It was a struggle for democracy against authority and for economic justice against establishment interests, which has inspired generations of militants in the workers’ movement and beyond.

Jessica Lenehan tells the story of goldfields in revolt.
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The discovery of gold in 1851 transformed Victoria. More than 570,000 people arrived in the colony over the next decade, swelling Melbourne’s population fourfold and transforming it into Australia’s first truly global city.

People came from Britain, Ireland, Scotland, China, Germany, France, California and beyond. Some dreamt of adventure, others of stability. All yearned for a better life and marvelled at the possibilities that gold might offer.

Mythical stories about the goldfields were shared around the world. Some said that the ground was littered with nuggets just waiting to be gathered.

An article in the London Times on 8 April 1852 enthused about the “astonishing results … and where it is to end no human being can guess. The field is reported to be illimitable … boundless plenty smiles side by side with countless wealth.”

There were individuals for whom this became a reality. But they were relatively few in the sea of prospectors. For the rest, it was a thankless and hard life, worlds away from the fairytale many had pictured. Most diggers lived in dire poverty in the camps.

Women and men struggled daily to get the most basic of necessities: beef, tea and the odd “nobbler” of gin. They faced a gruelling daily routine of collecting drinking water, finding firewood, cooking, laundry, sewing products to sell from their tents and trying to stay out of the way of the police and colonial administrators.

Poor families could not afford to exempt children from this work. The lack of sanitation and clean drinking water meant that illnesses such as dysentery were common. Rheumatism, cramp and respiratory diseases - all connected with work in damp conditions - were rampant.

For those lucky enough to avoid those, malnutrition was the norm.

“Finding myself on the floor with the poor child crying beside me”, reads the diary of Emily Skinner, whose husband was digging in the fields, “I was dimly conscious of having fainted away from weakness. How one longed for mothers and sisters at such times, and envied the poorest woman at home [Britain] who in sickness generally have some relative near.”

And Skinner was one of the more prosperous - she and her husband had a modest bark hut, rather than just a tent.

Privacy was impossible when most lived within arm’s reach of one another. This created a certain sense of community. Every up and every down of a digger was noted by neighbours. They lived, died, fought, loved and gave birth in these tents.

A hard slog

Digging was arduous, repetitive work. One of the miners’ sayings was, “Job was thought a patient man, but he never had been a gold digger.” In Ballarat in the early 1850s the norm was shallow alluvial mining and panning, which could be performed by people in groups of three or so with little experience and even less capital.

The period in which diggers could find some reward in this way was mercilessly brief. Soon, they pioneered deep lead mining. This was a far more expensive, difficult and dangerous method of finding gold. Groups of miners worked shafts up to 80 metres deep. It could take months of preparation just to have a chance of finding gold.

“What is really bitter, what breaks your heart and discourages you, what you can’t disregard”, wrote Antoine Fauchery, an early arrival, “is that after six or eight months of trying, sometimes a whole year of waiting and battling, to find at the bottom of a sterile shaft the ruin of all your hopes; complete, absolute, unlimited ruin”.

The precious few who discovered enough gold, or those who had wealth before the rush, had a very different experience. Those people were able to have a high standard of living - a fact that only emphasised the material deprivation of the miners.

The administration of the goldfields was controlled by the chief commissioner, the police and the British administrators. The relationship between these enforcers and the miners was fraught.

Frequently the “traps” would come out and check for mining licences. John Bird, a youngster on the fields at the time, later recalled in the Ballarat Courier: “I witnessed every day diggers hunted by troopers, and because their miners’ rights had expired a few hours, they were marched off to the ‘logs’, as the lockup was then called, brought before the commissioner and heavily fined.”

Punishments could be even more brutal. There are reports of miners being chained to trees, beaten up and in various ways humiliated. “In short”, wrote the Italian Raffaello Carboni, who was witness to the Stockade and a leading figure in the fields, “the licence became a nuisance.”

Women in the fields

Roughly one quarter of the Victorian population was female. The government hoped that an influx of single women could provide, in the words of governor Hotham, a “ground element of order” to the anarchy he felt reigned.

In order to stabilise an increasingly restive population, he “would rather see an army of ten thousand women arrive, than an equal number of soldiers”. He did not wager on them joining in the general rebellion that was brewing.

Women were often small storekeepers. That could mean anything from someone who sold a few hand sewn items from a tent, to an established and successful local business owner. All of them had to pay the same licence fee.

This imposition had the effect of bringing women deeper into the political upheaval of the time. Women who paid for these licences sought to translate that into some kind of democratic representation in the colony. But they were denied the vote, as were most mining men.

Ellen Young, a Chartist, became a tribune of the miners’ grievances with her inflammatory pen. Young drew on a commitment to democratic reform in her appeals to the governor of Victoria.

The language of the Chartist working-class mass movement in Britain infuses Young’s writings, as it does much of the rebellion in Victoria. “We, the people”, she wrote in the 18 November 1854 Ballarat Times, “demand: cheap land, just magistrates, to be represented in the Legislative Council, in fact treated as the free subjects of a great nation”.

Anastasia Hayes is one of the few women of the goldfields with some notoriety. Her infamy derives from her reaction on hearing of her husband’s arrest at the hands of colonial authorities: “If I had been a man, I wouldn’t have been taken by so few as these.”

Reported usually to make fun of her supposedly emasculated partner, the more obvious conclusion is that Hayes was genuinely committed to standing up with the miners in her own right. She probably helped to stitch the rebels’ Southern Cross flag and campaigned for better pay from the church where she taught.

Resistance

Meetings and petitioning were common from 1851. Miners called for an end to the licensing system, for the vote and for representation in the Legislative Council. They established groups such as the Ballarat Gold Diggers Association and the Bendigo Anti-Licence Committee.

In 1853 the Red Ribbon Rebellion broke out in Bendigo. Miners refused to pay for licences and wore red ribbons to flaunt this disobedience. Diggers from all backgrounds were involved; US and Chinese miners especially were represented. The rebellion came after the authorities were presented with a 30 metre long, 30,000 signature petition to review the licensing system.

The volatile situation stretched across the Victorian fields and laid the basis for the Eureka rebellion, but there were specific incidents that lit the fuse.

One was the spurious arrest and mistreatment of a Catholic priest’s crippled Armenian assistant. The 9,000 Catholics, mostly Irish, were already a volatile anti-English bunch. What previously had been hostility to the police was fast becoming deep and genuine hatred.

A little after midnight on 6 October 1854, James Scobie and Peter Martin were taking themselves home after an evening out. Seeing a light at the Eureka Hotel, they stopped for a last round. They were ejected from the premises in no uncertain terms.

Witnesses said that hotel owners James and Catherine Bentley, along with others, engaged in a heated discussion with Scobie and Martin outside the pub. There was a brawl and Scobie lost his life.

Whatever the events of that night, the resultant inquest reeked of corruption. The coroner was seen discussing the case with James Bentley before the verdict was delivered. He also allowed him to cross-examine witnesses. The jury declared the evidence inadequate and acquitted the publican and two of his employees.

This was too much for the miners. On 17 October, thousands gathered at the site of the murder. The previous day James Bentley, having got wind of the looming event, had written to the magistrate to warn of “a meeting, on the ground where James Scobie was murdered, near to my house, to enquire into the best method of convicting the murderer of the said James Scobie, and to demonstrate public feeling as to the manner in which the case has hitherto been conducted”.

The meeting turned into a riot. The miners threw stones, fought soldiers and burned the hotel. The Ballarat Reform League Charter was later drafted, endorsed and presented to governor Hotham by a delegation, which further demanded the release of those arrested after the riot at Bentley’s hotel.

The unusual use of the word “demand” is itself a signal of the growing militancy of the miners. Their expression gives a sense both of the frustration with the government and their continuing willingness to work within official channels: “That this meeting expresses its utter want of confidence in the political honesty of the Government Officials in the Legislative Council, and pledge themselves to use every constitutional means to have them removed from the office they disgrace”.

Brewing insurrection

In the following weeks, both sides armed themselves as best they could. Soldiers were summoned from Melbourne to reinforce the government.

The Melbourne Argus reported: “The first great fact is, that the diggers and other people at Ballarat have long since lost all confidence in, or respect for, the government officers of that district … The second is, that the Government Camp at Ballarat is a perfect hotbed of corruption; and that officers connected with other services are likely guilty of the most glaring malpractices.”

Patrick Smyth, a 31-year-old Catholic priest, sympathetic to the diggers yet a cowardly rat feeding information to the commissioner, wrote to his bishop for guidance: “What am I to do? … My impression is that everything tends to an insurrection.” The miners attempted to stop soldiers entering the camp. Although there were few injuries, the message was clear: confrontation was brewing.

A monster meeting of more than 10,000 was held at Bakery Hill on the following day, 29 November. Here the miners were informed that their demand for the freedom of the hotel rioters was denied.

Lalor gestured to Carboni: “I called on all my fellow-diggers”, he later recalled, “irrespective of nationality, religion, and colour, to salute the Southern Cross as the refuge of all the oppressed from all the countries on earth.”

Lalor then invited those present to pledged allegiance: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

The government, concerned to prove its resolve, began another hunt for licences on 30 November. The miners responded to this provocation with hostility. The question of whether the administrators fired first and read the Riot Act later, as rebellion leader Peter Lalor said, or behaved in a perfectly moderate and reasonable fashion, as the prosecution said, can be left to historians.

In any case, all of those arrested were later acquitted. More important is that this is one more example of the miners refusing to accept the government’s mistreatment.

These events can help to illustrate the simmering hostility on the goldfields. On this day, the Southern Cross, the rebels’ flag, was raised.

In a letter to the Argus, Lalor described speaking at a meeting later that evening: “The grievances under which we had long suffered, and the brutal attack of that day, flashed across my mind; and, with the burning feelings of an injured man, I mounted the stump and proclaimed ‘Liberty’.”

Many of the diggers thought a peaceful end could be reached. Father Smyth, Raffaello Carboni and George Black, editor of the Diggers Advocate, were delegated to visit resident commissioner Robert Rede. They again laid out their demands: an end to licence hunts and the release of prisoners. They were again denied.

Hundreds of diggers made their way from nearby Creswick to reinforce the miners. Together they marshalled their inadequate weapons and prepared themselves in what ways they could. The stockade - wooden slabs and carts built four feet high - was assembled on Saturday 2 December. At its height it was home to around 1,500 miners.

Early in the morning of 3 December, a warning shot was fired by a stockade sentry. Many of the miners had overnight returned to their tents to rest. Around 150 were still within the boundaries of the stockade.

With little experience and inadequate weaponry, their forces were meagre. They were outnumbered two or three to one by the better armed and trained colonial forces and police. Lalor attempted to pull them into order.

He would later describe in sickening detail the attempt of the miners to retreat, and the prevention of this by soldiers who were intent on taking their pound of flesh. There was realisation that, in the circumstances, the miners “must sell our lives as dearly as we could”.

To call the event a massacre doesn’t do justice to the diggers. The battle was finished in 20 minutes, but the soldiers refused to allow the miners to care for their wounded and bury their dead. Instead, they assaulted the dead, murdered or arrested the wounded, burned tents and destroyed what little property the miners had. They tore down the rebel flag.

Over the body of a wounded digger, Irish woman Bridget Nolan, in order to keep him from the vengeance of the troopers, cried out that he was dead. His life was one of the few that was saved. Thirteen miners were charged with treason. All were acquitted.

Henry Seekamp, editor of the Ballarat Times, was charged with seditious libel. He was convicted. No government representative was ever convicted. Yet from the mud of this brutality and injustice, the resistance of the diggers still shines.