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Everyone knows about the siege at Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in 1854. What you may not know is that this rebellion was preceded by many smaller armed protests against the government licensing system, including several on the Beechworth diggings over two years earlier.

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The button from a police uniform found on the Sebastapol diggings in the Woolshed Valley. (Photo: Scott Hartvigsen Photography)

The first of these protests was on Thursday 25 November 1852. It started with a meeting of miners the night before, which was described by 27 year old Englishman Thomas Woolner, who was camped at Reid’s Creek:

‘Last night a great meeting of — miners, as they call themselves, was held near our tent to discuss and resolve regarding the license, whether the miners would allow their mates to be taken by a few police; it was agreed all should take licenses the beginning of next month, but in fact if the few remaining days of this no man should be taken off these diggings, they would resist to a man and use force if it were employed against themselves; immense hurrahs, chuckling and a general dispersion.’ [1]

To put Woolner’s comments in context, the Gold Fields Commissioner’s Camp at Spring Creek was barely a week old, and police had only recently taken to patrolling the diggings to check whether diggers held licenses. The Reid’s Creek diggings were, at most, only two weeks old, if that. [2] The diggers were dissatisfied with the fact that at this early stage they were expected to pay a license fee for the full month of November when most were only newly arrived on the diggings and had limited means. Already, some men had been fined, and the diggers now felt that ‘payment for the balance of the time should be resisted.’ [3]

The following day, when five armed foot police appeared to check for licenses [4], ‘the police were driven from the ground; the commissioner ditto, tho he came and said he meant not to enforce a license until next month: he was chased up the hills with hoots, sticks, stones and pistol firings.’ [5]

The exact order of events seems that there was an initial five foot police who were driven away, and then next, ‘Mr Commissioner Clow, accompanied by the Police Magistrate and two mounted police came on the ground and another muster took place. The former was surrounded… I afterwards heard it was to the purpose that for the rest of the month the license fee would be remitted. He was told that a lot of men had been chained up to a tree all night because they had not paid it. How far this is true I can not say.’ says the anonymous reporter, but Clow was still pelted ‘with sticks, stones… and finding it perfectly useless to do otherwise, he wisely left. He was once or twice hit, but not seriously, the mob following and hooting for upwards of half a mile.’ [6]

From the Commissioner’s camp, William Murdoch recorded in his diary that ‘the horse and foot police with the Commissioner… dared to enter the diggings… The diggers turning out in hundreds with their pistols, spades, etc. so that the police came home beaten. The diggers also threatened to fire the camp.’ [7]

A news report of the event explains that when Assistant Commissioner Clow came to the diggings he was immediately ‘subjected to a storm of invective, and finally of personal violence, such as has not occurred in the somewhat anarchical annals of digging history,’ and in response ‘asserted that he had not come to enforce the payment of the licenses.’ This was taken by the diggers as a mark of cowardice, ‘for persons naturally asked themselves what else could be the object of his mission.’ (In other words, they believed he had come to check for licenses, and was now furiously backtracking.) [8]

What followed? Why, what might have been expected, the usual punishment of cowardice and imbecility. The unfortunate man was struck, pelted, hooted, and cursed by the infuriated  mob without mercy. Offal was brought up to shower on him; revolvers were pointed at him; a ducking in the creek was threatened him and finally shots were fired over the  heads of himself and party as a parting salute. [9]

After this (as reported by an anonymous eye-witness to The Argus), ‘An old Californian made a speech, the substance of which was that the diggers were intelligent enough to settle their own differences without the aid of a Commissioner: that they had no right to pay for working a country which belonged to the people, and not an imbecile Government, and that they would from that time forth, be an example which he hoped would be followed through the length and breadth of the [colony].’ [10]

In California, the diggers of the 1849 gold rush had worked almost wholly unregulated by government, and without police interference or protection. This background meant that a portion of the mining cohort on the Ovens diggings strongly resented the presence of government officials.

The next day, William Murdoch wrote in his diary from the relative safety of the Commissioner’s Camp:

‘The foot police with the inspector, one trooper and the Commissioner start[ed] against the diggings. One of the foot police before starting said they were too small a body and that he would not go. Was put under arrest filling the prison he had in the morning and fined a day’s pay to the bargain. Today the diggers were oil and conciliatory.’ [11]

Clearly, the diggers had put sufficient fear into the Commissioner’s Camp to win a temporary reprieve from license fees, and wisely the Commissioners had conceded to their point of view. However, this first uprising would not be the last on the Ovens diggings, nor the most violent. And although his presence is not directly linked, it is almost certain that the man who would become the militant leader of the Eureka Rebellion, Peter Lalor, was an observer of these events. [12]

References

[1] Thomas Woolner, Diary of Thomas Woolner,  National Library of Australia, MS 2939, 25 November, 1852.
[2] Ned Peters, A Gold Digger’s Diary, typed manuscript of his diary, edited by Les Blake, MS 11211, State Library of Victoria, p.26. Peters states that when he arrived on the Reid’s Creek diggings, they’d only opened the day before. He’d departed for the Ovens diggings from Bendigo on 1 November 1852, and says he took ‘a fortnight on the road’ to reach the Ovens diggings, which puts his arrival around 14-15 November.
[3] The Argus, ‘Disturbances at the Diggings’, 1 December 1852, p.4.
[4] ibid.
[5] Thomas Woolner, op cit.
[6] The Argus, ‘Disturbances at the Diggings,’ op cit.
[7] William Murdoch, A Journey to Australia in 1852 and Peregrinations in that Land of Dirt and Gold, unpublished diary manuscript (digital form), held by the Robert O-Hara Burke Memorial Museum. These entries as dated the day they occurred.
[8] The Argus, ‘The Ovens Diggings. (From our special commissioner.) Royal Hotel, Albury, Nov. 28th,’ 3 Dec 1852, p.4.
[9] ibid.
[10] The Argus, ‘Disturbances at the Diggings,’ op cit.
[11] William  Murdoch, op cit.
[12] ‘His first essay was on the Ovens goldfield, but in February, 1853, he migrated to Ballarat.’ — ‘The Late Mt Peter Lalor’ (an extract the following from the obituary notice by “The Vagabond” in the “Age”), Riverine Herald, 13 February 1889, p.2.

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