In October 1872 a German immigrant working as a gold miner in Hill End near Bathurst struck the big one.  Bernhardt Holtermann and his partners uncovered the largest piece of reef gold in the world, measuring 1.5m high and weighing 268kg which in today’s money would be worth about $13, 428, 558.  Not bad really.

Holtermann and his nugget
Holtermann and his nugget

Holtermann arrived in Sydney in 1858 from Germany and worked on ships and in Hotels for a few years before heading west in the gold rush.  From 1861 until 1868 he scratched around the diggings, barely making a living.  By 1868 he was the licensee of the All Nations Hotel in Hill End-booze being a more reliable income then gold.

But he still had his mine, the Star of Hope, working it with eight others.  In October 1872 one of the partners changed the direction of the shaft and bingo, the Holtermann Nugget, as it became known, was found.

At the same time two photographers, Henry Merlin and his assistant Charles Bayliss had been making their way around the gold towns and camps.  Merlin and Bayliss were undertaking an unusual project of photographing every building in the towns they visited, often with the owners, occupiers or even just passers by standing out the front.  Before Hill End the pair, operating as the American and Australasian Photographic Company, had already photographed Melbourne, Albury, Yass, Braidwood, Queanbeyan and Goulburn as well as most of Parramatta.

Merlin and Bayliss arrived in Hill End in March 1872 and began photographing it and the surrounding camps.  They photographed Holtermann outside his house and when the Holtermann nugget was found they took shots of it as well.

In November 1872, Holtermann and Merlin joined forces with the idea of promoting Australia to the world via Merlin’s photos.   Merlin was to travel through Australia to create a photographic gallery of the colony for overseas exhibitions.  Sadly Merlin died prematurely from pneumonia in 1873 and Bayliss took over, touring Victoria before returning to Sydney in 1875.

In Sydney, Holtermann had by now built a large house with a tower at North Sydney.  Bayliss, seeing the aspect of the tower used it to take panoramic photos of Sydney, eventually transforming the tower windows into a giant camera lens capturing the largest wet plate negative image anywhere in the world.  Other images of Sydney streets and waterfronts quickly followed.

Part of Holtermann's Panorama.  Darling Harbour is in the distance, the Rocks on the left.
Part of Holtermann’s Panorama. Darling Harbour is in the distance, the Rocks on the left.

And then the negatives disappeared until 1952 when they were rediscovered in a shed in North Sydney-all 3500 of them.  Donated to the Mitchell Library they have finally been digitised and put up on the web.  Only now, with the best digital technology can we appreciate them at their best.

The images are so clear you can read the labels on the tins in the shop windows.

That is the sort of rich philanthropist you want; and the type we like too, paying for Sydney’s history to be recorded.