[Editor: An article, written by Henry Richard Nicholls, regarding George Black, who was part of the events of the Eureka Rebellion. Published in The Argus, 19 April 1879.]
Mr. George Black.
There appeared in the obituary column of The Argus a few days ago the following notice:— “George Black, at Kew, 62 years, an old colonist, deeply regretted.” A few of the few who remember the early days of the colony, and are familiar with matters in connexion with the change of policy towards the miners which followed the Stockade, read this brief notice with some solemnity and wonder, for it brought back reminiscences of olden days and there was wonder that no more was said about one who helped to make colonial history.
After some inquiry, it was ascertained that the George Black referred to in the obituary notice was the person for whom the Government once offered a reward of £200 as a traitor to Her Majesty, and an instigator of rebellion. Yet Mr. George Black never was a traitor in any sense, and the only rebellion which he helped to instigate was opposition to very harsh and unwise laws.
As far back as 1853 Mr. George Black became proprietor of a paper called the Diggers’ Advocate, which was printed first by a Mr. Hough then at the old Banner office, in Latrobe street, Melbourne, by Mr. Hugh M’Coll, of Grand North-western Canal fame; and afterwards at the Herald office. This paper was established, partly, of course, with the idea of making money, and partly to advocate the rights of the diggers, who were sorely harassed by “traps,” licences and the general policy of the Government of the day.
Mr. George Black had kept a store at the Ovens, where he made some money, and a part of that money he invested in the purchase of the Diggers’ Advocate, which had been started by Mr. George Thompson and Mr. Henry Holyoake, brother of the well-known writer on Co-operation in London. Soon after Mr. Black became proprietor the editorship of this gold fields weekly was entrusted to Mr. H. R. Nicholls, now of the Ballarat Star, who had only just arrived in the colony. Mr. Ebenezer Syme, who had also only arrived a short time before, used to write one or two articles a week for the Advocate and nearly the whole of the writing was done by Mr. Nicholls and him.
It is needless to say that the politics were liberal. Not, certainly, liberal in the sense in which that unhappy word is now used, for neither of the writers entertained any idea of giving all power to a chance majority of one House, but liberal in the sense that the fair representation of the people was demanded, and that there was bitter opposition to the gold-lace régime of the day, as well as to the high-handed proceedings of the authorities on the goldfields.
One grand and fatal mistake was, however, made at the outset. Instead of a printing plant having been taken to the diggings, the paper was printed in Melbourne, and sent up by coach, the consequence being that the parcels were frequently left upon the road, and sometimes disappeared altogether. This I believe, prevented the Advocate being a grand success, because it could not compete with the papers which were started on the goldfields, and after some few years it was stopped.
Mr. George Black was at Ballarat at the time of the Eureka outbreak, which he did something to bring about, but he was not in the stockade at the time of the attack, and I do not think that he had been there for some days before it. He was, I know personally, very doubtful as to the success of the movement. The proclamation — a very wordy and initiated one — which was read to the “troops” was not written by Mr. George Black, but by his brother, Mr. Henry Black, who was afterwards killed by the unexpected explosion of a blast whilst quartz-mining at Staffordshire Reef. Mr. Henry Black was not endowed with literary powers, and he was fully aware of the fact, and he therefore asked the present writer to draw up a proclamation for him, which the said writer, for prudential and other reasons, declined to do. The proclamation was therefore read as it was first written, and I need only say that its style and matter would not be out of place in some of the manifestoes of the new-light “liberals” of the present day.
After the stockade affair had fairly been squelched by the prompt action of the Government forces, Mr. Black remained in hiding for some considerable time, but again resumed active connexion with what was then called the Gold-diggers’ Advocate, a title adopted to prevent any dispute as to implicated interest in the old Diggers’ Advocate. Through the columns of his paper he advocated many of the reforms which have now been made, but he was unpopular because he opposed the reduction of the postage on inland letters from 6d. to 2d., his contention being that the smallest of coins then in general use was not too much to give for the postage of a letter. However, the Advocate under both its names did not live many years. It was planted in the wrong place, could not hold its own against the gold-fields papers which gathered their news in the place of publication, and, as it were, gave it to their readers hot and hot.
Afterwards Mr. George Black betook himself to mining pursuits, or, rather, to speculation, with, I believe, no very great success. For many years his name has not been heard of as a public man, and there are probably few who know how much his early labours contributed to bring about one of the most prominent events in the history of this colony. Mr. Black never possessed the arts which make public men very popular, and in Ballarat he did not secure the support of the miners, whom he had certainly served as well as many to whom they gave a more generous recognition. In 1850 he contested Ballarat East with Mr. J. B. Humffray and Mr. Thomas Loader, and the result of the poll was as follows:— Humffray, 690; Loader, 255; Black, 24.
From this it will be seen that the goldfields advocate was not so popular as a stranger from Melbourne, although the capture of the advocate had been valued at £200 by the Government, whilst £500 had been offered for the capture of Vern, who somehow obtained a prominence which he did not in the least deserve. The bill issued by the Government set forth that “whereas two persons of the names of Lawler (sic) and Black, late of Ballarat, did, on or about the 18th day of November last, at that place, use certain treasonable and seditious language, and incite men to take up arms with a view to make war against Our Sovereign Lady the Queen,” &c. No doubt strong language was used, and no wonder, but it may safely be said that Mr. George Black was as little of a rebel or a demagogue as could be found south of the line.
The voting in Ballarat East showed that he had not made such an impression as either Mr. Humffray or Mr. Lalor; and I, who knew him well in his best days, can testify that he had all the instincts of a gentleman, with few of the qualities by which vulgar popularity is won. However, he was not quite so unpopular with the voters of Grenville as with those of Ballarat East, for he was very nearly elected for the former place. Indeed, Mr. Black was the victim on that occasion of a very unpleasant sell, or of too much confidence. In those days the telegraph was not available to allay the anxiety of candidates, and the returns from the various polling places, some of them 10 miles apart, had to be brought in by horsemen, over roads which only those who have seen them can appreciate. On this occasion the roads were very bad, the country was almost a swamp, and the day was cold, dark, and wet. Mr. Black was at the central polling place, the Crown Hotel, Buninyong, anxiously awaiting the arrival of returns. As they came in, he and his friends grew more and more elate, and finally matters appeared to them all to be so satisfactory that Mr. Black was induced to go out on to the balcony and return thanks for having been elected. All his supporters departed home in high spirits, but when the complete returns came in it turned out that there was a good majority against him, and his thanks had been premature. This event may be said to have concluded Mr. Black’s public life. As far as I am aware, he never contested an election again, and took little or no part in political strife.
His period of activity extended from 1853 to 1860, or thereabouts, and those who have grown up since then may well wonder who Mr. George Black was, and feel surprise at the memories which the news of his death recalls. The old ones — those who made the colony what it now is, or rather what it once was — were young in those days, full of the spirit of adventure, and keen to face wrong and assert the right. If there is a charm in saying “We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn,” is there not a tenfold one, a sense of mournful pleasure, in remembering how we stood together in the days when all was strange and new — save the folly of rulers, which is as old as the hills — and when fortune was all before us, and memories of home were still keen and clear?
Thus it comes about that the few words which I have quoted from the obituary column illumined a track long passed over, recalled some events only to be found recorded in the history of Ballarat, and some which cannot be found there at all. Thus it is, also, that I deem that a man like Mr. Black ought not to be allowed to pass away without some record of his work and some tribute to his memory, as one who did his best, and one who did that best conscientiously. As far back as 1853, he was seriously ill with disease of the lungs, and never had the bold energy to become a popular favourite; and that he lived so long after his first attack was a matter of wonder to many. He has gone at last, another of that band of enterprising men who made this colony a marvel to the nations, and who showed an aptitude for self-government and peaceful settlement never equalled in any other period of the world’s history.
H. R. N.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Saturday 19 April 1879, page 9
The author of this article, H. R. Nicholls, was living in Ballarat at the time of the Eureka Rebellion.
Lawler (sic) = Lalor (the article is noting the misspelling of Peter Lalor’s surname)
manifestoes = a variant spelling of “manifestos”
We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn = (“We two have paddled in the stream”) is a line from “Auld Lang Syne”, as written by the Scottish poet Robbie Burns [see: Tanya Gulevich, Encyclopedia of Christmas & New Year’s Celebrations (2nd edition), Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003, pages 37-38]
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]