Was the Government too slow to react? Did they have the time?
Many People believe that the problems with Government and licence fees began after all the easy gold was taken, and diggers were forced to take longer to find gold. This makes sense, why would anyone be upset with paying a licence fee if they are pretty sure of getting rich quick? The National Library of Australia has set up TROVE, a free digitised search service, so you can research their extensive archive of old newspapers and magazines. A quick read through some of the newspapers around in the first year of the Victorian Gold rushes, shows that many people were already angry about paying a fee, why?
TROVE can be a lot of fun too. I already mentioned the Newspapers, but there are also digital copies of old magazines, maps, photos and much more. You can even edit articles that the computer didn’t read properly.
Early Problems with the licence system
Do you like paying out good money and receiving nothing in return? Well neither did the people of Victoria in the 1850s, and they made their feelings known through the newspapers.
One of the reasons given for the licence fee was to encourage men to give up looking for gold, and help bring in the harvest, but this article from the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer in December 1851 (remember gold had only been discovered in Ballarat around August 1851), states that the diggers had no reason to pay a licence fee, as the Police force was being allowed to be “broken up”. This article also states that the Governor has called for troops, and questions why they are needed. In fact it seems the author has a low regard about the competence of the Governor and Government. These were some of the issues blamed for the Eureka uprising Four years later!
Law and Disorder
Another reason the Government gave for making men pay a gold licence fee, was to pay for Government services and Law and order on the Goldfields, a letter in the Argus from February 1852, is titled “LYNCH LAW AT THE DIGGINGS” and the author says that some diggers were taking the law into their own hands, and forming together to protect themselves. He says he has paid for protection with his licence fee, and if he has to do this as well, he won’t pay the licence. Weren’t the diggers at Eureka saying something similar?
Charles Napier Hemy, a famous artist later in life, spent some of his childhood on the goldfields of Victoria around 1851-2, and wrote memoirs of his experiences there. The memoirs have been published by one of his descendants. In these memoirs he recalls witnessing the Lynching (unlawful hanging) of a man found trying to steal gold ( McGann, P. Ed, 2009)
Half of the last page of the Advertiser and Intelligencer from December 1851 contains notices for “Lost or Stolen” goods (mainly horses) and offers of rewards. It seems that there was quite a bit of crime in the colony at this time.
Those that study Eureka will know about the “Monster” meetings that occurred in the months leading up to the fight at the stockade. But there had been monster meetings years before. The first recorded meeting I have found was held at Buninyong on the 25th of August, and reported in the Geelong Advertiser the next day. it has been reported that at this meeting shouts of “Taxation without Representation” were heard from the crowd, a catchcry of the Eureka Diggers. A letter republished in the Argus from John Harrison mentions a meeting on the Forest Creek (Castlemaine) diggings where he was elected a delegate. The letter goes on to describe how he had visited several of the Victorian goldfields and lobbied the Government to expel thieves from the diggings. It was dated 31st of January 1852. Eureka was still 46 months away.
It is through articles and stories like this we can piece together how the lack of law and order affected daily life on the diggings. This problem was only to grow when the Government began rewarding Troopers for catching diggers without licences, but did not reward them for catching thieves. This was to be claimed as one of the main causes of the Eureka rebellion and some people defend the Government by saying that the events happened too quickly for the Government to react. Is four years enough time? What do you think?
Sovereign Hill Education Service is hosting a Webinar with author Peter FitzSimons on the 2nd of May. Peter has recently written a book on Eureka: The unfinished revolution, which starts with the discovery of gold in Australia. I wonder why he starts so far back?
We also recommend the following sites for finding out more:
The Night We Made the Flag (our blog post)