Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Simmering tensions, 1851-1852

A tent city sprang into existence and the early diggers peacefully devised ways of organising the goldfields. [1] Nonetheless, the Victorian Government acted quickly sending Commissioners within weeks to collect the gold license fee. [2] The first Resident Gold Commissioner, Francis Doverton, was a former military officer and such was his zeal that he began collecting the fee before it was due to come into effect. This led to significant resentment and violence was only averted because of the moderation of the diggers. [3] By 24 September 1851, 160 licenses had been taken out and before fresh supplies arrived on 6 October, 1,300 handwritten licenses were issued. [4] License inspections and police duties at Ballarat were the responsibility of mounted police and a detachment of the Native Police Corps led by Captain Henry Dana were despatched to the diggings.[5] The commissioners and troopers camped on a little hill behind the Golden Point.

La Trobe visited the field in October and was impressed by the ability of the diggers to pay the license fee.[6] On his return to Melbourne, he considered Doverton’s inability to extract the fee from every digger and moved him to Mount Alexander appointing William Mair, a police magistrate and inspector of police as his successor. [7] The first gold rush at Ballarat proved a false start. The layer of gold-bearing gravel near the surface was quickly exhausted and the opening of the Mount Alexander diggings in October 1851 saw an exodus of diggers to the new field. [8] By December 1851, only a few hundred of the 5,000 diggers who had been in Ballarat in October remained but La Trobe decided to make the settlement permanent and sent W. A. Urquhart to survey and lay out the first goldfield town. Though this was widely ridiculed at the time and by the beginning of 1852, the site was almost deserted, it proved a prescient decision.

Some teams, convinced there might be a deeper gold-bearing layer, sank shafts beneath the shallow gravel beds. Others followed the shallow layer as it gradually became deeper. A number of rich gold bearing leads were located and in May 1852, it was reported that new diggings named the Eureka Leads had been located north of Golden Point but because they were up to fifty metres deep miners had to work in teams to exploit their riches. [9] Deep leads mining was more dangerous, more labour intensive and required more capital than other forms of gold mining. Parties of up to twelve men, often of the same nationality worked round the clock, four on each shift, on claims about four metres square. Shafts in dry ground were circular but those through water-bearing strata were rectangular and lagged with timber from the hills around Ballarat that were soon denuded of trees. In 1853, £55,200 of gold was taken from a single claim and, in total; the Deep Leads at Ballarat yielded 8.4 million ounces of gold.

In July 1852, the Commissioners’ Camp at Golden Point was moved to higher ground on the plateau and was ideally situated looking down on the junction of the two main leads on the plain. The dilapidated guard-house and stables were carted across and were the only ‘permanent’ buildings and the lack of facilities led to prisoners being shackled to a tree until a gaol, referred to as the ‘logs’ was erected. The Resident Commissioner controlled Senior and Assistant-Commissioners who were in charge of portions of each goldfield. The Ballarat Goldfield was divided between four Commissioners, but the boundaries of their jurisdiction were ill-defined. [10] To assist in controlling the diggers, detachments of soldiers and the Gold Mounted Police until replaced by the Victoria Police Force in 1853 were provided. The local goldfields police were seriously understaffed, although they had an authorised strength of 76 constables, just before Eureka, the force had only 53 men. [11]

By the beginning of 1853 with the gradual opening of the deep leads, Ballarat was again prosperous. Gold fields such as Ballarat enjoyed a natural protection from overseas and inter-colonial competition. Proximity to markets and protection from imported grain by distance and freight costs was the key to its success. Goods were supplied locally and the manufacturing of candles, soap, boots, harness, agricultural implements and many other items were similarly boosted. Banks and lending societies sprung up and in 1857, Main Street Ballarat was lined with a substantial number of stores, hotels and workshops. Its first hotel, the Bath’s Hotel was opened in May 1853. By 1854, the adult literacy rate in Ballarat was higher than in England and Wales and a lending library was established at Golden Point as many diggers were avid readers. The first newspaper, the Ballarat Times and Southern Cross came out on 4 March 1854. The building of public houses coincided with the opening of other social amenities. Three theatres were opened in 1853 and 1854, a Racing Club was formed in 1853 and cricket was also played that summer. Ministers of the various Christian denominations quickly arrived on the field with Methodist and Roman Catholic clergy to the fore. [12] Among the thousands who arrived at this time were Peter Lalor, born in Queen’s County, Ireland in 1827 who was a civil engineer by profession and John Basson Humffray, born in Wales in 1824, a solicitor who brought his experience of the Chartist movement in North Wales to the goldfield.


[1] ‘The Ballarat Diggings’, Geelong Advertiser, 19 September 1851, p. 2, stated that 73 tents and huts had been built in Ballarat with 300 more scattered across the area.

[2] Geelong Advertiser, 20 September 1851, p. 2, ‘Commissioner Armstrong left Melbourne a few days ago for the Ballarat gold field…’

[3] Ibid, Withers, W. B., History of Ballarat, p. 35.

[4] Ballarat Diggings’, Geelong Advertiser, 26 September 1851, p. 2, indicated that licenses had been paid.

[5] ‘Ballarat Diggings, Geelong Advertiser, 26 September 1851, p. 2.

[6] Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1851, p. 2, Geelong Advertiser, 10 October 1851, p. 2, reported that La Trobe was ‘warmly cheered’ and was ‘well received’ in Ballarat.

[7] Sheehy, Thomas, ‘William Mair, (1806-1904)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 199-200.

[8] Ibid, Flett, J., The History of Gold Discovery in Victoria, pp. 345-370, considers the development of gold at Ballarat in the 1850s.

[9] ‘Eureka Diggings’, Geelong Advertiser, 23 July 1852, p. 2. ‘Geelong Gold Circular’, Argus, 27 September 1852, p. 4, commented that ‘the Eureka is equal in richness to the best field ever opened…’

[10] Roberts, Shirley, Charles Hotham: A Biography, (Melbourne University Press), 1985, pp. 119-124, and MacFarlane, Ian, Eureka from the Official Records, (Melbourne Public Record Office), 1995, pp. 14-23, are useful summaries of goldfield administration.

[11] On the role of the police at Ballarat, ibid, Haldane, R., The People’s Force, pp. 43-48.

[12] Wickham, Dorothy, ‘“Great are the Inconveniences’: The Irish and the Founding of the Catholic Church on the Ballarat Goldfields’, in Cardell, Kerry, and Cummings, Cliff, (eds.), A world turned upside down, pp. 9-25.

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