The Hon. Peter Lalor
Having thus far sketched, as briefly as the nature of the subject would permit, the sequence of events from the beginning of the agitation for reform at Bendigo till its culmination at the Eureka Stockade, it is meet at this stage to introduce the central figure — the Paladin of the insurrection. Peter Lalor was a native of Queen’s County in Ireland, and was descended from an ancient stock that possessed authority in the chieftainries of Glenmalure and Slievemargy, Leix and Offally, centuries before Tudor usurpation claimed these territories and altered their euphonious names into the repellent appellations of King’s and Queen’s Counties. These tribal territories, hitherto held under ancient tenure regulated by the provisions of Brehon law, were subjected to English law as shire-lands, and to enforce submission to the new arrangements the strong forts of Maryborough and Philipstown were erected therein. The disseized natives, however, had no idea of submitting tamely to such an abrogation of hereditary rights; and many a fierce assault had the grim forts to endure at the hands of chiefs and clansmen smarting under memories of the past and apprehensions for the future. It need hardly be mentioned that the proud spirit of the Lalors did not shirk its share of responsibility in the struggle for freedom. The post they coveted was the post of danger. Lapse of centuries will alter the conditions of the most inveterate contention; and so we find the father of the subject of this sketch representing his native county for many years in the imperial Parliament; but true to the instincts and traditions of his race he was throughout a staunch supporter of O’Connell in those memorable campaigns which had for their object the abolition of tithes, the repeal of the Union, and of yet great moment — the solution of the land question. A member of this family, J. F. Lalor, was a most remarkable man even at a time which was prolific in great men. His endowments were various and rare; an original thinker and writer on ethics, politics, philosophy, and science. On the land question he was a distinguished authority, and his scheme for its settlement is now remarkable for its almost prophetic insight. In a series of letters contributed to “The Nation,” in the noon-tide of that journal’s fame, he discussed several matters of national import, and fixed the groundwork upon which a scheme of land reform should be constructed. The awful visitation, the famine, was then making its appearance, and Mr. Lalor had an idea that the Government might utilise the situation for the promotion of selfish ends. He pointed out that England had then a better chance than ever before of effecting a final conquest of Ireland, and to prevent her he proposed to link the question of Repeal with some other of more urgent importance. He says:—
“To prevent this result and at the same time to achieve independence — the only form in which Repeal can ever be carried — there is, I am convinced, but one way alone, and that is to link Repeal to some other question, like a railway carriage to the engine — some question possessing the intrinsic strength which Repeal wants, and strong enough to carry both Repeal and itself together; if any such question can be found. And such a question there is in the land: one ready prepared. Ages have been preparing it. An engine ready-made; one, too, that will generate its own steam without cost or care. A self-acting engine if once the fire be kindled; and the fuel to kindle — the sparks for kindling, are everywhere. Repeal had always to be dragged; this I speak of will carry itself — as the cannon-ball carries itself down hill.”
This is word carving, and replete with grand ideas. He laboured hard in conjunction with others to gain over the landed proprietors to the national cause. He tried to persuade them with all his powers of rhetoric and logic, that their interests would be best conserved and protected if they cast their lot in with that of their fellow-countrymen in the demand for national amelioration. Whether the landlords felt in any degree the promptings of patriotism will never be known, and is matter of little consequence now. They, at all events, dissembled so far as it suited them, to show that the proposition was not objectionable — rather that it was worth discussing. They accordingly held meetings, coquetted with the subject, procrastinated as to a definite decision, and at last threw off the mask by rejecting the “entente cordiale,” and calling on the British Minister for a Coercion Act. They little thought then of the fate that awaited themselves and their successors. A humane concession to the oppressed tenantry and an honest endeavour to obtain legislative justice for the country, would have made them the most popular body in the Empire, and would have averted the discomfiture that has overtaken them at last.
Mr. Lalor predicted that the sad plight to which their obstinacy would lead them; and his prediction has found most striking verification in the boycotting system and the Plan of Campaign. It was he who first postulated the principle that the tiller of the soil has the first claim on the products of his labour, and to the extent of sufficient maintenance. This doctrine preached at a time when landlord feudalism in Ireland had laid aside but little of its pristine repulsiveness, was rather a perilous one. But rarely has gospel been preached with more fruitful results. The seed was sown in fitting soil; yet it took about forty years to reach maturity, and would probably have taken longer still, or perhaps have perished altogether, but for the husbandry of him who gave the memorable advice to “hold a firm grip of the harvest.”
Politicians of later date — all good men and true — have found in these texts material for elaboration. John Mitchel drew upon them largely, but only to extend and apply them; for though he acknowledges his obligation he repays it with interest, and leaves on his digests the impress of his own grave, dignified and dauntless cast of mind. John Dillon has been credited with the authorship of the Plan of Campaign; but Lalor had anticipated him by forty years, and so likewise of Parnell anent the famous “grip of the harvest.” Yet this detracts nothing from their respective deserts. They gave practical effect to Lalor’s ideas, which else might have remained untested and unvalued.
The social rank to which Mr. Lalor belonged connoted of course its concomitant accomplishments, including a liberal education. I speak now of the immediate subject of these articles. It is said that he was destined for the profession of civil engineer, and that he entered Trinity College, Dublin, for the purpose of qualifying himself. He held here for a time the office of Inspector of Railways. The course of studies necessary for proficiency in his profession must have harmonised with his natural proclivities, for he was of a practical turn of mind, and a close reasoner. Whilst yet at Trinity his attention was engaged and the course of his studies arrested by an event which gave an unexpected turn to his destiny, as it did to that of thousands of others besides.
The discovery of gold in Australia, and the exciting story of its ready acquisition, caused a sensation throughout the world, growing in intensity with the arrival of every mail. The desire to be off to the happy regions of unlimited wealth became irresistible. During the years ’52, ’53, and ’54, the arrivals from all countries, but especially from the British Isles, were so numerous that they might be likened to a continuous shoal of moving humanity. Nearly eighty per cent. of the male population on the goldfields at that time consisted of men in the prime of life: their ages varying from twenty to thirty years. Those of them who still survive have therefore passed the limit of sixty, that ominous stage in the march of official life at which retrenchment has set its term. But the old patriarchs of the pick and shovel need not tremble. They never depastured on the asphodel meads of the Civil Service; but foul air and dripping water and twelve hours’ shifts and the resultant train of rheumatic affections have retrenched them a full decade before their time. Hard work and privations had no terror for the men of those days. Stout hearts and strong intellects enabled them to win their way in spite of obstacles.
When Mr. Lalor arrived at Ballarat he was about 27 years of age. He possessed in no small degree the qualities that went to make up the ideal digger. His were a stout heart and a strong intellect, and they were not suffered to lie dormant. Donning the orthodox costume, and armed with the honest badge of his calling — the pick and shovel, he made the first bid for fortune somewhere about the southern skirt of Canadian Hill, At this kind of “novel industry” he worked with commendable diligence, and although he may have felt, as others did, somewhat impatient at the tardiness of his “luck,” he serenely plodded on, buoyed up by the inspiriting faculty which “springs eternal in the human breast,” and kept whispering to him that on any day or hour he might “strike the patch” or unearth the nugget which would enable him to return in triumph to the endearing scenes of youth, and realise that sweetest thing in life, “love’s young dream.”
I cannot, I do not, know what place to assign in the lottery of mining to Mr. Lalor, nor is it material. I believe, however, that he fared well, though not exempt from disappointments. The business of mining has no longer a romantic interest. Whilst the shadow of mystery attended it; whilst fresh discoveries were made in rapid succession; whilst exaggerated reports of rich “finds” were in daily circulation, and groups of wandering diggers were traversing hill and dale in search of fresh disclosures; and whilst the novelty, in fine, of the whole situation was calculated to beget erroneous ideas — men imagining to themselves unbounded possibilities of wealth — every scrap of information, every new development, every chance event, or routine disclosure, furnished fresh matter of interest and curiosity. The romance of mining is gone, and in its place sits a time-worn mechanical monstrosity, utterly foreign to the freshness of its dawn. With the partialities of an old digger, I feel sad at the contrast, and grieve to see the free and easy and independent “mate” of the early ’fifties supplicating for leave to work under the hard-bound rules of the Masters’ and Servants’ Act. I grieve the more when I behold the changes in him, from health and strength and manly beauty to the care-worn form, bent and wasted with age and toil.
Mr. Lalor began to come into notice about the time that the Reform League was started. It was a critical time. Discontent was spreading fast, and some of the leading members of the league were deficient in discretion. Lalor’s appearance amongst them had a tranquilising and cheering effect. For tall-talk and bluster he substituted moderation and common sense. It is impossible now to determine what the outcome of a cautious policy might have been, or how far it might have conduced to ward off the inevitable. The burning of Bentley’s hotel upset all calculations, and precipitated the issue along all the lines of action. The murder of Scobie had led to this, for Bentley was formally charged with the murder and, in the face of clear evidence, was discharged. This flagrant travesty of justice was vehemently resented. The Government hastened to interpose. The perpetrator was recommitted, tried before the Supreme Court at Melbourne, and, together with two accomplices, found guilty of manslaughter. The magistrate before whom the preliminary inquiry had been held was dismissed from the service. This was a great victory and the first obtained over the powers of bribery and corruption.
But the grievance of digger-hunting continued unabated. The Governor was appealed to for immediate redress. The punctilious trifler refused to interfere until he should have received the report of a board of inquiry which he promised to institute. Meantime, “the laws then in force must be obeyed.” This exquisite trifling was not to the taste of the straightforward diggers, and they took the first opportunity of making their sentiments known. A public meeting, largely attended, passed with acclamation resolutions pledging all and several to take immediate steps for the abolition of the license-fee by burning all the licenses, and in the event of arrests in consequence thereof ordaining that efforts should be made for defence and protection. How the burning of the licenses could have been expected to mend matters I have never been able to understand, nor do I see how it bore on the case at all, or what effect it would have produced except to show the Governor and his myrmidons the state of our minds. I may be pardoned for mentioning that I did not then moralise on the question, but with a willing heart took out my “miner’s right” and piously consigned it to the flames. Another resolution threatened the withholding of protection from every man who should not within a certain date be a member of the Reform League. These resolutions were certainly very near being revolutionary.
It was at this time or thereabouts that the chiefs separated. Mr. Humffray wanted to still further try the efficacy of soft flattery and hard words in alternate doses. Mr. Lalor, finding that there had been too much talk already and that more of it would only bring ridicule, resolved to try conclusions by the only means left when all others had failed. How Humffray and his adherents could have expected to succeed by the old plan of agitation after having been so curtly repulsed, I cannot conceive. He had already exhausted his powers of persuasion, and had no fresh plea to adduce. In that extremity he ought to have retired, or else pushed on to the legitimate close. The stout heart of Lalor could not brook this beggarly refuge. Coming fresh from a country where the humbug of constitutional agitation had nearly emasculated its manhood, he felt no desire to countenance it here. He knew from experience that nothing good could come of it; that rounded periods set off with pungent epithets hurt none but the utterer, and that to command attention their action must be reflected from the gleaming steel behind them.
In justice to the sticklers for constitutional reform I would remark that an excuse for their persistence in the worship of that fetish may be found in the confusion occasioned by mixing up conditions of civil government existing at times widely apart, and under circumstances extremely dissimilar. The Government of Victoria in 1854 was essentially bureaucratic, and the people had hardly a semblance of representation. The ruling power felt itself absolute, and ignored responsibility to the masses. To-day the masses hold the power; the will of the majority is supreme, and every other authority must yield to it.
Had anything even approaching this obtained in 1854, no disturbance would have occurred. Such disturbances would have no chance of striking root now; they would be stifled in the bud by public aversion; whereas, on the contrary, the Stockaders were honoured with acquittal and more than local fame; for if it is just to punish men who break good laws made by their elected representatives, the Stockaders were honoured because the laws they violated were the iniquitous decrees of an insolent oligarchy. Treason and sedition should not be reckoned among the crimes of the people; they are the crimes of tyrants. The people will not rebel as long as they are treated properly; their disaffection springs from the guilt of government. Of all systems of government, the worst is that which refuses to advance with the times; which will neither amend its laws nor allow its subjects to do so.
Sir Charles Hotham set his canon against innovation till he should receive his famous “report.” In taking this autocratic stand, he was wrong both from a constitutional and a prudential point of view. But supposing the report were averse to change; what then? There would be for a certainty a deadlock as long as the Government adhered to the report, and obstinacy reigned in the bureau, for the miners had nothing to gain by “waiting for the good times coming.” No such times, they well knew, would ever come with their acquiescence in such a report.
The diggers then did what they had a right to do; the Governor’s refusal to recognise the reciprocity which subsists between Government and the governed, and to mend his ways, justified their action. This exposition of rights and duties may serve to remove the erroneous impression that the miners were too hasty in resorting to arms.
The first public meeting addressed by Mr. Lalor was that on Bakery Hill on November 29. It was the largest public meeting held in Ballarat before or since. It was convened ostensibly for the purpose of receiving the report of the delegates sent to wait on the Government with a view to the release of certain persons still undergoing imprisonment on account of the burning of the hotel; but it took a wider range. The delegation failed. Their petition, or rather ultimatum, made a demand for release instead of an humble prayer. It was hinted that the word “demand” was more than a Governor could swallow, that a softer word — one that could turn away wrath — might be assimilated. The rustic delegates would not take the hint, and thereupon the pedantic precision brought the negotiations to an abrupt close. Lalor’s speech had the merit of brevity, but went to the point at once. He proposed, and the proposition was carried, that a meeting of the league be held on the next Sunday for the purpose of electing a central committee, and that they should provide for contingencies arising therefrom. The proposed meeting never came off, for that Sunday was occupied in more stirring work.
John Lynch, The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Melbourne: Australian Catholic Truth Society, [1947?], pages 20-26
[Editor: Corrected “undestand” to “understand”; “emasculted” to “emasculated”. Inserted full stop after “of every mail”.]