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The Revolt at Eureka’ cover by R. Wenban. Schools Publishing House, 1959.

The Labor Call 3 Jan 1935 pg 13

Eureka Stockade

Labor Hour over 3KZ

Monday, 3rd December, marked the eightieth anniversary of the Eureka Stockade, Australia’s nearest approach to internal warfare, and the most inspiring chapter in the annals of democracy. How many voters today when escorted to the polling booths by political canvassers and often transported in motor cars, realise that eighty years ago the 20-odd miners of Ballarat laid down their lives, and many others suffered unusual hardships in order that such political ?? should be obtained? Surely such an episode is worthy of commemoration, and particularly worthy of attention of young Australians!

Let us glance at the prevailing economical and social conditions of the period to see a reason why men felt called upon to make such a sacrifice.

Just prior to the discovery of gold, Victoria was in 1851 separated from N.S.Wales, and the first Governor, La Trobe, appointed; he had the assistance of a Legislative Council which, needless to say, was elected on a most limited franchise of property-holders. The population increased rapidly from 90,000 early in 1852 to 250,000 in 1853, as a result of the gold activities, and the costs of administration were financed largely from the gold licenses. Every miner had to pay for his license at the rate of 30/- per month. This amount of £18 a year was a considerable sum indeed, on top of it the miner had also to pay ?? for right to work ground. It is estimated that the diggers paid somewhere between £500,00 and £800,000 per annum direct taxation; while on the other hand the great land holders and wool producers who had control of the political estate paid £20,000, while the squatters could pay as they pleased. The method of collecting the license from the diggers was most barbarous. The police on the goldfields, who were charged with the duty of inspecting the licenses, carried out their work in a most brutal manner. It was a common thing for a digger who was found without a license to be chained to a log for a couple of days before being brought before the authorities, from whom he received no sympathetic consideration. Contemporary records all bear testimony to the violent and inhuman scene that occurred as the tyrannical and often corrupt officials proceeded on their rounds.

PETITIONS IGNORED Even the “Argus” of the time (6/11/1854) stated that “armed parties of tax-foragers have hunted men and burnt down dwellings, like in the Russian provinces and on the Victorian goldfields.” Being de-franchised the only means the diggers had of drawing attention to their difficulties was to petition the authorities, petitions which were ignored by the Governor. It was realised that some other means would have to be adopted before any reform could be achieved. La Trobe was displaced by Hotham, but the change of personages meant nothing as the system went on. As the year 1854 passed on it was clear that a struggle was imminent. Already there had been loud protests from Bendigo concerning the administration and the exorbitant license fee. It was asked that the license fee be reduce to 10/- per month, a request which was contemptuously rejected. The movement spread to Ballarat, where the whole of the goldfields were soon alive with agitation. The Governors’ reply was to send military re-inforcements.

The first outbreak of actual violence occurred at Bentley’s Hotel on October 17th, 1854, and although Professor Scott (History of Australia) may refer to this incident as a “local squabble”, it has much deeper significance. Bentley, the disreputable owner of a low- class inn, had been discharged by the local magistrate, Dewes, before whom he was arraigned on the charge of murdering a digger. The evidence against Bentley was so strong that it was generally believed that he was guilty and the magistrate had on previous occasions been suspected of corruption. The diggers were so incensed at this perversion of justice that they took matters into their own hands, and Bentley would have been lynched if he had not escaped in the night. The magistrate, Dewes, was later dismissed, fled to British Columbia, where he was committed for embezzlement, and ended his days in Paris by committing suicide. This was the type of official on the goldfields, and the diggers having no political rights, and no voice in the administration, could only act on the lines they did. If any administration wished to hold popular respect it should be free from any suspicious corruption, nor should it be actuated by any untoward motives.

MILITARY DEFIED Events thereafter moved rapidly. The Governor hoped to overawe the people by a display of military force; The miners were determined to see the struggle through, cost what it might, since they realised that, disfranchised as they were, ?icluded by despotic officials, and were despised by a Governor who was accustomed to ruling the quarter deck of a ship, they must make their demands made in no uncertain manner.

The Ballarat Reform League was inaugurated, which had for its objects political representation, manhood suffrage, abolition of propery qualification for members of Legislative Council, abolition of license fees, and certain changes in the system of administration. To use the words of a local newspaper, “ Ballarat Times”; “ The League had undertaken a mighty task- that of changing the dynasty of the country.” The editor of the paper Henry Seekamp, who was later tried for sedition, rendered excellent service to the cause of the diggers, and although Rusden, in his History of Australia, vol 2 may refer to him as “wretched creature”- a remark quite unworthy of anyone with any pretensions of being an historian- democracy has every reason to be grateful for his outspoken and able writing. It was now only a matter of time before some armed conflict took place. To quote “The Argus” (28/10/4) of the period once again: “Such events have generally been found essential in the progress of liberty and good government. Canada could not get a British statesman to listen to her till she broke into rebellion. We have not been successful in gaining the ear of Downing-street on the subject of convictism because we have been too loyal to venture upon a similar demonstration.” Shades of the past! Oh, that we had a daily newspaper of such outspoken sentiments today!

Unknown maker (Australia), The flag of the Southern Cross (Eureka Flag), 1854, wool, cotton.
Art Gallery of Ballarat Collection. Gift of the King family, 2001

REPUBLICAN FLAG The subsequent events that took place in the last days of November are well known. Further petitions rejected by the authorities, mass meetings of protest by the diggers, and the burning of the licences and the forming of the diggers into some sort of military detachments. Then came the erection of the famous stockade, which was intended for a screen behind which to carry on drilling rather than a protective barrier, the raising of the flag, the Southern Cross, and taking the famous oath. The last license hunt took place on Thursday, 30th November, when amidst some violent scenes, a large number of diggers were arrested. It is interesting to note at this stage, the various personalities who found their way to the front as popular leaders. At first J B Humffray and Timothy Hayes were the most prominent, then as the crisis approached, Peter Lalor, by his strength of character, courage, and a clear perception of the objective became the Commander. Supporting him were Kennedy and Black: Vern, an Hanoverian, who was reputed to have some knowledge of military tactics; Raffaelo, a picturesque Italian, whose reminiscences have been preserved to us in book form; and Loven, a Russian, and one of the first to die at the barricades.

From a military point of view the position of the diggers was hopeless. They had certainly the numbers on the goldfield but lacked organisation and equipment; firearms and ammunition were scarce, many of the defenders being armed with crude pikes which a zealous German blacksmith had turned out; while the stockade itself offered little protection to those within and less obstruction to any attackers. Certainly, additional numbers of gallant miners marched in from Creswick and surrounding districts, but these re-inforcements created greater problems for Lalor and his Lieutenants in the way of providing food and accommodation. Spies were active on this occasion, as they always are when the working classes are involved in a vital struggle, and the military officers were well informed of the movements of the diggers. On the fateful Sunday morning, when, under cover of the grey mist, a military force of 276 men silently approached the stockade, there were scarcely 200 defenders in it, and it was believed that of these only about 50 were armed with rifles. Though the fight could have only one result, there are individual deeds which must live forever in the history of freedom, and deserve Democracy’s Victoria Cross.

LOYALTY AND SOLIDITY Lalor, roused from a sleep of exhaustion, rushed to the barricade, and was shot down by a severe shoulder wound. Thonen and Ross, the next two leaders with any military experience, were killed outright, and the German blacksmith who made the pikes wielded one with good effect until laid low by the sword of a military officer. In less than half and hour what had been the camp of the gallant diggers was under the heel of the conqueror, and soon to be a mass of smoking ruins. Lalor, badly wounded was hidden in a shaft, and his subsequent rescue and concealment from the authorities, despite the fact that a reward of £400 was placed on his head, speaks volumes for the loyalty and solidity of the people for whom he fought. Vern and Black escaped to have a reward of £400 placed on their heads; while Raffaelo was taken prisoner. It is estimated that nearly 30 diggers lost their lives, while the number of wounded will never be known. 125 were taken prisoners, from whom 13 were chosen to be tried for treason. At this stage it looked like defeat for the miners and a smashing victory for the authorities. The military were triumphant; whatever semblance of defence the diggers possessed had been destroyed, their leaders killed, captive, or exiled, and the general populace, cowed before the savage onslaught of the troopers. Law and Order had been vindicated, and the rebellious elements squashed.

But Victoria was aroused.