Swiss-Italians on the Walhalla goldfield, Victoria

by Annamaria Davine, Historian, Australia

In 1863, gold was discovered in Walhalla (180 kilometres east of Melbourne), and among the thousands who flocked to the district in the following decades, hoping to make their fortune, were scores of ticinesi and poschiavini.

They worked in clusters around gold mines or in the bush as woodcutters, charcoal makers, timber contractors, tramway builders and miners. Shelter was generally a bark hut or canvas tent. Others lived in the town and some became shopkeepers and wine-bar operators. By the 1880s, a small number of men (often with wives and children) had taken up land around Walhalla, clearing the rugged mountain terrain of virgin bush and establishing small farms. Among the 400 or so Italian surnames found on the goldfield are Albasini, Balsarini, Battanta, Bernasochi, Bruni, Gagioni, Guatta, Iseppi, Lanfranchi, Menghini, Merlo, Monigatti, Mozzini, Pefferino, Plozza, Pola and Raselli. The Swiss worked mostly with their Italian neighbours from the valtellina (with whom they shared a dialect and customs) and patterns of circular and chain migration developed between their home districts and Walhalla.

Some had migrated in the late 1850s and worked on the central Victorian goldfields but, as gold production dwindled, moved onto Walhalla because of its better prospects. Many were sojourners, temporary residents, who planned to return home once they had achieved their economic aspirations. Migration and sojourning did not involve a negative mind-set but was a strategic and well-planned exercise put into place by the migrant and his family. Work clusters provided strong economic, social and cultural support to new and return arrivals. Many men travelled between Switzerland and Victoria 2-3 times during their working lives; some others more. However, permanent return home was not always a certainty and for a variety of reasons many settled in Australia.

The Italian-speaking work clusters were not inward-looking enclaves but had permeable boundaries that enabled the men (and a few women) to negotiate with local society on both an economic and social level. During its early gold-rush period, Walhalla did not have a stable or entrenched host society and the Italian-speaking settlement evolved with the wider community and was thus part of its fabric and make-up. Swiss men joined local organizations whilst continuing to maintain their own social and cultural traditions. Curiously, some became British citizens, only to later return to Switzerland. After 1915, just remnants of a community of like-minded kin and compatriots who had migrated to the district over fifty years remained.

The circular and migration chains which had ebbed and flowed according to economic conditions at home or in Walhalla had run their course. Most Swiss were part of the mass exodus at the major mines were forced to close down. Walhalla is a remote but stunningly beautiful place, surrounded by magnificent valleys of gum trees. It is a popular tourist destination, but few people live there and very little remains of the Swiss-Italians and Italians who contributed to its nineteenth century prosperity.

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