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Melbourne : History of its Settlement

The Gold License & the Eureka Stockade

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One significant event of the gold rush years was the infamous uprising later known as the Eureka Stockade. It was the culmination of a couple of years of dissatisfaction regarding gold licenses, and ended in the closest thing to revolution that Victorians (or, indeed, any Australians) would ever know. It also spawned the Southern Cross flag (basically the Australian version of the Confederate flag), which many see as the unofficial symbol of Australia (workers’ unions have used the Southern Cross in protests during the last couple of decades).

On the 15th of August 1851, not long after diggers began finding gold in Victoria, La Trobe formally declared their actions illegal, as all minerals were British property. However, knowing that a gold rush could not be stopped, he announced that a license system would be introduced, which would give miners the right to mine a small claim. From the 1st of September onwards, miners could dig an 8ft x 8ft claim for 30 shillings a month, with revenue going to administration of the fields. While the license system gave men of all classes the right to mine, the price was deliberately set high so as to deter too large an influx.

The gold license was met with protest from all corners: diggers saw it as too high, while Melbourne businessmen were concerned that it would undermine their efforts to stimulate Victorian gold finds. Outright resistance to fee collections in Buninyong forced the Government to back down and go without the new revenue for September. When the license was finally introduced in October, perhaps as little as half of the diggers actually purchased one.

In December, rather than making it easier for the miners, the Government announced that it would double the fee to £3. The reason for this was that the Government was in some financial difficulty, and was concerned that things would get worse as more and more left Melbourne to look for gold. The diggers, however, were so outraged that organisations resisting the new fee sprang up on and off the fields; the reaction was so overwhelming that the Government had to sheepishly back down.

Though these protest organisations broke apart as diggers went back to work, a precedent of resistance had been set. Though many still considered 30 shillings to be expensive, the early alluvial deposits soon returned the expense, so the license was generally accepted for the next three years.

This is not to say, however, that it was well accepted - the fact that the same fee applied to those who were successful and those who were not made this an impossibility. Another item of protest was the small size of claims. Also, while the license was in essence a tax, the miners were not receiving any representation for their money, and there was little or no policing of crime on the fields. In addition, the rough roads to the diggings received no maintenance, and having to travel through the black mud of the Black Forest had set carriage rates up to £100 per ton (which was very expensive) between Melbourne and Bendigo.

The Gold Fields Commissioners - who each controlled his own district - were also a source of anger to the diggers. Many were arrogant young men from wealthy British families who had been appointed the positions after arriving from the home country. One could imagine the conflicts in ideologies between these young aristocrats and the diggers who lived in the real world.

Another point of contention was the quality of the police force on the fields. The Gold Fields Police was largely made up of officers who had worked in the penal system at Van Diemens Land, with probably half of those serving beneath them being former convicts. Throughout 1852 and 1853, the police were known for brutality and corruption. The corruption came not only from bribery, which was rife, but from the fact that arresting officers received half the amount of the fine imposed. Until selling liquor on the fields was legalised in 1854, it was a good source of extra pay for the police from bribes and fines, though many accepted bribes in alcoholic form.

The Gold Fields Police became infamous for their license hunts, in which they would surround an area and drag off any who had no license on them (including visitors and those not at their claim). Those hearing the warning call “Joe! Joe!” knew they had better have their license on them or get out before the police came. Even those who were not even diggers would be dragged off, and if the Commissioner was not ready to see them, they would be chained to a tree (if there was no prison, which was often the case) until he was.

While some small protest movements appeared between 1852-3, the fluid nature of the population, as well as the preoccupation with finding gold, made organisation ineffective. However, some areas were well on the way to boiling point, and a few outbreaks of violence and open defiance to the license were to follow. In early 1853, tension was high at Bendigo, the Ovens, and especially Castlemaine.

At Reid’s Creek (on the Ovens) a digger named William Guest was accidentally shot dead when police tried to evict some diggers from a claim (a policeman slipped and his musket went off). A large crowd then beat up the troopers, broke up the camp, and came close to doing away with Assistant-Commissioner Meyer (whose arrogance had long angered the diggers).

In June, the Anti-Gold-License Association was formed in Bendigo, and soon sent a huge petition to the La Trobe Government, with all grievances listed. Another 5,000 signatures were taken to Melbourne in August, after representatives from Bendigo visited other fields for support. La Trobe’s ineffectual response caused a protest gathering of 10,000-12,000 diggers, who called for a 10 shilling license (as the NSW Government had lowered theirs earlier in the year), in September. On the 27th of August, a smaller crowd watched their representatives present Chief Commissioner Wright (in charge of all the gold fields) the 10 shilling plan, which he refused. The result was that of the 14,000 who had taken out licenses in August, only 400 did so in September.

More troops poured into the area, while more and more miners were ready to fight. A large number of miners advertised their protest by each wearing a red ribbon, which was basically a challenge to police to arrest them. This movement spread to other diggings, such as Heathcote, causing the Legislative Council to appoint a Select Committee to look at the license. La Trobe’s proposed substitution of an export duty was rejected, and a lower license (£1, £2, and £5 for 1, 3, and 12 months respectively) was seen as the best alternative. It was also recommended that purchase of a full annual license should also include the right to vote in Council elections.

The Legislative Council decided the fees were too modest, and in November introduced licenses of £1, £2, £4, and £8 for 1, 3, 6, and 12 months (leaving no incentive for buying an annual license). By this time, the Bendigo protest movement had fairly dissolved, but dissatisfaction with the license and state of life in the gold fields kept the flame of resentment burning. As a matter of fact, the main reason for small political organisations appearing on the gold fields in 1854 was the intolerable conditions. Purchases of licenses, while previously avoided by about 25% of the diggers, was now dodged by half of them.

In September 1854, Governor Sir Charles Hotham toured the Ballarat fields, and concluded that the miners were prosperous. While this assumption may have been misplaced, his reports rightly concluded that the miners were lovers “of order, and good government”, and that they were more responsive to “tact and management” than military force. However, Hotham soon went against his own words, increasing license hunts in Bendigo to at least two a week; he also announced that the license would be increased. Discontent in Bendigo increased yet, surprisingly, the culmination of the last three years of bitterness would hit the relatively peaceful diggings at the “Eureka lead” at Ballarat.

The increased license hunts at Ballarat added to the tension there, as shaft mining was hard enough without having to surface each time a license check was in progress. At the time, numbers of men pooled their resources to share a claim, though each group could only occupy the equivalent of four single claims, no matter how large the group. Yet each member still had to buy his own license, and produce it at license checks. One could imagine the bitterness of those miners, who were basically paying too much for their licenses, at having to ascend their shafts at a trooper’s command.

In contrast, it has been suggested that the relative peacefulness at Ballarat was due to the very fact that it was mostly a deep-lead mining community, and that tension rose as returns dropped in October and November (and not because of the license checks). Whether anger was mounting over the license hunt, or the cost of the license, or the aristocratic attitudes of the administration, a chain of events would soon lead to open and violent defiance.

On the 7th of October, a couple of drunken diggers named Scobie and Martin broke a window at the Eureka Hotel at Ballarat. James Bentley, the licensee, beat up the miners with the aid of two of his friends, with the result that James Scobie died. Since Bentley was a friend of the police, they only took him into custody after much prodding from the miners. However, despite the evidence, two of the three magistrates - one of which, John D’Ewes, was part-owner of the Eureka Hotel and known to be corrupt - cleared him of guilt.

Not long after, a crippled Armenian servant (who could barely speak English) was arrested for not having a license, then also charged for resisting arrest. As the miners were still trying to come to terms with the Bentley decision, this increased their anger.

On the 17th of October, after a protest meeting over the Bentley decision, a mob of miners burned down the Eureka Hotel. The Police Camp barricaded itself, sure of a planned revolt. Though there was certainly no planned revolt, some men - like Henry Holyoake, J.B. Humffray, and George Black - were becoming the leaders of the protest movement. A majority of the protestors were Irish, which would have added to Hotham’s impression that this was a band of rabble who had no right trying to force the hand of the Crown. They did receive vocal support from some influential men, like Henry Seekamp (editor of the Ballarat Times).

On the 25th of October, a protest meeting of between 10,000 and 15,000 miners took place at Bakery Hill. Though the Governor would not be bullied, he reopened the Bentley case, which resulted in manslaughter charges for all three men. However, he also enforced the arson law, and three miners were arrested over the Eureka Hotel inferno. Hotham also announced on the 30th of October his opening of an inquiry into the Ballarat administration (which, when finally published on the 21st of November, resulted in D’Ewes’s dismissal).

A protest meeting on the 1st of November gave birth to the Ballarat Reform League, with Black, Holyoake and Humffray as leaders. The League met again on the 11th of November, and it became clear that there was a division between those who wanted to achieve their goals with moral force, and those who favoured a more direct approach.

On the 16th of November, Hotham appointed a select committee to look into conditions in the gold fields. However, the members were destined not to meet, as the three arsonists were found guilty on the 20th, and outrage flooded the ranks of the miners. On the 23rd of November, the League held a public meeting and demanded the pardoning of the miners. Three of the leaders - Black, Humffray and Thomas Kennedy - were sent to present the demand to the Governor; while they were gone, rumours of revolt increased, and some  miners began to burn their licenses.

On the 27th of November, on the same day that Hotham received and refused the demand, troop reinforcements were sent to Ballarat. The troops arrived the next day, bayonets fixed. A skirmish broke out at the Eureka lead after soldiers were pelted with stones, and a drummer boy was shot (and later died).

The next day, on the 29th of November, a mass meeting took place, and the Southern Cross flag flew for the first time. The crowd heard how Hotham rejected their claims, which resulted in some burning their licenses on the spot.

The administration, on the other hand, would put up with no more insurrection. Resident Commissioner Robert Rede (also the other magistrate who had exonerated Bentley), with Hotham’s full support, began to assert the Crown’s authority. On the 30th of November, he ordered a license hunt, which resulted in police being stoned, the Riot Act being read, and troops being sent in to retrieve 8 prisoners and the besieged police.

Bakery Hill became the host of another huge protest meeting that afternoon. As the other leaders were not there, an Irishman named Peter Lalor addressed the assembly. A War Council was chosen as it was felt the time for self-protection had come. Humffray left the movement as it became clear that force would be met with force, and Lalor, Black, and the German radical Frederick Vern emerged amongst the leaders. Many moved off to the Eureka lead, where about an acre was enclosed in a stockade of slab. Lalor, now Commander in Chief, ordered arms be gathered, and organised and drilled the men, with the intent of defending the stockade.

As nothing happened over the next 2 days, many went back to work; it has been suggested that the Eureka Stockade would have eventually been abandoned, like many previous protests on the gold fields, if not for the actions of the administration. Rede decided to display the authority of the Crown in a show of military force, though it was basically illegal to do so against civilians without reading the Riot Act.

Before dawn on Sunday the 3rd of December1854, troops left the Camp and marched between the tents of the sleeping miners on their way to the Eureka Stockade. The soldiers were almost there when the alarm was finally raised, then stormed the stockade as shots rang out. Lalor fell with a wound to his arm, and called for the others to retreat. While many quickly fled, others stayed and fought till the death. Troops then killed (and sometimes mutilated) the wounded left behind with muskets and bayonets. Lalor was spared this fate, as he had been hidden down a shaft, but a fair number of those who fled were hunted down by mounted troopers. While some were captured, others were simply shot or bayoneted as they ran, as were undoubtedly a few innocent bystanders.

Half and hour after the first shot rang out, the battle was over. Around 30 miners were dead, 114 taken prisoner, and many wounded. In contrast, only 5 soldiers were killed, and 10 wounded. Rede issued a rather distorted official notice which reads as follows:


Her Majesty’s Forces were this Morning fired upon by a large body of evil-disposed persons of various nations, who had entrenched themselves in a Stockade on the Eureka, and some Officers and Men killed or wounded.

Several of the rioters have paid the penalty of their crime, and a large number are in Custody.

All well-disposed persons are earnestly requested to return to their ordinary occupations, and to abstain from assembling in large groups, and every protection will be afforded to them by the Authorities.

Lalor was hidden at a Catholic priest’s house, where his injured left arm had to be amputated. Though he was then a criminal, Lalor would eventually be rewarded for his leadership and go on to feature prominently in Victorian politics.

Hotham, who had earlier cautioned against force, now praised the troops, as “they crushed an extensive plot, then proved the masses are not to be dreaded where discipline and military confidence prevail.” Unfortunately for the Governor, not many would share his view; the resulting backlash against his decisions would weaken his health and cause his premature death.

The Eureka Stockade incident, though perhaps not quite being the mother of Australian democracy as some romantics suggest, certainly contributed to major reforms in Victoria. That those reforms made way for democracy in Australia is almost a certainty. No matter the actual impact on politics, the Eureka Stockade stands as a symbol of freedom in Australia, as does the flag that was hastily devised at the time - the Southern Cross.

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1. Discovery of Victoria
2. From Bearbrass to Capital of Victoria
3. The Victorian Gold Rush
5. Post-Eureka Political Reforms
6. Early Victorian Government


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