previous
next

V

I had heard and read so much about the far-famed gold-mining centres of Bendigo and Ballarat that I paid them a special visit. They were quiet and prosaic towns from which all the excitement and glamour of the digging days had passed. I thought Ballarat particularly delightful, and was interested in the scene of the Eureka Stockade fight, or, as someone has called it, “Australia's little insurrection,” when in 1854 the diggers revolted against the severity with which a monthly license fee was exacted from miners, whether they were successful in finding gold or not.

I was shown round by an intelligent man who had been one of the rebels, and at the time of the trouble he was in his early twenties. He was not in the stockade when it was stormed, but was in his camp about a mile away, and was awakened by the sound of firing. He explained that the garrison were taken by surprise.


  ― 13 ―
Two or three sentries were awake, but the rest of the men were sound asleep. A strong force of mounted troops, infantry and police were quietly brought to the stockade during the night. They had not been observed. Mounted men surrounded the stockade, and suddenly in the early morning the infantry rushed over the barriers. There were only 200 diggers, and they were poorly armed as compared with the soldiers, each of whom had a rifle and bayonet. Not more than 50 of the miners had rifles. The rest had pikes made by blacksmiths. The troops numbered 300.

“How many were killed?” I asked.

“A military captain and half a dozen soldiers. About fifteen were wounded. Thirty diggers were found dead, but several of the wounded died in hiding. It was a cruel and bloody business.”

“Probably there were faults on both sides. There always are in such cases.”

“Perhaps so,” said the old man, whose views had been softened by time, “but I cannot forgive the Governor, Sir Charles Hotham. He was chiefly to blame. It may not be right to be too hard on him. He was a naval officer and accustomed to the severe discipline of those days. Besides, the colony's finances were in a bad state. His instructions were to put them straight. The first license fee was thirty shillings a month. When there was an outcry he reduced it to £1. Still, £12 a year was too much for diggers, most of whom were getting no gold. Had he imposed a royalty on each ounce of gold that was sold or exported, the tax would have only affected successful diggers and would not have operated so harshly.

“The penalty for not having a license was high. It


  ― 14 ―
ranged up to £5 for a first offence. For subsequent offences the fines were much higher, and the punishment might be extended to six months' imprisonment.

“There was trouble on other goldfields in the colony. Protests against the license fee developed into riots at Beechworth and Castlemaine.

“A saloon keeper named Bentley, who came from California, was responsible for further incensing public opinion at Ballarat against the governing authorities. He evidently brought with him the disregard for human life and indifference to law and order that characterised the early days of the Californian diggings. His saloon was closed one night when a man named Scobie at a late hour knocked at the door in order to have the place reopened so that he could get a drink. He kept knocking and would not go away. Bentley was annoyed and rushed out at Scobie, who was under the influence of drink. Bentley struck Scobie with a shovel, cleaving his skull open. It was a fatal blow. Bentley dragged the body some distance from the hotel and went back to bed. He was arrested. In the opinion of the diggers his guilt was clearly proved, but he was acquitted. They said that the acquittal was secured through the influence of a magistrate who was supposed to be a friend of Bentley's and a part-owner of the hotel. What inflamed public feeling still more was that Scobie was extremely popular and that it was said by diggers who had come from California that Bentley had done to death several men there.

“That gross miscarriage of justice,” added my informant, “intensely aroused the anger of the public against the authorities. At a meeting that was held it was decided to lynch Bentley. The infuriated crowd


  ― 15 ―
went to get him. He escaped on a fast horse, but they wrecked and set fire to his hotel. That was the beginning of the subsequent defiance of the law. The spirit of lawlessness became rampant.

“There were some 20,000 men at Ballarat. They had no voice in the Government and they felt the grievances sorely. Three of them who were tried for participation in the destruction of Bentley's hotel were sentenced to several months' imprisonment. Two of those who were thus punished were known to have been miles away when it was burned, and the third, though present, took no part in the riot. A deputation was sent to Melbourne to secure their release. The Governor refused the request. Additional troops arrived in Ballarat. As they marched through the town with bayonets fixed, the miners, without the authority of their leaders, made an attack on them. Stones were thrown, their ranks were broken, and a bugler boy was struck on the head by a piece of rock and killed. The death of this boy and the wounds some of the soldiers got caused them to feel very bitter. This bitterness was reciprocated by the miners, but they felt most bitter towards the police, some of whom were ex-convicts who had risen to be warders in Tasmania.

“At a mass meeting licenses were publicly burned. It was resolved to renounce allegiance to the Government, to form a defence organisation, to fight for a republic and to adopt a light blue flag adorned with the stars of the Southern Cross.

“Nearly 1,000 men swore to stand by each other for their rights and liberties.”

Peter Lalor was elected leader. He was an Irishman, the son of a one-time member for Queen's County in


  ― 16 ―
the House of Commons, who was known as “Honest Pat Lalor,” the friend and supporter of Daniel O'Connell and a younger brother of Finton Lalor, a prominent rebel of the 1848 Young Ireland movement. Peter Lalor, who evidently had hatred of injustice in his blood, was educated at Trinity College, Dublin; he was a civil engineer by profession and but twenty-seven years of age.

My companion, continuing his story, said: “After that meeting we felt that war had been declared. Drilling was actively carried on. Weapons were collected. About an acre of land on the summit of Eureka Hill was enclosed. This formed the stockade which was our headquarters. It was three days later that the troops made their attack. The vast majority of the miners who took the oath were asleep in their camps, which were spread all over the country, some of them miles away. When they heard the firing they came rushing up and found the stockade in the possession of the soldiers. Unarmed as the new arrivals were, they could do nothing.

“Lalor was conspicuous when the stockade was stormed. He was cheering on his men when a musket ball shattered his right shoulder.

“There was fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The diggers had long-handled pikes sharpened to a keen edge, but they were no match for bayonets and revolvers.

“Lalor was carried away and concealed in an old mine working. From there he was taken to a friend's camp, where his arm was amputated by a friendly doctor. Then he was brought to Geelong, where he remained whilst police and soldiers searched for him.


  ― 17 ―
He was never captured, though a reward was offered for him.

“The diggers were beaten in the field,” said my friend, “but they won in another sense, for Miners' Rights with a currency of one year were reduced to £1. They did not really want to establish a republic. That was wanted only by the foreign element, which was strong on the field. The Britishers who participated or sympathised with the outbreak merely did so as the result of their indignation at what they felt to be grave wrongs done by those in authority.”

Shortly after the capture of the stockade the ring-leaders who were secured were tried by juries and acquitted.

Lalor was but at the beginning of his public career. His empty sleeve was a constant reminder to those who saw him of the part he had taken at the Eureka Stockade. The year after the outbreak he was elected to the Victorian Parliament. He served in several ministries. Ultimately in 1880 he was elected Speaker. Curiously enough, his predecessor in the office was Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, an ex-Irish rebel. As Speaker, Lalor showed himself possessed of sound judgment and firmness combined with a spirit of fairness to all parties. When he resigned, through failing health, the Parliament of Victoria, in recognition of his public services, voted him £4,000. He died in 1889.

Many years after my visit to the site of the Eureka Stockade I received a formal official call in Kalgoorlie from a smart Australian soldier who had been appointed military area officer of the district. He was


  ― 18 ―
bright-eyed, cheerful, mentally and physically alert, had the fighting spirit highly developed, was keen on his profession and had had military experience in the French army, where he served in the Foreign Legion. We became friends. I knew his name was Lalor, but it was some time before I heard that he was the grandson of the leader of the miners. Then we talked together often about his father and the Ballarat outbreak.

When the Great War came Lalor proved that despite his diminutive size he was full of pluck. Contrary to orders, he insisted on wearing a sword at the Gallipoli landing. Soon after reaching the shore on the first day he was shot dead whilst gallantly leading his men.

The fighting spirit of the family was evidenced by another grandson of the Eureka leader, Dr. Peter Lalor, who, from the Kew Hospital, Melbourne, after the war-time conscription referendum in Australia, wrote:

“It was with mingled amusement and indignation that I noticed in a morning newspaper a statement from the Trades Hall associating my grandfather with the ‘No’ side in the recent Referendum, inferentially, at any rate. On behalf of my family and my brother, who was killed in Gallipoli in April, 1915, I wish to repudiate the infamy of this suggestion. My grandfather, the late Mr. Peter Lalor, proved by his life that he would never have countenanced the cowardice of the betrayal of our soldiers, or have consented to the brand of shameful desertion placed on the


  ― 19 ―
fair fame of the Australia he loved and fought for.

“There is no doubt that many people voted ‘No,’ conscientiously believing conscription to be tyranny, not visualising the greater tyranny against which they were refusing to use an effective weapon; but there also is no doubt that the worst elements of cowardice, pacifism and disloyalty also voted with the ‘Noes,’ and it is an insult to even suggest that my grandfather would have voted with such as these.”

previous
next