In the beginning of the 1850’s, South Australia’s economy was on the decline. When news reached the Colony of rich gold finds in Victoria, large numbers of men left to seek their fortunes at the diggings. South Australia needed gold badly to boost its ailing economy, but the problem was that there was not enough money available to buy it.
To overcome this situation the ‘Bullion Act’ of 1852 was passed. It authorised the establishment of an assay office and smelting facilities for gold dust. Miners could then deposit their ingots with the bank and receive in exchange bank notes which could be used as legal tender. To encourage the miners to bring their gold to South Australia, the price offered per ounce was higher than at the diggings or in Melbourne.
Alexander Tolmer, then Commissioner of Police, put forward a plan to the SA Government. He suggested that an escort of mounted troopers accompany a police cart to the Mount Alexander gold fields in Victoria to collect parcels of gold dust and transport them back to Adelaide.
The proposed route established by Tolmer was then the shortest taken to reach the Victorian gold fields. From Adelaide it led to Wellington, where the Murray River was crossed by ferry. It then progressed in a south-easterly direction, following closely what is now the Duke’s Highway through Coonalpyn and Keith, entering Victoria at what is now Bordertown. The route continued easterly through Horsham to the Mount Alexander diggings near Bendigo. The distance of approximately 360 miles (579 kilometres) could be covered in ten days if the weather conditions were favourable and no mishaps occurred.
Tolmer’s proposal was accepted and the Gold Escorts were organised. The first escort which he led personally, left Adelaide in February 1852. It returned five weeks later with over three hundreds parcels of gold dust worth more than eighteen thousand pounds. Eight similar Escorts were conducted in 1852.
In 1853 the amount of gold transported to Adelaide began to diminish. Eventually the stage was reached that the fees paid by the miners for transportation of their gold dust were insufficient to cover the cost of the venture. The last Escort left Adelaide in November 1853 and returned in December of that year. During the two years that the scheme was in operation, eighteen Escorts were conducted and transported gold dust to the value of approximately £1.2 million from the Victorian gold fields to South Australia, thus saving the colony from becoming bankrupt.