Digger hunting on the goldfields [chapter 51 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 51 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 16 June 1935.]

The story of Australia. — LI

Digger hunting on the goldfields

During the three years which passed since the discovery of gold in 1851 the goldfields had grown apace. The discovery of the Eureka in August, 1852, Gravel Fits, and Canadian Leads made Ballarat once more the favourite.

As might be expected the goldfields attracted many undesirable immigrants, and these men openly defied law and order. To meet the expense of securing order on the goldfields, and to stop unauthorised mining on waste Crown land, all miners had to pay a licence fee of 30/ a month. The penalty for mining without a licence was £5 for the first offence and afterwards imprisonment for terms up to six months.

Licence raids

This tax, as we shall see, was the root of all the troubles that led to the Eureka Stockade. It was wrong in principle, because it was imposed under the erroneous impression that every one who went on the goldfields must of necessity earn a fortune.

Many diggers were successful, but there were plenty who could barely make a labourer’s wage. To those who were fortunate the tax seemed a trifle, but to those who earned little or nothing the tax could not be paid, and there was no recourse but to “dodge the Commissioners.”

Licence raids were almost a daily occurrence. Hunting the diggers was regarded by the Commissioner and his men as a source of recreation, and one of such importance to the State that the sport was reduced to an exact science. On would come the police in skirmishing order, driving in the stragglers as they advanced, and supported by mounted troopers in the rear, who occupied commanding positions on the ranges. A great haul would be made, and some 60 prisoners were marched off, handcuffed together, like a gang of felons.

Hostility of the diggers

The treatment meted out to the diggers caused great irritation and dissatisfaction, and there arose a feeling of hostility, not only to the police, but, indeed, to all the officials on the goldfields.

The great body of miners held meetings in order to agitate in a proper manner for the abolition of the fee. A petition was forwarded to Governor Latrobe, who refused to interfere in the matter. But in December, 1853, the Legislative Council reduced the fee to £1 per month, but did not alter the diggers’ great grievance — that they could be imprisoned for not having the actual licence on them, though their possession of one could be proved from the official record.

By the end of 1853 Latrobe saw that all classes of the community discredited his administration, and he retired. He was succeeded by Sir Charles Hotham, who reached Melbourne on June 22, 1854. In spite of existing grievances he was well received, and his first declaration of his policy was such as his hearers desired. But he could scarcely be expected to make any important change until he had been some months in the colony, and had learnt exactly the state of affairs; and, meanwhile, the discontent on the goldfields was daily increasing.

The depleted state of the Treasury and the growing expense of goldfield administration alarmed him, and he ordered the police to redouble their exertions in collecting the fees. The miners, through the dryness of the weather at the time, were barely making rations, and many of them could not pay the £12 per annum for a licence. Probably hundreds did try to evade payment, but the innocent suffered with the guilty.

In October, 1854, the Government sent up an order that the police should go out two days a week hunting for unlicensed diggers. The police, too, had been largely recruited from Tasmania, and many were ex-convicts, who had risen to be gaol warders; some, in addition to their rudeness showed a rough brutality.

Incident at Eureka

The tide of irritation and discontent rose higher and higher, and the more excited of the population began to collect arms, to form leagues of their different nationalities, and to plan open insurrection. The goldfield population was in this irritable state, when a trifling incident kindled an extensive revolt.

A digger named James Scobie was killed in a scuffle at the Eureka Hotel, near Ballarat. The house was kept by a man named Bentley, who was considered by the diggers to have been the man who killed him. Bentley was brought before a magistrate and discharged.

This acquittal aroused the population more than any single official act since the gold discovery, for the general belief was that Bentley was guilty and that the police magistrate urged the acquittal because he was under pecuniary obligations to the prisoner.

A meeting was called, and a committee appointed to demand a fresh prosecution. The meeting itself was orderly, but towards the end of it a cry was raised that the police were trying to disperse the meeting, and the miners, becoming furious, swept aside the police, smashed the windows and furniture, and burned the hotel.

The police arrested three men, who could not be proved to have been the ringleaders or active in the riot, but were sentenced to three, four, and six months’ imprisonment. A deputation of three men waited on Governor Hotham to demand their release, but he refused the demand.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 16 June 1935, p. 33

Editor’s notes:
pecuniary = consisting of or regarding money

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