Saturday, 8 March 2014

Clunes 1873: Constructing a new narrative

Once occupied by the Wemba-Wemba people, the first European settler was Donald Cameron, an overlander from Sydney who took up a pastoral run in 1839, naming it Clunes after his birthplace in Scotland. Gold traces were first found on this property by a friend, William Campbell, in March 1850, although news of the find was concealed. James Esmond was later shown the site of the find.[1] Like Edward Hargreaves, who was involved in NSW’s first gold strike, he was one of the few men in Australia who had some experience of gold-bearing quartz reefs as he, like Hargreaves, had been on the Californian goldfields. Esmond’s tests verified the existence of the reefs and his findings were announced in the Geelong Advertiser on 7 July 1851, thereby initiating Victoria’s first gold rush.

Individual prospectors found the reefs too deep, so major production only proceeded under the auspices of large companies using the latest equipment and skilled Cornish miners. The first was the Port Phillip and Colonial Gold Mining Company which, in 1857, struck a deal that gave them the exclusive right to mine some of Cameron’s privately-owned land. The company in turn employed a syndicate of local miners to work in the underground mine. By 1873, gold mining at Clunes was in the hands of several businesses; the most prominent were the Port Phillip, New North Clunes, South Clunes, Criterion and United mining companies.

In late 1873, there were acrimonious industrial disputes over working conditions at both the South Clunes Mine and the Lothair Mine. For reasons that are unclear, each company proposed to increase miners’ individual working hours from eleven to twelve shifts per fortnight. In early September, management at the South Clunes mine told their workers that new contracts would not be accepted unless they agreed to work a Saturday afternoon shift. On Monday 15 September, the management at the neighbouring Lothair mine announced that the contract system was to be abolished and two extra shifts (Sunday night and Saturday afternoon) introduced. The intended changes were considerable. Mines in the region mostly shut down at 1 pm each Saturday (a few in Clunes ran until 3 pm) and did not start up again until 7 am on Monday, although the two mines wanted shifts to run until 11 pm on Saturday, and from 10 pm on Sunday. For this extra work, South Clunes offered its employees a small wage increase, while Lothair proposed to put its miners on contract and pay only for work performed. The miners offered to extend working hours until 3 pm on Saturdays, but wanted new wages to be negotiated. Management would not budge.

On Friday 5 September, a section of the miners of the South Clunes mine went out on strike. 110 miners at the Lothair mine downed tools on Monday September 15 bringing the total number of strikers to 150. The outraged response of the miners and their families to management’s violation of Clunes custom that included the Saturday afternoon off, was summed up by ‘A Miner’s Wife, One of the Union’, who wrote to the Ballarat Courier. She could name more than a dozen miners who had fallen victim to ‘the foul air of the Clunes mines’. Some impoverished wife and children

...have been obliged to leave the district...with bleeding hearts at being torn from the remains of the beloved one who had made this earth their paradise...Directors, not satisfied with the old process of slowly poisoning our husbands, seem determined of making it both wholesale and rapid.

The dispute seems to have been compounded by work conditions in the Lothair mine that was poorly ventilated. Some miners wanted it fixed. An Old Miner wrote that he had, ‘through foul air’ in the Clunes mines, been ‘laid aside, and many are in their graves’. The Lothair mine, he wrote,

...has only one shaft, no means of ventilation, and in case of water breaking in...they have no means of escape...allow me to urge my brother miners not to allow anything to induce them to resume work till some means are set on foot for the preservation of their lives.

clunes3.jpg (59882 bytes)

The immediate outcome of the strike was the formation of the Clunes Miners’ Association and the town’s mayor, William Blanchard, a former miner, was elected the association’s president and charged with handling negotiations. The South Clunes mine backed down after several weeks, but the directors of the Lothair Gold Mining Company did not waver. The company tried to break the strike by obtaining European miners from Ballarat. An appeal by the Clunes Miners’ Association for Ballarat miners to refuse work was published prominently in the Ballarat Courier. The Ballarat miners did not come either through persuasion or intimidation.

In late October, the directors threatened to employ a team of Chinese who were amenable to working all week and at a reduced wage. On 25 October, a deputation from the Miners’ Association travelled to Ballarat where, assisted by a government interpreter and the Rev. Young[2], a social worker from the Chinese Christian Mission, they spoke with the Chinese community and explained the situation. We do not know what was said at this meeting or who organised it. But the fact that the meeting happened at all shows that, before the riot at least, someone in Ballarat saw through the racist equation of ‘Chinese’ on the one hand and ‘scab labour’ on the other.[3] The following day the directors of the Lothair mine who included James Francis[4], the Premier of Victoria and the wealthy businessman Peter Lalor[5] met and agreed to hire blackleg labour if needed. Matters simmered for another four weeks. By the end of November, the Lothair directors had accepted that the Sunday night shift would not be worked, but refused to give ground on the Saturday afternoon shift. After the failure of negotiations, they convened a meeting of shareholders, who decided to ‘employ Chinese labor at once, in consequence of the refusal of the European miners to work the mine’.

In early December, a number of Chinese labourers were hired by the company’s agent making their way from Ballarat to Creswick over the weekend of 6 and 7 December. News of their imminent departure from Creswick for Clunes was telegraphed through and circulating around the Clunes district almost immediately. Unsurprisingly there were rumours that inflated the number of strike-breakers from 50 to 90 and then 150 persons. The townspeople of Clunes considered this intolerable. They were not just hostile that miners’ livelihoods were endangered: they were angry that a local business would operate on Sundays and feared that others would follow. The Creswick Advertiser, although it refrained from taking sides in the dispute, commented that many people in the region were angered that the sanctity of the Sabbath was to be broken.

Tensions rose further on Monday 8 December. Telegraphs received at Clunes warned that coaches had been hired in Ballarat to transport the strike-breakers and were expected at Creswick later in the day.[6] From there, the Chinese would proceed directly to Clunes to begin work and they were to have an escort of armed police. Blanchard, as town mayor and local Miners’ Association president, sent a bell man around the streets to summon all the town’s 5,000 inhabitants to a public meeting and all other activity, industrial, commercial, agricultural, domestic ceased in Clunes for the day. Miners at the Port Phillip and New North Clunes mines ‘refused to work the afternoon shift, and operations in these and the co-operative mines were entirely suspended.’ In the afternoon, ‘500 men, members of the Miners Association marched around the town, headed by the Clunes Brass Band, and armed with pick-handles, battens, and waddies...’ They stopped before the town hall, several hotels and apparently churches, where speeches were delivered by civic and religious leaders: those who dared labour on the Sabbath would not enter Clunes. According to the Courier, ‘nearly the whole male population, and a good many women — to say nothing of the boys...’ were in the streets. Ralph Coundon, a director of the Lothair mine, put the company’s position to the assembly before the Royal Hotel. John Pascoe, another director also tried to speak, but he was shouted down, jostled and had his hat pulled over his eyes, so he retreated to the hotel for the afternoon.[7]

In the interim, the mayor of Creswick, who had spent the morning in Clunes, returned to his own town, where he found that five Cobb coaches had arrived and were preparing to depart with 45 Chinese passengers, along with Samuels, a company director and an escort of twelve troopers from Ballarat. The party was led by Sergeant Larner from Ballarat, who was responsible for supervising the Chinese encampment there. The mayor and Sergeant Cooper, the Creswick district policeman, spoke with Sergeant Larner, McPhee of Cobb & Co and Samuels of the Lothair mine, advising them that it was unwise to proceed that afternoon owing to public unrest at their destination. A telegram also arrived from Superintendent Hill, who had gone on ahead to Clunes and who ordered the coaches to delay. It was, he believed, better to leave at first light and get into town as people were getting up.

Back in Clunes, the townspeople made preparations as night fell. Meetings of the miners resolved to discontinue work in all mines and to order some men working at Lothair in defiance of the Miners’ Association to stop work. The town fire bell was rung, and 200 miners marched to the Lothair claim. Cages were lowered to the bottom level, the lift engine disabled, planks bolted across the shafts, ladders removed from the site, gates padlocked, and a picket line established. A shed that had been erected to house the blacklegs was pulled down. Lookouts and mounted scouts were also despatched along the main road, and all tracks, running to Creswick and Ballarat. A team of men went out to the toll gate on the Creswick road, which they took over and locked. Expecting a confrontation, most men armed themselves with sticks, while the town’s youth filled their pockets with stones. It was an expectant night. The town’s two fire bells were rung in false alarm after garbled reports were received that the coaches were nearby (in fact, the regular mail coach) and, from midnight onwards, a large body of townsmen roamed from one hill to another, scrambling about in the dark.

The coach party left the Chinese encampment at Creswick at 5 am. It was met part of the way along the road by four mounted troopers from the district ahead, who warned that the toll road was blocked. With Sergeant Larner sitting beside him in the box, McPhee turned the lead coach into the Tourella road and took the party over to the Ballarat road, from where it could drive straight into Clunes without obstruction. News came through at dawn that the coaches and a mounted escort had been sighted and would soon be along the Ballarat road. The fire bells were rung once more, and an estimated 1,000 people rushed en masse up the hill then out along the Ballarat road, stopping at the intersection with Coghill’s Creek Road, adjacent to Short’s farm on the edge of town. Farmers nearby called on the leaders to take their drays, ploughs, harrows, assorted agricultural equipment and some loose lumber to build a barricade, which they hastily did.

They were still piling on rocks when, at around 7 am, the Cobb coaches and police escort drew into sight. McPhee, who was leading with a full team of horses, cracked his whip and bore down upon the miners. The Creswick Advertiser explained

Some primitive barricades of drays and earthwork had been erected...but the great and real barricade was the living acting mass before them. There was a little parley, but it was to no avail. An attempt was made by the police to break through, but the attempt was easily frustrated...

The five coaches were met by ‘a fast and furious storm of stones’ and the occupants huddled behind their belongings as more missiles were flung their way. Sergeant Larner was knocked off one of the coaches by a large stone. Meanwhile one enterprising miner darted forward and determinedly tried to unbuckle the bridle of the lead horse in McPhee’s team. Two policemen, Constable Durack and Sergeant Larner ‘dismounted and sprang on to the top of the barricade and presented — the one a carbine, and the other a horse-pistol — to the breasts of the men’. They ordered the townspeople to stop throwing stones at them and the coaches. Their bold gesture was undermined by an unidentified trooper at the rear, who shouted to the miners, ‘Don’t be frightened, boys,’ calling out that none of the squad had loaded weapons. The Ballarat Star reported a more violent scene: the mounted police ‘charged the crowd with their revolvers drawn.’ Despite these heroics, crowds ‘rushed over the barricades and, surrounding the coaches, struck at them with sticks, threw stones through them at the Chinamen, and drove them far away... and assisted by, who dismounted his horse, clambering onto the barricade. The men, according to the Courier’s correspondent, ‘were quite taken by surprise at the pluck and activity displayed by the women...during the skirmish.’ According to the Star, the women played a prominent role in smashing the windows of the coaches, ‘and pelted the unfortunate Chinamen.’ Mr Bryant, the manager of Lothair, ‘received a blow with a stone’.

On all other points the four newspapers tend to corroborate each other, but on what happened next at the barricade they differ. The Clunes Guardian and Ballarat Star have the crowd throwing stones at the coaches and police without break. The Creswick Advertiser and Ballarat Courier stated that the volley eventually halted and pious speeches started up in which it seems the police, the coachmen, the mine manager, the company directors present and the Chinese were regaled for threatening the livelihoods of decent family men. In the meantime, the crowd swelled by hundreds as more residents and their families flocked to the barricade. Around forty minutes after it began, the confrontation was over. One of the mounted troopers, Senior Constable Carden, announced that the coaches would withdraw. An intimidated McPhee ordered his drivers to turn back for Ballarat, with the crowd giving three hearty cheers as the party disappeared from sight. Meanwhile, Pascoe, the unpopular company director, who had been jostled, pelted with sods of earth and threatened at the barricade, was escorted back to his hotel by a policeman, more sods being tossed his way by children as he hastened off. By 8.30 am the barricade had been dismantled and components returned to the owners, glass shards from the smashed windows of the coaches swept off the dusty road, and, led by the Clunes Brass Band, the demonstrators were parading back to the Town Hotel. The miners,

...accompanied by troops of women and children proceeded to the residences of several miners who had rendered themselves continuing work...Warnings were given those offending men to leave the town...

They then marched to Mr Bryant’s home to demand his resignation as mine manager. However, some of the men claimed consideration for Bryant’s family’ and Bryant assured them that ‘he had all along been opposed to bringing Chinamen’. He was allowed to stay.

An outdoor meeting was held in the evening attended by 800 and 1,000 people, up to one in three of the town’s population. There were more speeches, starting with William Blanchard, who declared that justice had been served. Then a resolution to be sent to the government that expressed their ‘utter abhorrence at the conduct of those persons, with whom the heavy responsibility rests, in having attempted to subject our prosperous and hitherto irreproachable town to the moral pollution and attendant horrors of a Chinese encampment’, affirming the town’s opposition to the introduction of Chinese labour and criticising the police for their role. It was drafted by Rolfe, a community leader and endorsed by the meeting. There followed an address by Philipps, the local Member of the Legislative Assembly, who congratulated the miners for driving off the strike-breakers, praised the townspeople for their restraint, thanked other mines for supporting the action (at this the crowd gave three cheers), and criticised the authorities for intervening in a labour dispute. Bryant, the manager of the Lothair mine, again declared that he was never in favour of the company’s changes and offered to donate £50 to the Clunes hospital. The day ended with the 800 members of the new Miners’ Association marching five abreast through the town behind the brass band, and triumphantly singing ‘God Save the Queen’. A further meeting was held on Saturday 13 December that reiterated opposition to the Chinese labourers and the actions of the police.[8] Like the English bread riots described by E.P. Thompson, the Clunes riot was not the work of a lawless, aimless mob. [9] There was obviously a high level of organisation: mounted scouts on the roads, and meetings to decide the course of action. More particularly, there was a high level of civic organisation, for example the use of the town fire bell as an alarm. Respect for property, consideration of Bryant’s family, the singing of ‘God Save the Queen’ marked the event as a patriotic gathering of Britons doing no more than upholding their constitutional rights. The march around town headed by the brass band was a regular event in Clunes public life, featuring on fete days for friendly societies.

It was not the end of the affair. In early evening, a squad of fifteen armed constables arrived from Ballarat, setting up a guard-post at the mine and re-establishing peace in the town.[10] Five of the more rowdy protesters, Thomas Nelson, William Pearce, Bernard Began, Joseph Tonkin and Martin Grady were soon charged with obstructing police and each fined £5 by the district magistrate later in the month.[11] The Victorian Solicitor-General also wrote to Blanchard on 19 December asking him to account for his actions and querying whether he had abused his mayoral office on the day of the incident.[12] Then there was the matter of which government authority had despatched the troopers. Although the Maryborough & Dunolly Advertiser did not carry a report on the trouble at nearby Clunes, it ran a Bible-thumping editorial on the immorality of policemen the following Friday. A fortnight later the Clunes Guardian reported that an official investigation by the Governor of Victoria had failed to determine who authorised the escort of armed police though many in the district suspected James Francis, the Premier of protecting his business interests.

There was also considerable, generally unsubstantiated, gossip. ‘We are glad to report,’ the Creswick Advertiser assured its readers the day after, ‘that with the exception of the damage to the coaches, the injuries were small and unimportant.’[13] Nevertheless, the same piece expressed concern that ‘rumours of all kinds, and of the most alarming nature, were meanwhile circulating’, among them claims that the troopers had been escorting 150 Chinese labourers; that the mayor had refused to read the Riot Act to the protesters; that Sergeant Larner had been pelted with bricks, knocked from his horse and nearly killed; that up to thirty police had been mobbed by the protesters and were gravely wounded; that led by Mrs Bailey, a pillar of respectability and wife of a mine manager, the leading matrons of the town were responsible for hurling yonnies[14]; and that one miner (whose identity kept changing) had heroically stood his ground when Sergeant Larner put a pistol against his chest and threatened to shoot. Only hours after the confrontation, the Ballarat Evening Post reported that

...a party of Chinese were proceeding to Clunes by coach when they were met by a number of the wives and children of the disaffected miners, who stuck up the coach, upset it, and chased the Chinamen from the field.

Such gossip had enormous reach. In the Ovens & Murray Advertiser the following morning it was reported that miners opposed to Chinese labour had ‘attacked the police’ at Clunes, while the day after that the Bendigo Advertiser reported that there had been bloodshed at the incident ‘though happily not of a fatal character’ and that miners’ wives ‘took a prominent part in the unfortunate affair.’ However, the Argus by mid-December appeared to have taken a more critical stance towards the disturbances calling them’ disgraceful’ on 20 December. Brief accounts were soon carried in the telegraphic section of inter-colonial newspapers. For example, the Brisbane Courier Mail carried news on consecutive mornings

Melbourne. December 10. A great riot took place today at Clunes. Two thousand (2000) diggers attacked one hundred and fifty (150) Chinamen who had been engaged by the Lothian Company and were under police escort. The diggers drove them back, and wounded the sergeant of police.[15]

Melbourne. December 11. An increased force of the police has been sent to Clunes, but the Chinese refuse to return to their claims.[16]

The myth of a large-scale race riot was already spreading. By Saturday, the popular Sydney weekly the Town & Country Journal, that claimed a sizeable circulation through rural NSW, was likewise reporting that there had been a violent clash between miners and a ‘gang’ of 150 Chinese labourers at Clunes.

The Argus printed a letter from the Clunes miners on 19 January 1874 in which they outlined their reasons for the dispute with the Lothair Company concluding with

Upon the Clunes outrage, as it is called, most miners acknowledge that the officers of the law must be respected and that it is especially necessary to their interests that the laws should be impartially administered...[17]

However, the newspaper felt it necessary to add an editorial postscript.

We insert this letter on the principle of hearing both sides, but it really does not touch the point at issue. That point is not whether the Clunes miners or the Lothair directors were right as to the ground of quarrel, but whether the quarrel is to be fought out by lawful means or by violence and intimidation.

The dispute at the Lothair mine was finally settled through discussions between the directors of the company and the Miners’ Association and the miners returned to work on 4 February 1874.[18]


In 1994, the Sydney Daily Mirror headlined an historical feature on the Clunes riot of 1873: ‘White Australia Policy sprang from workers’ uprising’.[19] The mythology of White Australia was based on the fear of large-scale Chinese immigration during the gold rushes that had alerted working class people to see Chinese people as a danger and all classes increasingly agreed that the white-working class had to be protected from Asian immigration. In the labourist version of this myth, White Australia was seen as the product of a class struggle between pastoralists and sugar planters, who wanted to exploit ‘cheap coloured labour’ and the working people who fought to stop them. It is the working-class that imposed the policy against exploitative employers.

There is little direct evidence in newspaper reports immediately after the disturbance at Clunes that the protesters attacked the Chinese labour on racial grounds. Of more immediate importance was the impact that the successful employment of Chinese labour could have had on the living standards of miners. However, it was a short step from seeing Chinese labour as an attempt to dilute the position of European workers to a discourse in which the language of racism played a central role. What was significant about the incident at Clunes was not the ‘incident’ itself but the ways in which Australia as a whole ‘experienced’ the event through the press. After the event, a struggle between employer and employees was then reported and became part of an anti-Chinese crusade.

[1] Cranfield, Louis R., ‘James William Esmond (1822-1890)’, ADB, Vol. 4, 1972, p. 142, is a useful, if brief, biography. See also, Cranfield, Louis R., ‘The first discovery of gold in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 31, (1960), pp. 86-96, and ibid, Sutherland, Alexander, Victoria and its Metropolis: Past and Present, Vol. 1, pp. 296-323, on the early discoveries. Ibid, Flett, J., The History of Gold Discovery in Victoria, and ibid, Bate, Weston, Victorian gold rushes are broader.

[2] Chan, Adrian, ‘Young Wai, John (1847?-1930)’, ADB, Vol. 12, pp. 602-603.

[3] Contrary to many accounts, the Ballarat Chinese heeded the Clunes miners’ call and did not scab on their strike. The newspaper reports quoted various telegrams to the Clunes Miners Association as saying that there were 80 Chinese coming from Ballarat ‘by way of Creswick’, or that 150 Chinese were coming from Creswick. The people who knew most about where the Chinese were brought from were those who organised the strike-breaking operation: Lothair management and the police. In correspondence about who was meant to foot the bill for the Cobb & Co. coaches used at Clunes, both parties repeatedly state that the Chinese came from Creswick. The miners’ union had some influence in the Golden Point camp but did not seem to have similar influence in the Creswick Chinese camp, the source of the Chinese strike-breakers that was more segregated from the town. The threat of Chinese strike-breakers had been used to discipline European miners in Creswick in 1872, when discontent flared over the extension of the Saturday night shift by two and a half hours.

[4] Bartlett, Geoffrey, ‘Francis, James Goodall (1819-1884)’, ADB, Vol. 4, pp. 211-213.

[5] Turner, Ian, ‘Lalor, Peter (1827-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 50-54.

[6] Argus, 9 December 1873, p. 7.

[7] Argus, 19 December 1873, p. 5.

[8] Argus, 15 December 1873, p. 8.

[9] Thompson, E. P., ‘The Moral Economy of the Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, Vol. 50, (1971), pp. 76-136, reprinted in his Customs in Common, (Merlin Press), 1991, pp. 185-259, with ‘The Moral Economy Reviewed’, pp. 259-351.

[10] Argus, 11, December 1873, p. 5; 12 December 1873, p. 5.

[11] Summons were issued on 22 December, Argus, 22 December 1873, pp. 4-5 and the five men were tried on 23 December, Argus, 24 December 1873, p. 5.

[12] For the letter and Blanchard’s response, see Argus, 21 January 1874, p. 6.

[13] Creswick Advertiser, 10 December 1873, p. 2.

[14] This is Australian slang for casually throwing small rocks or stones.

[15] Brisbane Courier Mail, 11 December 1873, p. 2.

[16] Brisbane Courier Mail, 12 December 1873, p. 2.

[17] Argus, 19 January 1874, p. 5.

[18] Clunes Guardian, 5 February 1874, Argus, 6 February 1874, p. 5.

[19] Daily Mirror (Sydney), 30 September 1994.

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