Between 1851 and 1853, people flocked to Australia’s gold fields and the colony’s population quadrupled. Among those seeking their fortune were ex-convicts, thieves, bushrangers and swindlers, who made life on the diggings and surrounding roads hazardous. Armed robberies were common, as one visitor to the gold fields, Ellen Clacy, noted:
"...noone intending to turn digger should leave England without a good supply of firearms. In less than a week, more than a dozen robberies occurred between Kyneton and Forest Creek – two of which terminated in murder."
The problem of lawlessness on the diggings was made worse by a drastic shortage of police in the early days of the gold rush. In July 1851, all but two of Melbourne’s 40 police resigned and fled to the gold fields.
A governor shackled
Governor La Trobe desperately needed money to employ additional police, but found his hands tied by a Victorian legislature dominated by squatters who hated the diggers – the labor shortage caused by the stampede to the gold fields threatened the squatters’ livelihood, and in the Mount Alexander goldrush, almost every pastoral worker had decamped for the diggings.
Of the 30 members of Victoria’s Legislative Council, 20 were elected by the adult males in the colony who held pastoral licences or owned or occupied a property worth 10 pounds per annum in rent. Not surprisingly, the Victorian Parliament was known as "the House of Squatters".
Charles Joseph La Trobe by John Botterill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
Although La Trobe had the power to veto legislation, he could not implement laws or approve expenditure without a majority vote of the council – and the 20 elected members stubbornly refused to allow La Trobe to spend the government’s general revenue on any service connected to the gold fields except administration.
To find funds for police or infrastructure for the diggings, La Trobe was forced to "borrow" revenue from gold licenses: the revenue, by British law, was the property of the Crown, not the colony. (La Trobe had followed New South Wales and introduced a gold licensing system on September 1, 1851, whereby miners were allowed to keep the gold they found but had to pay a license fee of 30 shillings a month.)
In 1851, soon after the gold rushes started, La Trobe and the New South Wales governor had petitioned the British Government for advice on how the gold revenue should be used. But an answer was not received from England until March 1852. In the meantime, there were fears among the colonial government and the miners that England might decide to keep all gold revenue for itself, or even entirely prohibit the working of the goldfields. Therefore La Trobe had to be prudent with how much of the gold revenue his government spent.
'An abdication of sovereignty'
Their fears were not entirely unfounded. When the first news of New South Wales gold reached London, The Times argued for strict regulation of the mining in the colonies:
"If the Crown suffers all who please to gather gold on its lands, it is a virtual abdication of its sovereignty."
This drew an angry response three months later from digger JM Main, who wrote to the Argus warning that any oppressive measures on the Victorian goldfields would be "a monstrous piece of folly" and boasted that the whole army of England would be no match for "fifty thousand gold-diggers, who could be well armed and mounted within forty-eight hours’ notice".
In the meantime, despite his financial constraints, La Trobe tried to recruit more police by increasing wages from 2 shillings 6 pence to 6 shillings, employing 130 military pensioners from Van Diemen’s Land and accepting anyone who was willing to join the force.
This last measure had unfortunate consequences. It attracted many young, inexperienced recruits and ex-convicts, who would prove to be harsh and corrupt on the gold fields as they collected the gold license fees.
Resentment was rising among the miners, already angry over having to pay the 30 shilling license fee – the equivalent of a week’s wage – whether they found gold or not.
When La Trobe tried to raise more revenue by announcing in a proclamation on December 1st, 1851 that he would double the license fee to 3 pounds (effective from January 1st the following year) resentment turned to
fury, and around 3000 miners diggers gathered at Forest Creek to protest the
fees. One of the miners, Laurence Potts, addressed the crowd:
"Will you be ridden over with an iron hand, to please the wishes of the squatters or any other class?"
"Will you tamely submit to have your hard earnings torn from your grasp, to enrich the pockets of the few?"
"Or will you come forward like men, and maintain your rights?"
Although La Trobe changed his mind, leaving the fee at 30 shillings, miners remained bitter over the license system and its rigid enforcement - grievances that would later lead to the Eureka Stockade.
Money at last
But in March 1852, there was good news from England for the colonial governments. A dispatch from Earl Grey, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, had reached the New South Wales governor Sir Charles Fitz Roy, congratulating him on "very properly" instituting a system of gold licensing, and authorizing the colonial government to use the entire revenue on expenses arising from the gold rushes. Earl Grey also advised that their first priority should be "the establishment of an adequate police force for the maintenance of order amongst the seekers for gold."
At last La Trobe’s hands were untied and, in the months that followed, his government invested a large sum of money in badly-needed bridges and roads for the diggings, and the recruitment of extra police, who were paid 12 shillings and sixpence a day, plus board and lodging.
The problem of the police shortage was finally solved, as applications to join soon flooded in; unfortunately, the cure was to prove worse than the disease for many diggers, who would come to despise the police they had for so long called for.
By Kim Skeltys
Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.
Ellen Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings, 1853, republished by Lansdowne, 1965.
Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age. A history of the colony of Victoria, 1851- 1861, Melbourne University Press, 1968.
R.J. Unstead and W.F. Henderson. Police in Australia, A. and C. Black, 1973.
The Sovereign Hill Education Service website