Victoria 1851-1855

Effects of Gold Excitement. For the first few months after the

discovery of gold in Victoria, many shrewd persons believed that the

colony would be ruined by its seeming good fortune. None of the ordinary

industries could be carried on whilst workmen were so scarce and wages

so high. But, happily, these expectations proved fallacious; for, in

1852, when the great stream of people from Europe began to flow into the

ny, every profession and every trade sprang into new and vigorous

life. The vast crowds on the goldfields required to be fed, so the

farmers found ample market for their corn, and the squatters for their

beef and mutton. The miners required to be clothed, and the tailor and

shoemaker must be had, whatever might be the prices they charged.

Mechanics and artisans of every class found their labours in demand, and

handsomely paid for. The merchants, also, found trade both brisk and

lucrative; while the imports in 1850 were worth only three-quarters of a

million, those of three years later were worth about twenty times that

amount. After this enormous increase in population and business, it was

found that there was quite as great an opportunity of gaining riches by

remaining quietly engaged in one's own occupation as by joining the

restless throng upon the goldfields. The public revenue of the colony

was in 1852 six times, and in 1853 twelve times as great as it had been

before the discovery of gold; so that, both as individuals and as a

nation, the people of Victoria had reason to be satisfied with the


Convicts Prevention Act. There existed, however, one drawback; for

the attractions of the goldfields had drawn from the neighbouring

colonies, and more especially from Tasmania, great numbers of that class

of convicts who, having served a part of their time, had been liberated

on condition of good behaviour. They crossed over by hundreds, and soon

gave rise to a serious difficulty; for, in the confused and unsettled

state of the colony, they found only too great an opportunity for the

display of their criminal propensities and perverted talents. Being by

no means charmed with the toilsome life of the gold-miner, many of them

became bushrangers. There were, in 1852, several bands of these lawless

ruffians sweeping the country and robbing in all directions. As the gold

was being conveyed from the diggings, escorted by bands of armed

troopers, the bushrangers lurked upon the road, treacherously shot the

troopers, and rifled the chests. On one occasion, their daring rose to

such a height that a band of them boarded the ship Nelson whilst it

lay at anchor in Hobson's Bay, overpowered the crew, and removed gold to

the value of L24,000--remarking, as they handed the boxes over the side

of the vessel, that this was the best goldfield they had ever seen.

To prevent any further introduction of these undesirable immigrants, the

Legislature, in 1852, passed what was called the "Convicts Prevention

Act," declaring that no person who had been convicted, and had not

received an absolutely free pardon, should be allowed to enter the

colony; and that all persons who came from Tasmania should be required

to prove that they were free, before being allowed to land. Any ship

captain who brought a convict into the colony was to be fined L100 for

the offence.

Aspect of Goldfields. Meanwhile the goldfields were growing apace.

The discovery of the Eureka, Gravel Pits, and Canadian Leads made

Ballarat once more the favourite; and in 1853 there were about forty

thousand diggers at work on the Yarrowee. Hotels began to be built,

theatres were erected, and here and there a little church rose among the

long line of tents which occupied the slopes above the creek.

Scene on the Goldfields. Below, on the flats, the scene was a busy

one. Thousands upon thousands of holes covered the earth, where men

emerged and disappeared like ants, each bearing a bag of sand which he

either threw on a wheelbarrow or slung over his shoulder, and then

carried forward, running nimbly along the thin paths among a multitude

of holes, till he reached the little creek where he delivered the sand

to one of the men who stood shoulder to shoulder, in long rows, for

miles on either bank, all washing the sand and clay into the shallow

current, whose waters were turned to a tint of dirty yellow. Such is the

scene which presents itself by day; but at sunset a gun is fired from

the commissioner's tent and all cease work: then, against the evening

sky, ten thousand fires send up their wreaths of thin blue smoke, and

the diggers prepare their evening meals. Everything is hushed for a

time, except that a dull murmur rises from the little crowds chatting

over their pannikins of tea. But, as the darkness draws closer around,

the noises begin to assume a merrier tone, and, mingling pleasantly in

the evening air, there rise the loud notes of a sailor's song, the merry

jingle of a French political chant, or the rich strains of a German


In some tents the miners sit round boxes or stools, while, by the light

of flaming oil-cans, they gamble for match boxes filled with gold-dust;

in others they gather to drink the liquors illicitly sold by the

"sly grog shops". Many of the diggers betake themselves to the

brilliantly-lighted theatres, and make the fragile walls tremble with

their rough and hearty roars of applause: everywhere are heard the

sounds of laughter and good humour. Then, at midnight, all to bed,

except those foolish revellers who have stayed too late at the "grog


At dawn, again, they are all astir; for the day's supply of water must

be drawn from the stream ere its limpid current begins to assume the

appearance of a clay-stained gutter. Making the allowances proper to

the occasion, the community is both orderly and law-abiding, and the

digger, in the midst of all his toil, enjoys a very agreeable existence.

The Licence Fee. He had but one grievance to trouble his life, and

that was the monthly payment of the licence fee. This tax had been

imposed under the erroneous impression that every one who went upon the

goldfields must of necessity earn a fortune. For a long time this

mistake prevailed, because only the most successful diggers were much

heard of. But there was an indistinguishable throng of those who earned

much less than a labourer's wage.

The average monthly earnings throughout the colony were not more than

eight pounds for each man; and of this sum he had to pay thirty

shillings every month for the mere permission to dig. To those who were

fortunate this seemed but a trifle; but for those who earned little or

nothing there was no resource but to evade payment, and many were the

tricks adopted in order to "dodge the commissioners". As there were more

than one-fifth of the total number of diggers who systematically paid no

fees, it was customary for the police to stop any man they met and

demand to see his licence; if he had none, he was at once marched off to

the place that served for a gaol, and there chained to a tree.

The police were in the habit of devoting two days a week to what was

called "digger hunting"; and as they often experienced much trouble and

vexation in doing what was unfortunately their duty, they were sometimes

rough and summary in their proceedings. Hence arose a feeling of

hostility among the diggers, not only to the police, but to all the

officials on the goldfields. The first serious ebullition of the

prevailing discontent took place on the Ovens, where a commissioner who

had been unnecessarily rough to unlicensed diggers was assaulted and

severely injured. But as violence was deprecated by the great body of

miners, they held large meetings, in order to agitate in a more

constitutional manner for the abolition of the fee. At first they sent a

petition to Governor Latrobe, who declined to make any change. It was

then hinted that, possibly, they might be driven to use force; and the

Governor replied that, if they did, he was determined to do his duty.

But in August, 1853, when the agitation was increasing, Latrobe

hurriedly reduced the fee to twenty shillings per month. This appeased

the miners for a time; but the precipitancy with which the Governor had

changed his intention showed too plainly the weakness of the Government,

for there was at that time scarcely a soldier in Victoria to repress an

insurrection, if one should break out. Among the confused crowds on the

goldfields there were numbers of troublesome spirits, many of them

foreigners, who were only too happy to foment dissension. Thousands of

miners had been disappointed in their hopes of wealth, and, being in a

discontented frame of mind, they blamed the Governor for their


In spite of the concession that had been made to them, a spirit of

dissatisfaction prevailed throughout all the goldfields; mutterings were

heard as of a coming storm, and Latrobe, in alarm, sent to all the

neighbouring colonies to ask for troops. As the Ninety-ninth Regiment

was lying idle in Hobart Town, it was at once despatched to Melbourne.

Governor Hotham. While matters were in this state, Governor Latrobe

retired from office; and in June, 1854, Sir Charles Hotham arrived to

fill the position. On his first arrival, he showed that his sympathies

were, to a great extent, with the diggers. But he could scarcely be

expected to make any important change until he had been a few months in

the colony, and had learnt exactly the state of affairs, and, meanwhile,

the discontent on the goldfields was daily increasing. The months of

September and October, in 1854, were exceedingly dry; the creeks were

greatly shrunk in volume, and in many places the diggers could find no

water either for drinking or for gold-washing; and their irritation was

not at all soothed by the manners of the commissioners and police.

Besides this, the Government had thought it necessary to form a camp on

the goldfields, so that a large body of soldiers dwelt constantly in the

midst of the miners. The soldiers and officers, of course, supported the

commissioners, and, like them, soon came to be regarded with the

greatest disfavour.

The goldfield population was in this irritable state when a trifling

incident kindled revolt.

Riot at Ballarat. A digger named Scobie, late one evening, knocked

at the door of Bentley's Hotel, at Ballarat. Finding the place closed

for the night, he tried to force an entrance, and continued his clamour

so long that Bentley became angry, and sallied forth to chastise him. A

crowd gathered to see the fight, and, in the darkness, Scobie's head was

split open with a spade. Whose hand it was that aimed the blow no one

could tell; but the diggers universally believed that Bentley was

himself the murderer. He was therefore arrested and tried, but acquitted

by Mr. Dewes, the magistrate, who was said by the diggers to be secretly

his partner in business. A great crowd assembled round the hotel, and a

digger, named Kennedy, addressed the multitude, in vigorous Scottish

accents, pointing out the spot where their companion's blood had been

shed, and asserting that his spirit hovered above and called for

revenge. The authorities sent a few police to protect the place, but

they were only a handful of men in the midst of a great and seething

crowd of over eight thousand powerful diggers. For an hour or two the

mob, though indulging in occasional banter, remained harmless. But a

mischievous boy having thrown a stone, and broken the lamp in front of

the hotel, the police made a movement as if they were about to seize the

offender. This roused the diggers to anger, and in less than a minute

every pane of glass was broken; the police were roughly jostled and cut

by showers of stones; and the doors were broken open. The crowd burst

tumultuously into the hotel, and the rooms were soon swarming with men

drinking the liquors and searching for Bentley, who, however, had

already escaped on a swift horse to the camp. As the noise and disorder

increased, a man placed a handful of paper and rags against the wooden

walls of the bowling alley, deliberately struck a match, and set fire to

the place. The diggers now deserted the hotel and retired to a safe

distance, in order to watch the conflagration. Meanwhile a company of

soldiers had set out from the camp for the scene of the riot, and on

their approach the crowd quietly dispersed; but by this time the hotel

was reduced to a heap of smouldering ruins.

Conviction of Rioters. For this outrage three men were apprehended

and taken to Melbourne, where they were tried and sentenced to

imprisonment. But Bentley was also re-arrested and tried, and as his

friend Dewes could on this occasion be of no assistance to him, he was

sentenced to three years of hard labour on the roads. Dewes was

dismissed from the magistracy, and Sir Charles Hotham did everything in

his power to conciliate the diggers. They were not to be thus satisfied,

however, and held a stormy meeting at Ballarat, in which they appointed

a deputation, consisting of Kennedy, Humffray, and Black, to demand from

the Governor the release of the three men condemned for burning

Bentley's Hotel. Hotham received them kindly, but declined to accept

their message, because, he said, the word "demand" was not a suitable

term to use in addressing the representative of Her Majesty. As the

diggers were haughty, and refused to alter the phrase, the Governor

intimated that, under these circumstances, no reply could be given. The

delegates having returned to Ballarat, a great meeting was held, and

Kennedy, Humffray, Black, Lalor, and Vern made inflammatory speeches, in

which they persuaded the diggers to pass a resolution, declaring they

would all burn their licences and pay no more fees.

Insurrection at Ballarat. Skirmishes between the soldiers and

diggers now became frequent; and, on the 30th of November, when the last

"digger hunt" took place, the police and soldiers were roughly beaten

off. The diggers, among their tents, set up a flagstaff, and hoisted a

banner of blue, with four silver stars in the corner. Then the leaders

knelt beneath it, and, having sworn to defend one another to the death,

proceeded to enrol the miners and form them into squads ready for

drilling. Meantime the military camp was being rapidly fortified with

trusses of hay, bags of corn, and loads of firewood. The soldiers were

in hourly expectation of an attack, and for four successive nights they

slept fully accoutred, and with their loaded muskets beside them. All

night long lights were seen to move busily backwards and forwards among

the diggers' tents, and the solid tread of great bodies of men could be

heard amid the darkness. Lalor was marshalling his forces on the

slopes of Ballarat, and drilling them to use such arms as they

possessed--whether rifles, or pistols, or merely spikes fastened at the

ends of poles.

The Eureka Stockade. Sir Charles Hotham now sent up the remaining

eight hundred soldiers of the Ninety-ninth Regiment, under Sir Robert

Nickle, and to these he added all the marines from the men-of-war and

nearly all the police of the colony. They were several days on the

march, and only arrived when the disturbance was over. The diggers had

formed an entrenchment, called the Eureka Stockade, and had enclosed

about an acre of ground with a high slab fence. In the midst of this

stronghold they proclaimed the "Republic of Victoria"; and here they

were able to carry on their drilling unmolested, under the command of

the two leaders--Vern, a German, and Peter Lalor, the son of an Irish

gentleman. They sent out parties in every direction to gather all the

arms and ammunition they could obtain, and made extensive preparations

for an assault; but, imagining that the soldiers would never dream of

attacking them until the arrival of Sir Robert Nickle, they kept guard

but carelessly. Captain Thomas--who commanded the troops in the

camp--determined to finish the affair by a sudden attack; and, on

Saturday night, whilst the diggers were amusing themselves in fancied

security, he was carefully making his preparations. On Sunday morning,

just after daybreak, when the stockade contained only two hundred men,

Captain Thomas led his troops quietly forth, and succeeded in

approaching within three hundred yards of the stockade without being

observed. The alarm was then given within; the insurgents rushed to

their posts, and poured a heavy volley upon the advancing soldiers, of

whom about twelve fell. The attacking party wavered a moment, but again

became steady, and fired with so calm and correct an aim, that, whenever

a digger showed himself, even for a moment, he was shot. Peter Lalor

rose on a sand heap within the stockade to direct his men, but

immediately fell, pierced in the shoulder by a musket ball. After the

firing had lasted for twenty minutes there was a lull; and the

insurgents could hear the order "Charge!" ring out clearly. Then there

was an ominous rushing sound--the soldiers were for a moment seen above

the palisades, and immediately the conflict became hand-to-hand. The

diggers took refuge in the empty claims, where some were bayoneted and

others captured, whilst the victors set fire to the tents, and soon

afterwards retired with 125 prisoners. A number of half-burnt palisades,

which had fallen on Lalor, concealed him from view; and, after the

departure of the soldiers, he crawled forth, and escaped to the ranges,

where a doctor was found, who amputated his arm. The Government

subsequently offered a reward of L500 for his capture; but his friends

proved true, and preserved him till the trouble was all past.

The number of those who had been wounded was never exactly known, but it

was found that twenty-six of the insurgents had died during the fight,

or shortly afterwards; and in the evening the soldiers returned and

buried such of the dead bodies as were still lying within the stockade.

On the following day, four soldiers who had been killed in the

engagement were buried with military honours. Many of the wounded died

during the course of the following month, and in particular the colony

had to lament the loss of Captain Wise, of the Fortieth Regiment, who

had received his death wound in the conflict.

Trial of the Rioters. When the news of the struggle and its issue

was brought to Melbourne, the sympathies of the people were powerfully

roused in favour of the diggers. A meeting, attended by about five

thousand persons, was held near Prince's Bridge, and a motion, proposed

by Mr. David Blair, in favour of the diggers, was carried almost

unanimously. Similar meetings were held at Geelong and Sandhurst, so

that there could be no doubt as to the general feeling against the

Government; and when, at the beginning of 1855, thirteen of the

prisoners were brought up for trial in Melbourne, and each in his turn

was acquitted, crowds of people, both within and without the courts,

greeted them, one after another, with hearty cheers as they stepped out

into the open air, once more free men.

Improvements on the Goldfields. The commission appointed by Sir

Charles Hotham commenced its labours shortly after the conclusion of the

riot, and in its report the fact was clearly demonstrated that the

miners had suffered certain grievances. Acting upon the advice of this

commission, the Legislative Council abolished the monthly fee, and

authorised the issue of "Miners' Rights," giving to the holders, on

payment of one pound each per annum, permission to dig for gold in any

part of the colony. New members were to be elected to the Council, in

order to watch over the interests of the miners, two to represent

Sandhurst, two for Ballarat, two for Castlemaine, and one each for the

Ovens and the Avoca Diggings. Any man who held a "Miner's Right" was

thereby qualified to vote in the elections for the Council.

These were very just and desirable reforms, and the Government added to

the general satisfaction by appointing the most prominent of the diggers

to be justices of the peace on the goldfields. Thus the colony very

rapidly returned to its former state of peaceful progress, and the

goldfields were soon distinguished for their orderly and industrious