Friday, 29 January 2016

The Ballarat Reform League

‘Monster meetings’ came late to Ballarat but series of increasingly large gatherings were held on Bakery Hill through October and November that were addressed by some with experience of Chartist movement. Catholics had held a meeting there on 15 October, followed by meetings on 17 October before the burning of the Eureka Hotel and the following day where Catholics restated their demands. There was a spontaneous meeting on 21 October after the committal of McIntyre and Fletcher and on Monday 23 October, Bakery Hill was again the focal point for digger action. This meeting decided to form a Diggers Rights Society to help curb future unconstitutional actions by the Camp. Ballarat was made up of many different nationalities but leadership of the diggers’ movement remained stubbornly in the hands of men whose allegiance was to Britain. Its three leaders John Basson Humffray, George Black and Henry Holyoake were strongly Chartist in outlook and their contribution to the formation of the Ballarat Reform League was crucial.

Thomas F. Flintoff, John Basson Humffray, 1859

Humffray, law clerk from Wales and proprietor of The Leader became the first president of the League. [1] George Black had been the owner of the Gold Diggers’ Advocate, a newspaper that represented the opinions of the disaffected in the goldfield.[2] Although the Advocate took a radical line, Black and his two colleagues favoured the use of ‘moral persuasion’ to achieve their goals. Lalor was still a minor figure standing aloof from organised protest. While the Riot Enquiry was taking evidence, protest meetings took on a more organised character and the Ballarat Reform League assumed an embryonic form at this time. [3] The leadership broadened digger protest beyond the unjust licensing system and corrupt administration by campaigning for digger representation on the Legislative Council and the opening of land for small farms. Vying with Humffray for leadership of the movement were Frederick Vern, a volatile German and Thomas Kennedy, a Chartist of Scottish origin who had become a Baptist preacher and took a more confrontational approach, necessary they maintained, to convince the authorities of the need for change.

On Wednesday 1 November, the committee gave an account of proceedings in the Fletcher and McIntyre cases.[4] Humffray as secretary had ended the meeting with:

…Diggers, be calm but determined, and then, with truth and justice on your side, the knell of the colonial tyranny will be rung.

Although already active for several weeks, the Ballarat Reform League began officially on Saturday 11 November 1854 with a meeting on Bakery Hill. Timothy Hayes was unanimously voted to the Chair with Humffray as secretary. Thomas Kennedy called on ‘Brother Diggers’ to be united advising them to obey the law while denying the legality of the license tax. In colourful terms, he spoke of the tyranny of officials and added by swearing that while he would die for the Queen, he would shed the last drop of his blood before paying another license fee. The crowd roared its approval and Kennedy was carried outside where he was joined by Vern and Humffray. By now the number of diggers had swollen to 10,000 and the Ballarat Reform League was officially launched with Humffray as President, Timothy Hayes as Chairman and George Black as Secretary.

The diggers’ grievances and the political changes contemplated by the League were recorded in the Bakery Hill Charter.[5] This had taken shape by early November 1854 in a note presented to the Riot Enquiry but it was not until 11 November 1854 that it was adopted as the diggers’ platform in language strongly reminiscent of the People’s Charter of 1838. The first proposal was for ‘full and fair representation’, the right of goldfield residents to stand for parliament and vote in elections. The others were manhood suffrage, no property qualifications for Members for the Legislative Council, payment for members and short, fixed-term parliaments. At local level, the League wanted the immediate ‘disbanding’ of the Gold Commissioners and the ‘total abolition of the diggers’ and storekeepers’ license tax’. They also intended to issue ‘cards of membership’ of the League, divide Ballarat into districts within ‘a few days’ and to commence ‘a thorough and organised agitation on the gold fields and in the towns’. [6] The Argus reported that separate unions for Irish and German diggers had been formed independently of the League and that ‘their objects are more specific as to the forming themselves into armed bodies to make resistance a sad reality.’ [7]


The principles of the Charter went to the heart of popular constitutionalism maintaining that every citizen had:

…an ‘inalienable right…to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey…

It also stated that the goldfield communities had been ‘hitherto unrepresented’ in Parliament and had been subjected to bad and unjust laws. To that extent, they had been ‘tyrannized over’ so that they had:

…a duty as well as interest to resist and, if necessary, to remove the irresponsible power which so tyrannizes over them.

Not content with a statement of principles, the authors of the Charter moved to the ultimate source of their discontent speaking directly to Queen Victoria who was warned that firm action would be taken unless ‘equal laws and equal rights’ were ‘dealt out to the whole free community’ of the colony named after her.

The authors of the Charter were careful in their choice of words and there is no indication that they thought their demands were excessive or that the authorities had any right to reject them. The first action proposed by the League if demands were not met was to separate Victoria from Great Britain. Separation was not a declaration of independence from the Crown, but the League made it clear that it would take those steps if:Queen Victoria continues to act upon the ill advice of dishonest ministers and insists upon indirectly dictating obnoxious laws for the colony, under the assumed authority of the Royal prerogative.

It reminded the monarch that there was another and higher source of power in a prerogative that was ‘the most royal of all’ that lay with ‘the people [who] are the only legitimate source of all political power’ and proposed to use that power if forced to do so and supersede the ‘Royal prerogative’. This drew on a long tradition that the Royal Prerogative must be exercised only for the common good of the people. The prerogative singled out was the appointment of public authorities, including Hotham and his ministers. Although undertaken on the advice of the British Prime Minister and Cabinet, such appointments were technically made under the prerogative of the Crown. The Charter made it plain that, at whatever cost, the diggers would take all necessary steps to prevent the use of the Royal Prerogative in Victoria unless the reforms they demanded were introduced. This platform for change and especially its belief that all power resided in the people proved a ‘revolutionary’ proposition for Australia.

Henry Seekamp,[8] the fiery editor of the Ballarat Times, wrote that the League:

…was nothing more or less than the germ of Australian independence. The die is cast, and fate has stamped upon the movement its indelible signature. No power on earth can now restrain the united might and headlong strides for freedom of the people of this country… Bakery Hill is obtaining a creditable notoriety, as the rallying ground for Australian Freedom. It must never be forgotten in the future history of this great country, that on Saturday, Nov. 11, 1854, on Bakery Hill, and in the presence of about ten thousand men, was first proposed, and unanimously adopted, the draft prospectus of Australian Independence. [9]

Whatever he made of the Charter, Hotham was clearly concerned when he heard the League’s proposals and recognised the seriousness of the situation. What began as a conflict over the financial interests of diggers had been transformed into a struggle involving citizens’ rights and dignity. The business interest and the squatters were also anxious about events in Ballarat. They were given assurances by the government that it was in control of the situation, but doubts remained after the defiance of the mob at Bentley’s hotel. Squatters had already seen their control over the Legislative Council weakened by the business interest and faced increasing demands, especially from diggers to open at least part of their land. Diggers threatened their wealth and power and Hotham looked on them as firm allies in any potential struggle.

[1] Langmore, Diane L., ‘John Basson Humffray (1824-1891)’, ADB, Vol. 4, pp. 444-445.
[2] Pickering, Paul A., ‘Mercenary Scribblers’ and ‘Polluted Quills’: The Chartist Press in Australia and New Zealand’, in Allen, Joan, and Ashton, Owen R., (eds.), Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press, (Merlin Press), 2005, pp. 200-204, examines the Gold Diggers’ Advocate.
[3] ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 13 November 1854, p. 6.
[4] Argus, 2 November 1854, p. 4.
[5] PROV 4066, p Unit 1, November no, 69.
[6] Ibid, Molony, John, Eureka, pp. 94-97, prints the document.
[7] ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 13 November 1854, p. 6.
[8] Sunter, Anne Beggs, ‘Henry Seekamp (1829?-1864)’, ADB, Supplementary Volume, pp. 355-356.
[9] Ballarat Times, 13 November 1854.




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