It’s February 1869, and two Cornish prospectors are digging in the gold fields of Victoria, Australia. Then, out of the blue, one of the men makes a discovery so unexpected that neither of them would have believed their luck. In fact, what the pair unearthed was to leave an indelible mark on history to this day.
Victoria is the second-most-populated state in Australia. But in the mid-19th century it arguably had more in common with the American Wild West than anywhere else. That’s partly because the country had its very own gold rush. And the promise of glittering riches brought people from all over the world to the nascent colony.
The Australian gold rush kicked off after a prospector came across tiny bits of gold near Bathurst in New South Wales in February 1851. Soon afterwards, more of the valuable metal was found in Victoria. And before long, money began pouring in – with wages boosted – as the country’s gold fields started to prosper.
During the height of the rush, around two tons of gold poured into Melbourne’s Treasury Building every single week. And in the 1850s an influx of the precious metal to Britain enabled the European country to pay off its international debt. Not only that, but the money generated helped expand Britain’s booming trading empire in the buildup to the 20th century.
As you’d expect, the huge numbers of miners who flocked to Australia from around the world had a dramatic effect on its population. In fact, a year after the gold discovery in New South Wales, over half a million people had arrived at the Australian gold fields. In some cases, town populations grew by 1,000 percent – and in one case, by 3,000 percent over the period of a decade.
Naturally, though, once the supply of gold was exhausted, the people living in these towns set about relocating. And with such huge demand alongside the scarcity of the precious metal, production eventually began to slow. Furthermore, in 1915 the shipping of gold from Australia was banned, and an end was put to the gold standard, leading to certain towns being abandoned.
But back in the 1850s, the gold rush was just getting started. And so it was that word of the onrush of people subsequently spread to Britain and into the ears of John Deason and Richard Oates. Former tin miners, the pair lived in Cornwall, a county on Britain’s southwest coast, at the time.
Deason and Oates then decided to sail to Australia to seek their fortunes as gold prospectors. And with the former man arriving in the country in 1853 and the latter the year after, the pair subsequently headed southeast across the baking terrain. Then in 1862 the two men ended up in the township of Moliagul in Victoria.
Now, thanks to the gold rush, Moliagul was thriving. The town boasted 11 pubs, for instance, and during the peak of the rush – around 1855 – its population reached some 16,000 people. And, as we know, in 1862 Moliagul counted both Deason and Oates among its many gold-prospecting residents.
Deason and Oates eked out a living digging for gold much as other prospectors were doing. And, reliant solely on the precious metal that they found in order to be able to live, the pair quickly ran out of money and food if consecutive digs yielded nothing. Then again, all they needed was one big score – but getting one wasn’t a given.
And in the weeks leading up to their find, the pair were struggling to make ends meet. In fact, the men were so poor that they reportedly weren’t even given credit to buy flour. Yet, still hopeful, Deason and Oates carried on working; and on one February morning, the duo moved to a new area to try their luck.
A few hours before noon on February 5, 1869, Deason began digging in the new location. He aimed his pick at the ground by some tree roots – and after him digging just a little way down, the hand tool broke. According to the Dunolly Museum website, Deason shouted out, “Damn it! I wish it [was] a nugget.”
But Deason then decided to take a closer look at what had broken his pick. And the following moment was articulated well in a report in the Dunolly & Betbetshire Express at the time. The newspaper wrote, “On stooping down to examine the obstacle, [Deason] found that the object of his dearest wish was lying at his feet.” All of which meant one thing: he’d struck gold. Yet the surprises didn’t end there.
You see, not only had the pair found gold, but the nugget looked huge to boot. According to Deason’s account of the events, written in 1905, he then asked his companion, “‘What do you think, Dick? Is it worth $6,500?’ ‘Oh,’ [Oates] said, ‘more like $2,600.’” In any case, the men then immediately excavated the huge chunk of precious metal, hauled it onto their cart and took it back to Deason’s shack.
In his 1905 account, Deason went on to describe what he and Oates did next. The nugget was actually embedded in a layer of quartz – so in order to separate the metal, the pair placed the excavated mass on top of a fire. Then once the lump had cooled, they set about severing some 70 pounds of quartz from the precious metal.
The process of breaking off the quartz left “a great deal of loose gold,” according to Deason. But it was the main chunk that left the two men flabbergasted – measuring as it did some 24 inches long by 12 inches wide. And yet needing to know how much the nugget weighed before they could sell it, Deason and Oates came up with a plan. So it was that they stashed their find in a calico bag and waited until the next day.
The following morning, Deason and Oates took their enormous nugget – later dubbed the “Welcome Stranger” – to the London Chartered Bank, in the town of Donolly, to be weighed. After all, having found the gold that they had dreamed of, the two men fully intended to cash in, too. And yet even they couldn’t have been prepared for what happened next.
That’s because the gold nugget was so large that it didn’t even fit on the scales at the bank. Sledgehammers and chisels were therefore taken to the nugget in order to break it into pieces. And so five hours and various broken tools later, the Welcome Stranger could finally be weighed.
The result? The gold tipped the scales at a whopping 210 pounds – making it, even to this day, the largest nugget ever found. That said, the pair neglected to commemorate their find while it was still whole. And as a result, no pictures of the Welcome Stranger exist – with any photos that you may have seen actually showing replicas.
Nevertheless, back in the day, word of the incredible find traveled through the town of Dunolly; and at the bank a crowd formed full of people eager to see the enormous nugget. Then when Deason and Oates received over $12,000 in exchange for the record-breaking find, they became instant celebrities.
Yet Deason and Oates were, it’s worth noting, also incredibly generous with their find. According to The Dunolly & Betbetshire Express, gold “of at least a pound weight was given by the delighted finders to their numerous friends, who were each anxious to retain a piece of the largest mass of gold the world has yet seen.”
Naturally, the Welcome Stranger caused a stir at the time – and why wouldn’t it have? Deason and Oates were living every gold digger’s dream. And as a result, many people were drawn to Dunolly to catch a glimpse of the nugget. In 1897 the town even commissioned a stone memorial to mark the incredible find.
But there’s something else that’s worth noting. You see, although Deason and Oates made what in the 1860s was an enormous amount of money, it’s reckoned that the Welcome Stranger would be worth a whole lot more if it had been found in the present day. In January 2019 Dermot Henry, head of sciences at Museums Victoria, told Australian newspaper The Age that the nugget would be worth nearly $3 million today. Henry also argued that at auction this hypothetical figure might jump to nearly $8.5 million.
Yet regardless, following their discovery, Deason and Oates were now rich men – and, as such, of interest to the press. As the Dunolly & Betbetshire Express put it at the time, “Oates has, we believe, neither kith nor kin with whom to share his prize – but probably soon will have. Deason has a wife and family at Moliagul, where he holds 80 acres of land, which we believe he intends to settle down upon and cultivate.”
And settle down, it seems, is exactly what Deason did; indeed, some of his descendants still call the Moliagul area home today. But, following the find, fortune was ultimately not kind to the Cornwall native. In fact, he lost most of his land and all of his money in failed investments. As the gold digger’s great-grandson Arthur told The Age, “[Deason] went broke before he died.”
But even losing everything didn’t, it appears, mean that Deason forgot the events that made him in the first place. During his interview with The Age, Arthur recalled that when he was young, one of the crowbars that his great-grandfather had used to pry the nugget free later found use as part of the garden fence. Arthur continued, “Dad would say, ‘That dug up the Welcome Stranger.’ [But] it didn’t mean much to us when we were kids.”
And it seems that current residents of the area are also very proud of their golden heritage. Ken Duell, a committee member of the Goldfields Historical and Arts Society, explained the significance to the Maryborough Advertiser in January 2019. He said, “The town of Dunolly is built on gold, and we want to preserve the history of the area. It’s hugely important that we celebrate this sort of event. Dunolly is the small town that will never die.”
As a result, to mark 150 years since the discovery of the Welcome Stranger, a small celebratory festival was held in Dunolly in February 2019. Part of the commemoration included a museum exhibit displaying the bank scales that had confirmed the record-breaker. And in addition, a photo that had been captured of Deason and Oates back in the 19th century was recreated with the help of present-day relatives of the pair.
Now of course, 150-year-old tales of amazing fortune can often take on mythological properties. For instance, despite knowledge of the true account of the Welcome Stranger’s discovery, a couple of larger-than-life origin stories have emerged. The first surrounded Deason and Oates making their way home from the pub while more than a little worse for wear…
Deason and Oates both lived in basic shacks in Moliagul. And the story has it that while stumbling home after a fair amount of liquor, the pair simply tripped over the nugget. Another tale, meanwhile, features the men on a horse-drawn cart that supposedly broke its axel after accidentally driving over the mass of precious metal.
Deason and Oates’ legacy doesn’t end there, either. And for the former’s great-grandson Arthur, the family name in fact carries with it a certain amount of respect. People, he said, often ask him where gold can be found – and he told The Age the answer that he always gives. He said, “If I knew, I’d find it myself.”
Deason, as we know, then, stayed near the location that made him his fortune. But what of Oates? Well, the ex-tin miner moved back to Britain, where he later married – before then returning to Australia and ultimately having four children. And once back Down Under, Oates purchased land in Marong, Victoria, where he lived until he passed away in 1906.
As for the Welcome Stranger itself? Well, the nugget was smelted, made into smaller bars and sent to Melbourne before finding itself aboard steamer the Reigate. From there, the gold made its way to Britain, ultimately ending up in the Bank of England.
Yet the Welcome Stranger isn’t the only enormous nugget to have been found in Victoria. Eleven years prior to its discovery, for example, some other Cornish miners unearthed a similarly massive find. Yes, in June 1858 a workman’s pick-axe struck gold – so much gold, in fact, that he reportedly fainted when he saw it.
A co-worker then apparently found his fellow miner prostrate and thought he had keeled over and died. But upon turning over his unconscious acquaintance, the co-worker also saw the nugget – and promptly fainted as well. So large was the find, in fact, that miners were convinced they’d found a solid-gold reef.
When the gold lump was fully excavated, it measured 18 by 6 inches and resembled the head of a horse. Named the “Welcome Nugget,” it fetched almost $14,000 when sold in 1859. And the mass eventually ended up at Britain’s Royal Mint, where it was melted down and made into sovereigns.
Meanwhile, replicas of the Welcome Nugget can be viewed at several institutions in Australia, including the Powerhouse Museum and the Museum of Victoria. And another model of the monster find can be seen at the Mineralogical Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
However, some discoveries have also been made in more recent decades. For instance, in 1980 Kevin Hiller found a very special nugget in Victoria using a metal detector. Dubbed the “Hand of Faith,” the lump of gold weighed almost 60 pounds and stood at just over 18 inches tall. This time, though, the gold wasn’t made into bars or sovereigns. No, this nugget had a very different fate.
The Hand of Faith was in fact bought by the Golden Nugget chain of casinos for more than $1 million; and it can be seen at the company’s branch in Louisiana’s Lake Charles. Meanwhile, back in Australia gold continues to be found in the same region where Oakes and Deason found their haul – and the making of new discoveries has apparently been helped by more sensitive metal detectors.
So, it seems that the Australian gold rush isn’t over quite yet. Certainly, Dermot Henry, head of sciences at Museum Victoria, appeared confident of this fact in his interview with The Age. As he said, “Every year a nugget of more than 100 ounces would come to my attention that’s been found in Victoria. But there are lots we never hear about.” So is there another record-breaking lump of gold just waiting to be found?