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Unrest on the Victorian goldfields did not begin with the battle at Eureka in 1854; rather it was a tragic climax of several years of political struggle between the new and expanding mining class and the colonial representatives of the British Empire.
The birth of the Colony of Victoria in 1851 was christened with the discovery of gold at Clunes in June that year. By September gold was discovered at Buninyong, which saw its quiet pastoral districts rapidly develop into a bustling community. With the influx of migrants from all corners of the globe, the government, ill-prepared for the sudden burst in population, wanted to secure revenue for the development of the newly established colony.
A licensing system was introduced, requiring all prospectors to pay a monthly fee for the opportunity to mine Victoria’s rich gold reserves. The system was overseen by a Chief Commissioner of the Goldfields, who collated weekly reports from the Resident Commissioners at each of the gold mining districts, and forwarded these to the Lieutenant Governor. The reports gave the Lieutenant Governor important information regarding the estimated population of each district, and the revenue secured from licences, fines and gold deposits – but gave little information on the increasing tension that existed between miners and local officials.
From 1851, gold diggers from a variety of districts, particularly Bendigo, held regular meetings and signed petitions calling for a review of the gold licensing system and other aspects of government administration. The rhetoric was infused with many of the ideals of Chartism that had swept across Britain from the 1830s seeking to extend political power to the working classes. What Victorian diggers were seeking was the franchise and representation in the Legislative Council. Without such representation, the miners were forced to agitate for change through their own informal political assemblies scattered throughout the districts, such as the Ballarat Gold Diggers Association and the Bendigo Anti-Licence Committee. This agitation was also heavily influenced by the previous eighty years of European and American radicalism.
On 1 August 1853, Lieutenant Governor C.J. La Trobe was presented with a petition carrying between 5000 and 6000 signatures from diggers from Sandhurst (Bendigo), Ballarat, Castlemaine, McIvor (Heathcote), Mount Alexander (Stawell) and other diggings. The petition highlighted the poverty and hardship of life on the diggings. These conditions contributed to the widespread avoidance of the thirty-shillings-a-month licence fee. The petition also drew the Lieutenant Governor’s attention to the injustices of the licensing system and the indignities suffered by the mining class, being denied due process of law. In particular, the petition noted that
‘some of the Commissioners appointed to administer the Law of the Gold Fields have on various occasions Chained non-possessors to Trees and Condemned them to hard labor on the Public Roads of the Colony – A proceeding Your Petitioners maintain to be contrary to the spirit of the British Law which does not recognise the principle of the Subject being a Criminal because he is indebted to the State’. (The petition can be viewed on the State Library of Victoria’s website.)
La Trobe had little patience for the arguments posed by the diggers. He was annoyed by the assertiveness that they had begun to display and the challenges that this presented to the administration of the colony, which had up until this time been largely driven by the interests of the squattocracy. La Trobe had guided the fledgling colony through its first decade, and his approach to the diggers and the goldfields was shaped by the need to maintain order and to raise the revenue required. When La Trobe dismissed the petition of 1 August, it was these considerations that he had foremost in his mind.
Life on the Goldfields
For the Ballarat diggers, the hardships of the licensing system were often magnified by the geography of the terrain and the type of mining required for the area. Deep lead mining required men to work in groups, in perilous conditions where mud combined with dangerous gases that leaked from the earth. While surface gold provided instant wealth for some diggers who were first to arrive in an area of gold discovery, such good fortune proved to be elusive for many of the men drawn to the goldfields. It was repetitive and arduous work, requiring much patience (and capital) over many months if some kind of reward was to be reaped, and rewards were not certain. In addition to general problems associated with living conditions, such as dietary deficiencies, dysentery, the absence of sanitary arrangements, and poor drinking water, there were a number of work-related afflictions, such as respiratory diseases, rheumatism and cramp, connected with working in damp conditions.
A New Governor
Miners throughout Victoria welcomed the change of governor in June 1854, anticipating that some major changes might finally be made to the management of the goldfields. Sir Charles Hotham and Lady Hotham were well received when they toured the Victorian goldfields in late August and September of 1854. Hotham spoke somewhat prophetically when he wrote of his visit
‘[the Ballarat digger] will always be a lover of order and good government and, provided he is kindly treated, will be found in the path of loyalty and duty’ (VPRS 1085/P Unit 8, Despatch 112).
Unfortunately, kindness and good governance were not associated with the conduct of the officials at the Ballarat Camp, and by November 1854 the resentment towards the Government Camp and what it represented was palpable. When writing to the Board of Enquiry in November, prominent Ballarat miners, including J.B. Hummfray, George Black and Samuel Irwin, wrote of it as
‘a kind of legal store where justice was bought and sold, bribery being the governing element of success, and perjury the base instrument of baser minds to victimize honest and honorable men, thus defeating the ends of justice’.
With many articulate and well-educated men among them to give voice to their grievances, the miners of Ballarat protested the licensing system with ‘moral force‘. The stand taken by the men at Eureka was the physical articulation of their indignation: a protest at the type of authority that was manifesting itself in the new settlement of Ballarat.