Alexander Tolmer, gold escorts

Alexander Tolmer

His Gold Escorts once again saved South Australia from possible ruin.

Alexander Tolmer, born in London in 1815, was educated in both France and England. At the age of seventeen he joined the army and fought in the Portuguese Civil War. In October 1830 he was wounded and while recovering in hospital he was decorated by the Emperor, Don Pedro.

After the war he returned to England, became a Sergeant-Major, got married to Mary Carter, had a son Alexander, and left with his wife, four month old son and his wife's sister for South Australia on the Brakanmoore on 4 September 1839. After a most unpleasant trip, arriving in Adelaide, Tolmer went to see Governor Gawler and was appointed Sub-Inspector of Police on 19 February 1840. The Superintendent at that time was Henry Inman, known to him from his time in Portugal. As the police force was rather undisciplined, Tolmer was expected to assist in its reorganization.

He was involved in several trips to the north of the colony. In 1842 he took part in the search for CC Dutton and some of his men who were feared lost while returning from Port Lincoln. It was also at this time that he had his first experiences in the Flinders Ranges.

With gold discoveries in New South Wales and Victoria, very few able men remained in South Australia. As little gold had been found here they could not resist the good news from over the border. Economic conditions were bad in South Australia, and with few men left to work the Kapunda and Burra Mines they, and any other mine, closed for the time being. By the end of 1851 more than 15,000 hopeful diggers had left South Australia.

The government soon realised that they had to do something to attract these diggers, and their wealth, back to Adelaide to improve its economy. When Tolmer was appointed Commissioner of Police and Police Magistrate in 1852, he proposed that the gold won by South Australians should be brought back here rather than have them sell it in Victoria. Tolmer convinced the government that he would be able to bring the gold back to South Australia under an escort consisting of only a few men.

The Government accepted his idea after a successful test run had been made. It passed the necessary legislation, The Assay Bullion Act, to authorise the establishment of an assay office and smelting facilities for the gold dust, and on 10 February 1852 Tolmer and his small party were on their way to Mount Alexander. Ten days later Tolmer, Sergeant J. Lamb, Constables William Rowe and John Cusack and an Aboriginal aide arrived at Forest Creek where they were given a tumultuous welcome.

Tolmer was very impressed by the ‘thousands of bearded, uncouth looking men, dressed in dirty short jumpers with trousers the colour of yellow ochre, busily at work. Some of these men were filling carts with gold impregnated earth and carting it to the bank of the creek, lined with cradles, where washers were in full operation’. The cradles, Tolmer wrote, ‘were placed lengthwise with the water, which was at that time of the thickness of cream and of a yellow colour.

Those who worked the cradles held the handles with one hand and with the other broke the lumps of earth with a stick and stirred up the contents, keeping the cradles constantly rocking whilst others stood by with ladles of some kind and kept bailing water continuously into them. After watching them a few minutes, I tried my hand at it and in less than ten minutes I picked up about half an ounce of fine gold’.

Gold Receipt from Tolmer (State Records)

WC Gosse (SLSA)

When Tolmer finally got down to the business of collecting gold from South Australian diggers he was assisted by Dr William Gosse who wrote out the receipts for them. After two days collecting gold worth as much as £21,000 he started the return trip. Tolmer had attracted the attention from reporters as well and one of them wrote that his arrival in Adelaide would ‘be greeted with unbounded manifestations of joy, taking into account the deplorable state South Australia had sunk into from the fearful rush to the diggings of nearly three-fifth of her male population’.

On 19 March the Register reported,


‘In fulfilment of the prophecy, we have this morning the high gratification of announcing the safe arrival of Mr Commissioner Tolmer at Wellington with the first Overland Escort. The journey was accomplished in eleven days, the party having started from Mount Alexander on the 5th instant, and reached Wellington on Tuesday the 16th’. Tolmer arrived in Adelaide on 19 March with 5,750 ounces of gold and money, collected from 318 South Australian miners.

The vast majority of gold parcels, both large and small, were consigned to the wives of diggers from Mount Alexander, which at its peak had nearly 4,000 South Australian diggers. Among them were 11 pounds of gold from Richard Coombe to himself, four pounds from Abraham Brooks to his wife, three pounds from Ephraim Randall, previously publican of the Rose Inn in Sturt Street, to Ann Randall, one pound from Fred Goddard to Annah Goddard, one pound from James Cook to Ann Cook and eleven ounces from James Goddard to Elizabeth Goddard. There was also a parcel of one pound and two ounces from W. Chapman to himself.

From the lists printed in the Register, it can easily be seen that most of the 318 South Australians had done well. An ounce of gold was the equivalent of two weeks’ wages for the average labourer in Adelaide at that time. One pound of gold would have equated with six months’ wages. Not everyone agreed with the publication of all this information. The Observer found it imprudent to publish the names of those to whom the gold was consigned and its weight. They found it a breach of privacy and would ‘expose them to robbery.

A considerable number of diggers were disappointed when not able to send their gold with Tolmer’s escort because of the ‘impossibility of Tolmer sustaining further delay and fatigue in writing out receipts and sealing so many hundreds of gold bags and parcels. Naturally there were the many thousands who did not send anything home. They either took it home themselves or never had enough to send or take home. There were also thousands of South Australian diggers on other fields in both Victoria and New South Wales from which there were no gold escorts to Adelaide.

The next day, the same paper reported that ‘Many an anxious eye was yesterday averted from the noontide meal towards the point at which the Great Eastern Road issues from the picturesque Mount Lofty Ranges, and many a palpitating heart was gladdened, when the sight of an approaching cavalcade gave assurance that the gallant Captain Tolmer had not only accomplished, but even anticipated the time of his promised advent.

At a distance the troopers in front of, and at the rear of the treasure vehicle, with their carbines displayed, looked like ancient ‘men at arms’ with their lances ‘out of rest’ and although on a nearer approach their bronzed faces and dusty accoutrements were somewhat incompatible with the strict requirements of military review, they looked like resolute men who felt conscious of having successfully performed a most arduous and important duty, and as such they were joyfully and honourably welcomed into the city, until their progress terminated in King William Street, between the Treasury and the General Post Office.

Captain Tolmer, who appears to be indefatigable, had the treasure deposited in the strong vault under his own supervision, and then took personal cognisance of about 400 letters, the delivery of which at the Post Office he witnessed, and then retired to receive the more quiet but not less cordial greetings and congratulations of his numerous friends’.

Although Tolmer had done a great job, the fact remains that he travelled along a track specially surveyed for this purpose by John McLaren, Deputy Surveyor General. McLaren sank wells at ten miles interval along a route pioneered by squatters. It ran from Wellington via Mount Monster and the later site of Bordertown into Victoria. He was commended for his efforts by the Governor and..... promptly forgotten.

With the successful completion of the first escort Tolmer set about organising a second trip. This time though a little more planning was done. Whereas for his first trip he had only requested a map and compass, now he made a number of suggestions for improved facilities and better and safer working conditions. A town was to be surveyed near the South Australian border, accommodation to be erected along the route, new Constables to be engaged, hay for horses to be organised along the route, a relief escort to be stationed at a depot half way to Mount Alexander, waterproof labels to be used and forty cedar boxes to be bought to hold the gold. All this provided a lot of extra work for South Australians who had remained at home but now indirectly also benefited from the Victorian gold rushes.

Sign near Horsham Victoria

Not all diggers at Mount Alexander or any of the other diggings had been able or willing to send their gold via the escort. A week before Tolmer left for a second trip 116 parcels of gold containing a total of 11,297 ounces valued at £40,107 were deposited at the Gold Assay Office. This included some parcels from diggers who had actually returned themselves.

The second escort brought 19,235 ounces of gold from 859 South Australian diggers, valued at £70,000, to Adelaide, at owners’ risk and a charge of two per cent to be paid to the government. Obviously diggers were happy with the services provided by the Gold Escorts. This time nearly four times the amount of gold was consigned, while the number of miners to do so had trebled. Tolmer had about 1,400 letters with him from the diggings, more than three times the number on his first trip.

One of the new Constables engaged to assist Tolmer was Thomas Coward. Born on 7 July 1834 Coward arrived in South Australia on the Fairlie in 1840 and at various times lived in Melbourne, America and Queensland. While in Queensland he became Goldfields Warden on the Normandy River and at Byerstown in 1875 and Emu Creek in 1876. Coward, like Tolmer, took part in three gold escorts between Mount Alexander and Adelaide. Later, while reminiscing, Coward said that their weapons were muzzle loading carbines, swords and holster pistols. For maximum security they would sleep during the night on top of the gold.

They would make an early start for the last part of the trip to Adelaide, which went through ‘a sandy scrub, a God forsaken country without a drink of water until we got to dear old Langhorne’s Creek’. The publican there ‘must have been very short of eggs after we had left’, he said, ‘as they used to chase the fowls until they laid’. After they had delivered the gold they would sit on the grass and hand over any letters they might have had from the diggers. Many of the women were almost wild with delight at receiving a line from their husbands, brothers, sons or lovers.

There was often considerable difficulty in deciphering the names on the envelopes. ‘We had carried them so long in bad weather that the writing was almost obliterated, but bless your heart, the women could make it out. Then when we got back to the diggings, I have seen a man with a shepherd’s pannikin three parts full of gold telling a trooper to help himself to a nugget because he had brought him a letter from his wife’. After his promotion, Corporal Coward took part in P.E. Warburton’s exploration party in 1858. Coward Springs, on the Oodnadatta Track was named after him. Coward died in 1905.

Another interesting personality was Isaac Dewson who joined the third Gold Escort. Dewson was born in Birmingham in 1821 and came to South Australia on the Alexander in 1839. He soon joined the South Australian Police Force under Superintendent Inman and was stationed at Encounter Bay. During his stay there he brought the news of the ill-fated brig Maria. Other postings were at Bungaree, Blanchetown, Port Lincoln and later Adelaide. In 1892, at the age of 72 he was still working as gatekeeper at the Botanical gardens. Although some escort members did well after the service was discontinued, this was not the case for others. Both John Gilles and Sergeant Major Lambs spent their final years as inmates of the Destitute Asylum.

The eight gold transports of 1852 and ten in 1853, all between Mount Alexander and South Australia, eventually brought as much as £2,000,000 worth of money and gold to Adelaide. They were discontinued after the arrival of the last escort under Inspector Wyndham in December 1853. However the plaque on the old Treasury Building in Victoria Square, Adelaide states that 328,509 ounces were brought to the Adelaide Assay Office. At a price of £3.11 per ounce this would only amount to just over half that figure. Even if this smaller figure is correct, and allowing for 150 years of inflation, that would still be equivalent to $90,000,000.

After Tolmer’s success, the Register echoed the universal sentiment and suggested that the ‘worthy Commissioner was entitled to receive some substantial token of approbation from the people of South Australia on his return to Adelaide, for the very important suggestion of the practicability of a direct Overland Route, and the successful manner in which he had established its feasibility’.

John Tuthill Bagot (SLSA)

Among the many members of the public who contributed to the Tolmer Testimonial were, William Paxton with a donation of £5, George Tinline, John Baker and Charles Harvey Bagot with two guineas each, G.M. Waterhouse, Robert Archibald Fiveash, John Tuthill Bagot and Alexander Hay, with one guinea each and Price Maurice and J.B. Neales with £1 each. Many others made smaller donations.

George Fife Angas later wrote to Tolmer, that he had been struck with admiration when reading the reports of his overland journeys with the gold escorts. He went on to say ‘There has been so much courage, skill and perseverance exhibited by you on these occasions, and so much integrity and zeal in the public service, that I am anxious to bear my testimony in favour of such display of public spirit and energy. Permit me to forward you herewith a cheque for £5 to be added to the list of contributors to the Tolmer Testimonial’.

Everyone seemed to be pleased with the arrangements and the results of the Gold Escorts. Mr Robinson even organised an Escort Ball at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Pirie Street for the benefit of the gallant Troopers who had taken part in them. Single tickets would be four shillings and a double, to admit a lady and gentleman would be six shillings and sixpence. The Government also seemed to be happy and even generous and voted a gratuity of £100 for his services and for ‘extricating the colony from a position of almost bankruptcy to one of prosperity’. True to its usual behaviour it was only fine talk and making political mileage; nothing was paid to him.

On 1 February 1854, The Adelaide Times referred to the Escorts as ‘a cleverly designed, promptly and boldly achieved plan to meet the exigencies of the times. Its physical difficulties were only met to be overcome and a service most important to South Australia was commenced, continued and ended in a manner reflecting great credit upon all engaged in it’. It correctly pointed out that however competent the respective leaders may have been, ‘their exertions and abilities would have been thrown away unless they had men under them, able and willing to carry out the details equally indifferent with themselves as to what difficulties might impede them, and possessed with a measure of the same determination, to let no hindrances stop their progress and no temptation induce them to a breach of the great trusts reposed’.

Although each member had been paid eight shillings and sixpence a day, the paper thought that not one man could deny the men something more than empty thanks for their efforts. Three years later the matter of Tolmer’s gratuity was brought up again in parliament when George Marsden Waterhouse presented a petition from Tolmer ‘setting forth his long and arduous services in the Police Force, and praying that his case might be considered’.

A few weeks later, on 6 August 1857, Waterhouse moved that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the matter. It would be well remembered, he said, that Tolmer not only organized the gold escort, but carried it out to a great advantage of South Australia. It was a pity that a public favourite of one season was the neglected public servant of another period. A Select Committee was appointed, sat and talked about it but no payment was made.

In 1859 it was discussed once more but Tolmer who by now was without a government job had to wait another 27 years for his gratuity. In 1866, when Adelaide was once more struck with the gold fever, an indignant digger wrote ‘I deem it by no means creditable to South Australia that such a man should be shelved. His present appointment is utterly inadequate in point of status or emolument. Why not appoint him Inspector of Mines, it is due to him’. Even though the government had a windfall; as some gold from the escorts, to the value of £482, had not been claimed and was sold, the proceeds went to general revenue rather than benefiting Tolmer or any other deserving trooper of the Gold Escorts.

When George Fife Angas died in 1879, Tolmer used the opportunity in a roundabout way to state his case once more. In a letter to the Editor he craved for permission as one of the early pioneers of South Australia to record his sincere sympathy for the loss sustained by the death of Angas. He then wrote about the £2,000,000 he had helped to bring to South Australia through the gold transports and the letter Angas had written in 1852 to contribute his £5 to the Tolmer Testimonial. The government didn’t take the bait and Tolmer was left in the cold once again. Some 33 years later James Tarran, farmer of Rapid Bay made it quite clear that Tolmer had been given enough already. With a feeling of indignation he wrote that Tolmer had already received a retirement allowance of £750, which he thought was more than enough. Alexander Tolmer, KTS, died on 7 March 1890 aged 74 and was buried at the Church of England Cemetery at Mitcham.

There were several benefits from the golden spoils of Mount Alexander for South Australia. Among them the saving of South Australia’s economy from another financial disaster, like the one experienced ten years before, a remarkable increase in the sale of land and more employment opportunities at the Treasury, Postal and Police departments to handle all the extra work, to name but a few.

With an exceptionally large area of arable land still available, the South Australian government used that to lure back the successful diggers and hoped it would provide them with ‘a mighty encouragement to industry and economy while at the diggings and an irresistible motive to return as soon as they had filled their bag’.

The successful diggers had injected a huge amount of new capital into the economy and since many of them invested in land or city buildings, the Victorian gold gave yet another boost to South Australia’s economy. Soon the Adelaide daily papers overflowed with advertisements of land sales, including one by Henry Simpson. He had subdivided section 1085 in the Hundred of Port Adelaide and named it Gold Diggers Village as an inducement for returning diggers from Victoria to invest. One estate agent wrote that there was ‘a great desire on the part of returned diggers to purchase land’.

Whereas sales of Crown Lands in 1852 had totalled £98,614 they had almost trebled in 1853 to £291,660. The next year, with a buoyant post gold economy, the total land sold and leased amounted to an unprecedented 213,925 acres, realizing £383,470. With so many diggers returning again it gave hope to the many who had remained at home, and the returnees as well, that South Australia would soon have some well-paying goldfields of its own.

Tolmer's Reminiscences

Tolmer's Obituary


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