Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Arresting the murderers

Later on 23 October 1854, a large public meeting was held at 2.00 pm at Bakery Hill where the 10,000 to 15,000 diggers showed their support for McIntyre and Fletcher, established a Defence Fund for their trial and gave an ‘unqualified condemnation of the manner in which the laws are enforced at Ballarat’. [1] The Argus prophetically commented

In all this there is great danger. When large masses of chance-collected men assemble to listen to exciting harangues; when they know that they have many and good causes for complaint; and when some of the most urgent and most exasperating of these causes as enlarged upon, and represented in the most striking points of view; when the ready redress of a prompt appeal to physical force is placed in the scale with the tardy and uncertain remedies of petitions, remonstrances and resolutions, there is a great danger of collision…of the sacrifice of human life and the compromise of the great principles of liberty and progress. [2]

The meeting felt that had the laws been carried out impartially the burning of the Eureka Hotel would not have occurred and that the entire responsibility lay with the Camp officials. Its first resolution stated:

That the diggers look with feelings of alarm at the almost daily violation of the personal liberty of the subject, and hereby express their unqualified condemnation of the manner in which the laws are enforced at Ballarat. [3]

That evening, it was reported that a large body of men was making its way from Eureka to the Camp and soldiers and police were on alert all night. One consequence of this was that, by 27 October, Captain John W. Thomas, the Garrison Commander, had developed a detailed plan for the defence of the Camp. [4]

S. T. Gill, Site of Bentley’s Hotel, Ballarat

The problem of James Bentley remained. However, on 22 October, Police Commissioner MacMahon was given additional information by Thomas Mooney, Bentley’s barman that directly implicated Bentley, his wife and their employee Farrell in the murder of Scobie.[5] New depositions were collected, including an additional deposition given by mother and son Mary Ann and Bernard Welch. [6] Michael Welsh, a waiter at the Eureka hotel, also provided a deposition incriminating not only the Bentleys but also two of their staff, barman William Duncan and former Chief Constable Thomas Farrell, the hotel clerk. On 23 October, after he had studied the depositions forwarded by Johnston and the new evidence, they were arrested on the advice of Attorney-General Stawell. Evidence implicating a man named William Hance was also brought forward and he too was apprehended. Their trial was held in mid-November.

By late October, the goldfield had returned to normal and on 2 November, Rede sent 40 police back to Melbourne and Geelong though he took no action to reduce the number of troops. In an effort of quell unrest, on 30 October Hotham established a board of enquiry into the Scobie incident [7] and the actions of the Camp officials headed by Melbourne’s Police Magistrate, Evelyn Sturt assisted by William McCrae, head of the colony’s Medical Department, and C. P. Hackett, a Ballarat Police Magistrate. [8] The Riot Enquiry started sitting in Ballarat on 2 November. [9] However, underlying tensions had not been addressed and the events of the previous three weeks left the diggers with a heightened sense of injustice. The Ballarat Times caught this mood:

The corruption of every department connected with the government in Ballarat is become so notorious and so barefaced that public indignation is thoroughly aroused…Amongst other grievances under which the residents on the goldfields are suffering, there are three which ought at once to occupy the earnest attention of the government; and they are, first, the abolition of the present obnoxious miners’ license; second, the representation of the mining interests in the councils of the colony; and third, an unbiased and equitable dispensation of justice. These the miners must have and will have, one way or other, by fair means if possible, by foul if necessary, but have them they will… [10]

The authorities in Ballarat had badly mishandled each of the three incidents in October 1854. [11]

…he [William Mollison, a member of the Legislative Council on 31 October] did not believe that the outrage at Ballarat was caused by one error of judgement or one action of misconduct on the part of the magistrate or the other authorities, but that it had originated in a series of errors and a course of misconduct continued for some time… [12]

Both the murder of Scobie and the assault on Joannes Gregorius could easily have been resolved by the authorities: in the first case, if they had followed correct legal procedure and referred the issue to jury trial (as eventually occurred) and in the second if action had been taken against the inexperience Constable Lord, who was moved and against Assistant-Commissioner Johnston, who was not. Had this occurred promptly, it is possible that Bentley’s hotel would not have been fired. What, with justification, was seen as uncompromisingly biased attitude of the Government Camp simply aggravated the smouldering resentment of many diggers. Governor Hotham, though well aware of the deteriorating situation in Ballarat, did little to address the situation until he appointed the Riot Enquiry at the end of October other than reinforce the military and police presence in the community. In the next few months he consistently failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation and, when he did act, his actions tended to ratchet up the situation rather than calm it. Matters were further exacerbated by the worsening economic conditions in Ballarat as mining proved less prosperous on the Eureka Leads where no one had bottomed out for weeks. With both the Gravel Pits and Creswick Creek booming, some diggers moved elsewhere and the population on Eureka declined.

[1] ‘Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 25 October 1854, p. 4.
[2] ‘The Ballaarat Affair’, Argus, 26 October 1854, p. 4.
[3] ‘Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 25 October 1854, p. 4.
[4] A report, dated 27 October 1854, from Acting Chief Commissioner of Police Charles MacMahon for the information of Lieutenant Governor Hotham, discusses plans made with Captain John Thomas for the defence of the Government Camp: PROV 1189/P Unit 92, J54/12058.
[5] Mellor, Suzanne G., ‘Sir Charles MacMahon, (1824-1891)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 189-190.
[6] PROV 5527/P Unit 1, Item 2.
[7] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 1 November 1854, p. 4, details the decision to establish the commission while ‘Management of the Goldfields’, Argus, 1 November 1854, p. 4, for editorial comment. ‘Class Committees and Closed Doors’, Argus 16 November 1854, p. 4, was highly critical of Foster’s use of committees of enquiry because those involved tended to be linked to the issue being examined: ‘The gentlemen sent to Ballaarat to examine the charges brought against the magistrates and Camp officials there are, or have been, either magistrates or Camp officials themselves’.
[8] Gross, Alan, ‘Evelyn Pitfield Shirley Sturt (1816-1885)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 215-216.
[9] ‘Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 10 November 1854, p. 4, ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 16 November 1854, p. 6.
[10] Ballarat Times, 28 October 1854.
[11] ‘Legislative Council: New Municipalities’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 2 November 1854, p. 5.
[12] ‘Legislative Council’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 2 November 1854, p. 4.

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