Gold Fever at Willunga in 1852

Event Dates:


“…the echoes in the township of Willunga reverberated with the report that Gold had been discovered in the burying ground attached to the Wesleyan Chapel.” Adelaide Register 9 September 1852 page 3.

The discovery of gold in Australia caused an international rush to the diggings. Gold was initially found at Bathurst (NSW) and Ballarat and Bendigo (Victoria). For the people of Willunga District, gold could solve the hardships caused by poverty from poor crops and unemployment, and enable the purchase of land and the establishment of businesses. By 1852, gold fever had caused men to leave home and families and try their luck in the Victorian goldfield. In McLaren Vale, one resident noted that “it was a misery to go to Chapel; nothing but a sea of women’s bonnets was to be seen”.

When the Adelaide newspapers reported the discovery of gold at the Wesleyan Cemetery, Willunga Methodist graveyard, great excitement ensued. The recollection that the alleged gold discovery was on private property meant that “several persons very prudently resolved to return home, and try their success in their own gardens, among the potatoes and cabbages.” It turned out that the daughter of the grave digger had found a gold nugget and told her father that it had come from the disturbed earth of a recently dug grave. Her father, a former gold digger, threatened the little girl with punishment if her story could not be verified. A kindly well-wisher, who had clearly been more successful at the gold diggings than the grave digger, apparently planted five gold nuggets to save the little girl from punishment.

Other attempts to find gold in the area yielded nothing. Some Willunga residents who searched for gold at the established diggings were more successful. George Sara and two of his sons acquired 600 pounds worth of gold, while William Chenoweth, Richard Polkinghorne, David Oliver, Robert Slee and Frederick Martin managed to find 900 pounds each. Some of the men who stayed at home also made money from gold, albeit indirectly. These farmers and entrepreneurs consolidated their land holdings and prospered through providing foodstuffs to the new markets in Victoria. Gold changed the face of Willunga specifically and Australia generally, but, alas, there was no gold at the Methodist graveyard at Willunga.


Linn, Rob. 1991 Cradle of Adversity. Historical Consultants Pty Ltd. Blackwood,

Pike, Douglas. 1967. Paradise of Dissent: South Australia 1829 – 1857. Longmans Green & Co. London.

1852 ‘Reported Discovery at Willunga‘, South Australian Register 9 September, p. 3. , viewed 08 Feb 2024,


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