Sunday, 17 May 2015

Policing lawlessness

Initially recruiting for the police was difficult. Wages bore no comparison to potential earnings on the diggings. Also, most possible police recruits were unreformed convicts, many lacking the honesty necessary for law enforcement. The diggers recognised ‘good’ authority when they saw it and were largely unimpressed with the new police. Despite the financial constraints imposed by the Legislative Council in 1851 and 1852, La Trobe raised daily wages from 2/6d to 6/- and accepted anyone who was willing to join the force. This attracted many young, inexperienced recruits and ex-convicts, who would prove to be harsh and corrupt as they collected the gold license fees. This lack of respect escalated into outright contempt when a force of 130 military ‘pensioners’ from VDL was used to relieve a regiment stationed at the Mount Alexander diggings. [1] Instead of inspiring respect for their experience and age, the response from the diggers as the pensioners arrived was laughter and derision. It was only a fortnight later that the Commissioner petitioned La Trobe for further troops.

Image result for policing Australian goldfields

Recruitment problems proved temporary. [2] By March 1852, the Melbourne force was at full strength. By mid-1853, there were 875 police stationed in Victoria and a year later 1,639 establishing the relatively high police to population ratio of 1:144 in the colony.[3] La Trobe’s government invested, if tardily, in badly needed bridges and roads for the diggings and recruited extra police, who were paid 12/6d a day, plus board and lodging. In September 1852, a new cadre of police ‘officers’ was set up to lead the disorganised troopers: educated individuals or immigrants who had found themselves unsuited to digging. [4] This new ‘gentrified’ police force further inflamed the diggers. Their methods of policing were clearly antagonistic, the result in part of what they saw as their superior social status, and they bore the brunt of digger contempt and cooperation between diggers and authority deteriorated further. In 1853, the government removed control of police from local magistrates and established the centrally controlled Victoria Police. [5] The reorganisation allowed the government to enforce its goldfield policies effectively and to check movements for reform that had emerged amongst the small independent miners. In September 1853, the Colonial Secretary wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police asking that police attend political meetings on the goldfields: ‘it is very desirable that intelligent men should attend all public meetings to watch the proceedings and to take down accurately such words used as may appear to them desirable’. [6]

Policing sly-grogging

The Police Regulation Act of 1853 was modelled on the London Metropolitan Police Act, however policing in rural areas and on the goldfields continued to be militaristic. Large numbers of heavily armed police along with soldiers were dispatched to the goldfields; for example at Castlemaine in 1854 the ratio of police to population was 1:56. [7] The purpose of the show of force was to overcome resistance to the license fee. It was not only the license that was odious; the way the tax was enforced was also resented. Rather than combating crime, the police operated as a repressive tax-gathering and surveillance force. License or ‘digger’ hunts regularly interrupted work; police demanded to see licenses several times a day and forced even those not working to pay. This repressive, inefficient approach was compounded by the government’s decision to grant half the proceeds of fines for evasion of license fees and sly-grogging to those police responsible for convictions. As a result, the police concentrated on securing license fees and fines rather than combating crime and this led to widespread corruption. Many police, some accustomed to a system of convict discipline performed their duties in a rude, bullying manner. Others, like Superintendent David Armstrong, were brutal thugs. Armstrong’s habit was to burn the tents of suspects and beat those who questioned his methods with the brass knob of his riding crop. He was eventually dismissed, but left boasting that in two years at Ballarat he had made £15,000 in fines and bribes. This strategic concentration of resources was not seen as an attempt to contain increased crime, but a conscious attempt to control the civilian population on the diggings. When giving evidence to the Gold Fields Commission of Enquiry in 1855, Chief Commissioner MacMahon admitted that police at Ballarat were used primarily as tax collectors and could not operate efficiently as law enforcement officers while this remained their role. [8]

This policy and practice of policing generated hatred for the licenses, contempt for the force and ultimately resistance from the diggers. They were angered by the lack of policing of actual crime and outraged by a system that portrayed them as criminals. As J. B. Humffray observed:

Honest men are hunted down by the police like kangaroos, and if they do not possess a license...they are paraded through the diggings by the commissioners and police...and, if unable to pay the fine, are rudely locked up, in company of any thief or thieves who may be in the Camp cells at the time; in short, treated in every way as if they were felons. [9]


[1] The ‘pensioners’ were non-commissioned officers and privates who had agreed to serve out their army careers as convict guards in exchange for a grant of land and a cottage.

[2] Victoria Police, Police in Victoria 1836-1980, (Victoria Police), 1980, pp. 5-10, and Haldane, R., The People’s Force: A history of the Victoria Police, (Melbourne University Press), 1986, pp. 7-47.

[3] Ibid, Gold seeking, p. 75.

[4] Ibid, pp. 78-79, discusses this élite group.

[5] Ibid, Victoria Police, Police in Victoria 1836-1980, p. 7; see also above, Haldane, R., The People’s Force, pp. 29-30

[6] Colonial Secretary Foster to Chief Commissioner of Police, 24 September 1853, cit, Goodman, D., Gold seeking, pp. 74-75.

[7] Ibid, The Goldfields Commission Report, pp. 60-61, concluded that abolishing the license fee would reduce the size of the police force by between half and two-thirds.

[8] Mellor, G., ‘Sir Charles MacMahon (1824-1891)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 189-190.

[9] Ballarat Times, 21 October 1854.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The problem of lawlessness

How critical was the nature of policing to the development of resistance among miners in Victoria in the early 1850s? [1] The development of policing in Victoria was influenced by two traditions of law enforcement: a crime preventative, ‘civilian’ style of policing epitomised by the London Metropolitan Police, consciously non-military and unarmed, supposedly working in partnership with and with the consent of the local community; and the ‘paramilitary’ style of the Irish Constabulary, centralised, armed and kept away from the local community in barracks, whose function was to check social and political disorder and dissent, as much as crime. [2] The first model of policing was adopted in colonial Melbourne but the more militaristic style was applied to the goldfields. [3] The 1855 Report of the Goldfield Commission Enquiry neatly summed up the situation:

Instead of that happy accord between the police and the orderly citizen, exemplified everywhere but on the goldfields... [there was] a force requisite to defeat them [the miners], should their mutual irritation come to a crisis. [4]

Opinions vary as to the scale of crime on the gold fields particularly between 1851 and 1855. [5] An unknown journalist wrote that ‘All the letters from Mt Alexander dwell upon the lawless condition of the place and the deeds of rapine and bloodshed that disgrace it’.[6] Others, like the future Lord Cecil, were pleasantly surprised, finding ‘less crime than in a large English town, and more order and civility than I have witnessed in my own native village of Hatfield’. [7] Even within the same goldfield it is evident that there were local variations in the level of criminality. The problem is that the possible sources for this are all tinged with their own political agendas. The Argus, for example, probably exaggerated the level of crime to embarrass the Government, something repeated in the Sydney and Adelaide papers to discourage migration to Victoria. By contrast, La Trobe had a vested interest in playing down the extent of crime while his police officers often left him ill-informed about real levels of criminal activity.

The problem of lawlessness on the diggings was made worse by a drastic shortage of police in the early days of the gold rush. In July 1851, all but two of Melbourne’s forty police resigned and fled to the gold fields and there was considerable fear for public order. The ‘police’ presence at the gold fields was provided by a small contingent of Native Police. [8] Established in 1837, the Native Police played an important role in the discovery of gold and the early government regulation of the Victorian diggings. Native Police troopers escorted the first pack-horse convoys carrying gold to Melbourne from the goldfields. In January 1852, La Trobe reported of the Mount Alexander diggings: ‘The field now became the general rendezvous of…the most profligate portion of the inhabitants of this and the adjacent colonies…’ [9] He clearly needed to employ additional police, but the Legislative Council stubbornly refused to allow him to spend the government’s general revenue on any service connected to the gold fields except administration.

A degree of self-regulation became necessary, with some crimes receiving summary justice, and most disputes being settled between diggers ‘in a practical manner’. In February 1852, for example, the Miners’ Association tried to organise patrols by diggers at night in the Castlemaine area. The most frequent crime was theft and normally the punishment was banishment from the goldfields or lashings. Expulsion was no small matter: those punished felt ‘every mark of disgrace and ignominy’, and were considered a ‘pariah amongst diggers all over Australia’. Crime and punishment was widely publicised in newspapers to ensure such banishment was complete. Diggers’ justice was a response to the lack of formal policing on the goldfields and was a far from perfect legal model with punishments determined by the makeshift ‘jury’ at hand. It was an unarguably simplistic judicial system but one that kept a tenuous order over the goldfields.


[1] King, Hazel, ‘Some Aspects of Police Administration in New South Wales, 1825-1851’, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, Vol. 42, (1956), pp. 205-30; Sturma, Michael, ‘Policing the Criminal Frontier in Mid-Century Australia, Britain, and America’, in Finnane, Mark, (ed.), Policing in Australia: Historical Perspectives, (University of New South Wales Press), 1987, pp. 15-34; ibid, Neal, David, The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony, pp. 141-165; Finnane, Mark, Police and Government: Histories of Policing in Australia, (Oxford University Press), 1994, pp. 3-30, provides a useful context for this issue.

[2] Brogden, Michael, ‘An Act to Colonise the Internal Lands of the Island: Empire and the Origins of the Professional Police’, International Journal of the Sociology of Law, Vol. 15, (1987), pp. 179-208; Anderson, D. M., and Killingray, David, (eds.), Policing and the Empire: Government, Authority, and Control, 1830-1940, (Manchester University Press), 1991.

[3] Taylor, David, ‘Melbourne, Middlesbrough and morality: policing Victorian ‘new towns’ in the old world and the new’, Social History, Vol. 31, (2006), pp. 15-38, provides an interesting comparative focus for the late nineteenth century.

[4] The Goldfields Commission Report, 1855, (Red Roster Press), 1978, pp. 17-18.

[5] Serle, pp. 35-36.

[6] Cit, ibid, Annear, Robyn, Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852, p. 268.

[7] Scott, Ernest, (ed.), Lord Robert Cecil’s Gold Fields’ Diaries, (Melbourne University Press), 1935, pp. 18-19.

[8] Fels, Marie Hansen, Good men and true: the Aboriginal police of the Port Phillip District, 1837-1853, (Melbourne University Press), 1988, and Bridges, B., ‘The Native Police Corps, Port Phillip District and Victoria, 1837-1853’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 57, (1971), pp. 113-142, examine this issue.

[9] Cit, The Ragged School Union Magazine, Vol. 6, 1854, pp. 27-28.