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Diggers' justice

Police were scarce on the goldfields for many years. This most often left justice in the hands of the diggers, who sometimes demonstrated a thirst for blood:

Women were shreaking, men shouting and dogs barking. Some were for tying to a tree and lashing him with a rope’s end; other, for drowning him – although it would have been difficult to find enough water for such a purpose – others were for throwing him from a rock on the face of the hill as a salutary warning to all; in short these were unsophisticated ministers of justice made no distinction as to the measure of punishment to be meted out to their victim ...

Despite this, disputes were normally resolved peacefully, with moderate punishments for the offenders.

The rougher element, of whom there were a good many present, cried out ‘Hang the wretch,’ but by far the larger number ... were strongly opposed to the extreme penalty being meted out for such an offence ... Many rows took place ... which were only settled after a fair amount of gore had been spilt.

Typically, if the dispute could not be resolved between the few people involved, a "roll-up" would be called to allow the community to deliberate on the punishment. This normally began with heckles for blood.

String the wretch up! Hang the mongrel!

As the crowd would die down, a consensus as to the formulation of the punishment would emerge. Sometimes, the diggers would prepare a mock trial for the accused, setting up a jury, judge and prosecutor. John Marshall, in 1894, described the case of a man who had stolen gold:

Bull, thoroughly angered by his obstinacy, then said, ‘I shall call a roll-up, then,’ and seizing a tin dish from the store he beat a tattoo on it, which soon brought all the diggers into the camp to see what important matter was on hand that anyone should call a ‘roll-up’ on a Sunday morning. When the whole of the diggers had assembled Bull mounted a wagon ... and briefly told his story. As he proceeded there were loud cries of ‘Hang the wretch,’ ‘String him up,’ and other threats of a similar character, couched in less elegant, though more expressive language. It was decided that a formal trial should take place, and that a judge should be appointed, and the diggers in a body should act as a jury.

Other times, the crowd would just shout judgments until one was voiced that got the support of the majority of the diggers. Bob Raikes was centre-stage in one such rabble:

[He] cleared his way up to their victim with the easy strength of a giant, collared him first then calmly asked what he had done.
‘Plundered a tent!’ shouted a dozen voices at once.
‘And what do you intend doing to him?’ asked Raikes, with a winning calmness, which astonished by the self-command it exhibited.
‘Shoot the villain!’ cried one.
‘Drown him!’ cried another.
‘A hundred lashes!’ cried the third.
‘Hang him!’ cried a fourth.

The most frequent crime was, of course, theft, and normally the punishment was banishment from the goldfields or lashings. Expulsion was no small matter: those punished felt "every mark of disgrace and ignominy," and was considered a "pariah amongst diggers all over Australia". The crime and punishment was widely publicised in newspapers to ensure such banishment was complete. John Marshall wrote:

[He was] permitted to take sufficient water and provisions to carry him to the next town. He was then marched out of the camp amidst the groans and jeers of his fellows, well pleased to escape with his life.

Diggers' justice was a response to the lack of formal policing on the goldfields, and was a far from perfect legal model, which punishments determined on the run and by the makeshift 'jury' at hand. It was an unarguably simplistic judicial system - but one which nonetheless spared many greedy souls their lives and kept a tenuous order over the goldfields.


by Guy de Winton


Nancy Keesing, Gold Fever: Voices from Australian Goldfields, Griffin Press 1967

John Sherer, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, Clarke, Beeton, 1853.


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