John Phelan

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State Prisoners, 1855.
Courtesy Ballarat Heritage Services.


John Michael Phelan died at Cobden on 21 February 1871, aged 42. He was buried on 23 February 1874 at Terang. His parents were Michael Phelan and Catherine McEvoy.

Goldfields Involvement, 1854

A juror at the James Scobie Inquest.

John Phelan was a friend of Peter Lalor and was armed with a sword in the Eureka Stockade on 03 December 1854. He tried to flee after the battle, but Trooper John Culkin stuck Phelan with the flat of his sword. Lieutenant Hall then disarmed Phelan and handcuffed him.[1]

Post 1854 Experiences

VICTORIA. By the Ann Key from Melbourne, we have news from the colony to the 13th instant
The colony was considered sufficiently quiet and composed as to be able to dispense with the services of the three companies of the 99th Regt., which have been at Melbourne since the Ballarat disturbances, and they had consequently been sent back to Hobart Town in the City of Hobart Steamer, which was chartered for the purpose at an expense of £900. Col. Reeves had left for England in the James Baines on leave of absence.
We take the following extracts from a summary in the Geelong Advertiser, prepared for the mail per the James Baines:-
The whole story of the Ballarat riots must be ere this familiar to the British public. It will be remembered that out of the 125 prisoners made at the Eureka Stockade, thirteen were retained for trial, on the capital charge of high treason. They were brought to trial early in January, but from some official neglect on the part of the Attorney General, W. Foster Stawell (cousin of the discarded Colonial Secretary) the prisoners had not been furnished with c0pies of the indictment. Again the trials were fixed for 5th February, but the Attorney General, for some unexplained reason, caused their postponement in- definitely. Hopes were entertained that this postponement implied an abandonment of the prosecution on the part of the crown. It was known that the commission appointed to inquire into the administration of the law on the gold fields, and to ascertain what reality there was in certain grievances complained of, had recommended the granting of an amnesty to all the rioters. Tile Government, however, finally determined on bringing all the prisoners to trial, on a charge of high treason.
On the 22nd February the court opened, presided over by His Honor Sir William a'Beckett, the Chief Justice. The thirteen prisoners were placed in the dock. Their names were- Timothy Hayes, Charles Raphelo, John Manning, John Joseph, J. Vennick, James Beattie, Henry Reed, Michael Tuohy, James Macfie Campbell, William Molloy, Jacob Sorenson, Thomas Dignam, and John Phelan.
The right of challenging jurymen being claimed by each prisoner, necessitated their being tried separately. Hayes and Raphelo were remanded on affidavit of absence of material witnesses. Manning was also remanded on account of absence, from illness, of counsel.
John Joseph, a man of color, being next on the list was then placed in the dock. One hundred and eighty jurors had been summoned, and both the Attorney General and the prisoner exercised freely their right of challenge, which process took up nearly an hour before they were finally empanelled. The routine of scanning the physiognomy and person of each juryman prior to challenge or admission, was gone through amidst the most uprorious laughter, in which His Honor the Chief Justice joined. Joseph's trial occupied two days ; the clearest evidence was given of his having been found armed within the insurgent's stockade ; he was identified as having been seen drilling and generally acting with the insurgents at all their meetings. These facts were distinctly proved by the evidence of sundry troopers, who had been sent in different disguises to the various gatherings of the disaffected, and confirmed by the evidence of several soldiers and others of the attacking party ; one soldier went so far to say that to the beat of his observation it was the prisoner Joseph who fired, the bullet by which Captain Wise was fatally wounded. It is currently believed that the evidence of the Crown witnesses contained many inaccuracies and exaggerations, as indeed might have been expected both from those who had mixed with the insurgents as spies, and others who, as having formed part of the military force by which the stockade was stormed and taken, could scarcely be considered sufficiently disinterested to give impartial evidence. But as already stated, the main charges against Joseph were substantially proved. The jury evidently considered that it lay with them to declare the commission of such acts by the prisoner amounted to high treason; they, by returning a verdict of Not Guilty, recorded their opinion that the accused, although guilty of arming himself against the authorities on the gold fields, was not guilty of high treason. Joseph's trial occupied two days.
The next prisoner on the list, John Manning, was brought to trial on the 26th Feb, and the evidence in his case was similar to that given at Joseph's trial. Manning had previously to the outbreak been employed as reporter for the Ballarat Times, and had at the trial of the editor of that journal for addition, declared by affidavit that he was the author of certain articles for which the editor and proprietor was prosecuted for sedition, and found guilty. As in Joseph's case, his evidence of Manning, having attended meetings of the disaffected was quite clear, as the fact of him having been one of the defenders of the stockade. The Jury, however, returned a verdict of not guilty.
There yet remained eleven prisoners in custody on the same charge. On the day following the acquittal of Manning the Attorney General applied for a remand until next Criminal Sessions. The Attorney General disclaimed any reflection upon the propriety of the verdicts given he intimated that his own opinion was very different from the conclusion come to by the jury, and hinted that he had no confidence in the present panel, and felt it to be his duty from the nature of the offence charged to proceedings with the remaining prisoners.[2]

In the News

While the victors of Eureka were removing the dead, the wounded, and the captured from the stockade, Peter Lalor, the diggers' leader lay under the pile of slabs in which he had been hidden, bleeding from the wound in his arm. A musket-ball had shattered the bone close to the shoulder, and the few who knew where he was lying saw the blood trickling from beneath the pile of slabs even while the soldiers, keen to capture him, were still in the stockade. When the last of them had gone Lalor was helped from his hiding-place, put upon a white horse, and rode away through the bush towards Warrenheip. There he claimed shelter at the hut of a man he knew. The digger was absent, and his wife went to look for him. Lalor, however, doubted her genuineness, and believing that she had gone to communicate with the police, he took to the bush again for shelter. All that night he wandered about, with his crushed arm still swinging useless and unattended. He was greatly weakened from loss of blood, and only his indomitable pluck kept him up. Towards morning he determined to seek assistance from Stephen Cummins, an old friend whom he could trust, and who lived with his wife on Pennyweight Hill.
It was on the early morning of the Monday following the fight that Mrs. Cummins drew her husband's attention to a man walking slowly between the holes on the flat, and said, "That is Peter Lalor; I feel sure of it." "As I ran down to help him,"
Steve Cummins told a friend, "his face was grey and worried. He looked like a frail old man rather than a powerful young one, so greatly had pain and loss of blood during the 24 hours weakened him. I helped him into the hut, where as well as we could my wife and I bandaged the wounded arm. I knew that my hut was no place for him. A reward of £200 had been offered for his arrest, and there were many mean spirits keen to earn it. Our friendship was well known, and I felt sure that sooner or later my place would be searched by the Police. I ran at once across the gully to the Roman Catholic Presbytery and told Father Smyth that Lalor was in my tent badly wounded and in need of surgical assistance. I told him my fears as to the police visiting us, and Father Smyth said, 'He will be safer here, I think. Bring him over after dark.' so that night we took him across to the presbytery, meeting, fortunately, not a soul upon the road."
Steve Cummins's intuition had served him well, for next night the police searched his hut, just at the time when he was watching Drs. Doyle and Stewart amputating Peter Lalor's arm, for the severity of the wound and the delay in treating it precluded any possibility of the arm being saved. Through the ordeal of amputation, as in every other emergency of life, he showed that fine courage which nothing could shake. He was a stalwart who knew no fatigue, as it was ordinarily understood, and long before he became a prominent man in Ballarat it was frequently his custom to walk to Geelong to see his sweetheart, and then walk back to his work again.
A man employed about the Presbytery took the severed arm away as soon as the operation was over, and threw it down an abandoned shaft, but by Father Smyth's orders it was recoved later and properly buried. The first operation was not complete. A portion of the bullet remained lodged in the stump of the arm, and it was only after a second operation at Geelong that the wound healed properly. When the wounded leader had sufficiently recovered to move about he and Hayes, one of the fire-eating orators of the Diggers' Reform League meetings, were taken to a store near Brown's Hill, where they were safely sheltered until a chance of getting clear away from Ballarat should present itself.
Lalor's escape was greatly aided by a carrier named Michael Carroll, who died at Geelong within the last few months, and whose son is still living in Ballarat. They used to bring up loads of goods and hawk them on the diggings. "One day," says the younger Mr. Carroll, who was then but a boy, "we stopped at the hut of an old friend of my father's, Michael Hayes (not the orator, Timothy), and yarned about old times. There was a piece of green baize hanging at one end of the hut, but I did not guess then that there was anyone behind it. As soon as we left the house it seems Lalor, knowing that my father had come from Geelong, asked if we could be trusted. Mrs. Hayes told him that we could, and we were called back to the hut. On going in we saw that the baize partition had been drawn back, and Lalor was sitting on a stretcher. 'Do you know who I am?' he asked. 'Yes,' my father said, 'you are Peter Lalor.' He asked us to take a letter down to Geelong to Miss Dunn, the school-mistress, the lady whom he afterwards married, and it was arranged that we should take Lalor himself down on the succeeding trip. I remember the great secrecy that was observed, for there were troopers up and down the roads every day, and all over the country, most of them alert for any trace of the Eureka leaders. Nearly every dray on the roads had a small tent fixed upon it, so we cut some whipsticks, and formed a tilt on one of our drays over which we hung a tarpaulin. One Sunday morning I took the tilted cart down to Hayes's tent, and with several men on the watch, in case of surprise, we took Lalor down by Eureka, and across towards Warrenheip, stopping for for a while at Steve Cummins's tent. We went away out by the Green Hills, having determined to take the back track all the way to Geelong, to travel by night only and camp in the bush during the day.
"Lalor walked most of the way, keeping a bit out from the track in the bush, so that in the event of meeting any mounted troopers suddenly he should not be taken by surprise. It has been said that we met police on the road, who asked us about Lalor, and could have seen him sitting in the dray had they been curious enough to lift the flap of the tarpaulin. That is not so, for the only adventure we had was on the second morning of the journey.
"Lalor was not yet quite recovered from his wound, and had been supplied with some wine for use on the road. As the weather was very hot the wine was finished by the time we reached Lethbridge — then known as the Muddy Water Holes. In the early morning, therefore, my father went across to the Separation Hotel and roused up the landlord to get some more wine. As he was returning to the drays he met two men who had been camped under a tree rolling up their swags, and one of them, named Burns, whom we knew, asked for a 'lift' into Geelong. My father put him off with the excuse that he intended to load up with some wood a little further on, but as they passed the dray in which Lalor sat, Burn's mate caught a glimpse of him. 'Did you notice who was under that tarpaulin?' he asked, 'It was Lalor, the Eureka man. Now, there's a big reward offered for him, so I intend to follow the drays quietly to Geelong, put the police on to him, and get the reward.'
"Burns was a genuine fellow, with no taste for such dirty work, so he determined to baulk his mate, and to do it the more effectually he pretended acquiescence. 'It's a good thing,' he agreed; 'don't say a word about it. We'll go and have a drink on the strength of it.' They got a bottle of whisky, and Burns gave his mate such good measure that he was soon hopelessly drunk. Leaving him at the hotel Burns ran across to where we were camped, and said to my father. 'For God's sake get Lalor away as quickly as you can. My mate has recognised him, and he's going to lay the police on to you. I'll keep him drunk until you get away.' We were rather anxious after that, especially when going down the main road, but we landed Lalor at Miss Dunn's place at about one in the morning, and he was afterwards taken to the Queen's Head Hotel in South Geelong.
"Lalor chatted frequently with my father about the Eureka fight on the way down. It was not easy, indeed, to avoid the subject, for nearly every second tree trunk had the proclamation offering a reward for his capture. I heard him say that on the morning of the riot they would have beaten back the soldiers if the diggers had been able to get into anything like proper formation. He tried to get them into order — those with rifles in the front rank for the long range fighting, the revolver corps next for closer work, and the pike men in reserve for a hand to hand struggle. The men, however, rushed pell-mell from the tents when alarm was given, and were all mixed up together."
Peter Lalor remained in hiding at Geelong until it was seen that no jury would convict the Eureka rioters, and he then communicated with the Attorney-General, who told him that he was free to go as he pleased. He returned immediately to Ballarat, where he was enthusiastically welcomed, and the diggers, headed by Steve Cummins, collected £1,000 to start him in business.
It is said, indeed, that Lalor went back to Ballarat while the reward for his apprehension, dead or alive, was still in force, and many thought him greatly daring in doing so. He even attended a public land sale to bid for some allotments, and when the land officer asked "What name, sir?" believing a fictitious one would be given, the rebel of Eureka, in a voice that was of itself a challenge said "Peter Lalor." He looked up his former mate, John Phelan, and the two bought a farm at Coghill's Creek, where he remained until the miners of Ballarat elected him a member of the Legislature. Then began the political career which had its climax in his being six times chosen as Speaker of the Assembly of Victoria.
The flight and hiding of Frederick Vern for whom the Government, believing him to be the real commander-in-chief at Eureka, offered a reward of £500 — was characteristic of the man. He was given shelter by some miners far out in the ranges. On going to work in the morning they used to leave him in the tent, lacing it up outside so as to give the impression that it was unoccupied. Vern hardly knew whether to be pleased or scared by the fact that £500 was offered for his arrest, and only £200 a-piece for the other leaders of the outbreak. It flattered his vanity that he should be singled out for special notice, but alarmed him lest it should lead to his apprehension. Vern, as described in the proclamation, must have een a somewhat peculiar person - 5ft. 10in, long light hair, falling heavily on the side of his head; little whisker, a large flat face, eyes light grey or green, and very wide asunder; speaks with a strong foreign accent."
While Vern was in hiding in the diggers' hut they persuaded him to write a farewell to Victoria, as though addressed from Port Phillip Heads, and with the idea of suggesting to the authorities that he had escaped from Victoria. The plan was pleasing to his self-conceit, and its execution a supreme specimen of what Raffaello called "sky blathering." "Farewell, my comrades," he said; "would to heaven I had died with you." "No fear," retorted the Italian, with a juster appreciation of his comrade's weaknesses than his own; "the length of your legs saved you."
An incident that well nigh cost Vern his life, from fright, closed his occupancy of the digger's tent. On day four troopers were seen riding up to the place. Vern, in a terrible funk, was hustled under the bunk, and the "possum" rug was pulled down so as to conceal him from view. The troopers stayed chatting for some time, and then left. When they had disappeared Vern was helped out. His face was ashy pale, he trembled violently in every limb, and it was some time before he could speak. Vern afterwards got three months in gaol for inciting miners to riot on the Black Lead, at Egerton, and was finally blotted out of publicity by a footnote to one of his own letters in the "Ballarat Star." Mr. J.B. Humffray and Mr. Thos. Loader were contesting Ballarat East, and Vern sought to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. When his game was exposed he accused Mr. Loader's "myrmidons" of forgery. His letters were compared, their genuineness made manifest, and the editor closed some cutting observations on the incident with "Mr. Vern's courage has become proverbial, his truthfulness is now deserving of an equally honourable distinction."
Another of the leaders who escaped was James McGill, a young American. After the diggers had been scattered on the summit of Eureka he started through the bush for Creswick, and, according to his own statement, went with the idea of seizing two field guns which were believed to be on Captain Hepburn's estate at Smeaton. He soon learned that not only had the last shot been fired in the diggers' insurrection, but that all his ingenuity would be needed to save himself from capture. Disguised in woman's clothes lent him at The Springs, he travelled by coach to Melbourne on the Tuesday after the fight, meeting on the road the military reinforcements under Sir Robert Nickle marching to Ballarat. George Francis Train, the weird American, who, though now an old man, still keeps himself under public notice by the wide distribution of his addresses and ideas, was then the Melbourne agent for the famous White Star line, and he sent M'Gill on board the Arabian disguised in the dress of an officer, and kept him there for some time. Train interviewed Sir Charles Hotham in M'Gill's interest, and took the young American out to Toorak to see the Governor, who, surprised at his youth, told him to go about his business and behave himself better in future. The only condition was that he should leave the colony at once, and Train, who had a weakness for dramatic effects, got him smuggled as an invalid to the sanitary station at the Heads, where he pondered by the sad sea waves and netted crayfish till the aquittal of the Eureka prisoners left him at liberty to make a fresh start.
Samuel Thomas Gill, Provident diggers in Melbourne, c1854, watercolour and gum arabic on paper.
Art Gallery of Ballarat, gift of Mr. Tony Hamilton and Miss. S.E. Hamilton, 1967.
Geelong appears to have been the haven of refuge for which nearly all the fugitives from Eureka made. Esmond was there for some time, as well as Lalor, and it is asserted that the police could have laid hands on both without much difficulty, but they had good friends in the town, and were not molested. Two others of the Reform League leaders for whom a reward was offered — Black and Kennedy — started for Geelong, keeping away from all the recognised tracks. Kennedy, as we have shown in a former sketch, was a Gascon— by impulse. Self-assertive even as a fugitive, he declared that he could find his way to Geelong via the Mount Misery Ranges. Before starting they disguised themselves, each cutting the other's beard off. On the evening of the first day's tramp the self-confidence of Kennedy had reduced itself merely to the conviction that they were lost in the bush. After tramping for some time they blundered upon an out-camp of Ballarat rowdies, where Kennedy wished to be mysterious, but Black told the diggers frankly that they had had a row with the authorities, and were flying for their lives. Soon afterwards they separated, Kennedy going bullock-driving, while Black managed to reach Melbourne, where he was for some time concealed by his friends.
It is interesting to compare the actual state of things — these solitary escapees trudging nervously through the gloom of the great gum forests, intent only on their own safety, and the state of affairs which distance rumour, or imagination had created in Melbourne. For some time it was rumoured that Vern and his associates were building another stockade in the Warrenheip Ranges. It was even declared that hordes of dangerous and bloodthirsty diggers were marching upon Melbourne, intent only on sack and pillage. Meetings were held in the city, and special police sworn in for its defence. There could be no greater contrast than between the rumoured and the real.
It is a singular thing that many of the men who took a leading part in the Eureka riot made a bad end. One was subsequently convicted of felony; one was killed by a fall of ground in a mine; a third fell from his horse near Kingston, and broke his neck; a fourth died in the Melbourne Hospital; a fifth in the Inglewood Hospital; a sixth in the lunatic asylum at Kew; while another committed suicide.[3]

See also


Scobie's Murder

Treason Trials

Further Reading

Corfield, J.,Wickham, D., & Gervasoni, C. The Eureka Encyclopaedia, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2004.


  1. Blake, Gregory, To Pierce the Tyrant's Heart, Australian Military History Publications, 2009, p.176.
  2. Perth Gazette, 30 March 1855.
  3. The Argus, 1 July 1899.

External links