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.

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