Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Red Ribbon Rebellion

The Red Ribbon Rebellion was centred round Bendigo, where nearly twenty thousand of the fifty thousand diggers in the colony worked. [1] The Bendigo valley was part of the Ravenswood Run initially occupied by Charles Sherrard and later sold to Messrs Heape and Grice of Melbourne and then Messrs Gibson and Fenton. Gold was discovered in Bendigo Creek, named after a shepherd employed by Sherrard, who was a notable bruiser and had been nicknamed ‘Bendigo’ after the celebrated English prize-fighter of that name. The initial rush to the area proved unsuccessful but after gold was found at Forest Creek a second and more permanent gold rush occurred. Gold Commissioners were appointed to Bendigo: Mr Horne, Captain Dane and Mr Cockburn in quick succession in late 1851 and early 1852 and then Mr Gilbert assisted by Mr Panton who administered the field with ‘tact and moderation’. Mackay suggested that this explains why Bendigo ‘did not resort to the extreme measures which resulted so disastrously in Ballarat.’ [2] This did not, however, apply to the local police especially after the appointments of Lachlan McLachlan as Police Magistrate and Simon O’Neill as chief detective officer in the Bendigo District. Although their actions significantly reduced criminality in the area, this was achieved through an arbitrary and strict application of the law especially over gold licenses and sly-grogging.[3]

Although there had previously been no major protest in Bendigo, the Red Ribbon Rebellion was the best organised and most widely supported of all the diggers’ movements. [4] On 6 June 1853, an Anti-Gold License Association was formed by G. E. Thomson, Dr Jones and the Irish-born American ‘Captain’ Edward Brown, and immediately gained widespread support. [5] They probably drew up the petition, adopted on 2 July that they saw as representing the ‘respectable’ and constitutional nature of the movement and it certainly displayed a strong statement of the rights of British subjects:

Your petitioners are convinced that the monthly license tax levied on the gold fields is unjust and unconstitutional in principle…that it requires an armed body of police to enforce it, that...a serious inroad is made on the liberty of the diggers, many of whom are fined and imprisoned, or sent to work on the roads, because they do not have the means of paying.

The squatters’ land monopoly was condemned and there was a firm statement that the diggers did not have the vote. The petition represented a compendium of digger grievances including:

1. The License Fee be reduced to Ten Shillings a Month;

2. Monthly or Quarterly Licenses be issued at the option of the applicants;

3. New arrivals or invalids should be allowed on registering their names at the Commissioner’s Office fifteen clear days’ residence on the goldfields before the license be enforced;

4. To afford greater facility to diggers and other resident on the goldfields who wish to engage in Agricultural Pursuits for investing their earnings in small allotments of land;

5. The penalty of £5 for non-possession of License should be reduced to £1;

6. The sending of an armed force to enforce the License Tax should be discontinued.

On 12 July, an orderly and peaceful meeting at McIvor pledged significant support despite the presence of a strong body of troopers. Two days later, a poorly attended meeting was held at Castlemaine that passed a modified petition. [6] The diggings there were widely scattered but there was a concerted effort to disrupt the movement: notices had been removed; there were widespread rumours that armed force was intended, and that the American flag had been raised in Bendigo. [7] The campaign continued in Bendigo throughout July and placards such as: ‘No Chains for free Englishmen’, were put up all over the field. When the delegates returned, there was a further ‘monster meeting’ with diggers marching in national groups with flags and banners and the petition, some forty feet in length and bound in green silk was displayed. [8] Thomson claimed that 23,000 signatures had been gathered, plus 8,000 from McIvor but these had been ‘lost’ on 20 July 1853 after the robbery of the gold escort at Kyneton. The petition eventually presented to La Trobe contained only 5,000 signatures.

The diggers are an intelligent body. Again and again they have shown their love of order, and their wish both to respect authority, and to induce it to become respectable. Nothing but a long course of the most stolid disregard to the indications of the political barometer on the one hand; and on the other, a timorous vacillation beyond a precedent, could have placed an executive in so ridiculous a position with so large a proportion of the sinew, nerve and brain of the community. [9]

Brown, Jones and Thomson rushed to Melbourne with the petition and met La Trobe in his office on 1 August 1853.[10] The confrontation was not a success. The delegates tried to explain the seriousness of the situation but put their case badly. La Trobe, convinced that the diggers were ‘mere grievance mongers’, responded defensively partly to what he saw as an attack on his authority but also because of his fear of the ‘mob’ and quickly closed the meeting. The delegates then spoke to meetings in Melbourne on 5 July and Geelong where there was vague talk of rebellion. [11] There appears to have been little support within the Legislative Council for the petition. Neither the miners’ deputation nor La Trobe was happy at the outcome. The miners returned to their diggings dissatisfied that their main demand for reduction of the license fee had been refused. In his written response on 19 August, La Trobe made his mistrust of democracy and firm belief in authority very clear:

The deputation informed me that the sole object which they personally had in view in moving in the matter was the public good. I differ from them however in their estimate of the means and machinery by which the public good and social prosperity are to be secured. I am no enemy to free and honest discussion of any subject of public interest… [However] I do not think the public advantage to be promoted by the loose and intemperate popular discussion of questions of importance as they arise or by an agitation which however plausibly defined, may be shewn to be in sober fact questionable or uncalled for. [12]

The Government’s response was, according to Serle: ‘one of its few wise moves’. [13] Drafted by J. F. L Foster, the Colonial Secretary and signed by La Trobe, it contained the first real justification of the Government’s need for gold revenue but said that the proposed issue of quarterly licenses and specific complaints would be examined. It argued, not very convincingly that the license fee was not a tax but a charge for using public property. It also said that the government was attempting to bring land forward for sale but that problems surveying were causing delays. It addressed the question of the franchise noting that the constitution was based on property and interests, such as the pastoral interest, and individuals were not directly represented. In many respects, La Trobe’s response was conciliatory but unbending. Yes, specific complaints such as land reform would be investigated but no, the license fee would stand, a position unlikely to appease the diggers. [14]

La Trobe had little patience with the arguments posed by the diggers. He was annoyed by their assertiveness and the challenges this presented to the administration of the colony and when he dismissed the petition, it was these considerations that were uppermost in his mind. The petition failed, but it had united the diggers in their opposition to the license fee. Large gatherings of diggers took place in Bendigo during August 1853 and newspaper reports of the unsatisfactory negotiation intensified militant feelings across the fields. Over 10,000 people welcomed the petition representatives back to the diggings on 13 August, assembled under the Diggers’ Flag, designed by William Dexter, a china painter from Devon, England. [15] The main speakers were supported by William Denovan [16] and Henry Holyoake, who were to become prominent leaders. Thomson’s call for ‘passive resistance’ was enthusiastically adopted. This was later reinforced by Holyoake:

…he felt that the measure proposed was strictly within the bounds of moral force…If physical force was resorted to at all, it would be when the Government became the aggressors, and by that means justified the people in resorting to arms. [17]

Thomson proposed the diggers should pay only 10 shillings for September’s license and when this was refused should write: ‘No license taken here’, on their tents. He rightly recognised that it was impossible for the authorities to make large-scale arrests, but that arrests should not be resisted. It was now a matter of organisation. The Chief Commissioner was surprised by its effectiveness and only four hundred took out licenses compared to fourteen thousand a month earlier.

On 21 August 1853, 20,000 diggers assembled on Hospital Hill and vowed to pay no more than 10 shillings a month for their license. Six days later, the Red Ribbon rebellion began with a meeting held at View Point. There was talk of armed resistance and Thomson later revealed that the movement was prepared to take up arms if troops, as many expected, had broken up the meeting. [18] A delegation led by Brown, Thomson and Holyoake marched to Camp Hill to offer only 10 shillings; Wright was there in person to reject it. However, Mitchell, La Trobe’s Chief Commissioner of Police rushed to Melbourne to tell the Governor that ‘Bendigo was in a state of revolution’. This has been generally regarded as an over-reaction to events but a report in the Argus in early September suggests that Wright’s concerns may not have been mere hyperbole:

…an impression gains ground in the best informed circles that there are instigators in the movement hitherto unsuspected but who are actuated by a wish to foment disorder, with the hopes of pillage… [19]

The diggers’ meeting resumed and rejected La Trobe’s nomination of E. N. Emmett to represent them in the Council even though he was a supporter of the diggers’ cause as they wanted to nominate their own representative. The diggers then agreed to wear a red ribbon in their hats as a symbol of their unity in defiance of the law and 9 out of 10 miners sported one after the meeting. Given the speed of events, other diggings gave substantial support to the protest movement. Heathcote and the smaller fields at Moliagul and Waranga followed Bendigo ‘out on strike’. There was, however, little support at Castlemaine even though 6 diggers had offered 10 shillings on 27 August and most considered the fee too high. At the Ovens field perhaps the most radical opposition took place with a series of meetings throughout August with greater emphasis on the need for the vote: ‘Taxation without representation is robbery’, one placard affirmed. [20] Surprisingly, however, the diggers on the Ovens felt that Bendigo had gone too far, the view also at Ballarat where the Gold Diggers’ Association viewed ‘with regret and astonishment the conduct of the gold-diggers of Bendigo’. Here too, there were calls for the vote but on 29 August a meeting regretted that the Bendigo miners had not waited for La Trobe’s response before taking further action and called the Ballarat diggers to take out their licenses for September as usual. [21] Although meetings continued to be held in Bendigo, by 19 September the Argus reported:

Bendigo is quiet again, the storm is over and all is peace. The fretful sore—the license-tax—is considered to be gone and the people are complying with the new law with alacrity. [22]


[1] Mackay, George, History of Bendigo, (Fergusson & Mitchell Ltd), 1891, pp. 1-30.

[2] Ibid, Mackay, George, History of Bendigo, p. 6.

[3] See, for instance, £50 fines imposed on sly-groggers on 28 April 1853, Argus, 11 May 1853, p. 4.

[4] Hocking, Geoff, The Red Ribbon Rebellion! The Bendigo petition, 3-27 August, 1853, (New Chum Press), 2001.

[5] Kiers, Dorothy, ‘George Edward Thomson (1826-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 268-269.

[6] ‘Castlemaine: Public Meeting against the License-Tax’, Argus, 21 July 1853, p. 5. The report suggested that attendance reached 600 largely because ‘little notice was given’.

[7] Thomson addressed the issue of the American flag at a meeting in Castlemaine on 22 July: ‘It…must have originated from the fact of the flags of various nations of the various people attending the meeting being carried in the procession’, Argus, 28 July 1853, p. 5.

[8] The Bendigo petition can be examined at www.slv.vic.gov.au/collections/treasures. Once thought to be have been lost, it was presented to the State Library of Victoria in 1988 by Melbourne collector, Dr John Chapman.

[9] ‘The Diggers’ Petition’, Argus, 28 July 1853, p. 4, suggested that the petition contained 8-10,000 signatures.

[10] Argus, 5 August 1853, p. 4, prints the minutes of the meeting.

[11] ‘Grievances of the Gold-Diggers, Public Meeting’, Argus, 5 August 1853, p. 4, on the Melbourne meeting.

[12] ‘Charles Joseph La Trobe’s Reply to the Diggers’, H7570, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, cit, Drury, Dianne Reilly, La Trobe, p. 225. See also, La Trobe to Sir Charles FitzRoy, 1 August 1853, printed in Argus, 27 August 1853, p. 4, on his attitude to the gold license fee.

[13] Serle, p. 108.

[14] ‘The Opening Speech’, Argus, 31 August 1853, p. 4, criticised La Trobe’s response to the digger movement.

[15] The flag showed a pick, shovel and cradle for labour, scales for justice and Roman fasces for union and a kangaroo and emu representing Australia.

[16] ‘William Dixon Campbell Denovan (1829-1906)’, ADB, Vol. 4, pp. 55-56.

[17] ‘Bendigo’, Argus 19 August 1853, p. 4, provides a detail account of this meeting.

[18] ‘Bendigo’, Argus 1, 2 September 1853, p. 5, p. 4, provides a detail account of the meeting on 27 August and its immediate aftermath.

[19] ‘The Diggings’, Argus, 2 September 1853, p. 4.

[20] ‘Important Meeting of the Diggers of the Ovens’, Argus, 26 August 1853, pp. 4-5.

[21] ‘Gold Diggers’ Association, Ballaarat’, Argus, 4 November 1853, reported the meeting on 29 August.

[22] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 22 September 1853, p. 5.

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