Monday, 27 April 2015

1852: a faltering administration

In the first half of 1852, La Trobe became more confident as his government gradually established its authority. The Legislative Council, which ended its first session in January, was not summoned again until June. [1] The Government concentrated on recruiting police and building up the goldfield administration appointing W. H. Wright, formerly in charge of Mount Alexander, as Chief Commissioner in May and by June La Trobe considered both to be operating effectively. [2] Wright warned La Trobe of the defects of the 1851 license system and opposed the compulsory license hunts that enraged the diggers; however, his flexibility kept the situation under control. The number of licenses issued increased from nearly 8,000 in January to 20,000 by April and nearly 25,000 the following month with two-thirds of miners paying.[3] This was reflected in the decline in the number of articles in the Argus in 1852 in which gold licenses were mentioned. [4]

For the moment, although the intensity had gone out of the license issue, it was not what the Government did in these months but what it did not do that caused problems. No attempt was made, for example to build a road to Castlemaine and Bendigo despite the increase in gold revenue and the availability of labour. The Colonial Office in London recognised that it could not interfere in Victoria. Communications were too slow and only the local executive could make effective decisions. However, the Colonial Office did three things to aid La Trobe. It immediately sent four companies of the 59th Regiment [5] followed soon after by a volunteer force of London police while the Admiralty agreed to send a man-of-war. It also unlocked the constitutional impasse between executive and legislature by quickly agreeing to transfer control of the goldfields and gold revenue to the Legislative Council. Finally, whatever it thought privately, La Trobe was praised for his handling of the crisis. [6]

By the middle of 1852, as the first waves of gold-seekers from overseas arrived, all needing accommodation, food and transport, the government was fully aware that the discovery of gold had created more intractable problems than it had solved. [7] These concerns were matched by others who were troubled by the possible lasting effects. It seemed that the gold rushes threatened to destroy social stability; indeed to some this was a world turned upside-down. For them the lower orders were unable to enjoy the fruits of their fortune sensibly and their futile attempts to copy the behaviour and dress of higher classes was a constant source of humour in the early days of the gold rushes as, for example when several thousand fortunate diggers descended on Melbourne over Christmas and New Year. [8] In fact, most miners did not squander their new-found wealth. Many young miners married because they could now afford to do so; some used their wealth to improve conditions for their families while others paid the fares of relatives and friends from Britain; farms were bought and businesses established. Many simply saved their money: deposits in savings banks rose from £29,000 in January 1852 to over £102,000 by June. If anything this increased rather than diminished the alarm of the established social order. Serle concluded that, ‘In social relations, though not in politics, a ‘French Revolution’ had indeed occurred’. [9]

The administration of Victoria reached its nadir in the second half of 1852. Its government was distrusted, the Executive Council mocked and the Legislative Council ignored. The colonists complained of deadlock over pastoral leases, lack of public works, of trespassing miners and indecision on the question of transportation. Immigrants were scandalised by mismanagement of the goldfields and by the cost of everything. La Trobe invariably dithered. This was exacerbated by the volatile membership of the Executive Council with three resignations by mid-1852 and little reliable support from the official and non-official members of the Legislative Council with 31 different representatives filling the 10 nominee positions between 1851 and 1853. La Trobe’s problems were further complicated by his inability to control the legislature, only surviving a motion of no-confidence in November 1852 by two votes (15 votes to 13).[10]

The Colonial Office instructions giving the Legislative Council control of the goldfields and their revenue arrived in early September 1852. [11] The government, however, interpreted tentative suggestions about the licensing system as clear directives that La Trobe, always unwilling to deviate from instructions, now saw as permanent. Within a week, the government prepared and introduced a bill imposing an export duty of 2/6d an ounce in addition to the existing fee.[12] The timing was good and the levy fell on successful miners (and then only indirectly) rather than everyone who worked on the diggings. The price of gold had risen sharply in August and this might limit digger opposition. The bill passed its second reading comfortably. No member wanted to abolish the license system and only a few representatives spoke against extra taxation on the miners. Notwithstanding, the Government adjourned the Council for six weeks and when it reconvened the bill was rejected by one vote with two government nominees voting against the bill. [13] This first review of the license system ended with no change and almost no consideration of its fundamental principles. Had the Government proceeded in September it is likely that the bill would have passed, but widespread opposition developed among urban radicals and diggers during the six week adjournment. Melbourne merchants came out against the proposal and had established links with the digger organisation at Castlemaine in order to prepare a concerted campaign. The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, led by William Westgarth unanimously passed a hostile resolution based on the laissez-faire principle that no obstacle to trade was acceptable and that it was unjust to tax the diggers more heavily. [14]


[1] For a detailed discussion of the first session of the Legislative Council, see above Wright, Raymond, A Blended House, pp. 21-35.

[2] Blake, L. J., ‘William Henry Wright (1816-1877)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 444-445.

[3] La Trobe to Grey, 8 July 1852, printed in Clark2, pp. 9-13.

[4] Between May and December 1851, discussion of gold licenses was contained in 271 articles. The number per month rose steadily from 19 in June to 54 in December. During 1852, this only occurred on 198 occasions with a low of 8 in August and 22 in April with an average of 16 per month across the year.

[5] This was announced in the House of Lords on 17 May 1852, ‘Emigration to Australia’, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 17 May 1852, Vol. 121, cc.672-674. Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 1852, p. 8.

[6] Pakington’s despatch is printed in Argus, 8 September 1852, p. 2.

[7] Annear, Robyn, Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852, (Text Publishing), 1999.

[8] Argus, 16 December 1851, commented that 500 diggers in one band was heading for Melbourne, ‘it is to be dreaded the revelry of our countrymen will become a Saturnalia. Low debauchery, profligacy and crime, instead of the innocent festive scene and social merriment.’

[9] Serle, p. 30.

[10] Sweetman, pp. 141-144. ‘Want of Confidence’, Argus, 20 November 1852, p. 4, outlined why there was no confidence in the Executive Council, Argus, 24 November 1852, pp. 4-5, prints the debate on the no-confidence motion.

[11] See, Pakington to La Trobe, 2 June 1852, ‘Argus, 8 September 1852, p. 4, prints Pakington’s letter and the Government Order dated 7 September 1852.

[12] The Bill for granting duties of Customs upon Gold exported from the Colony of Victoria is printed in Argus, 14 September 1852, p. 3.

[13] ‘The Export Duties upon Gold’, Argus, 3 November 1852, p. 4, provides an editorial critique of the legislation. Argus, 17 November 1852, criticised the passage of the further stage of the bill. Geelong Advertiser, 26 November 1852.

[14] Cooper, J. B., Victorian Commerce 1834-1934: In which is Incorporated the Story of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, (Robertson & Mullens), 1934, and ‘Reports of the Conditions and Progress of the Colony of Victoria since the Discovery of the Goldfields’, in Westgarth, William, Victoria: Late Australia Felix, Or Port Phillip District of New South Wales, (Oliver & Boyd), 1853, pp. 80-85. The petition, written on 4 October, is printed in Argus, 6 November 1852, p. 5.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Dignity of Chartism

Stephen Roberts (ed.)
The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson
(Verso), 2015
xxx, 206pp, £14.99 paper, ISBN 978-1-78188-849-6
The historian Dorothy Thompson, who died aged 87 in 2011, was best known for her writing on the social and cultural aspects of the nineteenth-century Chartist movement. The documents she edited in The Early Chartists (1971) brought to life the intense and dangerous interior world of working-class meetings, conventions and newspapers, while The Chartists (1984) revealed greatly neglected areas such as middle-class involvement, women’s role, the part played by Irish radicals and schemes for land settlements. Her collection Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation (1993) demonstrated a mix of exacting scholarship and conceptual clarity.

The volume is divided into five parts. 'Interpreting Chartism' includes six essays that consider various aspects of the historiography of the movement. ‘Chartism as an Historical Subject’, a succinct discussion, originally published in 1970 a decade before ‘the linguistic turn’, examines the nature and importance of Chartism and, linked with her essay on historiography published in Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation makes an excellent introduction to the subject. This is followed by a characteristically combative review of ‘The Languages of Class’ through a critical analysis of Gareth Stedman Jones’ work. The remaining four essays in this section extend what is, I think, the most innovative section of The Chartists—‘Who were the Chartists?’ ‘Who were ‘The People’ in 1842?’, first published in 1996, examines the use of language as a major historical ‘source’ against the backdrop of the climatic events of 1842. ‘Women Chartists’ is an excellent summary of her findings on what was, until she resurrected them, a neglected dimension of radicalism. The other two essays are reviews of Gregory Claeys’ six volume collection of Chartist tracts and David Vincent’s book on working-class autobiographies.
The second section, in many respects the heart of the book, consists of two essays originally written in the 1950s. There is a short essay on ‘Chartism in the Industrial Areas’, still a valuable synopsis. It is, however, the study of Halifax as a Chartist Centre, from which the book gained its title, which is the jewel of the collection. Originally written with her husband Edward Thompson as part of Asa Briggs’ Chartist Studies and unpublished until now, it is a detailed study of how Chartism developed in one community. At over 30,000 words in the original that is available on the Internet, the essay, which was never completely finished, has been sympathetically edited to make it a more manageable length. Although it reflects the historiography as it stood in the 1950s, it remains a model for how the local study of Chartism should be written and its publication is important.
The third section examines the leaders of the people. There is a short essay on O’Connor, for Thompson the most important of Chartist leaders originally written in 1952 when he remained under a Gammage-Lovett-Hovell dominated cloud and two decades before his resurrection to his rightful position at the heart of the movement as an innovative, combative, if erratic, radical leader. This is followed by a chapter that combines two reviews on George Julian Harney ‘a radical to the end of his days’, something evident in David Goodway’s recently published collection of Harney’s journalism. Miles Taylor’s book on Ernest Jones is subjected to a review originally published in 2003 while books on Joseph Sturge and John Fielden, two middle-class supporters of the movement, were subjected to not uncritical review in 1987.
The three essays in the next section ‘Repercussions’ consider Chartism from the perspective of 1848 and beyond. ‘The Chartists in 1848’ published in 2005, and one of the final things Dorothy Thompson wrote on the movement, places greater emphasis on the role played by Irish radicals as a stimulus to continued Chartist activity after Kennington Common. There is a valuable review of John Saville’s 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement that has much to say about her view of the significance of 1848 and her criticism of Saville’s notion of the ‘radical triangle’ of Paris, Dublin and London. ‘The Post-Chartist Decades’ combines reviews originally published in 1994 and 1995 of Margot Finn’s After Chartism and Miles Taylor’s The Decline of British Radicalism and considers the question of what happened to Chartists after Chartism ceased to be a mass political movement—‘Poor people’s movements do not have the resources to sustain a permanent organization: they gain their effect in particular short-term ways…’
The collection ends with a section appropriately entitled ‘Looking Back’, an essay in which Dorothy Thompson reflected in 2003 on how Marxist ideas shaped her thinking both as a political activist and as an historian. This essay exemplifies much about how Dorothy Thompson approached the writing of history and particularly the humanity and elegance of her writing. It is a fitting way to end this invaluable collection. There is also a valuable and succinct bibliography and an excellent index.
The Dignity of Chartism collects together Dorothy Thompson’s essays and reviews, previously published in many different places, into a single volume making her writing on Chartism easily available. Stephen Roberts, one of Dorothy’s doctoral students, has done a great service for historians of nineteenth century radicalism in bringing this material together which he does with considerable aplomb in his introductory essay, a combination of personal reminiscences and historiographical analysis, and in the sureness of his editing. This is volume that all historians of Chartism should read and provides further evidence, if any was needed, that Dorothy Thompson was the most important historian of Chartism in the past half century.











Saturday, 25 April 2015

Is it all crazy?

Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the western world have become increasingly divided-not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy. What’s more, the crazies seem to be gaining the upper hand. Rational thought cannot prevail in the current social and media environment, where elections are won by appealing to voters’ hearts rather than their minds. The rapid-fire pace of modern politics, the hypnotic repetition of daily news items and even the multitude of visual sources of information all make it difficult for the voice of reason to be heard. In his Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives to be published in the UK in July though already available on Kindle but published in Canada last year,  Canadian philosopher Joseph Heath argues for ‘slow politics’.  It is, he suggests, impossible to restore sanity merely by being sane and trying to speak in a reasonable tone of voice. The only way to restore sanity is by engaging in collective action against the social conditions that have crowded it out.

Newsnight index

While it is doubtful whether the campaign in the past week has restored sanity to the election, what has been evident is how far news reporting has slipped.  Other issues, such as the refuge situation in the Mediterranean—though the implication of what Ed said about Libya was unfortunate especially as he voted for British intervention--and the Gallipoli centenary, have rightly taken prominence.  On the front page of today’s BBC News website, the election is mentioned in two stories and in none of the Watch/Listen videos, though of course there is the specific election section.  Is this simply because the election campaign has really yet to leap into life…possible given that there are 10 days before the election? In fact, much of the news coverage is still concentrating on the aftermath of the election and the constitutional implications of another hung parliament.  With Labour and the Conservatives still locked together—though there is a suggestion that the Conservative are edging ahead—this is perhaps not surprising but what is also the case is the growing recognition amongst the electorate that neither Labour or the Conservatives are coming clean about the financial implications of them becoming the next government.  This lack of transparency, though hardly new in elections, is becoming increasingly annoying for voters.  For instance, we know that both parties will make further cuts in public spending but we do not know where the cuts will fall and there is little likelihood that we will before 7 May.  This is a ‘crazy’ situation and is based on the premise that voters just have to trust politicians making it impossible for choice to be based on any rational principles at all…you know we’re going to make cuts and you just have to believe that the cuts we make will be the right ones!

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The electoral arithmetic is becoming increasingly complex.  If the current projections are right, the Conservatives will be the largest party on 8 May.  The Newsnight index last night gave them 286 with Labour on 267.  With Lib-Dem support this would give a Lib-Dem-Conservative coalition 310 seats while a Labour-SNP ‘arrangement’ would have 315 seats, both short of the majority they need to govern.  This leaves 25 others, including the Greens, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Ireland parties effectively holding the balance of power..a very messy outcome to the election.  The critical issue therefore is how far tactical voting will come into play.  For instance, the polls are certainly looking bad for Labour in Scotland as the SNP builds on the momentum it achieved in the referendum campaign--even though it lost. The result in some parts of Scotland is 'vote for your sitting MP irrespective of which party you support as a way of keeping the SNP out'. This could work if, say Labour supporters can hold their noses and vote say Lib-Dem. It all depends on whether the share desire to hold back the nationalist onslaught is stronger than often long-held party loyalties.  If the same approach were used in England, it could buttress support for Lib-Dem and Conservative sitting MPs…the argument is that to keep Ed out of Number 10 and prevent the SNP calling the tune vote for your incumbent.  In effect, a Lib-Dem-Conservative electoral pact.  Whether this would be popular with the electorate or would be simply seen as electoral opportunism is unclear but it could finally break the electoral deadlock in England.  Now if people vote this way then it will be a rational decision…an assertion that the ‘crazies’ cannot always have things their own way.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Uninspiring so far but there’s three weeks to go!

We’re about half way through the general election campaign.  The manifestos—plush aspirational documents--are published, though few I suspect will read them, party election broadcasts appear each evening, most of the television debates are over and there’s wall-to-wall coverage on the news programmes with every nuance of what is being said debated and re-debated by the pundits.  It’s almost as if the election campaign is panning out in a parallel universe—yes, it’s that uninspiring.  In fact, despite being billed as the most important election ‘for a generation’, I think it’s the most uninspiring campaign that I’ve watched since 1975.  Even the momentously boring 1992 election, notable only for John Major literally taking to a soap box and Neil Kinnock embarrassingly celebrating too early in Sheffield, was more interesting.  Now it could be that I’m being slightly premature and that the public will become really engaged with the campaign as 7 May approaches but, at present, there’s little indication that this will be the case.
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There are various reasons for this.  There is a widespread belief—though whether it is true is questionable—that it doesn’t actually matter which party/parties form the government as there’s really little difference between the Conservatives and Labour, it will be politics as usual.  We will still have austerity policies.  People also don’t think that politicians are telling the truth or rather being economical with it particularly over taxation.  They remember being told that the Conservatives had no intention of increasing VAT in 2010 and then, once they were in power they did precisely that.  Their justification was that, as they hadn’t seen the books, they didn’t know how bad things were.  For the Lib-Dems, the albatross of tuition fees has hung around their necks since 2012 and will almost certainly contribute to their standing or rather lack of it in the polls after 7 May.  Apart from UKIP, all the parties have been quiet about immigration and membership of the EU, but these are issues on which the public, particularly in areas where immigration is high, have very strong views. 
Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas
Yesterday I received my postal vote containing, not only local and national ballot papers, but a local referendum about increasing the amount of money collected through Council Tax to fund policing.  Though I’m opposed to this—for me it’s the responsibility of those in power to operate, as I do, within their budgets—but at least it’s an honest and transparent approach to taxation.  What this election ought to be about, and it’s the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens that have got it right, is whether as a country we are prepared to pay for things like the NHS and ‘living’ pensions through higher taxation.  You cannot have an effective ‘welfare state’ without being prepared to pay for it.  The problem is that people don’t trust government, of whatever political persuasion, to spend our money effectively.  There’s also the danger, and the police referendum exemplifies this, that if the money runs out you just ask the people for more.  Therein lies the problem and the primary reason why the campaign has yet to take off.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Why personal progressive taxation has failed

If only to emphasise the triumph of Mammon over Christianity, today the emphasis in the election campaign is on taxation.  The problem with personal taxation is that its progressive nature—those who earn more pay at a higher rate—almost inevitably means that people will try to avoid paying some of their taxes by one means or another.  In addition, there is no agreement what the higher level of taxation should be: 45per cent as it is now, 50 per cent as it would be under Labour or 60 per cent if the Greens win (so chance of that then!).  In practice, no agreement at all about what would be an equitable higher rate of taxation. This means that it’s a political question: how far should we screw the rich?
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The current taxation regime with its inevitable loopholes and legal—if not moral--means of tax avoidance is the creation of evolution and general election results.  Personal taxation  is in need of a radical overhaul because , in essence, its progressive character has now failed.  So we have to go back to basics and establish the principles on which a taxation system should be based:
1. It is generally agreed that those who earn more should pay more taxation---the rich should pay more than the poor.
2. It is generally agreed that the tax liability of the poorest in society should be reduced, that is if they pay tax at all, through an increase in personal allowance…one of the major achievements of the Lib-Dems while in coalition. 
That’s it.  Now how do you best achieve this?  This does not require any particularly radical thinking simply that everyone should pay the same taxation on their income with no loopholes, exceptions, being able to claim against taxation or whatever.  So if you earn £20,000 a year you pay 20 per cent of your income after personal allowance; if you earn £200,000 a year you also pay 20 per cent of your income after personal allowance.  If you seek to hide your income, then that’s a criminal offence with a mandatory jail sentence and mandatory fine of ten times your annual salary.  All bonuses from whatever source, whether in cash or shares, are taxed in the same way: so £2,000 shares worth £5.00 each would give a tax liability of £2,000.  My only exception to this system would be for those earning over £200,000 who would pay an additional wealth tax of 2 per cent. 
The result would be a taxation system that is easy to understand, remove the need for people to avoid paying tax particularly if a draconian system of punishment was introduced for those who try and ensure that those who earn more, pay more.

Protest in 1851: how to mishandle a crisis

La Trobe faced opposition from the outset. A public meeting chaired by the Mayor in Melbourne on 30 August argued that the industry was being strangled at birth and people driven from Victoria, that the approach used in NSW where miners did not purchase licenses until their working became ‘remunerative’, that it was ‘highly inexpedient to impose any tax or monthly license’ and supported the resolutions passed by miners at Buninyong. [1] On 25 August, the first protest meeting was held at Buninyong chaired by Herbert Swindells of Geelong calling for fair play for the diggers and resolving to resist the tax by all lawful means. The Geelong Advertiser’s reporter Alfred Clarke attended the meeting under the stars and wrote that ‘there has not been a more gross attempt at injustice since the days of Wat Tyler’.

It is a solemn protest of labour against oppression, an outburst of light, reason and right against the infliction of an effete objectionable Royal claim...It is taxation without representation…tonight for the first time since Australia rose from the bosom of the ocean, were men strong in their sense of right, lifting up a protest against an impending wrong, and protesting against the Government. Let the Government beware. [2]

When Captain Dana and the Native Police arrived, most diggers retreated to the hills [3] James Oddie, who owned a foundry in Geelong and several other businessmen from the community organised the digging on the basis of mutual consent establishing an orderly structure for mining at what became known as Golden Point. Dana returned to the Buninyong diggings on 20 September accompanied by Gold Commissioner Doveton but in collecting £400 in revenue lost the Government a great deal of goodwill. [4] Doveton took authority from the local diggers’ organisation and imposed the order of the Victorian government on the mining community. He announced that they must pay a license fee of 15 shillings for the remainder of September and 30 shillings a month thereafter. He also tampered with the frontage system the miners had established reducing their claims from 10 feet by 60 feet in depth to eight feet square (that would soon be worked out) and held that individuals could only hold two claims.

The result was an angry meeting on 21 September where the diggers decided that five shillings a month was an appropriate and fair license fee. Resolutions were also passed condemning the new frontage system. Oddie and Swinsdells were elected to represent the miners’ grievances to the Commissioner but he dismissed the deputation saying that he was there to enforce the law not make it. Doveton also gave arbitrary and undoubtedly unlawful instructions that Oddie and Swinsdells should not be issued with licenses as he saw them as troublemakers. Colonial order was imposed on the community with the establishment of a court of Petty Sessions and a Police Camp under Captain Dana in late September. La Trobe would have done well to listen to the local community but he did not and the seeds of resentment against the colonial administration of the goldfields had been sown. His optimism that a ‘slight show of opposition...gave way at once to a general desire...to secure licenses…’ was not reflected in the collection of license fees in Ballarat where less than half of the 6,000 diggers paid in October.[5] As other goldfields opened up, most diggers experienced sizable hardship because of the license system and fumed at its injustice. By the end of September 1851 there was already a general resistance movement.

Mining at Ballarat faltered by mid-October and many left the diggings and it seemed that La Trobe’s policy had paid off. Nonetheless, the discovery of gold near Mount Alexander, in the area that became Castlemaine and then in Bendigo, led to a second rush at the end of October dwarfing that at Ballarat. [6] Melbourne and Geelong were almost entirely deserted by men for a second time. Pending official direction from London, La Trobe, with his Executive Council, attempted to manage the goldfields and gold revenue without the Legislative Council that voted to withhold much ordinary revenue. [7] As a result, the finance needed for general expenses such as public servants’ wages and infrastructure were not paid making it difficult to administer established parts of the colony let alone the expanding gold communities. Although this issue was soon resolved, friction between the government and the Council continued to hamper management of the goldfields.

By the end of November, the population of the Forest Creek area had reached 15,000 and with two weeks 30,000. The scale of second rush led to a catastrophic breakdown of government by December and there were ‘signs of panic’ in La Trobe’s actions. [8] The Governor and his advisors in the Legislative Council were under pressure to halt the flow of labour to the goldfields.

The RUSH to the goldfields is now so great that serious fears begin to be entertained regarding the wheat crops, and it becomes a matter for the prompt attention of the Government as to what is to be done to save the country… Whether to raise the gold licence today to 10 pounds a month for the next three months, or to prohibit digging for that time appears only feasible. The RUSH to these mines is FEARFUL, and no wonder. [9]

Gold Commissioners and their staff were slowly being recruited and initially did little more than settle disputes and collect the license fees. There were few police to enforce payment and between November 1851 and January 1852 less than half of the diggers paid. Faced with an obstructive Legislative Council and massive migration, he called for military aid. As well as seeking military reinforcements, on 1 December 1851, La Trobe doubled the license fee to £3 per month, a blunder of major proportions. [10] The new license was to apply to diggers but also to shopkeepers and others providing services on the goldfields. Though it is unclear who originated the policy, La Trobe went along with it appearing blinkered to the legitimate concerns of diggers.

The reaction was uproar: few could pay and most refused to do so. The diggers responded with extraordinary unity and organisational skill establishing the basic pattern for constitutional protest over the following three years. At Loddon, a Tax Prevention Committee was formed and anyone paying the fee was given twelve hours to leave the diggings while at Ballarat opinion favoured offering only thirty shillings for the next month. On 8 December 1851, the Argus correspondent on the Mount Alexander diggings reported that a notice addressed to ‘fellow diggers’ had appeared at Forest Creek. [11] The notice, invoked the familiar language of radical dissent criticising the tyrannical laws of the colonial legislature dominated by the conservative pastoral squattocracy. It continued provocatively, informing the Forest Creek mining community that: ‘intelligence has just arrived of the resolution of the government to double the license fee. Will you tamely submit to the imposition or assert your rights like men?’ The appeal was to masculinity, independence and British identity:

Ye are Britons! Would you submit to oppression and injustice’ and represented the first challenge to the colonial licensing system on the goldfields. The provocative tone continued throughout the notice and concluded with a resolution to ‘meet – agitate – be unanimous – and if there is justice in the land, they will, they must abolish the imposition.

The intent of the document was clear and the calling of a ‘monster meeting’ spread rapidly throughout the diggings.[12] After the distribution of that notice, each of the diggings held small local meetings to plan the next step. A delegation of diggers approached Commissioner Powlett, asking him to sponsor a mass meeting so that diggers could express their views directly to him. He refused, saying he had urgent business in Melbourne.

The reaction was immediate and up to 14,000 men met at Golden Point on 15 December 1851. [13] Many spoke but the recurrent theme was for unity in face of a tyrannical administration. Laurence Potts, describing the people assembled before him, commented:

I see before me some 10,000 to 12,000 men, which any country in the world might be proud to own as her own sons...This very cream of Victoria, and the sinews of her strength. Now, my friends, let it be seen this day whether you intend to be slaves or Britons, whether you will basely bow down your necks to the yoke, or whether, like true men, you will support your rights.

Potts begged his audience not to pay the license fee and was rewarded with a universal response of ‘never’ from all parts of Golden Point. Although there was some vague talk of forcing the government to change its position, Potts and other leaders quashed any suggestion that force should be used except in self-defence and proclaimed their support for the monarchy.

That this meeting while deprecating the use of physical force, and pledging itself not to resort to it except in cases of self-defence; at the same time pledges itself to relieve or release any or all diggers that on account of non-payment of £3 licenses may be fined or confined by Government orders or Government agents, should Government temerity proceed to such illegal lengths.

There was no contact between the diggers’ leaders and the popular leaders on the Legislative Council though they were in touch with radicals in Geelong and had strong support from the Argus. The scale of the meeting, coupled with the resolve of its participants, startled the colonial government into a hasty retreat and the license fee remained unaltered at thirty shillings a month. This decision was declared in an order dated 13 December, two days before the ‘monster meeting’. However, it was not reported by the Argus until 16 December and then said to be ‘under discussion’, while the Government Gazette did not confirm the decision until 24 December. Whether the rescission order was deliberately pre-dated, so that the Governor did not appear to buckling under digger pressure, is open to conjecture. Whether this calmed the situation is difficult to estimate but a meeting of diggers in late December 1851 at Flagstaff Hill gave the impression that it had little impact on digger opinion:

…the withdrawal of the £3 Proclamation without substituting any general or fixed code of regulations [was] a mere ruse…that the Governor had sent to Van Diemen’s Land for prisoners to convert into constables, and to Sydney to beg for more troops, which arrived and confirmed the weakness and faithlessness of the Government, and also their alliance with the Squatting interest to drive you to their service… [14]

Why did La Trobe and his government make such a crass blunder? It appeared urgent to restore social stability by reducing the numbers on the fields. At the time, it was generally accepted that this was done to safeguard the harvest; in fact this was successfully gathered in January 1852. For La Trobe, increasing the license fee went some way to resolving this problem caused by the failure of the Legislative Council to vote additional expenditure. He believed that a majority of diggers could afford to pay without great hardship though, in reality, the level of success was low. While the policy may have had some justification, Serle is right to conclude that ‘foolishness lay rather in the belief that it could be carried out’.[15] La Trobe had neither the police nor the soldiers to force compliance on the diggers.

Until the Legislative Council first met on 11 November, the government had managed the goldfields by regulation. Once it did meet, the government maintained its right to continue managing the fields and using gold revenue as part of the Crown Lands until it received instructions from the Colonial Office. Although permission to use gold revenue for general expenditure was known in March 1852, instructions to transfer its control to the Council did not reach Victoria until early September. This impasse, though constitutionally justifiable had important political consequences. During the license crisis in December 1851 the government acted consistently in not consulting the Legislative Council but despite this the Council proved sufficiently independent of government to debate the issue. Matters deteriorated further when, on 11 December 1851 Stawell introduced a Vagrant Act Amendment Bill that covered the whole system of goldfields administration. [16] Though no legislation was necessary, the government sought the backing of the Council to give the measure some legitimacy with public opinion. The result was confusion with government spokesmen admitting that the license system was unjust and unsatisfactory and with calls for its replacement by an export tax or some other tax on earnings. Matters then took on the character of farce. The Government was demanding agreement to a bill whose principles the Council rejected and that public opinion condemned. The original bill had classified all those without licenses as ‘vagrants’ and the Council opposed this provocative phrasing on the ground that at the time many normally law-abiding individuals refused to pay for licenses as a matter of principle.

The Bill enacted that every person who, without license or authority, shall search, dig or mine…should be deemed an idle and disorderly person… [17]

Nonetheless, the Legislative Council eventually passed the bill in a revised form. [18] By the end of 1851, the government was discredited for introducing a license system and the Legislative Council in supporting the amended Vagrant Bill had lost its standing with the diggers. Both the Government and the Council seemed incapable of seeing beyond short-term solutions to the problem of licensing that even La Trobe recognised was unsatisfactory.


[1] ‘The Digging Licenses’, Argus, 1 September 1851, p. 2.

[2] Argus, 26 August 1851, p. 2, Geelong Advertiser, 2 September 1851.

[3] Norman, Marilynn I., ‘Henry Edward Pulteney Dana (1820-1852)’, ADB, Vol. 1, p. 278.

[4] Serle, p. 20. ‘Ballarat Diggings, Buninyong, Thursday Morning’. Geelong Advertiser, 26 September 1851, p. 2.

[5] La Trobe to Earl Grey, 30 October 1851 cit, Serle, p. 21.

[6] Forster, Harley W., The Central Goldfields: Historical Backgrounds-Bendigo, Castlemaine and neighbourhood, revised edition, (Cyprus Books), 1973, provides the context. Cusack, Frank, (ed.), F. McKenzie-Clarke Early Days on Bendigo, (Queensberry Hill Press) 1979, reprints collected reminiscences of McKenzie-Clarke reprinted from the Bendigo Advertiser under the title ‘The First Discovery of Gold at Bendigo’ in the 1880s that includes an appendix on the discovery of gold in the area.

[7] ‘The Estimates’, Argus, 19 November 1851, p. 4, listed estimates submitted the previous day to the Legislative Council. Argus, 5 December 1851, pp. 4-5, saw rejection of spending on Mounted Police from general revenue; ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 12 December 1851, pp. 2-3, saw further rejections in favour of the use of Territorial Revenues.

[8] Serle, p. 24.

[9] Melbourne Morning Herald, 25 November 1851, p. 4.

[10] ‘Additional Gold Regulations’, Argus, 5 December 1851, p. 3.

[11] Mount Alexander (taking in the goldfields of Castlemaine and Bendigo) was one of the world’s richest shallow alluvial goldfields yielding around four million ounces of gold, most of which was found in the first two years of the rush and within five metres of the surface. Reeves, Keir, and Wong Hoy, Kevin, ‘Beyond a European protest: reappraising Chinese agency on the Victorian goldfields’, in ibid, Mayne, Alan, (ed.), Eureka: Reappraising an Australian Legend, pp. 158-165, ascribes great significance to the Mount Alexander ‘monster meeting’. For a description of the meeting on 8 December, see ‘Mount Alexander: To the Editor of the Argus’, Argus, 13 December 1851, p. 2.

[12] The use of the title ‘monster meeting’ given to the Castlemaine assembly would have been a particularly loaded one, the same term was used to describe the largest political protest to take place in Britain, the Chartist monster meeting on Kennington Common, London, on 10 April 1848.

[13] ‘Meeting of the Diggers at Mount Alexander’, Argus, 18 December 1851, p. 2, Morning Herald, 20 December 1851, p. 3, are the main sources for this meeting.

[14] ‘Gold Diggers’ Meeting’, Argus, 30 December 1851, p. 2.

[15] Serle, p. 27.

[16] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 12 December 1851, p. 2. The Vagrant Act (13 Victoria 46) had been disallowed by the Colonial Office at the beginning of 1851, ‘Disallowance of Vagrant Act’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 January 1851, Argus, 14 January 1851. In both NSW and Victoria later in the year, the original legislation was amended to satisfy London’s requirements and to address the question of gold miners but with very different responses.

[17] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 20 December 1851, p. 2. The Bill passed its second reading by 17 to 7.

[18] ‘Legislative Council’, Geelong Advertiser, 22 December 1851, p. 2.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The long, long goodbye: Cameron or Miliband?

It’s 29 days until the General Election but it does seem as if the campaign has been going on in earnest since the beginning of the year.  And what a lack-lustre campaign it has been so far.  The essence of the arguments from the three major UK parties seems to be: ‘don’t elect Labour, let us finish the economic job we’ve already started’, ‘we’ll basically continue with the Conservative austerity measures but do it a little more slowly and with more humanity’ and ‘if you elect us and we have another coalition government, we can prevent the excesses of the other parties’.  With the Conservatives focussing on the economy, Labour on the NHS and the Lib-Dems, well focusing on surviving I suspect, there is really little new in what has been promised so far…that is if you believe politicians’ promises in the first place.  Labour bangs on about creeping privatisation in the NHS forgetting that there was more privatisation before 2010 than after.  The Conservatives keep talking about how poor Miliband would be as Prime Minister and they are perhaps right though, as Tony Blair pointed out yesterday in a passionate and well-argued defence of the EU, he did have the courage to resist calls from within his own party to commit himself to a referendum on Europe.  The Lib-Dems’ message seems to be, please don’t punish us for being in the coalition.  Given this negative campaigning, it’s hardly surprising that the polls have moved little since the campaign began with both Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck around 33 per cent.
image
Yes, it’s breakfast at Tiffany’s!
This election is being spun as the most important election for a generation—aren’t all elections—but the indications seem to be that there will be a hung parliament.  Neither Conservative nor Labour have yet made the electoral breakthrough suggesting that they will form a majority government.  But what is significant is that Labour look like being massacred in Scotland by the SNP and their position in Wales, though perhaps less precarious, is coming under sustained fire from Plaid Cymru.  If the polls are right, then it is unlikely that Labour could form a majority government or, in fact, end up being the largest party in the new parliament.  It simply looks tired in Scotland where its natural right to rule had been increasingly questioned since the mid-2000s while in Wales it has failed to deliver effective government in the National Assembly particularly in the NHS and education.  The first past the post system makes it difficult for the Greens and UKIP to make electoral headway but any MPS at all could make them influential in a hung parliament.  It is, however, UKIP that is making heavy weather of the election largely because it needs the oxygen of publicity to get its message across and  during an election that is diluted.  The only way it can grab the headlines—and it has failed to do so—is to make outlandish claims that may well appeal to their core voters but are liable to put everyone else off.
So two weeks in to the campaign proper, the Conservatives and Labour are constantly recycling their rather worn mantra, the Lib-Dems are praying for forgiveness for supporting an increase in tuition fees while the smaller parties are desperately seeking votes to give them a say in a hung parliament.  So little new there then.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Licensing Gold

Regulations for gold licenses were issued on 18 August.[1] The problem was that La Trobe lacked sufficient manpower to make them effective. [2] From 1 September 1851, all diggers had to pay 30 shillings a month (the equivalent of a week’s wages) for a license whether they were successful or not or risk prosecution. He hoped that this would provide sufficient territorial revenue to maintain services such as road-building and law and order, and limit those thinking of leaving their regular employment to try their luck on the diggings. Gold Commissioners were appointed, a process not completed until December, to police the license system and to defuse any disputes on the goldfields. Nicholas Fenwick, Commissioner of Crown Lands and a magistrate was appointed on 18 August to apply the regulations and issue licenses in the settled district around Melbourne. [3] Some diggers were able to pay the fee but many more were not and it created widespread resentment. La Trobe was described by the Geelong Advertiser as ‘our Victorian Czar’ imposing an unrealistic tax before any goldfield had shown a profit. [4] La Trobe thought he was acting in an appropriate and fair-minded manner by imposing the rule of law equally on all diggers. His was a desperate approach to the problem of maintaining government in Victoria and resulted in growing opposition.

Why did the gold license prove so unpopular in Victoria? The government needed additional revenue to police and administer the goldfields and many diggers accepted that some taxation was necessary to provide services and protection. A license to mine would in principle have had some deterrent effect on the disruption to the colonial labour market by providing a small barrier to entry into the industry and paid before any income could be earned in the industry. As it was paid monthly, it also provided inducement to leave mining where incomes were modest. Whatever the intention behind the license fee, it was considered unjust. It was a direct tax without legislative sanction. In the mid-nineteenth century, direct taxation was still uncommon and resistance to direct taxes like the poll tax had entered folk memory. The level of the fee was also a major source of resistance since only a minority of diggers were, as yet, paying their way. Was this an attempt to keep the poor from seeking their fortunes, many angrily retorted? Finally, some goldfield officials were tactless and arbitrary setting a precedent for events in 1854. In its haste to control the gold rushes, the Government had neither justified its actions (it was not to do so for two years) nor considered more acceptable alternatives.


[1] This is evident in La Trobe to Earl Grey, 10 October 1851, ‘Further Papers relative to the Recent Discovery of Gold in Australia’, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. lxiv, 1852-3, pp. 42-43. See ‘Licenses to Dig and Search for Gold’, Argus, 21 August 1851, p. 2.

[2] Goss, Alan, Charles Joseph La Trobe, (Melbourne University Press), 1956, pp. 103-126; Reilly, Dianne, ‘“Duties of No Ordinary Difficulty”: Charles Joseph La Trobe and the Goldfields Administration’, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 72, (1 & 2), (2001), pp. 173-186, 181-201, and ibid, Drury, Dianne Reilly, La Trobe, pp. 216-231, are useful studies of La Trobe’s problems.

[3] Argus, 21 August 1851, p. 2.

[4] Geelong Advertiser, 26 August 1851.