Monday, 7 December 2015

Burning Bentley’s hotel


Johnston believed that an injustice had occurred in the Scobie case and had forwarded a copy of the depositions to William Stawell, the Attorney-General in Melbourne. But even before any official action could be taken, the diggers dealt with the matter in their own way. Word of events at Ballarat was spreading and diggers at Bendigo held a meeting supporting the Ballarat miners. Ill-feeling was still running high when a mass meeting was called for Tuesday 17 October near where Scobie died. [1] Inspector Gordon Evans, who had made inquiries as to the exact object of the meeting commented shortly after the riot: ‘I could not learn from any person that any serious outrage was contemplated’. The meeting began quietly around noon. [2] A Committee for the Prosecution of the Investigation into the Death of James Scobie was elected by diggers and instructed to frame a petition to the Governor and also to campaign for the arrest of Scobie’s murderers. One member of this committee was Peter Lalor who had worked the claim next to Scrobie. He had played no part in previous protest meetings but the murder of his friend overcame his reluctance. The meeting was orderly and Evans later commented:

The speeches…were not in the slightest degree objectionable…and the speakers endeavoured to impress on the people the necessity of preserving peace and order.

Charles Doudiet Burning of Bentley’s Hotel, a sketch

Nonetheless when it broke up around 2.30 pm groups of diggers made their way to Bentley’s hotel and as the crowd grew, its mood became increasingly angry and excitable. The Argus suggested:

What with ill-concealed discontent at the rigid enforcement of the license tax, and what with a variety of wrongs and cruelties unwittingly resulting there from, men’s minds are now in such a state that they are almost ripe for anything…It is thought that the meeting will be stormy in debate and perhaps hasty and unwarranted in its excesses and conclusions. The police will be present in full force. [3]

The Argus later commented:

It is a matter of speculation whether the meeting would have dispersed peaceably had this course not been taken by the authorities. [4]

Rede had not contemplated trouble, despite warnings from Bentley the previous day [5] and was at the Eureka Camp when news of the riot reached him. [6] He quickly joined Evans and Commissioner John Green, to observe proceedings but:

…all the available force of police and mounted troopers were on guard at the Hotel, and made a very injudicious display of their strength. Not only did they follow, but ride through the crowd of people at the meeting; and it is to this display of their strength we attribute the fire and other outbursts and works of indignation. [7]

The crowd clearly angered by the large police presence and by the flight of Bentley to the Camp, threw stones smashing all the hotel’s windows and finally ransacked it without the police intervening. Evans, who witnessed the event, wrote:

He [Bentley] was seen almost immediately and with a yell of rage the diggers pursued him. – He rushed past me in his flight and I think I never saw such a look of terror on a man’s face.

Green had not read the Riot Act when Rede arrived and tried to pacify the people but was the target of a hail of missiles and was shouted down. The Act remained unread. Assistant-Commissioner Gilbert Amos was favourably heard but a cry of ‘fire’ was heard, as smoke appeared from one of the ground floor rooms. The police managed to extinguish it and attempted to establish a cordon round the hotel but without success. [8] The Argus concluded:

Had the people supported them at all, that would have had the effect of stopping the fire, for the simple reason, that the fire was put out several times during the time they were there, in some places, but set fire to in others. [9]

The rear of the hotel was by now ablaze and the fire had spread to adjacent buildings. The majority of the crowd, now swelled to between 8,000 and 10,000, dispersed once the hotel had been turned into ‘a mass of burning embers’. Soldiers and police retired to the Government Camp where, according to the Ballarat Times, ‘it was seriously believed an attack would be made in the night time by the miners’ perhaps to remove Bentley by force’ remarking:

We have never witnessed a more terrible demonstration of popular feeling, never seen an instance when the offended Majesty of a Sovereign people was so powerfully, so tangibly asserted, as on yesterday afternoon at the Eureka Hotel. By this one instance of popular wrath, the Government may see what an offended people could, would, and may do. [10]

The authority of the Camp had been flouted; Rede had made a fool of himself in trying to quieten the crowd; the police had shown themselves to be ineffective and, according to Evans, were ‘laughed at’; and, the military had taken little part in the affair, refused to help put out the flames and then rode away when they thought their presence no longer effective. Although the police had attempted to reassert law and order by arresting two diggers suspected of being responsible for the fire, they were quickly rescued from Evans and his men who returned to the Camp in disarray.

[1] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 25 October 1845, pp. 95-97. Gordon Evans, Inspector of Police Ballarat to Captain MacMahon, Acting Chief Commissioner of Police Melbourne, 17 October 1854: PROV, 937/P Unit 10, 547/54.

[2] ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 23 October 1854, p. 5, provides a detailed account of the initially peaceful meeting and the subsequent burning of the hotel. See also, ‘Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 20 October 1854, p. 4.

[3] Argus, 16 October 1854.

[4] ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 23 October 1854, p. 5.

[5] Bentley to Dewes, 16 October 1854, PROV 1189/P Unit 92, H54/11605: ‘the great probability would be an attack by the whole mob upon me and the House, particularly if intoxication should exist to any extent.’

[6] For Rede’s account of events see, PROV 1189/P Unit 92, J54/12471.

[7] Ballarat Times, 18 October 1854.

[8] Dewes to John Foster, Colonial Secretary, 17 October 1854, PROV 1189/P Unit 92, H54/11605.

[9] Argus, 18 October 1854.

[10] Ballarat Times, 18 October 1854.

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