Policing the goldfields

The overcoming of Aboriginal resistance did not see police in Victoria lay down their arms and adopt a less military mode of policing; the discovery of gold in 1851 transformed the colony and provided new enemies for the authorities to overcome with the assistance of paramilitary police and the military. Opinions vary as to the scale of crime on the gold fields.[1] Some writers reported ‘the lawless condition of the place and the deeds of rapine and bloodshed that disgrace it’. Others, like the future Lord Cecil, were pleasantly surprised, finding ‘less crime than in a large English town, and more order and civility than I have witnessed in my own native village of Hatfield’. [2] Even with the same goldfield there were local variations. The problem is that the possible sources for this are all tinged with their own political agendas. The Argus, for example, probably exaggerated the level of crime to embarrass the Government, something repeated in the Sydney and Adelaide papers to discourage migration to Victoria. By contrast, La Trobe had a vested interest in playing down the extent of crime and his police officers often left him ill-informed about the real level of criminal activity.

William Strutt: En route to the diggings, 1851

The problem of lawlessness on the diggings was made worse by a drastic shortage of police in the early days of the gold rush. In July 1851, all but two of Melbourne’s forty police resigned and fled to the gold fields and there was considerable fear for public order. The ‘police’ presence at the gold fields was provided by a small contingent of Native Police. [3] Established in 1837, the Native Police played an important role in the discovery of gold and the early government regulation of the Victorian diggings. Native Police troopers escorted the first pack-horse convoys carrying gold to Melbourne from the goldfields. At the beginning of 1852, La Trobe wrote of the Mount Alexander diggings: ‘The field now became the general rendezvous of…the most profligate portion of the inhabitants of this and the adjacent colonies…’ He clearly needed to employ additional police, but the Legislative Council stubbornly refused to allow him to spend the government’s general revenue on any service connected to the gold fields except administration.

A degree of self-regulation became necessary, with some crimes receiving summary justice, and most disputes being settled between diggers ‘in a practical manner’. In February 1852, for example, the Miners Association tried to organise patrols by diggers at night in the Castlemaine area. The most frequent crime was theft and normally the punishment was banishment from the goldfields or lashings. Expulsion was no small matter: those punished felt ‘every mark of disgrace and ignominy’, and was considered a ‘pariah amongst diggers all over Australia’. The crime and punishment was widely publicised in newspapers to ensure such banishment was complete. Diggers’ justice was a response to the lack of formal policing on the goldfields and was a far from perfect legal model with punishments determined by the makeshift ‘jury’ at hand. It was an unarguably simplistic judicial system but one that kept a tenuous order over the goldfields.

Initially recruiting for the police was challenging. First, wages bore no comparison to potential earnings on the diggings. Secondly, most possible police recruits were unreformed convicts, many lacking the honesty necessary for law enforcement. The diggers recognised ‘good’ authority when they saw it and were largely unimpressed with the new police. Despite the financial constraints, La Trobe raised daily wages from 2/6d to 6/- and accepted anyone who was willing to join the force. This attracted many young, inexperienced recruits and ex-convicts, who would prove to be harsh and corrupt as they collected the gold licence fees. This lack of respect escalated into outright contempt when a force of 130 military ‘pensioners’ from VDL was used to relieve a regiment stationed at the Mount Alexander diggings [4] Instead of inspiring respect for their experience and age, the response from the diggers as the pensioners arrived was laughter and derision. It was only a fortnight later that the Commissioner petitioned La Trobe for further troops.

Recruitment problems proved temporary. [5] By March 1852, the Melbourne force was at full strength. By mid-1853, there were 875 police stationed in Victoria and a year later 1,639 establishing the relatively high police to population ratio of 1:144 in the colony.[6] La Trobe’s government invested in badly needed bridges and roads for the diggings and recruited extra police, who were paid 12/6d a day, plus board and lodging. In September 1852, a new cadre of police ‘officers’ was set up to lead the disorganised troopers: educated individuals or immigrants who had found themselves unsuited to digging. [7] This new ‘gentrified’ police force further inflamed the diggers. Their methods of policing were clearly antagonistic and they bore the brunt of digger contempt and cooperation between diggers and authority deteriorated further. In 1853, the Government removed control of police from local magistrates and established the centrally controlled Victoria Police.[8] The reorganisation allowed the Government to enforce its goldfield policies effectively and to check movements for reform that had emerged amongst the small independent miners. In September 1853, the Colonial Secretary wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police asking that police attend political meetings on the goldfields

…it is very desirable that intelligent men should attend all public meetings to watch the proceedings and to take down accurately such words used as may appear to them desirable’.[9]

The Police Regulation Act of 1853 was modelled on the London Metropolitan Police Act, however policing in rural areas and on the goldfields continued to be militaristic. Large numbers of heavily armed police along with soldiers were dispatched to the goldfields; for example at Castlemaine in 1854 the ratio of police to population was 1:56. [10] The purpose of the show of force was to overcome resistance to the licence fee. It was not only the licence that was odious; the way the tax was enforced was also resented. Rather than combating crime, the police operated as a repressive tax-gathering and surveillance force. Licence or ‘digger’ hunts regularly interrupted work; police demanded to see licences several times a day and forced even those not working to pay. This repressive, inefficient approach was compounded by the government’s decision to grant half the proceeds of fines for evasion of licence fees and sly-grogging to those police responsible for convictions. As a result, the police concentrated on securing licence fees and fines rather than combating crime and this led to widespread corruption. Many police, some accustomed to a system of convict discipline performed their duties in a rude, bullying manner. Others, like Superintendent David Armstrong, were brutal thugs. Armstrong’s habit was to burn the tents of suspects and beat those who questioned his methods with the brass knob of his riding crop. He was eventually dismissed, but left boasting that in two years at Ballarat he had made £15,000 in fines and bribes. This strategic concentration of resources was not seen as an attempt to contain increased crime, but a conscious attempt to control the civilian population on the diggings. When giving evidence to the Gold Fields Commission of Enquiry in 1855, Chief Commissioner MacMahon admitted that police at Ballarat were used primarily as tax collectors and could not operate efficiently as law enforcement officers while this remained their role. [11]

In 1853, the government removed control of police from local magistrates and established the centrally controlled Victoria Police.[12] The reorganisation allowed the government to effectively enforce its goldfield policies and provided a means to check the movements for reform that were emerging amongst the small independent miners on the goldfields. The reduction in the power of pastoralist magistrates over police also marked a move away from a plantation-style economy based on the export of primary products to Britain, towards a more development style economy associated with mining.

Following on from riots on the Ovens goldfields in 1853, in late 1854 Ballarat diggers built the Eureka Stockade to resist the efforts of the authorities to collect the gold licence and protect themselves against the predations of police and soldiers. After a police agent provocateur at the Stockade was unable to persuade the diggers to attack, two hundred and seventy-six police and soldiers mounted an attack on the Stockade: about thirty miners and four soldiers were killed in the battle that ensued and many more were injured. Mounted police, in particular, were credited with gratuitous violence during the storming of the stockade, killing bystanders and stockaders alike well after all resistance had ceased.[13] The 1855 Report of the Goldfield Commission Enquiry neatly summed up the situation:

Instead of that happy accord between the police and the orderly citizen, exemplified everywhere but on the gold-fields… [there was] a force requisite to defeat them [the miners], should their mutual irritation come to a crisis. [14]

This practice of policing generated hatred for the licences, contempt for the force and ultimately resistance from the diggers. They were angered by the lack of policing of actual crime and outraged by a system that portrayed them as criminals. As J. B. Humffray observed:

Honest men are hunted down by the police like kangaroos, and if they do not possess a licence…they are paraded through the diggings by the commissioners and police…and, if unable to pay the fine, are rudely locked up, in company of any thief or thieves who may be in the Camp cells at the time; in short, treated in every way as if they were felons. [15]

By 1854, the demands of radical diggers had broadened to include not only reform of the licence system but also changes to the democratic process and the unlocking of lands held under protected tenure by squatters. In the aftermath of the Eureka Stockade diggers were granted the vote and the right to elect their own regulatory bodies. Furthermore, soldiers were not again used for law enforcement in Victoria. However, policing in rural areas remained militaristic and access to land continued to be an important issue.

[1] Serle, pp. 35-36.

[2] Scott, Ernest, (ed.), Lord Robert Cecil’s Gold Fields’ Diaries, (Melbourne University Press), 1935, pp. 18-19.

[3] Fels, Marie Hansen, Good men and true: the Aboriginal police of the Port Phillip District, 1837-1853, (Melbourne University Press), 1988.

[4] The ‘pensioners’ were non-commissioned officers and privates who had agreed to serve out their army careers as convict guards in exchange for a grant of land and a cottage.

[5] Ibid, Victoria Police, Police in Victoria 1836-1980, pp. 5-10 and ibid, Haldane, R., The People’s Force, pp. 7-47.

[6] Ibid, Goodman, D., Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, p. 75.

[7] Ibid, Goodman, D., Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, pp. 78-79, discusses this élite group.

[8] Ibid, Victoria Police, Police in Victoria 1836-1980, p. 7; see also ibid, Haldane, R., The People’s Force, pp. 29-30

[9] Colonial Secretary Foster to Chief Commissioner of Police, 24 September 1853, cit., Goodman, D., Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, pp. 74-75.

[10] The Goldfields Commission Report, 1855, (Red Roster Press), 1978, pp. 60-61, concluded that abolishing the licence fee would reduce the size of the police force by between half and two-thirds.

[11] Mellor, G., ‘Sir Charles MacMahon (1824-1891)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 189-190.

[12] Ibid, Victoria Police Police in Victoria 1836-1980, p. 7; ibid, Haldane R., The People’s Force, pp. 29-30.

[13] Molony, John, Eureka, (Viking), 1984, 2nd ed., 2001, remains the best study.

[14] Ibid, The Goldfields Commission Report, pp. 17-18.

[15] Ballarat Times, 21 October 1854.

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