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.

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