Thursday, 24 September 2015

Tension in 1853

There had been some opposition in the Ballarat goldfield to the introduction of the license fees in September 1851 but this had passed without incident. In 1853, Dr Alfred Yates Carr, who had only recently arrived in the colony and Henry Silvester managed to form the Ballarat Gold Diggers’ Association. [1] The radicalism of the ‘Red Ribbon’ movement in Bendigo in 1853 does not appear to have found favourable roots in Ballarat. In early September, ‘Captain’ Edward Brown of the Bendigo anti-license committee visited Ballarat but his speeches were inflammatory in tone and made little impact on local diggers.[2] Even so two subsequent meetings of the Gold Diggers Association were sufficiently fractious that Carr and Brown were reported to have planned a duel.

The constitutionalist approach of the Ballarat Association in the second half of 1853 may have been less confrontational than the more radical campaign in Bendigo but this did not mean that Ballarat diggers were any less angered by the license fee and the coercive attitudes of the authorities. Following the resolution at the meeting on 29 August, on 6 September, Silvester sent the Legislative Council a petition signed by Ballarat diggers who were ‘alarmed’ by maladministration in the goldfields, looked with ‘abhorrence’ at the Commissioners’ conduct in chaining men to logs for not paying their license fees and commented that the monthly fee was unjust, unconstitutional and unaffordable. The Argus questioned how far the deputations from Bendigo and Ballarat represented majority opinion among the diggers while apportioning blame for the current situation firmly with the government:

A strong opinion is gaining ground that the cry of the day--the reduction of the license—is merely used as a blind by certain designing men, to lead the more ignorant and weakminded of the digging population, and the riff-raff of the gold-fields into acts of open hostility; by which they may either gain a short-lived distinction and power or a goodly share of plunder. [3]

Silvester also requested that a deputation should be heard at the bar of the House in support of the petition. In mid-September, he and Carr gave evidence to the Legislative Council Select Committee on the Goldfields dwelling on the injustices that stemmed from the license fee with Carr pointing to increasing opposition to the fee and the semi-military manner in which it was enforced. Silvester maintained there were some in Ballarat who anticipated the establishment of a republic in Victoria and Carr later concluded that dissatisfaction in 1853 was greater than in the weeks leading up to Eureka a year later. On 26 October, Silvester wrote to John Foster, the Colonial Secretary seeking the introduction of a bill to enfranchise diggers. Almost a month later on 21 November, he expressed his concern to Foster at the failure of the government to carry out its promises to the Diggers’ Association concerning the police in Ballarat. Eight days later, a petition from the Association was forwarded to Foster that opposed proposed legislation for managing the goldfields but added that the Ballarat miners had no sympathy with the ‘lawless and unjustifiable proceedings…at Bendigo’. Although the Ballarat diggers were unsympathetic to the nature of the protests in Bendigo, meetings on 19, 21 and 26 November and 17 December all expressed widespread support for immediately enfranchising the mining population. [4]

Radical activity died down in the early months of 1854 as population moved to other goldfields and in June 1854, Robert Rede the new Resident Gold Commissioner commented that the diggers had become more orderly and when police were sent into the Eureka only two unlicensed miners were arrested. [5] Government administration at Ballarat, as elsewhere, had been a source of growing complaint since 1851 but since 1853, resistance had steadily increased. The most visible form of official corruption related to the sale of alcohol and sly grogging was endemic on the goldfield. Police were bribed for the right to erect hotels or obtain liquor licenses. Charles Evans commented on one incident of oppressive goldfield management:

…A number of men who had marked out claims on a cart track were compelled by the Commissioner under a penalty of two pounds to mark out a new road today – It is certainly necessary to preserve a sufficient number of roads on the diggings, but in this case the measures taken were somewhat arbitrary for what the Commissioner was pleased to designate a road was nothing more than a few wheel marks on the sod. [6]

Relations between diggers and administrators on other goldfields had rarely been cordial but they reached their nadir at Ballarat in late 1854.

[1] See, Argus, 4, 25, 29 November 1853. Corfield, Justin, Wickham, Dorothy, and Gervasoni, Clare, The Eureka Encyclopaedia, (Ballarat Heritage Services), 2004, pp. 103-104, 472, contain brief biographical material.

[2] Argus, 2 September 1853, p. 4. Brown’s approach reflected his later trial on charges of intimidation and extortion: Argus, 8 September 1853.

[3] ‘Geelong’, Argus, 6 September 1853, p. 4.

[4] See, Argus, 22, 25, 29 November, 20 December 1853.

[5] Bate, Weston, ‘Robert William Rede (1815-1904)’, ADB, Vol. 6, p. 12.

[6] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 30 May 1854, p. 89.

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