-minded crank.”

Reverend William Branwhite Clarke, 1876  (by J. Anivitti, Image: State Library of New South WalesReverend William Branwhite Clarke, 1876 (by J. Anivitti, Image: State Library of New South Wales

Born on June 2, 1798 at East Bergholt, the eldest child of schoolmaster William Clarke and Sarah, née Branwhite, William Branwhite Clarke’s learning was done at home with Rev RGS Brown and at Dedham Grammar School. At 19 he went to Cambridge University, graduating with a BA in 1821, the year he was appointed curate of Ramsholt, north of Felixstowe, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. He became curate of East Bergholt in 1824.

At the same time he became interested in rocks, fired up by the lectures of geology professor Rev Adam Sedgwick, which he attended. He joined the Geological Society of London in 1826 and started doing trips into Europe.

“His papers on meteoric phenomena and geology, and notes on zoology in the Magazine of Natural History in the 1830s attest the scope of his work and he contributed several papers to the Proceedings of the Geological Society,” Ann Mozley wrote in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. One of his papers, written in 1837, was called On the Geological Structure and Phenomena of Suffolk. Also according to Mozely, Clarke began corresponding with Sedgwick and Scottish geologist Sir Roderick Murchison, which later stimulated and encouraged his lonely researches in New South Wales.

When his father died in 1829 Clarke took over at East Bergholt Free School. In 1832 he married Maria Moreton, daughter of Ebenezer and Ann Stather, and they went on to have three daughters and a son. In the same year he became vicar of St Mary’s Church at Longfleet, Dorset.

Branthwaite, Bay Road, North Sydney, last home of Reverend William Branwhite Clarke, c1871 Image: State Library of New South WalesBranthwaite, Bay Road, North Sydney, last home of Reverend William Branwhite Clarke, c1871 Image: State Library of New South Wales

But Clarke was not well off and suffered from rheumatic fever, so in 1838 he accepted a chaplaincy in New South Wales and, with his family, headed for the sun. The Australian Gold Rush, which he would precipitate, was still more than a decade away.

The family arrived in Sydney in May 1839 and, within the first week at his new church, Clarke was plucked by Bishop William Grant Broughton to be headmaster of The King’s School, Parramatta, and given charge of local parishes. But after just one year, ill health forced him to give up his school post. As the decades wore on he was posted to parishes all over New South Wales, something he no doubt enjoyed as his rock and fossil collection grew.

Clarke sent some specimens to Sedgwick and his observations to British scientific journals. Then, in 1841, chipping the quartziferous slates in the Blue Mountains, western NSW, he discovered particles of gold and later added evidence, from Bathurst about 125 miles west of Sydney to the Liverpool Range, that the country would be found ‘abundantly rich in gold’, Ann Mozley wrote.

In 1844, Clarke dropped in on NSW Governor Sir George Gipps. He mentioned how he’d found gold at Cox’s River and had specimens at his parsonage. Gipps insisted on seeing them, then said: “Put it away, Mr Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut.”

The Ophir goldfield in NSW, 1851 Image: G. F. Angas, Woolcott and Clarke, State Library VictoriaThe Ophir goldfield in NSW, 1851 Image: G. F. Angas, Woolcott and Clarke, State Library Victoria

Clarke duly stayed silent and one of the greatest gold strikes in history remained a secret. One of Clarke’s parishes was St Leonards which covered an area of 200 square miles. “Clarke spent most of his time relieving outback parsons while a paid deputy relieved him,” Parade reported. “He found tin on the North Coast, and blithely handed the field over to miners without claiming a penny reward.”

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Finally, after ten years of silence, in 1851 gold fever struck and Australia was besieged by tens of thousands of diggers who flocked to the diggings from all over the world. Edward Hargarves, fresh from the great goldfields of California, struck gold at Ophir, north-west of Bathurst, where Clarke had often said it was. Soon the Bathurst fields were sending out 2,500 ounces a week. Miners clamoured for the government to find more fields, and the government hired Clarke, who also led diggers in prayer.

Paid £6 a week [£844 today], Clarke agreed to survey southern New South Wales on horseback, the government spending £100 (£14,000 today) equipping him and two assistants at a cost of £100 [£14,000 today]. “He toiled over thousands of miles in 265 days, on 87 of which it rained,” Parade wrote. “In rheumatic agony [the 53-year-old] Clarke climbed [2,228m-high Mount] Kosciusko, fainting three times on the way, and slept in freezing weather on the peak.”

Clarke found gold at Araluen in the Southern Tablelands of NSW, a place where even today aussietowns.com.au writes that “fossickers can hope for a little gold dust. The problem is that the river (once inhabited by 4,000 miners) was dredged for 50 years and the chances are rather slim.” Soon miners were taking out fortunes in places Clarke had indicated, while he was off somewhere else – not after gold, but quietly looking for fossils.

In fact, he hated the desperation gripping the colony. “Pounds, shillings and pence is the sole subject of conversation,” he wrote in a letter home. “Gold has brought greed, high prices, and cruel oppression into the lives of honest, hard-working men.” Miners listened dutifully then bought his book, Plain Statements and Practical Hints Regarding the Discovery and Working of Gold in Australia.

Wherever he pointed to prospective sites miners would turn up and strike it rich. Hopefuls bombarded Clarke with samples of ore they’d found from all parts of Australia. He would freely tell them if their finds were valuable or not. Once, wrote Parade, “when Clarke hobbled out of Sydney for a gold-seeking tour of northern New South Wales miners followed at a respectful distance to cash in on his knowledge.”

A year later the government awarded him £1,000 [£140,000 today] and the world was ready to honour him, despite a queue of jealous detractors forming. When Sydney University offered him a seat on its senate, Bishop Broughton ordered him to refuse it, calling the university “a godless place”, as well as the Chair of Geology for which Clarke was now considered a world authority.

The Royal Society of London made him a Fellow and he received geology’s highest award, the Murchison Medal, for his work on the coal deposits of NSW. Ironically, his pen pal Murchison saw Clarke not as the nice bloke his parishioners knew but as “a born fighter” to whom he wrote, “Considering you are a clergyman, you are very bellicose.”

The Australian state of Victoria’s lieutenant-governor, Sir Charles Hotham, who was born in Dennington, near Framlingham, wrote to Murchison in 1855 about the “pretensions of Mr Clarke” in claiming to have discovered the first gold. The letter, held in the University of Edinburgh Archives, says he was “delighted” he’d “not allowed his assertions to remain uncontradicted. I have always considered that your deductions on the probability of gold being procurable in Australia from what you knew to exist in the Ural mountains is one of the most singular occurrences on record.”

Tittle-tattle aside, the NSW government clarified matters in 1861 by honouring Clarke’s claim with £3,000 [£360,000 today]. His part in the discovery and investigation of Australia’s gold resources was also recognised by the Royal Society of London who elected him a fellow in June 1876. Clarke made a geological survey of New South Wales, wrote constantly to scientists and prospectors, and some 80 scientific papers.

One obituarist wrote of William Branwhite Clarke, when he died on June 16, 1878, leaving an estate valued at £17,000 [£2 million today], “Who could estimate the immense gain to our young Colony to have a man like Clarke at our disposal. . . He excited an interest and he was a centre around which all facts and discoveries were sure to group themselves.”

And just in case there’s any doubt about his passion and commitment to his subject, if somebody had wanted to reach Clarke aged 79 they’d have found him where he always was – up a mountain chipping at rocks.

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