As the Victorian gold rushes gathered pace, it very rapidly became obvious that the colony’s police force was ill-equipped to deal with the growing numbers of diggers. In July 1851, matters were made worse when all but two of Melbourne’s policemen quit and fled to the gold fields in search of riches.
By the beginning of 1852, Governor La Trobe wrote of the Mount Alexander diggings:
"The field now became the general rendezvous of a mixed multitude, amongst which the expiree population of Van Diemen’s Land, returned Californians, and the most profligate portion of the inhabitants of this and the adjacent colonies, became broadly conspicuous..."
It was largely concern with the heavy rate of migration from Van Diemen’s Land that resulted in the Convicts Prevention Act of 1852. This prevented convicts without a ticket-of-leave (denoting that their full sentence had expired) from entering Victoria.
As well as concern about the spreading stain of the convict presence on the gold fields, there was a growing fear that "decent" men would fall victim to the lure of greed and lapse into lawlessness and savagery. Caroline Chisholm saw the lack of family contact and isolation on the goldfields as the precursor to this "savage" behaviour:
"There are thousands and tens of thousands now at the diggings who have no earthly tie near them. They are fast losing all the associations of humanity. They are isolated beings, caring for no-one around them."
Although these claims were disputed by many who were on the diggings, there were a growing number of incidents, including rape and violent theft of gold and general possessions, which led to a growing call for law enforcement and protection.
Early in September 1851, members of a successful group of Ballarat diggers applied to Captain Dana, the commander of the Native Police Corp, for an escort party to see their gold safely to Geelong. After receiving a firm negative reply, the request went to Governor La Trobe, arguing that the payment of license fees should guarantee them some level of governmental protection. The first government gold escort, from Ballarat to Geelong, materialised within two weeks of that petition.
The initial "police" presence at the gold fields consisted of a small contingent of Aboriginal troopers, chosen largely because of the popular perception that gold was of little interest to the native population. As the population of the gold fields rapidly expanded (Mount Alexander alone had 25,000 people by the close of 1851), the need for an increased police presence was heightened.
A force wanting
Recruiting for policing positions was however, challenging on a number of fronts, first and foremost because wages were in no way equitable with the potential earnings on the diggings. Secondly, most potential police recruits were unreformed convicts, many of them lacking the necessary moral fibre required to provide law enforcement.
The diggers recognised "good" authority when they saw it and were spectacularly unimpressed with the new police, whose "...only item of uniform was a blue serge jumper, which – when accessorised with battered cabbage tree hat, dirty moleskins and a rough-cut demeanour - was unlikely to make them stand out in a crowd."
This lack of respect escalated into outright contempt when a force of military "pensioners" from Van Diemen’s Land was used to relieve a regiment stationed at the Mount Alexander diggings. The "pensioners" were, in fact, non-commissioned officers and privates of advanced years or infirmity who had agreed to serve out their army careers as convict guards in exchange for a grant of land and a cottage.
Instead of inspiring respect for their experience and age, the response from the diggers as the pensioners emerged from the morning mist was laughter and derision - not an auspicious start. In the two weeks before the Commissioner again petitioned La Trobe for fresh troops, the pensioners became more well-known for their love of the bottle than their ability to act as sentries.
La Trobe made renewed calls for "able bodied" police recruits, but it was not until Spring 1852, when revenue from gold licenses became available, that he met with success in attracting a better "class" of police recruit. A call was made in September for a new squad of police "officers" to lead the ramshackle troopers. He wanted educated types and cabin passengers who had found themselves unsuited to digging – in other words, failed new chums.
Diggers licensing Castlemaine Camp by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
The 'gentry' signs up
By Autumn 1853, there was a ratio of one officer (inspector or sub-inspector) to every six troopers. It was this new "gentrified" police force that began to further inflame the diggers. Their methods of policing were clearly antagonistic. These failed former "new chums" were once the brunt of digger derision – it was now their time to exact a measure of retribution!
The climate of cooperation between diggers and authority began to deteriorate further, and it was the increased use of soldiers that cemented the seeds of organised rebellion. This culminating in the most famous of all goldfield rebellions: the Eureka Stockade.
By Nicole Grant