Monday, 9 January 2017


On 27 March 1855, the Royal Commission released its report largely written by William Westgarth and John O’Shanassy. [1] In its three months of work, it had asked over 6,000 questions of elected representatives, diggers and camp officials. Though it had insisted on including events at Eureka in its brief, much to Hotham’s annoyance, its approach was discrete. It did not press Rede on his correspondence with Hotham, none of the Catholic priests were called and the contentious question of American involvement was largely ignored. It decided that the problems that caused the Eureka rebellion included a lack of political rights especially denying diggers the vote, their inability to buy land and the way the mining license was collected. Although the license was the trigger that led to the unrest, the Commission concluded that it was not the main cause.
The Commission recommended that the license be abolished and replaced with an export duty on gold of 2s 6p per ounce. [2] Bankers had assured Hotham in September 1854 that this would cause no major problems and he was prepared to agree to a low duty. The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, though it disliked export duties in principle as taxes on exports, thought it expedient to accept it. [3] The next recommendation was the abolition of the Gold Commission and the appointment of wardens. With the abolition of the license, it suggested that two-thirds of the goldfield administration and half the police would not be needed. This reduction in the cost of managing the goldfields would lead to their net revenue being greater than before. It also recommended, largely at O’Shanassy’s insistence, that the diggers should pay an annual £1 miners’ right that would give them legal rights to their claims and entitle them, as annual leaseholders of Crown land, to the franchise. [4]
This charge would comprehend the registration of the miner, and the issue of a paper conveying his rights. The document may be taken out for the term of a year. The Commission agree in recommending a charge of £1. It is not intended that any active search be instituted by the authorities as to whether a miner has or has not taken out this qualification; but without it he has no right to the gold he may acquire, or to claims or digging ground he may take up and labor upon, and cannot be maintained in the possession of either. The Miner’s Right, as it is proposed to term this annual document, would be a means of distinguishing the well-disposed on the gold-fields…The miner’s right, as well as the licenses leviable on other classes of residents upon the gold-fields—a subject to be treated under its proper head—should qualify for the franchise. [5]
The report had considerable authority. Its members were sufficiently liberal to understand the diggers’ grievances and yet were closely associated with the government. This enabled its conclusions to be acceptable to both parties. Although he still believed that the gold license was right in principle, Hotham accepted the report and the government immediately introduced legislation in the Council. A Gold Export Bill was quickly passed not without opposition from squatters and radicals, who still maintained that diggers were too heavily taxed. [6] The Argus was highly critical of the legislation especially its right of search:
Before the new clauses were passed in the Customs Act on Thursday, the Gold Export Duty proposition was absurd, and now—it is monstrous as well. [7]
In practice, however, the new duty worked smoothly and simply and was helped by the rise in the price of gold. A second piece of legislation enlarged the Council by 12 members, 8 for the goldfields and 4 nominees, despite doubts whether the new members would take up their seats before the arrival of the new constitution. [8] A new Gold Fields Management Act was passed on 12 June 1855 legalising the miner’s right. [9] The Commission had recommended that diggers be selected to form Local Courts, but the government went further providing for a nominated chairman and elections every six months of members of a court by those with the miner’s right. The Local Courts were subject to the nominal supervision of the Council but in reality, were given complete control of the industry and regulated conditions on the goldfields.[10] ‘The nature of these courts was highly unusual and a remarkable democratic experiment’. [11]
The rapid legislative response pacified radical activity in the goldfields though suspicions of the government’s intentions remained until legislation was fully implemented. The Reform League remained active but a ‘national’ conference suggested in April 1855 appears not to have occurred. In Melbourne, the Age acted as a focus for political opposition to the government but no new party or organisation was formed. In the three months from April to June 1855, fewer than 1,000 diggers took out licenses but when the miner’s rights were issued from late June nearly 30,000 were issued by the end of July and over 50,000 by the end of the year.
The Local Courts were elected in July and at Bendigo, Denovan and Benson were among the leaders elected. [12] On the 14 July 1855, just eight months after the Eureka rebellion, 9 members of the mining community, including Raffaelo Carboni and H. R. Nichols, were elected unanimously at Bakery Hill to the Local Courts. The diggers’ control of the Local Courts was seen by the mining community as the ‘blood bought rights’ of the rebellion. The Legislative Council did not meet again until late in the year when 8 new mining members were elected. Peter Lalor and John Humffray were elected unopposed for Ballarat, Grant and Benson for Bendigo and in March 1856, the mining members were instrumental in obtaining compensation for those whose property was damaged or destroyed in Ballarat during the rebellion. The Commission of Enquiry also recommended that the squatters’ control of the land be broken and that diggers had the right to buy land. The resultant subdivision of land around mining sites led to the development of some of Victoria’s most important regional towns and cities. The ‘final curtain’ on the events of Eureka came on 31 December 1855, when Sir Charles Hotham, who had tendered his resignation in November, died of pneumonia, after catching a chill. [13] His successor, Sir Henry Barkly had the highest salary in the empire because the Colonial Office considered the post particularly difficult.[14]

[1] Anderson, Hugh, (ed.), Report from the Commission appointed to inquire into the Condition of the Goldfields, 1855, (Red Rooster Press), 1978. The Report was printed in Argus, 30 March 1855, pp. 4-5, 31 March 1855, p. 5, 2 April 1855, p. 6. 3 April 1855, p. 6. ‘The Gold-Fields Report’, Argus, 30 March 1855, p. 4, provides a critique of the document.
[2] ‘Council Paper: A Bill for Granting Duties of Customs upon Gold Exported from Victoria’, Argus, 5 April 1855, p. 6.
[3] ‘Chamber of Commerce’, Argus, 3 April 1855, p. 4.
[4] Connelly, C. N. ‘Miners’ Rights’, ibid, Curthoys, A., and Markus, A., (eds.), Who are Our Enemies? Racism and the Australian Working-class, pp. 35-47, and Fabey, Charles, Holst Heather, Martin, Sara, and Mayne, Alan, ‘A miner’s right: making homes and communities on the Victorian goldfields’, in ibid, Mayne, Alan, (ed.) Eureka: Reappraising an Australian Legend, pp. 201-219, especially pp. 200-207.
[5] Section 23 of the Report from the Commission appointed to inquire into the Condition of the Goldfields, printed Argus, 30 March, 1855, p. 6.
[6] ‘The Gold Export Duty Bill’, Argus, 5 April 1885, p. 4, pointed to complaints from Councillors of the haste displaying in jurying the second reading through the Legislative Council. The Bill received the Royal Assent on 20 April, ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 21 April 1855, p. 4.
[7] ‘Gold Export Duty’, Argus, 21 April 1855, p. 4.
[8] ‘Enfranchisement of the Diggers’, Argus, 9 April 1855, p. 4,‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 12 April 1855, p. 5, 26 April 1855, p. 5, 1 May 1855, p. 4, 5 May 1855, p. 5, 9 May 1855, p. 4, 23 May 1855, p. 4. Royal Assent to the legislation was given on 22 May 1855. See also, ‘Nominee Representatives’, Argus, 9 May 1855, p. 4.
[9] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 13 June 1855, p. 4.
[10] Birrell, Ralph, ‘Eureka and the redefinition of company mining in Australia’, in ibid, Mayne, Alan, (ed.), Eureka: Reappraising an Australian Legend, pp. 184-188, considers the creation of the local courts and their subsequent development.
[11] Serle, p. 178.
[12] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 13 June 1855, p. 6.
[13] ‘Death of His Excellency Sir Charles Hotham’, Argus, 1 January 1856, p. 4, details his illness and unexpected death. Although the Argus report suggests pneumonia, it had earlier reported on 26 December that he had ‘English cholera’.
[14] Knox, B. A., ‘Sir Henry Barkly, (1815-1898)’, ADB, Vol. 3, pp. 95-96.

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