Albury, New South Wales, Australia. 1913
To make money out of gold mining, you have to be pretty lucky, very smart or work mighty hard.
Or you can hatch a crafty scheme.
William Scott hatched a crafty scheme. It came to him one day in a flash of brilliance when he spotted the advertisement in a Melbourne newspaper. It was so cunning he could hardly believe his own genius.
“Electroplating At Home,” he read. “The new discovery for plating gold, silver and nickel.” For a small investment from his labourer’s wages, William Scott could become rich beyond his wildest dreams. And it was going to be so easy! All he had to do was buy an electroplating kit and a little bit of gold…
So it was that on 25 February 1913, William Scott strolled casually into the Albury branch of the Bank of Australasia, plonked a small package on the counter and demanded to see the manager. As a bank manager, George Hall had grave responsibilities. One of them was to ensure that the bank was not defrauded by any Tom, Dick or Harry wandering in and claiming he had gold to sell.
Hall was a banker, not an assayer, but he knew how to perform the blackstone test, in which gold is rubbed across a blackstone, a piece of fine-grained dark schist or jasper, sometimes known as a touchstone. The colour of the streak left on the stone would identify whether he held in his hand a nugget of valuable gold or a lump of worthless base metal.
The blackstone test showed positive for gold.
What Hall did next surely had his superiors wondering later why they had put him in charge of other people’s money. Instead of agreeing to buy the 21oz parcel only when and if a full assay proved its contents to be gold, the bank manager offered Scott a £50 advance, with the remainder to be paid out after the metal was tested.
When Hall belatedly inquired about gold’s origin, Scott spun a yarn that he had acquired the nuggets from fossickers in Gippsland, over the border in Victoria, who allegedly had trouble selling small parcels of gold. Scott was just doing them a favour, really.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hall to ask why Scott had come all the way to Albury on his altruistic mission when Melbourne banks were 100 kilometres closer to Gippsland.
The following day Scott scored a second advance from Hall, this time of £192, for a parcel containing a supposed 64oz of gold nuggets. In present day currency, he now possessed the buying power of almost $30,000.
Scott glowed with inner glee. He’d done it! He’d fooled the bank manager, he had more cash in his pocket than he’d ever seen before, and he was on his way to a life of ease, luxury and all the booze he could drink. Booze had been his last get-rich-quick project – but the sly grog trade was too risky nowadays. Besides, he’d been caught and convicted twice already and it was time to move into a new industry.
His gold electroplating venture was just the beginning of bigger things to come.
And the assay was surely just a formality. Wasn’t it?
After a couple of weeks passed with no word from the bank, Scott wrote inquiring about the assay results. A telegram came back inviting him to go to Albury to discuss them. Thrilled that his crafty scheme was almost realised, Scott boarded the train and sped north towards his new wealth. Plans for enjoying his riches were still rioting through his head as he alighted at the Albury railway station – and walked right into the arms of the local constabulary.
The court was later told that Scott’s two parcels of “gold” had been found to be lumps of copper electroplated with about 28 shillings’ worth of actual gold, equating to $171 in today’s money. Not a bad investment if it had worked.
Despite his vigorous protestations that he was entirely innocent, he’d bought the gold in good faith, someone else must have faked the nuggets and he was the real victim here, William Scott, aged 52, was found guilty of defrauding the bank and sentenced to two years in the notorious Goulburn Gaol. Whether or not the bank got its £242 back went unreported in newspaper articles covering the trial.
George Hall retained his manager’s position, but the Bank of Australasia moved him to their Geelong branch far away from the embarrassment of Albury. It is unlikely that he ever again handed over cash to anyone fronting up to sell a parcel of gold.
Sources: trove.nla.gov.au, ancestry.com.au
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This story was researched and written by Anne Skinner, a freelance writer based in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Anne is endlessly fascinated by the amazing stories and incredible characters that run through the history of the mining industry. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org