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Peter Lalor
Peter Lalor

Fighting for Freedom and Independence

The Eureka Rebellion of 1854

Victoria was more deeply and directly influenced by gold than were the other colonies. But what happened there had both a short- and a long-term influence in the other colonies. In Victoria, gold had brought at least 35,000 people to the diggings by the end of 1852, and 65,000 by the first quarter of 1854. In the ten years after 1851 it multiplied the colony's population by ten. Faced by the problem of governing a community whose numbers swelled every day, and in areas that were a few short months before inhabited by sheep and their shepherds, the government appointed goldfields commissioners whose authority was supported by a police force recruited hurriedly from the most varied human material. To meet the cost of administration a licence fee of thirty shillings a month was levied. In December 1851 this was doubled. There was immediate widespread opposition that gave an earnest [sic] of what was to become the central grievance of the miners and that ultimately precipitated the revolt at Ballarat in 1854. In 1852 the diggers opposed an increase in the licence fee to such effect that the government withdrew the proclamation. A year later they were demanding a reduction of the fee and in 1854 were in revolt. The licence fee and its manner of collection became the monster grievance, but it became so largely because of the diggers' conception of their rights.1

The diggers wanted liberty, and what they meant by liberty was conditioned both by the radical political and social ideas of the country from which they came and by their experience in Australia. Basically, they wished to be economically 'free': free from the restraints and controls exerted on them by the economic and social relations of the old world. They saw the possibility of freedom in the conditions that prevailed in the early days of the goldfields, with each man working with his own tools for himself. They opposed the introduction of legislation permitting companies to operate,2 and many of them flatly opposed the introduction of machinery,3 arguing that it would be impossible for the independent man to compete with highly capitalized concerns. But as the surface alluvial gold became scarce, the days of the individual miner were numbered. At Ballarat in 1854 most of the gold was already being won from shafts driven from 150 to 200 feet into the earth. The shafts were too much for one man to work, so usually they were operated by informal co-operatives of six or eight men. The diggers were prepared for co-operation but not for the introduction of companies.4 Similarly, they demanded the opening up of the land, with the immediate aim of obtaining gardening plots, but with the ultimate aim of seeking on a farm the independence that they realized must sooner or later be lost on the diggings.5 As the barrier between themselves and the achievement of this aim they saw the squatters, a Legislative Council dominated by the squatters, and behind it the imperial government from which many of them hoped to escape in the new country. In the uncomplicated new society they were able to see the objectives to which they aspired more clearly than they had in the complex stratified society of the old world. And they could also see, they believed, the road to their goal. To many of the diggers the government appeared as a projection of the state as they had known it in Europe - hateful, and, in a new country, incongruous. Gold-laced commissioners and red-coated troopers were interlopers where home was a tent, and shovel and dish the evidence of honest toil. Had the police and commissioners conducted themselves with restraint and sympathy they would have been unpopular enough, but behaving as they did - with arrogance and lack of understanding - they became not only separate from the mining community, but the object of its intense hostility. 'Lynch law' was a product of social conditions on the goldfields of California; a squatter parliament, a governor appointed in London, gold-laced commissioners and red-coats equipped with rifles and bayonets attempted to impose what was felt to be an alien law on the goldfields of Australia. The situation generated the same kind of local democratic protest that marked the revolt of the American west against the control from the east.

Many of the diggers were convinced democrats when they arrived in Australia; many more became democrats as a result of their experience there. In 1854 the desire for a democratic parliament was universal, miners and tradesmen agreeing on the principle of manhood suffrage.7 Short parliaments and payment of members were almost as generally demanded as manhood suffrage. In 1853 and 1854, as an alternative to immediate enfranchisement, it was mooted either that a representative acceptable to the miners should be appointed to the legislature by the Governor, or that they should regard representatives of the goldmining towns, that is of men with the necessary property qualifications, as their representatives. Miner opinion rejected the first as unsatisfactory,8 and but few were prepared for indirect representation. In reply to the statement that the shopkeepers would be influenced by the opinions of their digger customers, a miner pointed the moral of English experience: The majority of the miners stood firm in support of direct representation in a fully representative parliament, and many agreed with Stephen Cummins, who wanted 'the six points of what we used to call the Charter in England'.10

All the strains of political thought that made 1848 the year of revolutions were present on the goldfields. Chartism was present in the very words and slang of some of the leaders. Raffaello Carboni refers to Thomas Kennedy, whose 'merit consists in the possession of the chartist slang; hence his cleverness in spinning a yarn, never to the purpose, but blathered with long phrases and bubbling with cant'.11 The discussions of the diggers are filled with the rival merits of physical and moral force. Carboni was impatient with chartism but bitter with the memories of Austrian oppression. The Irish were there too. They left some of their number dead on the Eureka stockade; and they bore on their shoulders all the wrongs that had been inflicted on their country, and in their hearts all the bitterness generated by two centuries of alien rule. The meeting on Bakery Hill, where ten thousand diggers supported the programme of the Ballarat Reform League, passed a resolution viewing 'with the bitterest indignation the daring calumny of his honour, the acting Chief-Justice, while on the bench, of the brave and struggling sufferers of Clare, Tipperary, Bristol and other districts in their endeavours to assert their legitimate rights'.12 There were Germans, Americans, and even French. Indeed, the revolt at Eureka was attributed by some who opposed it to the influence of aliens. With that peculiar combination of ignorance of their own countrymen and a desire to condemn by attaching ideas which they oppose to an existing prejudice, the governing class in Victoria tried to establish that the bloodshed at Eureka could not have been due to the actions of Britishers, and therefore must have been the result of the agitation of foreigners. They failed in this attempt because it is apparent that the ideas that lay behind the revolt were shared by men of many nations drawn together with common aims and viewpoint, as diggers.13

Throughout 1853 and 1854 agitation against the licence fee developed strength and direction. The tax and its method of collection was the grievance, but the miners saw it as a part of a total situation to which they were opposed. In August 1853 meetings were held at Bendigo to protest against the licence fee, and the Governor reported that much violent language was used against the government. From these meetings issued a petition with five thousand signatures listing the miners' grievances. It referred to the squatter land monopoly, asked for the provision of facilities to enable diggers to purchase plots of land, prayed for a reduction of the licence fee to 10s. a month and for a discontinuance of the collection by the armed forces.14 In Melbourne, meetings were held in support of the diggers' claim for a reduction in the licence tax and also to emphasize the danger of disaffection by the mining population if their reasonable claims for political and social rights were not heard. Although the miners had petitioned in due form praying the Governor to take action, their temper was anything but humble. In July, the Governor was reporting a protest meeting at Castlemaine against an act of wrongful seizure by the police, at which three men were appointed as 'people's commissioners'. At Bendigo shortly after the meeting which prepared the petition, on 20 August 1853, direct action was decided upon. The meeting agreed that a week later they should meet again and in concert offer to pay 10s. for their licences. At the meeting in the following week the decision was reaffirmed and it was further decided that anyone who paid the full fee of 30s. should be given twenty-four hours' notice to leave the diggings. Some diggers offered to pay the 10s. and had their offers refused by the authorities. In fact, the government was faced with full-scale revolt. All available military forces in the colony were drafted to Bendigo, leaving the sailors of a British warship to patrol the streets of Melbourne and to guard the Melbourne gaol. A regiment was dispatched from Van Diemen's Land to support the forces in Victoria, but at the same time the Governor decided to seek a compromise. He sought to meet the demand for representation by appointing a goldfields resident to the Legislative Council, but the diggers treated this with scorn - passing a resolution of no confidence in the appointee, at which he was compelled to resign. Although his opinion may have been an attempt to justify his own actions in pouring troops into Bendigo and then compromising, it was significant that the Governor wrote to the Colonial Secretary that unless something was done there would almost inevitably be bloodshed at Bendigo. He decided to compromise, and the Council met and reduced the fee to 40s. a quarter. The crisis was temporarily over, but the larger issues of representation, the unavailability of land, and opposition to the instruments of state power were still there. In the neighbouring fields of Ballarat, however, these questions came to a head a little more than a year later in the battle for the Eureka stockade.

A revolt against established authority is not a simple social phenomenon. It is not simply the result of a political viewpoint, nor is it the result simply of specific grievances. Both these factors must be present, the one complementing the other to produce unanimity of action. Usually the grievances are universally felt, but felt most acutely by those who see them in terms of political assumptions that reject the right of authority to act in the way it does. The revolt at Eureka was a democratic protest against arbitrary government. On the part of some it was a positive action aiming to achieve the radical democratic programme; on the part of all it was a desperate revolt against the heavy hand of an irresponsible authority.

The grievance that was felt by all was the method of collecting the licence tax. At least once a month, and during 1854 more frequently, the police would pour on to the diggings, round up the miners, and demand to inspect their licences. Those who were not able to produce their licences immediately were arrested, treated to all kinds of indignity and petty cruelty, and fined, or if without the means to pay, imprisoned. The character of those raids is amply demonstrated by the accepted name of 'digger hunts' - hunts carried out with all the brutal sportiveness of the hunting field. Raffaello Carboni, himself one of the foxes, says that The royal commission that sat immediately after the revolt found that the conduct of the police - the 'traps' or 'Joes' as the diggers called them - 'was trenching very closely on the limits of human endurance, although a course sanctioned by the letter of the regulations'.16

The bitterness caused by the conduct of the police was aggravated by the conviction that some of the administrators were corrupt, a conviction that was confirmed by the case of James Scobie, a miner.17 He was found murdered near the Eureka Hotel and the evidence pointed to the licensee, James Bentley, as the murderer. Bentley was tried before a court whose president was suspected of being in his debt, and was acquitted. Resentment burst into riot, and ten thousand miners burnt his hotel to the ground, Bentley escaping to the protection of the police camp. The Governor, Sir Charles Hotham,18 intervened and Bentley was re-arrested. But at the same time three miners, apparently selected at random, were put on trial for burning the hotel and sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. An immediate agitation was commenced for the release of the miners who were considered to be scapegoats selected by the corrupt police.

The incident of Bentley is important in two respects. On the one hand it confirmed the diggers, conviction that the administration was corrupt; on the other, the inability of the police to save the hotel gave the diggers confidence in their new power - 'The entire diggings,' wrote Carboni, 'in a state of extreme excitement. The diggers are lords and masters of Ballaarat; and the prestige of the Camp is gone forever.'19

In November 1854, the Ballarat Reform League became the representative organization of the miners. The political viewpoint that had been expressed in protests and petitions, but which wanted the unanimous and active support of the diggers as a whole, seems to have gained that support from the acute sense of grievance over the licence tax and the manner in which it was collected, allied with the sense of power produced by the incidents described. In January of 1854 La Trobe had reported the organization of a 'Diggers' Congress' but was not impressed by its significance.20 On 11 November, however, a meeting of ten thousand miners on Bakery Hill, Ballarat, adopted a radical democratic programme and decided on a course of action that would immediately lead either to important concessions by the government or to a state of civil war. Because it summed up both the political viewpoint of the miners and their specific grievances, the programme must be quoted at length: The meeting decided further to strive for the immediate achievement of a full and fair representation, manhood suffrage, no property qualifications for members of the Legislative Council, payment of members and short duration of parliaments .21 On the question of the goldfields administration they demanded the abolition of the office of goldfields commissioner and the total abolition of the diggers' and storekeepers' licences. To achieve the demands it was decided to organize the Reform League by providing a tent for its headquarters and issuing membership cards.

The Reform League had been in existence before 11 November, but on that day it became an organization supported by the whole of the mining community in Ballarat. A number of leaders had emerged, of whom the most important were perhaps John Basson Humffray and George Black. Humffray was the secretary of the Reform League, and Black the editor of the Diggers' Advocate. Both were radical democrats, but neither of them, by temperament or conviction, were revolutionaries. As events moved rapidly towards violence, they were pushed aside by other men whose democratic convictions were not so deep, but whose resentment at direct oppression made them prepared to lead the diggers in revolt. Such a one was Peter Lalor, who emerged as a leader only when the mass of the miners had decided upon armed resistance to the tyrannous acts of the administration. He put himself at their head and around him gathered a group moved by motives similar to his own.

After the meeting on 11 November, the committee of the Reform League continued to meet. It prepared and dispatched a deputation to the Governor, Sir Charles Hotham, with a statement of the grievances and a demand that the miners imprisoned for burning the hotel be released. The Governor received the deputation but refused to consider a request couched in the form of a demand. The deputation pointed out that the terminology was that of the men they represented and that the men were no longer prepared to pray or petition; they now demanded. The matter of releasing the prisoners was set aside and the other grievances discussed, but to all of them the Governor was either unable or unwilling to give a favourable reply, though he pointed out that the constitutional issues raised could only be dealt with by the imperial parliament or by the colonial legislature under the constitution that was pending.22

The deputation reported back to a mass meeting on Bakery Hill on 29 November. Humffray advised them to leave the matter in the hands of the Governor, whom he claimed to be sympathetic yet powerless and in the hands of bad advisers. But by now the movement was out of the control of Humffray and Black. The men wanted action, and new leaders came forward. Peter Lalor, who spoke to a mass meeting for the first time, proposed a meeting of the Reform League for the following Sunday to elect a central committee. And then, on the motion of Vern, a German, came the decision to throw defiance in the teeth of the authorities by a public burning of licences.

On the following morning, with the myopic provocativeness that had characterized so many of their actions, the police, under the direction of the goldfields commissioner, rode out on a raid of the diggings, and 'by that act destroyed the remaining influence of the friends of moral force action among the diggers'.23 A riot was precipitated, the Riot Act read, and shots fired. The diggers prepared to carry through their pledge of the previous evening. Arms were collected, squads formed and began drilling. Peter Lalor was elected 'Commander-in-Chief of the diggers under arms'. In the evening, under their flag, the Southern Cross - of which Carboni said 'there is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful' - Peter Lalor swore in the diggers. They swore, 'by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our Rights and Liberties'. Defensive works were begun and a rude stockade thrown up within which elected leaders attempted to establish some kind of military organization and prepare for what was still quite an indefinite course of action.

The spirit of the diggers was one of tremendous enthusiasm for their act of defiance. Carboni wrote of the meeting on 29 November that 'no one who was not present at that monster meeting, or never saw any Chartist meeting in Copenhagen-fields, London, can possibly form an idea of the enthusiasm of the miners of Ballaarat'.24 A delegate was sent to the neighbouring field of Creswick and from there came a squad of three hundred men, singing the 'Marseillaise' and making a forced march through the night over the hills and gullies. At their head, as they made their way through a thunder-storm, was Thomas Kennedy, who flourished a sword and declaimed chartist slogans.25

For two days a state of de facto civil war prevailed. The diggers sent out scouts and patrols and drilled behind their barricade. But their preparations lacked decision and direction. It is clear that there was no real revolutionary leadership preparing to overthrow the existing state power and establish the power of the diggers under arms. They had come together to defend themselves against the rough hand of authority, but because they were not prepared to take the initiative, the spirit of enthusiasm and defiance of 30 November was rapidly dissipated. When the police and military attacked the stockade in the early morning of 3 December, they found it but thinly defended. After a brief battle the stockade was taken and the revolt suppressed.

The news of the situation at Ballarat had the most profound effect on people in every part of the colony. At Bendigo it was decided, after hearing a delegate from Ballarat, to send a delegation, but the stockade was taken before it arrived.26 In Melbourne, a meeting called by the Lord Mayor to express support for the government was taken over by the majority, who supported the diggers and carried resolutions in their favour. On 6 December, a monster meeting in Melbourne declared that the unconstitutional proceedings of the miners had been due to provocation, and condemned the whole policy of the government. Meanwhile, in Ballarat the military coup had not settled the issues in any way. It had merely changed its direction. On 6 December a mass meeting on Bakery Hill restated the miners' grievances, and John Humffray, who had opposed the resort to arms, re-established himself as leader of the agitation.

The immediate result of the revolt was the investigation by a royal commission whose recommendations went some way to satisfy the grievances of the miners. The miners' licence was abolished and replaced by a miners' right, which carried with it the right both to dig for gold and to vote. The existing administration of the goldfields was abolished and the goldfields commissioners replaced by locally elected courts, of which the first was elected by a show of hands at a meeting on Bakery Hill in the middle of 1855.

The extent to which the goldfields agitation in general and the revolt at Eureka in particular influenced the larger issues is, however, likely to remain what it has been for a century - a matter on which historians will disagree. The basis of their disagreement will be less a question of fact than of opinion on the mechanism of social and political change. It has been correctly pointed out by some who minimize the significance of the goldfields movement that most of the purely political demands of the diggers had been conceded in principle almost a year before the revolt - the Act accompanying the constitution to Britain providing for a vote for the miners. Equally, it has been emphasized that a number of the demands made on Governor Hotham were not in his power to concede.27 All this is perfectly true, but it is insufficient.

The fact is that between 1850 and 1856 a profound change occurred in public opinion. In 1850 the voices demanding manhood suffrage were almost unheard. In 1856, in the first parliament elected under the new constitution, manhood suffrage, although qualified by the property vote, was put into effect without opposition and without a division.28 In the debates both inside and outside the legislature much was made of the idea that the relative prosperity of people in Australia, the high level of literacy, and the absence of distinct social classes made possible the concession of the vote to all. In the minds of many conservatives, the retention of the vote for property compensated for the concession. The ending of transportation and the elimination of the possibility of its re-introduction was a further factor. But it seems certain that however much importance attaches to these factors, the goldfields movement, in which from time to time there was a massive demonstration of democratic sentiment, played a quite decisive part because of its own weight and because of its influence on other sections of the community. By 1856 all members of the Victorian legislature were convinced either of the desirability of manhood suffrage or the inexpediency of opposing it. The resort to arms in 1854 was a significant event in the process that brought this about.


1 Eureka Centenary Supplement, Historical Studies. Australia and New Zealand, 1954. Also B. Kent, 'Agitations on the Victorian Gold-fields, 1851-54', ibid., vol. vi, no. xxiii. Together, these provide the best discussion in relatively small compass of the goldfields movement and the Eureka revolt.
2 'Report of Gold-fields Commission'. Minutes of Evidence, Vic. V. & P. (L.C.), 1854-5, ii. 18, 29, 30, 52, 64, 68, 129, 136, 161, 173.
3 Ibid., pp. 1, 63, 70, 72, 161.
4 Ibid., pp. 2, 12, 18, 29, 30, 72.
5 Ibid., pp. 1, 9, 18, 34, 135, 200, also 'Petition of Miners of Bendigo to La Trobe', enclosed with La Trobe to Newcastle, 12 September 1853, Great Britain, P.P. 1854, vol. xliv.
6 Raffaello Carboni, The Eureka Stockade, pp. 44-5. The 1942 edition, with an introduction by H. V. Evatt, was the first reprint since its publication in Melbourne in 1855. The author participated in the Eureka revolt.
7 'Report of Gold-fields Commission', Minutes of Evidence, pp. 8, 28, 33, 48, 62, 191.
8 La Trobe to Newcastle, 12 September 1853, Great Britain, P.P., 1854, vol. xliv.
9 'Report of Gold-fields Commission', Minutes of Evidence, p. 38.
10 Ibid., p. 37.
11 Eureka Stockade, p. 24.
12 Great Britain, P.P., 1854-5, vol. xxxviii.
13 'Report of Gold-fields Commission', Minutes of Evidence, pp. 55, 85, 100, 237.
14 Great Britain, P.P., 1854, vol. xliv.
15 Eureka Stockade, p. 20.
16 'Report of Gold-fields Commission', p. xli.
17 'Report of Board appointed to enquire into late disturbance at Ballarat', Vic. V. & P. (L.C.), 1854-5, vol. i.
18 Strictly, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Charles Hotham. Between 1851 and 1861 the Governor of New South Wales was also entitled 'Governor-General of all Her Majesty's Australian possessions' and the officers administering the other colonies were called Lieutenant-Governors. This was a remnant of Earl Grey's defeated federation proposals. For purposes of simplicity, and because there was little essential difference between the function of the Lieutenant-Governor in Victoria and the Governor in New South Wales, I employ the title Governor throughout. For a full discussion of this matter, see: J. M. Ward, Earl Grey and the Australian Colonies. 1846-1857, pp. 227 ff.
19 Eureka Stockade, p. 27.
20 La Trobe to Newcastle, 16 January 1854, Great Britain, P.P. 1854-5, vol. xxxviii.
21 Ibid.
22 Hotham to Grey, 30 December 1854. Ibid.
23 W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat, p. 66.
24 Eureka Stockade, p. 47.
25 Withers, History of Ballarat, p. 67.
26 G. Mackay, The History of Bendigo, p. 37.
27 C. H. Currey, The Irish at Eureka, ch. ii.
28 Victorian Hansard, 1856-7, i, 97-105, 166.

This document is an extract from Radical and Working Class Politics: A Study of Eastern Australia 1850-1910 by Robin Gollan, first published 1960 (pages 21-31 of Chapter One "Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia", from the 1967 edition).
The Association for the Advancement of Australian Culture