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Burning of Bentley’s Hotel


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Disconcerted at the miscarriage of justice in the inquest and magisterial hearing into James Scobie’s murder, a large group of miners assembled on 17 October 1854 outside James Bentley’s hotel, both to demonstrate their indignation and to examine other options available to them regarding the restoration of justice. That afternoon a riot ensued, resulting in the apprehension of three miners, and propelling the mining community even further towards outright conflict with the authorities.

The Riot

On 16 October 1854 publican James Bentley, suspecting a public act of disobedience might occur, had written a letter to the Police Magistrate in Ballarat in an attempt to gain some form of assistance from the authorities:

‘as it was expected that some thousands would congregate, and that there was a feeling against the House, by persons who had heard the lying rumours that had been spread – and the great probability would be an attack by the whole mob upon me and the House, particularly if intoxication should exist to any extent. I therefore request that a strong force of protection may be present at 12 o’clock tomorrow to see that the Law is in no way violated’ (VPRS 1189/P Unit 92 Item 54/H 11.605).

Placards regarding the public assembly had been posted around the diggings and a large crowd was expected to attend. The meeting began after midday with the newly formed Committee for the Prosecution of the Investigation into the Death of the late James Scobie. The committee was set up, ‘for the purpose of considering the best means to be taken for the conviction of the murderer and also to have a demonstration of public feeling with regard to the manner in which the case has hitherto been conducted’ (VPRS 937/P Unit 1 Item 547/54). According to the report by Inspector Evans, the purpose of the meeting was to

‘petition the Government for a rehearing of Bentley’s case and the speakers endeavoured to impress upon the minds of the people the necessity for preserving peace and order’ (VPRS 937/P Unit 10, 547/54).

Once the meeting had closed at around 2.30 pm, thousands of people converged on the site where Scobie was murdered and proceeded to pelt the hotel with rocks and stones. By this time Bentley, having anticipated a riot, escaped the crowd using, a horse lent to him by Inspector Ximenes. Resident Gold Fields Commissioner Robert Rede was at the Eureka Camp when one of his troopers alerted him to the chaos and destruction. According to Rede’s report, he arrived at the scene within five minutes:

‘I tried to address the mob there were a great number surrounding the place on all sides, I do not think less than four thousand persons were assembled … I narrowly escaped several stones that were thrown at me … I then called in the military, I ordered them to occupy the house’ (VPRS 1189 Unit 1 Item 92 J54 12.471).

However, no sooner had they turned everyone out of the hotel, the Bowling Alley next door was set alight. With the situation compounded by the strong winds blowing that day, the entire building was swiftly consumed in flames, according to Rede, within half an hour. The following day, Inspector Evans wrote to Chief Commissioner MacMahon to inform him of the rumours that had been circulating, most notably that concerning the burning down of the Government Camp. Evans then wrote a letter requesting more troops be sent down from Melbourne. The rumours of this uprising against the government by the diggers propelled the authorities to take a more assertive approach. To avoid further humiliation at the hands of the diggers, letters were written to the Lieutenant Governor, informing him of the potential for further uprisings, and including an outline of the defence tactics that were to be used in protecting the camp.

The trials

Even as this correspondence went back and forth intensive investigations had begun. Within four days of the riot diggers Andrew McIntyre and Thomas Fletcher were arrested on suspicion of having played a part in the riots but were released on bail a few days later, much to the chagrin of Commissioner Rede. A few other men were also arrested, among them Henry Westerby (also known as ‘Yorkey’) and Albert Hurd. Although arrested for his participation in the riots, Hurd, an American, was not found guilty of any wrongdoing despite depositions against him that seemed to indicate otherwise. By mid November the search for rioters had officially been discontinued upon the request of Lieutenant Governor Hotham. On 20 November, the day Bentley, Hance and Farrell were sentenced to three years hard labour, three new defendants, McIntyre, Fletcher and Westerby, stood before Judge Redmond Barry to answer the charge of riot and accused of pulling down a dwelling house. Richard Davies Ireland, the defence counsel who only hours earlier had represented Bentley and his employees, was now defending the diggers. During the trial Ireland stated that had the authorities been more vigilant in dealing with the death of James Scobie the diggers would not have felt compelled to seek their own form of justice. The Attorney-General, William Stawell, taking great offence on the government’s behalf, retorted that the motive behind Ireland’s inflammatory statement was monetary. This was a claim the defence counsel vehemently denied, stating he was defending the three diggers pro bono. That afternoon, once all the evidence had been presented, the jury retired to discuss its verdicts but came back a couple of hours later claiming it was unable to reach a unanimous verdict and sought permission to take into consideration the ineptitude of the police on the day, as well as the provocation experienced by the diggers. Judge Barry’s response to this request was a resounding ‘No’. A little after 9 pm, after five hours of deliberation, the jury returned to present its verdict to the court. McIntyre, Fletcher and Westerby were found guilty with a recommendation for clemency. The jury surmised that had the government been more diligent in the performance of its duties there would not have been cause to deliberate over the future of the three unfortunate diggers. The crowd in the courtroom asserted its jubilation with loud cheers, even though Judge Barry refused to accept the jury’s rider, which in itself was considered unorthodox. The following day the prisoners assembled to hear their sentences. To begin with, Judge Barrycommented on the destructive nature of their actions, and then proceeded to hand down their sentences. Although all three were sentenced to serve time in what is now the Old Melbourne Gaol the duration of the sentences was not as harsh as anticipated. Westerby was to serve six months, Fletcher four and McIntyre only three. The leniency displayed by the judge may have been intended to avoid giving further motivation for acts of civil disobedience among the diggers.

Board of Enquiry

In the days that followed the trial of the Eureka hotel rioters, the Legislative Council, on the orders of the Board of Enquiry, was to print a report investigating the riot and the destruction of the hotel. J.B. Humffray, a digger and Secretary of the Committee of the Diggers League, had also approached the Board with concerns regarding the rectitude of those involved in the enquiry, fearing that honest grievances lodged with the authorities by the miners would be dismissed or concealed. The publication of the report exposed Police Magistrate D’Ewes’s relationship with Bentley, in particular through claims that D’Ewes was a part owner of the Eureka hotel, and from the testimony of witnesses claiming to have seen him frequent the hotel on numerous occasions. In light of the damning evidence against D’Ewes, Governor Hotham, embarrassed by his subordinate’s behaviour, ordered that he be removed from his role as Justice of the Peace. Disgraced by the Board’s findings, D’Ewes left the colony, and many years later was to commit suicide in France. Sergeant Major Milne’s underhanded dealings involving bribery and corruption were also exposed, and although he was not prosecuted he was made to relinquish his duties as a police officer. Otherwise, the Board was generally satisfied that the conduct of officers of the Ballarat camp had

‘been such as to merit the respect and confidence of the people’ (Riot at Ballarat, Report and Evidence of the Board of Enquiry into the Death of James Scobie and Burning of the Eureka Hotel, printed 21 November 1854, Votes & Proceedings, A.27/1854-55, p. xii – available for viewing at the State Library of Victoria).

The report did acknowledge, however, that the licence system was ineffective, and that its abolition would not only placate the diggers but would improve the conduct of those police thought to be taking advantage of the system. It was suggested by Frederick Vern, one of only sixteen diggers to have appeared before the Board, that many diggers had not come forward to give a more damning portrait of the Ballarat camp’s governance, because they had lost faith in government’s ability to remain impartial.

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