Character sketch: Hon. Peter Lalor
Reverting now to the adventures of the Commander-in-Chief (whom I left marshalling his men when the army hove in view), we know that he received a gunshot wound in the arm which shattered it so much as to necessitate its amputation. How he managed to escape unobserved by the foe baffles conjecture; yet he did so by finding his way into a shallow slab hutch, where he lay concealed until the battle was over, and the victors had retired with the spoils — captives and all. When chance offered he was removed to a more distant and secure retreat, and, after further shifting, was secretly domiciled in the presbytery under the paternal care of Father Smythe. After a short sojourn he shifted to another haven; then to yet another, until a favourable opportunity offered of removing to a safer distance. This was accomplished with the help of a little disguise and cautious strategy. He finally found a safe refuge in Geelong. Here he remained concealed till the Amnesty Act enabled him once more to walk abroad. He came back to Ballarat, but not to follow a digger’s life, for he was incapacitated for actual work. A large sum of money was subscribed to help him on to some other pursuit. He elected to settle on the land, and try his fortune at cultivation and stock-rearing, both of which he well understood and carried on successfully till work of another kind superseded them.
It will have been seen that during the progress of the agitation throughout all its stages Lalor maintained a modest and retiring attitude. Outside the circle of his immediate acquaintance he was but little known; but by these and his mates he was highly esteemed. Unobtrusive and quiet, he was content to follow his daily occupations, and might have long remained unknown to fame had not the force of circumstances ordained otherwise. In the emergency that called for a strong man he was chosen for leader; and if courage and fidelity alone were all that were needed no better choice could have been made. But the bare possession of these qualities, when all else is wanting, affords but a sorry counter-force to antagonists equipped with everything that science and experience have shown to be essential to success. On the one side was a body of men smarting under a sense of wrongs, and pledged to end them; but they had neither arms nor ammunition fit for attack or defence; and of the worthless miscellany in hand, there was an appalling scarcity. Of one weapon it might be said that it invited the murder of him who wielded it. Exposed to the storm the Pike Squad stood with their clumsy weapons, whilst bullets from carbine and revolver fell upon them thick as hail. They could not return thrust or blow, for the enemy had no need of coming within their reach. How, then, did such a weapon come to be admitted? Simply out of deference to an antiquated sentiment. At Vinegar Hill and New Ross in Ninety-eight the pike did some execution. But no notice seems to have been taken of the improvements since then brought about in arms, nor of the fact that the alleged execution took place at close quarters in a melee, and long before the invention of revolvers and breech-loaders. The mention of Vinegar Hill recalls another instance of fatal remissness. The password, “Vinegar Hill,” which, of course, connotes amongst other things the momentous obligation of secrecy, was bandied about freely. Everybody knew the password, and friend and foe used it for purposes of ingress and egress. That sly caitiff Goodenough used it oftener than anyone else, for it was thus that the Camp was kept duly apprised of all our doings. Again, desertion and possibly a vague notion that an attack was not imminent, had weakened our ranks to less than one-fourth of our former strength.
As regards the battle-field, it had not one feature to recommend it, and reason fails to account for its having been selected, except for some provisional purpose. The barricade could not be trusted to fend a flock of sheep; and so frail was the beleaguered structure that, once broken in any part, the whole fabric came toppling down. One of its greatest defects was the want of embrasures through which to work the guns. There were many other defects and blunders which need not be mentioned here.
On the opposing side stood a trained army three times our number, consisting of infantry and cavalry, experienced in the art of warfare, commanded by skilful officers, and provided with everything requisite for efficient service; and furthermore, the advantage of being able to choose the time for striking the blow. Considering this disparity in numbers, equipment, training, and material, it is not surprising that the collapse of the weaker side was sudden and complete.
Thus ended in defeat, so far as the eye can see, the struggle for rights; but the spiritual part of it is immortal, and cannot be conquered. With that struggle, and because of it, vanished for ever the fatuous mixture of fraud, impudence, and imbecility which had usurped the place of rational Government for three and a half years. Everything that had before been contended for in vain was fully conceded now, and the fruits of victory could not have been more bountifully shed nor more healthily dispensed than were those of that corporal defeat. Freedom’s progress may often be baffled, but the strength of the spiritual energy which animates it must ultimately prevail. Viewing the matter in this light, we are able to see that the course adopted was neither foolish nor vain, and that the Commander-in-Chief, in offering resistance, has been fully vindicated by the results.
A royal proclamation reciting his qualifications for special attention, set forth that he, with another, did on the 13th day of November at Ballarat use certain treasonable and seditious language, and incite men to take up arms with the view of making war on Our Sovereign Lady the Queen. “Notice is hereby given that a reward of £200 will be paid to any person giving such information as may lead to his apprehension.” Then follows a description, in which his name is spelled wrongly: “Height, 5 feet 11 inches; age, 35; hair, dark brown; shaven under his chin; no moustache; long face; rather good-looking; and is a well-made man.” This portraiture is fairly well done.
Although the reward was kept dangling before the public for a long time and his sanctuary well known to many, it is gratifying to find that there was none base enough to earn the price of the Potter’s Field by divulging the secret.
I have now reached the limits which I proposed to myself at starting, and would fain conclude; but I feel that in an essay dealing with the many-sided Lalor a few observations, if only by way of pendant, in relation to his political career may not be unacceptable. Reform and progress had advanced so rapidly since the eventful trial of strength at the Stockade, that in less than twelve months from the date of the “Hue and Cry Gazette,” not a vestige of the old regime remained, except the memory of its vices.
A Constitution Act for Victoria came into force in November, 1855, and amongst other concessions the right of representation was ceded to the goldfields; Ballarat being accorded the privilege of electing two members. Lalor and Humffray were the chosen candidates, and in due time were elected. This victory over the powers of misrule is the most eloquent and gratifying commentary on the past conduct of the Chief, as it emphasises on that behalf the approval of the community in raising him to the highest dignity which it was in their power to bestow. So far his connection with his constituents had run smoothly, but soon an event occurred which ruffled the calm of the current, and led to strained relations. An Electoral Act, under the authority of the New Constitution — for which we are mainly indebted to the Eureka stand — was under discussion, and it was proposed to revive the clause imposing a property qualification. Lalor astonished friends and foes by voting for it. This relic of effete feudalism, brought in as a ruling factor in future legislation, was more than true democracy could bear, and a howl of indignation admonished him of the revulsion setting in. The semi-Chartist, revolutionary Chief, the radical reformer thus suddenly metamorphosed into a smug Tory, was surely a spectacle to make good men weep. But good men did more than weep; they decried him with a vehemence in keeping with the recoil of their sentiments. He had the courage of his opinions, and was not slow to assert them. Taken to task by the “Star,” he defends himself in the following strain:
“I would ask these gentlemen, what they mean by the term ‘Democracy.’ Do they mean Chartism or Communism or Republicanism? If so, I never was, I am not now, nor do I ever intend to be, a Democrat. But if a Democrat means opposition to a tyrannical press, a tyrannical people or a tyrannical government, then I have ever been, I am still, and will ever remain a Democrat.”
The “tyrannical press” hinted at was supposed to be the sedate “Star,” which on the occasion of his first election, forgetting its wonted role, swells into a burst of magnificent bombast ending in a eulogistic paean, from which I quote the following sample:
“In the field of government as in that of the world the trees of despotism were sown while men slept . . . The hours are fleeting by, the days are numbered, when the verdict of the people of Ballarat shall be blazoned forth to the world!”
The imputation of having swerved from the straight path of duty made it necessary for him to face the electors. He did so, early in January, 1857, and his appearance amongst them was signalised by a tumultuous exercise of lungpower. It was apparent from the beginning that the meeting was not intended for a fair inquisition. To one section of the assembly the attainted Chief was a fallen apostate; to the others he was an epitome of all that was noble in man. He was neither the one nor the other, but whether fallen from grace or suffering martyrdom for the faith that was in him, he let it be known that he would stand no dictatorship in dealing with his freedom of will. Whilst the din of voices was yet at its height he made his way to the table, and from that commanding perch enunciated in plain and direct terms his exposition of the relations that bound him to his constituents. He told them — what Edmund Burke once told the electors of Bristol — that he would not submit to be the vehicle of other people’s thoughts and feelings, and that whilst wishing to please them he would not do so if compliance meant the renegation of his own conscientious sense of duty. Warming with the subject, and probably presaging the severance of the connection, he becomes defiant, and tells them that, “if anything can disgrace human nature it is the tyranny of a mob towards the man who has suffered for them.” “You may murder me,” he adds, “but you can’t frighten me!”
In this disruption it is probable that both parties were to blame. Seeing the lengths to which their old Tribune had gone they jumped to the conclusion that he was prepared to go further, and, indeed, to any lengths they might desire. It appears that he never had any such intentions, nor any idea of pushing his political programme beyond the limits of that dull formal thing — respectable mediocrity.
They perhaps had no right to ascribe to him, without full assurance, opinions which he says he never entertained, and which it was less likely he would entertain after the establishment of a free Constitution. Neither had he a right to use words capable of being misconstrued into a meaning quite different from what he intended, and, it may be added, quite different from their plain and obvious import.
But he did not stop at the property-qualification clause. He went the length of advocating a nominee Upper house. This is how the historian of Ballarat moralises on the subject:
“That such an opinion as to the Upper House should have been held within 24 months of the Eureka Agitation by the armed leader of that rising, is one more instance of the mutability of human feeling, if not of change of opinion. Lalor may not have had any very well-reasoned opinions on constructive politics when he took up arms against the rule of a Government and a partially elective single house of Parliament, but there is little ground for doubting that at the time his sympathies were in favour of as wide a Liberalism as was espoused by those of his subsequent constituents, who condemned his vote on the 4th clause of the Electoral Act in December, 1856.”
Mr. Lalor wisely avoided seeking re-election for Ballarat. He transferred his services to the electorate of Grant, and was accepted. This confidence was renewed as often as he sought their suffrages. He was regarded as a good member for his district, and it is to be hoped that he deserved this distinction without any abnegation of the principles he laid down at the memorable meeting above referred to. His political career was singularly successful. He held his seat without much trouble or expense. He was a Cabinet Minister in successive Governments; Chairman of Committees for many sessions; and Speaker for three successive Parliaments. After having held this position longer than any of his predecessors, except Sir Francis Murphy, he retired in consequence of bodily infirmities on October 4, 1887. When it became known that the malady from which he was suffering was incurable, and that he was wasting away under its ravages, the Assembly generously set about making provision for his retirement.
Several proposals were discussed, and it was finally decided to grant him by way of allowance a sum of £4000, which was to be properly safeguarded for his sole use and benefit.
Thereupon he tendered his resignation in a letter replete with kind reflections and touches of pathos. The feeling of the House was one of genuine regret; and the chorus of eulogy which followed indicated the estimation in which he was held. His parliamentary experience, knowledge of its procedure, his courtesy allied with firmness and impartiality, gained for his rulings unaffected respect, and introduced a visible improvement in the matter and manner of the debates. The Legislative Council also acknowledged his worth, and expressed regret for the loss which his retirement would entail.
To a mind like Lalor’s the ennui of inaction was irksome, nor could he endure it. He moved about, and even voyaged in search of the benfits which change of scene might impart; but to very little purpose. The inexorable fiat of Nature could no longer be warded off. He returned to die; and, in the bosom of his family, breathed his last on February 9, 1889.
A monument to perpetuate his memory has been erected in Sturt Street, Ballarat, and the ceremony of unveiling it very appropriately devolved on his old mate, the Honourable Duncan Gillies. There was an immense concourse of all classes, prominent among whom, besides the donor of the statue, Mr. James Oddie, and Mr. Gillies, might be seen the present Speaker of the Assembly, members of Parliament, including those of the Ministry, and a plethora of local magnates. The absence of a large muster of Peter Lalor’s surviving comrades in arms can be accounted for. They could see nothing in the mere glorification of a Speaker to kindle their enthusiasm; but in the sculptured effigy of Peter Lalor, habited in his red shirt with gun in hand, or round the holocaust of burning licenses administering the oath of fidelity and allegiance, they would discover their leader and rend the welkin with the thunders of their applause. But more enduring than monumental bronze and senatorial garments should be the heartfelt gratitude of the nation to its benefactor. Victoria cannot forget those who risked life and liberty in her cause; and when in the fullness of time she shall have taken her place in the front rank of the nations of the earth, her citizens will look back with pride on that one particular bright page which unfolds the story of the Eureka, and with hearts glowing with thankful emotion assign to Peter Lalor, the Bayard of her initial revolution, the first place amongst the patriotic phalanx that won back the sacred heritage of liberty. This will be a monument worth having; the memorial of a fame worth aspiring to; a souvenir crowned with the garland of a nation’s love; an immortality more than Horatian, but like his, brighter growing with length of days.
John Lynch, The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Melbourne: Australian Catholic Truth Society, [1947?], pages 34-40
[Editor: Corrected “beleagured” to “beleaguered”.]