Monday, 27 April 2015

1852: a faltering administration

In the first half of 1852, La Trobe became more confident as his government gradually established its authority. The Legislative Council, which ended its first session in January, was not summoned again until June. [1] The Government concentrated on recruiting police and building up the goldfield administration appointing W. H. Wright, formerly in charge of Mount Alexander, as Chief Commissioner in May and by June La Trobe considered both to be operating effectively. [2] Wright warned La Trobe of the defects of the 1851 license system and opposed the compulsory license hunts that enraged the diggers; however, his flexibility kept the situation under control. The number of licenses issued increased from nearly 8,000 in January to 20,000 by April and nearly 25,000 the following month with two-thirds of miners paying.[3] This was reflected in the decline in the number of articles in the Argus in 1852 in which gold licenses were mentioned. [4]

For the moment, although the intensity had gone out of the license issue, it was not what the Government did in these months but what it did not do that caused problems. No attempt was made, for example to build a road to Castlemaine and Bendigo despite the increase in gold revenue and the availability of labour. The Colonial Office in London recognised that it could not interfere in Victoria. Communications were too slow and only the local executive could make effective decisions. However, the Colonial Office did three things to aid La Trobe. It immediately sent four companies of the 59th Regiment [5] followed soon after by a volunteer force of London police while the Admiralty agreed to send a man-of-war. It also unlocked the constitutional impasse between executive and legislature by quickly agreeing to transfer control of the goldfields and gold revenue to the Legislative Council. Finally, whatever it thought privately, La Trobe was praised for his handling of the crisis. [6]

By the middle of 1852, as the first waves of gold-seekers from overseas arrived, all needing accommodation, food and transport, the government was fully aware that the discovery of gold had created more intractable problems than it had solved. [7] These concerns were matched by others who were troubled by the possible lasting effects. It seemed that the gold rushes threatened to destroy social stability; indeed to some this was a world turned upside-down. For them the lower orders were unable to enjoy the fruits of their fortune sensibly and their futile attempts to copy the behaviour and dress of higher classes was a constant source of humour in the early days of the gold rushes as, for example when several thousand fortunate diggers descended on Melbourne over Christmas and New Year. [8] In fact, most miners did not squander their new-found wealth. Many young miners married because they could now afford to do so; some used their wealth to improve conditions for their families while others paid the fares of relatives and friends from Britain; farms were bought and businesses established. Many simply saved their money: deposits in savings banks rose from £29,000 in January 1852 to over £102,000 by June. If anything this increased rather than diminished the alarm of the established social order. Serle concluded that, ‘In social relations, though not in politics, a ‘French Revolution’ had indeed occurred’. [9]

The administration of Victoria reached its nadir in the second half of 1852. Its government was distrusted, the Executive Council mocked and the Legislative Council ignored. The colonists complained of deadlock over pastoral leases, lack of public works, of trespassing miners and indecision on the question of transportation. Immigrants were scandalised by mismanagement of the goldfields and by the cost of everything. La Trobe invariably dithered. This was exacerbated by the volatile membership of the Executive Council with three resignations by mid-1852 and little reliable support from the official and non-official members of the Legislative Council with 31 different representatives filling the 10 nominee positions between 1851 and 1853. La Trobe’s problems were further complicated by his inability to control the legislature, only surviving a motion of no-confidence in November 1852 by two votes (15 votes to 13).[10]

The Colonial Office instructions giving the Legislative Council control of the goldfields and their revenue arrived in early September 1852. [11] The government, however, interpreted tentative suggestions about the licensing system as clear directives that La Trobe, always unwilling to deviate from instructions, now saw as permanent. Within a week, the government prepared and introduced a bill imposing an export duty of 2/6d an ounce in addition to the existing fee.[12] The timing was good and the levy fell on successful miners (and then only indirectly) rather than everyone who worked on the diggings. The price of gold had risen sharply in August and this might limit digger opposition. The bill passed its second reading comfortably. No member wanted to abolish the license system and only a few representatives spoke against extra taxation on the miners. Notwithstanding, the Government adjourned the Council for six weeks and when it reconvened the bill was rejected by one vote with two government nominees voting against the bill. [13] This first review of the license system ended with no change and almost no consideration of its fundamental principles. Had the Government proceeded in September it is likely that the bill would have passed, but widespread opposition developed among urban radicals and diggers during the six week adjournment. Melbourne merchants came out against the proposal and had established links with the digger organisation at Castlemaine in order to prepare a concerted campaign. The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, led by William Westgarth unanimously passed a hostile resolution based on the laissez-faire principle that no obstacle to trade was acceptable and that it was unjust to tax the diggers more heavily. [14]


[1] For a detailed discussion of the first session of the Legislative Council, see above Wright, Raymond, A Blended House, pp. 21-35.

[2] Blake, L. J., ‘William Henry Wright (1816-1877)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 444-445.

[3] La Trobe to Grey, 8 July 1852, printed in Clark2, pp. 9-13.

[4] Between May and December 1851, discussion of gold licenses was contained in 271 articles. The number per month rose steadily from 19 in June to 54 in December. During 1852, this only occurred on 198 occasions with a low of 8 in August and 22 in April with an average of 16 per month across the year.

[5] This was announced in the House of Lords on 17 May 1852, ‘Emigration to Australia’, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 17 May 1852, Vol. 121, cc.672-674. Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 1852, p. 8.

[6] Pakington’s despatch is printed in Argus, 8 September 1852, p. 2.

[7] Annear, Robyn, Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852, (Text Publishing), 1999.

[8] Argus, 16 December 1851, commented that 500 diggers in one band was heading for Melbourne, ‘it is to be dreaded the revelry of our countrymen will become a Saturnalia. Low debauchery, profligacy and crime, instead of the innocent festive scene and social merriment.’

[9] Serle, p. 30.

[10] Sweetman, pp. 141-144. ‘Want of Confidence’, Argus, 20 November 1852, p. 4, outlined why there was no confidence in the Executive Council, Argus, 24 November 1852, pp. 4-5, prints the debate on the no-confidence motion.

[11] See, Pakington to La Trobe, 2 June 1852, ‘Argus, 8 September 1852, p. 4, prints Pakington’s letter and the Government Order dated 7 September 1852.

[12] The Bill for granting duties of Customs upon Gold exported from the Colony of Victoria is printed in Argus, 14 September 1852, p. 3.

[13] ‘The Export Duties upon Gold’, Argus, 3 November 1852, p. 4, provides an editorial critique of the legislation. Argus, 17 November 1852, criticised the passage of the further stage of the bill. Geelong Advertiser, 26 November 1852.

[14] Cooper, J. B., Victorian Commerce 1834-1934: In which is Incorporated the Story of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, (Robertson & Mullens), 1934, and ‘Reports of the Conditions and Progress of the Colony of Victoria since the Discovery of the Goldfields’, in Westgarth, William, Victoria: Late Australia Felix, Or Port Phillip District of New South Wales, (Oliver & Boyd), 1853, pp. 80-85. The petition, written on 4 October, is printed in Argus, 6 November 1852, p. 5.

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