Protest in 1853: the beginnings

At the beginning of 1853, a series of unconnected incidents when the police acted corruptly or over-zealously contributed to mounting bitterness. A petition from Korong in January protested against police perjury and brutality and a month later, La Trobe brought a policeman to trial for wounding an escaping digger. [1] Incidents like this undermined what little faith the diggers had in the police but they were isolated occurrences. However, a more extended episode occurred on the new Ovens field near Beechworth where ten thousand miners were concentrated at Reid’s Creek. In early February, a trooper accidentally killed a digger during a police raid leading to the Police Camp being stormed and the destruction of all their weapons. Order was quickly and sensitively restored by J. M. Clow, the able commissioner at Spring Creek. [2] At a meeting on 11 February chaired by Dr Owens, the miners decided to petition for a full enquiry. [3] La Trobe agreed to change police personnel on the field and assured the petitioners that he would not tolerate those who abused their authority. Owens was nominated as the diggers’ representative at a promised enquiry into the past management of the goldfields on 14 March. [4] By late March, it was reported that Chief Commissioner Wright, in the absence of instructions otherwise from La Trobe would take evidence alone and that Owens should submit his evidence both to Wright and La Trobe.[5] This evaded an understanding that Owens would sit with him on a board of enquiry resulting in a furious meeting on 5 April when, for the first time the diggers’ movement called for the vote. [6]

Photograph of Ovens printed in 1857 Ovens Directory

That in passing this resolution, this meeting cannot refrain from expressing a hope that the day is not far distant when the right of representation in the Legislative Council will be conceded to the Diggers of Victoria.

The meeting submitted their resolutions in the form of a petition to the Legislative Council. [7] The diggers’ organisation on the Ovens field became less vibrant once miners had been ‘much scattered’ to other fields and there was no long-term public movement when Anti-Gold License-Tax meetings were held on other gold-fields in July and August.[8] Owens continued advocating diggers’ rights notably in a letter to the Argus in late July 1853 in which he identified the ‘important three points of the diggers’ rights’:

1st To obtain at once the total withdrawal of the entire license-fee tax, not to accept as a final measure the reduction to ten shillings—and thus establish free labor for the poor man of all countries on the gold-fields’

2nd To obtain an entire change in the government of the gold-fields, in accordance with the common rights of Englishmen and thereby do away with the inefficient and obnoxious system of Commissioners altogether.

3rd To obtain for the mining districts a full and fair representation in the Legislative Council of this colony. [9]

Owens also attended and spoke at meetings in Bendigo in September. [10]

[1] Geelong Advertiser, 12 January 1853, p. 2.

[2] ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, Argus, 8 February 1853, p. 4, details the incident on 3 February and its immediate aftermath.

[3] Johnston, Allan, ‘John Downes Owens (1809-1866)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 385-386. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, Argus, 15 February 1853, p. 4, ‘The Ovens Petition’, Argus, 7 March 1853, p. 11,

[4] ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, Argus, 22 March 1853, p. 4.

[5] ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, Argus, 29 March 1853, p. 9. Correspondence between Wright and Owens was printed in Argus, 16, 17, 24, March, 9 April 1853.

[6] ‘Important Public Meeting at the Ovens’, Argus, 8 April 1853, p. 9.

[7] Kent, B., ‘Agitations on the Victorian Gold Fields’, Historical Studies, Vol. 6, (1954), pp. 265-269.

[8] ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, Argus, 6 August 1853, p. 4. A meeting was nonetheless held on 8 August, Argus, 26 August 1853, p. 4.

[9] ‘To the Diggers of the Ovens Gold-Fields’, Argus 29 July 1853, pp. 4-5. See also his letter to the editor, ‘The Diggers and the Press’, Argus, 22 August 1853, p. 5.

[10] Argus, 2, 5 September 1853, p. 5, p. 4.

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