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The Eureka Stockade

"Nothing can exceed the avidity, the rigidity, and arbitury spirit with which the license fees are enforced on the diggings, and the eagerness with which the Government sends off a batch of Commissioners and police to collect tax on every newly-discovered digging ... These things naturally grate dreadfully on the spirits of the digging population... especially when they see the arbitrary, Russian sort of way they are visited by the authorities..."
William Howitt.

While the imposition of gold licences was a constant source of aggravation on the diggings, it was the introduction of soldiers in the period 1852-53, and the subsequent arrival of the new governor Sir Charles Hotham in June 1854, that brought tension between the diggers and authority to a head.

When Hotham replaced La Trobe as Governor of Victoria, he immediately reduced government spending and begin rigorous enforcement of all licensing laws, starting with twice-weekly checks of licenses.

Hotham's actions brought all the simmering grievances of the diggers to the fore again; license hunts, the incompetence and corruption of the police and the inadequate services provided by the government of the goldfields. Added to this was the growing poverty of the Ballarat diggers. Yields per man from alluvial (shallow) mining were declining, and only very small claims were allowed. Shafts had to go down to greater depths, requiring enormous physical effort for very little reward.


A spark ignited

On October 6, 1854, two drunken Scots disturbed the publican of the Eureka Hotel, James Bentley, and asked for a drink. In the ensuing confrontation, one of the Scots, James Scobie, was kicked and clubbed to death. Bentley was an ex-convict from Van Dieman's land who was on very friendly terms with the local government officials. He was arrested by two of his friends, but was not committed for trial for murder by Police Magistrate Dewes despite his obvious guilt. The diggers were incensed, and saw this as clear evidence of corruption within the police and judiciary.


Site of Bentley's Hotel-Eureka Ballaarat by J Tingle
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H3781


The outrage felt by the diggers led to a meeting on October 17 to establish a committee to work to bring Bentley to trial. After the meeting, a crowd assembled at the Eureka Hotel and burnt it to the ground. Hotham reacted by ordering the arrest of Bentley and his mates, as well as the diggers who had burnt the hotel. Three diggers were found guilty of arson on November 25.


Great Meeting Of Gold Diggers Dec"R 15th 1851 by Thomas Ham
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H220


In the meantime, the diggers held a series of meetings and formed the Ballarat Reform League under the leadership of the Chartists Henry Holyoake (London), George Black (publisher) and JB Humffray (Welsh). Throughout November the diggers were frequently provoked by the ferocity of the license hunts. On November 11, a meeting of about 10,000 diggers adopted a program of reform, which was considered radical by the authorities. They demanded the release of the three diggers, the abolition of the License and Gold Commission and the vote for all males. A deputation was appointed to see Hotham, but was met by an antagonistic and uncompromising Governor.

This was reported back to the diggers at a meeting on November 29 at Bakery Hill. Amid growing tension on the goldfields, a detachment of extra troops from Melbourne had been greeted with intense hostility. About 12,000 diggers attended the meeting, which was held beneath a new flag, the Southern Cross. They decided, almost unanimously, to burn their licenses. The next day, Gold Commissioner Rede ordered a license hunt for the next day, which dawned hot and harsh. This was the spark that led to the diggers taking up arms.


Lalor calls for volunteers

Peter Lalor, who had only identified himself with the movement at the "Monster Meeting", called for volunteers to come forward to enlist. Several hundred took an oath of allegiance to the Southern Cross, and marched off to the Eureka diggings where a rough stockade was built from timber and slabs.

Throughout Friday, December 1, the diggers continued to build the stockade. They gathered as many firearms as possible, and began forging pike heads under Peter Lalor's direction. The forces inside the stockade were factionalised however, and the Chartists (Democrats) Humffray and Black did their best to dissuade the violence.


Eureka Stockade by Beryl Ireland
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H141890


On Saturday, December 2, the authorities decided to launch a pre-emptive strike. In the very early hours of Sunday morning, when only about 120 diggers were left inside the stockade, the British troops and mounted police launched their assault.

The battle was all over in 15-20 minutes, but for sometime afterwards the police troopers went berserk bayoneting and shooting wounded diggers. Five British troops (including a captain) and 22 diggers were killed or later died of their wounds. Many diggers were taken prisoner, but Peter Lalor escaped, albeit with his left arm shattered.

The immediate result of this "little rebellion" was a public reaction against Hotham and his secretary Foster, which led to the latter's resignation. License hunting became almost non-existent, and the Victorian jury convened to adjudicate the trial of 13 miners acquitted all but one: Henry Seekamp, the editor of the Ballarat Times. He was sentenced to six months for seditious libel.

The Gold Fields Royal Commission led to reform of the laws, and gave the miners almost everything they had asked for. The gold license was abolished and replaced by a miner's right costing one pound per year. Possession of this gave the digger a right to mine gold, and vote in the elections for parliament. Lalor and Humffray were elected unopposed in 1855 to the Legislative Council, and the former became Speaker of the House of Assembly in 1880.

Explore the media coverage of the rebellion at the State Library of Victoria's Eureka Stockade website. It includes an extensive collecion of newspaper articles from The Argus, as well as feature stories written by famous writers such as Raffaello Carboni.


Credits

By Nicole Grant

References:

Annear, Robyn, Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company 1999.

Bessant B, Blackmore W, Caven P, Cotter R, Waterson D. Edited by S. Mellor. Australian History: The Occupation of a Continent, Eureka Publishing, 1978.



 
 

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