Wednesday, 28 October 2015

J.H. Whitley (1866-1935)



In association with


At 6.15 p.m. on WEDNESDAY 4th NOVEMBER


Dr John Hargreaves, Chairman of Halifax Civic Trust will speak on


J.H. Whitley (1866-1935):

A Speaker shaped by his Halifax roots

Please book via Halifax Town Hall on 01422 393022

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Now Mr Editor!



I’ve been preparing books for Stephen Roberts for publication in his Birmingham Biographies series over the past year.  The complete series (so far) is list on my website.  This is Stephen’s most recent book, published today, that explores letters sent to the editors of Birmingham’s newspapers during the nineteenth century.


‘Now, Mr Editor!  I should very much like to know who is to blame …’

Birmingham Journal, 24 February 1838.

This book was inspired by one letter to a newspaper.   In January 1842 a correspondent to one of the Birmingham newspapers expressed his view that police constables, when they had nothing else to do, should be instructed to clear the foot paths of snow. From this unintentionally amusing letter grew this project, which collects together over sixty letters published in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette and the Birmingham Journal from 1820 to 1850.  Correspondents wrote in to their newspapers to complain about prostitution, bull-baiting, the state of their streets, the shortcomings of their police constables, the cost and comfort of railway travel and that most dangerous preacher George Dawson.  Taken together these letters provide a fascinating insight into life in Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The letters are accompanied Eliezer Edwards’ splendid essay describing Birmingham in the late 1830s.  This essay has been edited, and extensive footnotes provide much detail about the people and places mentioned by Edwards.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Making a bad situation worse: Hotham and gold licenses

In his early weeks, Hotham spent time getting acquainted with Victoria. In August, accompanied by Lady Hotham he ventured to the goldfields to observe conditions, and in his three days at Ballarat found the diggers to be respectful, loyal and enthusiastic. [1] The Ballarat Times optimistically reported:

A bold, vigorous and far-seeing man has been amongst us, and the many grievances and useless restrictions by which a digger’s success is impeded will be swept away. [2]

At Geelong on 15 August, Hotham spoke of the need for government borrowing to finance public works and said that his review of spending would not result in such works being curbed describing rumours that it would as ‘twaddle’. He referred to Victorian’s new constitution saying that it was based on the principle that power came from the people, a principle that would guide his administration.

I stand between two systems of government—the present and the pregnant: and in all probability it will shortly be my duty to wind up one and commence with the other. The people of this colony have adopted one of the most liberal constitutions, compatible with monarchy, which a people could have; it is a constitution of your own choosing, formed by your representatives…But when you adopted that Constitution, you adopted with it the principles from which it springs—that all power proceeds from the people. [3]

‘Canvas Town’: Melbourne in the mid-1850s

For some, his words suggested a liberalising of government policies but for conservatives, they seemed to augur the end to the privileges of the ruling class. In reality, Hotham was expressing a paternalistic concern for the welfare of the people as a whole rather than supporting the expansion of democratic principles. At Bendigo, meetings were held in late August to prepare resolutions for the Governor’s visit. [4] When in early September, Hotham visited Bendigo he was presented with a petition calling for the suspension of the license fee and decided to meet the diggers and address them arguing that ‘liberty and order’ had to be paid for but omitted to say that payment was increasingly achieved through the presence of military force.[5] What Hotham saw in all the goldfields he visited was partial and it was this that strongly influenced his future decisions. The Argus warned after his visits to the goldfields:

In the diggers he has seen an assemblage of men of infinite varieties of character and temperament; who have been greatly aggrieved in many respects and are neglected to this day. He has seen their numbers and heard their cheers, which, with true devotion to the lady whom he represents, he has put down to their ‘loyalty’. But loyalty has a wide as well as a narrow definition…it is not the unreasoning loyalty of a pack of slaves, reared in the habit of deferential submission to authority, whatever its quality or effects may be… [6]

Gold diggings, Ararat, Victoria, c1854

Hotham was shown only the richest claims and seeing the diggers in holiday mood, in mild spring weather, gained an ambiguous impression of their way of life and their prosperity. During his three months in the colony, Hotham had been shown evidence of its wealth but this picture of affluence on the goldfields was one-sided. Alluvial gold had been largely exhausted by 1853 and gold could now only be obtained by deep shaft mining, something that Hotham observed at both Bendigo and Ballarat.

The gold at Ballarat is obtained by deep sinking, in some cases the shaft is 180 feet deep – the digger then encounters slate in which the gold is found. The miner of Ballarat must be a man of capital, able to wait the result of five or six months toil before he wins his prize. For this reason he will always be a lover of order and good government and, provided he is kindly treated, will be found in the path of loyalty and duty. [7]

The yield from the goldfields was significantly lower in 1854 than in the previous two years and although there were still occasional rich strikes, the ‘golden age’ was coming to a close. Diggers could no longer move as easily from field to field and this made them more sensitive to license hunts and more willing to organise resistance. This had a depressing impact on urban investors who had risked their capital in insecure business ventures and shopkeepers who had imported merchandise they now could not sell. Bankruptcies increased, businesses collapsed and men were thrown out of work. [8]

The consequences of the over-importation have been most disastrous to this community. At first, when the glut caused a great depreciation in value, many speculators and retail traders purchased large quantities of goods, to hold for a rise; but the continued arrivals have caused an enormous further depreciation, and the speculators have suffered heavy losses. To this cause is to be attributed many insolvencies. Again, the universal system of forced sales and great sacrifices at auction, have very seriously injured legitimate business, both wholesale and retail, disappointed fair expectations, and caused a ruinous depreciation of stocks; so that many houses of previous good trading and excellent prospects have been unable to meet their engagements.[9]

Hotham’s observations led him to conclude that most of the diggers were sufficiently prosperous for the license to be described a ‘trifling sum’, in his despatch to Earl Grey and their expressions of loyalty convinced him that they were law-abiding citizens. [10] In reality, most diggers struggled to survive in a harsh and unyielding environment where the irritation of intrusive license hunts increased their hostility towards the authorities. Despite what occurred later, Hotham appears to have recognised this:

I deem it my duty to state my conviction, that no amount of military force at the disposal of Her Majesty’s Government, can coerce the diggers…by tact and management must these men be governed; amenable to reason, they are deaf to force, but discreet officers will always possess that influence which education and manners everywhere obtain. [11]

Samuel Thomas Gill, Mount Alexander goldfields, 1852

If Hotham had misunderstood the true situation on the goldfield, the diggers had equally misread the Governor’s intentions. On his return to Melbourne, Hotham was again confronted by Victoria’s precarious financial position and, faced with the urgent need to generate revenue turned to the gold license. Although he believed that there should be a more equitable tax on gold until changes could be made it was his duty to enforce the existing law. He was not persuaded by arguments of digger hardship especially as the fee had been reduced the previous year and maintained that failure to pay was the result of the inertia of the goldfield officials who only carried out license checks two or three times a month.

On 13 September, Hotham ordered that the ‘digger hunts’ should be conducted twice a week. This was certain to provoke an angry response from the diggers. Hotham however, was largely insulated from daily life on the goldfields.

He [Hotham] has not hitherto had proof of what commissioners very often are. He has only met them at dinner parties, at exhibitions and in parlors. He has yet to know the character of the creatures among the diggers to see them discharging their gentlemanly and agreeable duties of exacting a tax and making prisoners of defaulters… [12]

Local Commissioners made weekly reports to the Chief Commissioner in Melbourne who then informed the Governor of any developments considered important. Minor confrontations with diggers were probably played down by local officials who wanted to appear to be maintaining effective control. In addition, until the telegraph line from Melbourne to Geelong was completed in December 1854, all communication between the goldfields and Melbourne were carried by despatch riders who took over 30 hours to reach the metropolis. This lack of information and delays in receiving current intelligence meant that Hotham thought that reactions to his instructions were little more than an expression of irritation.

Lambing Flat miners’ camp c1860

Hotham’s Geelong speech in August hinted at liberalisation of government but his tightening of the license fee and reforms in the public services suggested that he was conservative and authoritarian. Many in Melbourne hoped that his speech at the opening of the new session of the Legislative Council on Thursday 21 September would clarify his position. [13] They were disappointed. Hotham’s speech was brief, did not mention land sales, the digger’s license or the influx of convicts and did little to add to his standing in the colony. [14] There appear to be two reasons for this. [15] He had become increasingly aware of the complexity of the problems he faced and may have felt he needed more time before publicly stating his policy on important issues. Also, his decision largely to ignore the Executive Council and take over routine administration himself was already having a negative effect. Instead of dealing with the daily mountain of correspondence, Hotham needed time to prepare his speech and take the advice of individuals who understood local issues better than he did. He only slowly recognised that there were individuals in Melbourne with ability and judgement and gradually began to take advantage of their support. Three men were particularly important. William Stawell, the Attorney-General and member of the Executive Council since 1851 saw himself as a liberal but many of his ideas were distinctly conservative. [16] John O’Shanassy was one of the government’s severest critics, supported the diggers in their demands for change in the license system and for access to low-priced land but Hotham found his advice invaluable. [17] Finally, John Pascoe Fawkner was a member of the Legislative Council and seen as the ‘tribune of the people’ because of his sympathies for the poor and strong opposition to squatters as a class. [18] His political advice could not be ignored.

Bendigo had been the centre of disturbances in late 1853 but these, like those in other goldfields, had died away in the early months of the following year. Yet, in late June 1854, there was a further disturbance focussing digger anger not on the license fee but the Chinese community. [19] There was growing racial tensions on the diggings where there were 3,000 Chinese out of about 18,000 men and the proportion of Chinese to European was steadily increasing.[20] William Denovan, a Scot who had arrived in Victoria in 1852 and had already achieved some prominence as an advocate of diggers’ rights, began an anti-Chinese movement in Bendigo and organised a public meeting for 4 July with the object of driving the Chinese off the goldfield.[21] The meeting was postponed because it clashed with American Independence Day celebrations but the movement continued with a large public meeting on 10 July.[22] Nonetheless, it crystallised some of Hotham’s ideas on the nature of goldfield disturbances though additional police were also sent from Mount Alexander to Bendigo to quell any further disturbances: the good sense of the majority of diggers and the need to deal decisively with a troublesome minority. [23] In mid-October 1854, a Goldfields Reform League was again established at Bendigo in response to the renewal of license hunts and plans were made to extend it to other fields. [24] Its approach, like the agitation the previous year, remained grounded in moral force with a plan to petition the British Government directly. William Howitt summed up the deteriorating situation in the following terms:

With the whole population of the diggings everywhere as familiar with these outrages and arbitrary usages of the gold Commissioners and police, as they are with the daily rising of the sun, the Governor flatly asserted that no such mal-administration existed…This put the climax to the public wrath. When the Governor of the colony showed himself so thoroughly ignorant of the real condition of its population, it was time for that population to make such a demonstration as should compel both inquiry and redress. [25]

[1] Hotham to Sir George Grey, 18 September 1854, reported his official visit to the goldfields.

[2] Ballarat Times, 2 September 1854.

[3] ‘Sir Charles Hotham’s Reception at Geelong’, Argus, 17 August 1854, pp. 4-5.

[4] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 1 September 1854, pp. 4-5, details the resolutions passed at a mass meeting on 28 August.

[5] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 8 September 1854, p. 6, ‘The McIvor Diggings’, Argus, 12 September 1854, p. 4.

[6] ‘The Excursion to the Gold-Fields’, Argus, 13 September 1854, p. 4.

[7] Hotham to Sir George Grey, 18 September 1854.

[8] There may have been unemployment in some areas of Victoria but in others there was a labour shortage. ‘The Unemployed: To the Editor of the Argus’, Argus 19 October 1854, p. 5, offered work to twelve men at 35 shillings a week plus rations on a farm three miles from Ballarat.

[9] ‘The Colony of Victoria’, Argus, 23 November 1854, p. 4.

[10] In Bendigo, there was considerable anger at Hotham’s failure to mention reform of goldfield management in his speech opening the Legislative Council on 21 August: Argus, 2 October 1854.

[11] Hotham to Sir George Grey, 18 September 1854.

[12] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 21 October 1854, p. 6.

[13] ‘The Legislative Council’, Argus, 22 September 1854, p. 4.

[14] ‘The Governor’s Speech’, Argus, 22 September 1854, p. 4.

[15] Ibid, Roberts, Shirley, Charles Hotham, p. 127.

[16] Francis, Charles, ‘Sir William Foster Stawell (1815-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 174-177.

[17] Ingham, M., ‘Sir John O’Shanassy (1818-1883)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 378-382.

[18] Anderson, Hugh, ‘John Pascoe Fawkner (1792-1869)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 368-370, and Anderson, Hugh, Out of the Shadow: The Career of John Pascoe Fawkner, (Melbourne University Press), 1962.

[19] McLaren, Ian F., The Chinese in Victoria: Official Reports and Documents, (Red Rooster Press), 1985.

[20] ‘The Chinese on Bendigo’, Argus, 7 June 1854, p. 4, ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 22 June 1854, p. 3, ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 29 June 1854, p. 4, chart the emergence of the anti-Chinese movement in Bendigo.

[21] ‘William Dixon Campbell Denovan (1829-1906)’, ADB, Vol. 4, pp. 55-56.

[22] ‘The Anti-Chinese Movement’, Argus, 15 July 1854, p. 3.

[23] ‘Mount Alexander’, Argus, 12 July 1854, p. 3.

[24] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 16 October 1854, p. 6.

[25] Howitt, William, Land, Labour and Gold or Two Years in Victoria with visits of Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land, 2 Vols. (Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans), 1855, Vol. 2, pp. 2-3.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

A new governor with old problems

In May 1854, La Trobe left Victoria for England and his replacement, Sir Charles Hotham arrived in Melbourne on 21 June. [1] Born in 1806, Hotham had largely been at sea since the age of twelve. His defeat of Argentinean rebels in 1845, naval command on the west coast of Africa the following year and a diplomatic triumph with a commercial treaty with Paraguay in 1852 had given him a reputation as an individual who would rule Victoria. He was also expected to deal with the financial crisis that La Trobe had failed to resolve and with the license problem. Hotham was enthusiastically greeted in Melbourne and his speech, after the formal reception and swearing-in ceremony was well received. [2] Under the constitutional structure established in 1851, both the colonists and the British Government expected Hotham to initiate reform. The Argus summed up colonial expectations:

There is nothing which the colony more urgently requires, or which, from past experience, it is more ready to appreciate, than to find the administration of the government in the hands of an ‘honest’ man…As soon as he shares his responsibility with the people and their representatives, he will have less to account for…if he sets about [the business of government] in a sincere and resolute spirit, he will soon have cause to be astonished at the results of his own exertions[3]

Three groups with largely incompatible goals hoped to gain his support but in each case it proved difficult for Hotham to meet their expectations. Squatters wanted to maintain their political dominance by gaining protection for their lands against the inroads of newcomers and from successful diggers who sought land for its social and political status. [4] Merchants and shopkeepers hoped Hotham would expand colonial infrastructures by giving them new docks and warehouses and improving roads to help them sustain and expand their business. [5] This was something that the perilous state of colonial finances precluded. Diggers sought relief from the gold license, access to land so they could invest their wealth and a say in the government of the colony. The gold license has been problematic for three years but, in the absence of an agreed alternative and with the need to increase revenue from taxation to plug the growing gulf in expenditure, colonial government needed to raise more not less revenue from its collection.

La Trobe had met with his Executive Council regularly and was strongly influenced by its views but Hotham’s relationship with the Council was very different. During the early months of his administration, Hotham practically ignored it because he had decided soon after his arrival that the colony’s problems were largely caused by the incompetence of senior administrators. As a result, he attempted to act alone alienating the able men who would have provided him with valuable advice and assistance. His relationship with John Foster, the Colonial Secretary was particularly fraught and an intense antipathy sprang up between the two men. [6] Hotham was convinced that the civil service was inefficient and in need of reform but his inexperience in civil administration meant that instead of gaining its support for unpopular reform measures he alienated it.

Hotham found that the colony owed £400,000 to four banks, had an accumulated deficit of £3 million and a gap of over £1 million between the estimated revenue published in October 1853 and government expenditure. The Argus did not understate the problem when it stated that ‘the finances of the country have been wretchedly mismanaged’. Land revenue had fallen off as speculation declined bringing in only £304,000, some £600,000 below the estimates; customs revenues, estimated at £1.3 million, were only £414,000 and returns from the goldfields had fallen following La Trobe’s reduction of the license fee. Between 30 September 1853 and 30 June 1854, revenue from gold licenses fell from over £147,000 to nearly £78,000. [7] The government was paying inflated prices for goods and services and the collection of goldfield revenues was uneconomic with nearly half of the diggers evading the tax. For instance, at Ballarat in 1854, license revenue was almost all spent on the cost of the Government Camp and this was not an isolated situation.

For Hotham, this was intolerable and he made restoring public finances to solvency a major priority and in August, established a committee to assist him in this task. [8] Hotham’s investigation into the effectiveness of colonial government had some support as letters to the Argus demonstrates:

What a grand opportunity is now presented to a fair-dealing and enterprising man, to mark out for himself a course of conduct fitting a young and enterprising colony like Victoria… [9]

Its twelve reports between September 1854 and May 1855 formed the basis of a programme of financial reform Hotham began to introduce before the end of 1854. [10] The first report confirmed Hotham’s view of incompetence and mismanagement. The imprest system, introduced by Hugh Childers, who was now Collector of Customs and a member of the Executive Council was severely criticised. Under this system, departments were free to spend within defined limits without any safeguards against waste or mismanagement and were automatically reimbursed for their expenditure.[11] Hotham had little choice but to introduce reforms that were going to be unpopular. New taxes were necessary to raise revenue and some departments had their staffing cut. The timing of these reforms coincided with a short period of depression; wages had been declining for several months and unemployment gradually increasing. Hotham not only enforced the digger’s license more energetically than La Trobe but he also threw scores of people out of work.

[1] Knox, B. A., ‘Sir Charles Hotham (1806-1855)’, ADB, Vol. 4, pp. 429-430, and ibid, Roberts, Shirley, Charles Hotham, provide useful biographical details. Ibid, MacFarlane, Ian, Eureka from the Official Records, pp. 24-32, examines his administration.

[2] ‘The Reception’, Argus, 22 June 1854, p. 4, ‘The Arrival of Sir Charles Hotham’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 22 June 1854, p. 4.

[3] ‘The New Governor’, Argus, 24 June 1854, pp. 4-5.

[4] ‘The Squatters’ Meeting’, Argus, 29 September 1854, p. 5, indicates the concerns of squatters.

[5] ‘Chamber of Commerce’, Argus, 6 July 1854, p. 4, clearly established the interests of the Melbourne economic elite.

[6] Ibid, Roberts, Shirley, Charles Hotham, pp. 108-110, examines the reasons for the rift. See also, ‘Glimmerings of Reform’, Argus, 19 September 1854, p. 4, for a recondite analysis of Hotham and Foster.

[7] See, Government Gazette, 4 July 1854 and comments in ‘The Revenue’, Argus, 5 July 1854, p. 4.

[8] ‘Banking and Finance’, Argus, 8 September 1854, p. 5, indicates the breadth of Hotham’s ambitions.

[9] See, for instance, ‘Turning a New Leaf’, Argus 19 July 1854, p. 5, and ‘Official Patronage’, Argus, 19 September 1854, p. 5.

[10] Serle, pp. 159-161, explores this problem.

[11] ‘The Legislative Council’, Argus, 27 September 1854, p. 4.