Croydon gold rush that saw thousands move to the outback

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Using the parish records from the Croydon Minster archive as his starting point, DAVID MORGAN’s world tour takes him to the harsh Queensland sheep stations of the 1880s

Golden days: one of the Croydon consortiums shows its proceeds in the early years of the Croydon mines

“There’s gold in them thar hills!”

The cry goes up, the claim is registered, word is spread, prospectors flood in.

A new railway line is constructed. Croydon is at the centre of a gold rush.

Not our Croydon, but a settlement more than 10,000 miles away in Queensland, Australia, almost 150 years ago. Within a couple of years, the population rose from just a handful of residents to more than 6,000.

And one of the people who discovered the gold is a man born in Church Street, right here in our Croydon.

The 1841 Croydon (Surrey) census showed that in No32 Church Street lived William Chalmers with some children and grandchildren. William was 55 and a surgeon. What the census doesn’t say is that Chalmers wasn’t just any doctor. He had been appointed as one of the physicians to the Archbishops of Canterbury, who by that time had their residence at Addington Palace.

Chalmers’ wife, Elizabeth, wasn’t included on the census as she was a patient at Otto House in Fulham, which was described as a “licensed mad house for women”.

Elizabeth Chalmers died in 1845 and was buried at Croydon Parish Church. Her maiden name was Pungel and she came from a family who worked for the Dutch East Indies Company.

Metal city: the tin shacks of the Queensland mining town of Croydon, a decade after the start of the gold rush

In May 1833, William and Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, Margaret, was married in Croydon Parish Church to Alexander Brown, who was commander of the Clairmont, of Bombay. This 328-ton ship was built in 1824 for the Anglo-Indian trade. It was Margaret and Alexander Brown’s sons who would emigrate to Australia and end up in Queensland.

In that 1841 census, the young Brown brothers, named William and Alexander, were both under two years old.

It is not known when they first sailed for Australia but William arrived in Normanton, a small coastal town in Queensland, aboard the ketch Dawn in 1879. Normanton was about 125 miles from Croydon, just a short journey compared to some required across the vast stretches of the outback. By 1882, William Brown was running a sheep ranch, named Croydon, with his brother Alexander.

And in 1885, William Brown officially informed the authorities that gold had been discovered. It marked the beginning of the gold rush.

Back to basics: amenities, like this baker’s shop, were very rough and ready

The excitement of discovering gold must have been staggering, but living in this part of Queensland was difficult.

The first European settlers had arrived in the 1860s. John McKinley searched in the area for the lost explorers, Burke and Wills, in 1862.

Sheep stations began to be set up in 1865, but within two years several had closed because of fever, drought, low wool prices and the distance from the markets.

A report on Croydon, written in December 1888, provided an insight into a settlement that grew enormously in just a short period of time.

The port of Normanton became vital to the early gold mining industry because northern steamers began to use the port to deliver supplies, and people. The new buildings in Croydon were constructed using wood and corrugated iron sheets. Local supplies of wood soon ran out and so wood for construction and for the mines had to be transported in at a greater cost.

The corrugated, galvanized sheets were relatively cheap and easy to install, but buildings constructed of this material were extremely cold in winter and like ovens in the hot weather, which was most of the year. The plus side of using the sheets, though, was that the metal was resistant to termites.

Isolated: the district of Croydon, Queensland, as shown on a modern map, 125 miles inland from Normanton

The climate proved to be a challenge for everyone.

It was so hot for the majority of the year that work could only take place from daybreak until 11am. Clouds of insects after nightfall made working at night almost impossible.

A temperature of 109° Fahrenheit, in the shade, was recorded at Croydon on December 16, 1888, when several deaths were reported because of the extreme heat.

In March 1906, when a hurricane hit the settlement, many of the buildings were destroyed.

Investors were frustrated that water shortages resulted in mills being forced to stop and so businesses stagnated through want of power and energy. It was on December 4, 1888, that the Croydon Quartz Crushing Company began to function again, after being unable to function for eight months because of a lack of water.

The dry season proved so long that carriers were forced to bring in water just for everyday use. The wells which were dug proved to be unreliable. The quality of the water was questionable and many cases were recorded of disease directly attributed to “dirty water.” The lack of water also meant that sanitation was poor to non-existent.

Queensland’s Coutt’s…: Croydon expanded very rapidly in the last years of the 19th Century

Petitions were signed and delivered demanding the Normanton to Croydon rail link be built immediately to help the struggling businesses. The railway line, though, wouldn’t be in place until 1891.

Despite all the difficulties experienced in the town, the amount of gold being mined was significant.

Initially, in 1885, there were 25 men working on pegged-out ground. By 1899, 53,699 ounces of gold was produced in the first three months – worth then £150,000, equivalent to £2.5million today.

To give an idea of the huge effort needed to produce the gold, there was an example of three crushing plants handling 383 tons of rock to produce just 1,041 ounces of gold.

Croydon continued to grow throughout the 1890s until it reached its peak population of around 10,000 people in 1900, making it the fourth-largest settlement in Queensland.

The town evolved to become the centre of a number of smaller settlements and camps that had sprung up adjacent to the various mines working in the area. Pugh’s Almanac of 1900 showed how the town had developed. There were listed three banks, six blacksmiths, five bakers, six commission agents, four newsagents, six carriers, two chemists, six drapers, 11 sharebrokers, 18 hotels and four watchmakers, among many other assorted businesses.

People from the outlying communities would visit Croydon on Saturday nights to shop, conduct their business and socialise. A Saturday night out in Croydon in the 1890s would have been wild!

Although some people made a lot of money, there was a great deal of poverty in the town. People’s fortunes could also change rapidly because of particular circumstances or incidents. The sheer hardship of day-to-day life and the dangers of mining meant that age expectancy was low and the child mortality rate high.

Resting place: William Brown’s family grave, which records their Chalmers family’s roots in Croydon, England

In the cemeteries, it was rare to see a gravestone where anyone had lived for much longer than 60 years. The miners often suffered from a form of silicosis, a chronic disease of the lungs. The dust in the Croydon mines was among the worst of any in Australia and there was little or no provision for safety precautions. Some young men who worked for three or four years underground ended up as physical wrecks with their lives savagely curtailed.

There were 205 mining accidents recorded in the Croydon area between 1886 and 1917, with 34 deaths. The most common accidents were miners crushed by rockfalls or by falling down shafts.

The cemeteries saw many burials of those children who died young. In some instances, when the parents couldn’t afford to pay for a headstone to mark their child’s final resting place, they used the iron bedstead from their own house.

The boom didn’t last for very long though.

By 1909, production was in decline and by 1914, less than 30 years after the gold rush started, the population of the town had halved. In 1926 the Mining Warden left as there were too few miners still working. From then on, virtually no mining took place. The town was in terminal decline.

It even got a mention in Nevil Shute’s 1950 novel A Town Called Alice as an example of an abandoned gold rush town.

Recently, though, Croydon, Queensland, has reinvented itself as a tourist centre. The railway which was built for the gold rush is now operated by Gulflander, so that visitors can safely journey into the outback.

A town called Croydon: the Queensland settlement today

Croydon was briefly in the news earlier this year, too, when a meteor crashed not far from their airport. Several people went out into the bush to see if they could locate any fragments.

But what of William Brown? Did he prosper from the gold?

He and two Aldridge brothers, who he employed, shared £1,000 for first reporting the find – equivalent to around £165,000 today.

There was a story that William was at Normanton on jury service when gold was discovered on his land. On speaking to the judge, he was immediately excused with the judge saying that he couldn’t have possibly concentrated on any evidence with his mind on the riches he might make.

In 1886, William married Mary O’Grady. She died in 1900 after the birth of their sixth child. William died, aged 66, in 1909 after a short stay in Brisbane General Hospital.

Between 1885 and 1925 Croydon produced 1,360,00 ounces of gold. There was wealth for a while. The decline was inevitable. The rise and fall of any goldfield is fascinating. And the whole saga began from an entry in the Croydon Parish Church marriage register.

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on and use the contact page

Other articles by David Morgan:

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  • ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine


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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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1 Response to Croydon gold rush that saw thousands move to the outback

  1. Jim Lennon says:

    Excellent detective work! Thanks very much.

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