Moderate reformers lose control

On Wednesday 29 November, a poster printed at the Ballarat Times office appeared around the diggings and the township, advertising another ‘Monster Meeting’ at Bakery Hill at 2.00 pm. [1] It advised diggers to ‘bring your licenses, they may be wanted’. At Bakery Hill, flying for the first time, on an eighty foot pole was the flag of the Southern Cross. A rough platform had been set up and Timothy Hayes, the chairman was joined on the platform by the Reform League Committee, Fathers Smyth and Downing, the delegates Humffray, Kennedy and Black and some reporters.

The main purpose of the meeting was to hear the response of Hotham to the League’s petition ‘demanding’ the release of McIntyre, Fletcher and Westerby. Humffray was initially well received by the crowd especially when he said that the Governor was determined to put an end to their grievances. George Black informed the crowd of 10,000 Ballarat residents that the Governor was in favour of the people but being ‘surrounded by injudicious advisers he was entirely impotent in state matters’. He told the diggers that as Hotham had rejected their use of the word ‘demand’ and it was proposed to return with a petition that was more moderately phrased. Humffray, despite his disappointment at Hotham’s response maintained his call for peaceful resistance and was supported by Fathers Smyth and Downing. Despite Evans’ belief that that ‘better portion of the meeting were I believe well disposed towards him’, Humffray lost his authority when he spoke against the burning of further mining licenses at the meeting. He and other moderates had formulated the Charter with its demands and warnings, but they had not weighed up the consequences of the government refusing to negotiate. [2]

The Reform League committee was deeply divided between those who continued to believe in peaceful agitation and those who favoured more militant action and attempts at conciliation were howled down by the increasingly fractious crowd. This was reflected in the report from the Argus correspondent:

I endeavoured to write a report of the proceedings but…it was impossible. The scene of excitement and confusion on the platform precluded the idea of a competent and proper report…

Raffaelo Carboni, among others, addressed the crowd and told them how he had fled from ‘the hated Austrian rule’ and called upon all ‘irrespective of nationality, religion, or colour to salute the Southern Cross as the refuge of all the oppressed from all countries of the earth’. The turning point came when Peter Lalor, prominent for the first time, put a motion to the meeting that the Ballarat Reform League should meet at the Adelphi Theatre at 2.00 pm on Sunday 3 December. [3] He also proposed that a new central committee be elected, composed of a representative for each 50 members of the League. It seems the group that had run the Ballarat Reform League would be replaced by a radical committee more in line with the mood among diggers and they roared their assent. Vern called for the burning of licenses and with this, the meeting ended. Whatever the implications of Vern’s resolution, most diggers were not prepared to go further than passive resistance. No shots had been fired by diggers or the Camp and few words had been spoken in anger. However, Rede was not alone in seeing this meeting as a public challenge to the authorities.

Hotham and Rede were now communicating in cipher and Hotham was concerned that the diggers had a strategic advantage, as the diggings were a singularly unsuitable terrain for offensive military action. Decisive action was therefore required. On Thursday 30 November, a hot and blustery day, Rede used an already planned license hunt to test the feelings of the people. Johnston led the hunt on the Gravel Pits diggings, accompanied by a troop of mounted and foot police, with drawn swords and fixed bayonets. [4] His detachment was pelted with rocks as they entered the diggings. Rede read the Riot Act under a hail of stones and a detachment of the 10th and 12th formed near the bridge. Several arrests were made but when Benjamin Ewins, George Goddard, Duncan McIntyre, William Bryan, Donald Campbell and John Chapman were finally brought to trial in mid-January 1855 for breaches of the peace, they were acquitted. [5] Some accounts reported that the soldiers fired a volley over the heads of the crowd; others stated that random shots came from both sides. It was clear that any further attempt to enforce the licenses would be met with violence and troops and police withdrew to the Government Camp by noon.

Of the diggers, some went to the Eureka, some to the Red Hill, where they hoisted their flag—‘The Southern Cross’–while the Commissioners and commanding officers were holding a consultation on the new road, evidently nonplussed as to what were the intentions of the diggers, and what they were next to do. At length the military and police formed themselves into divisions on the Bakery Hill, throwing out their ‘light bobs’ as sharpshooters behind the heaps surrounding the holes. The position being thus taken up, Mr. Johnson asked what he was to do if, in the collecting of the licenses and the apprehension of the unlicensed, violence were used. The answer from the officer in command of the police was, ‘If a man raises his hand to strike, or throw a stone, shoot him on the spot.’ These were the orders given to the police…All this took up some time, of course, and the grand review having taken place on Bakery Hill, the Government force, for some reason which, though both an ear and eye witness, I cannot understand, retired towards the Camp, but not in peace, for hundreds of diggers had equipped themselves with revolvers and with weapons of all kinds, both offensive and defensive. Scattered shots were heard about this time, and one man having ‘scaled’ his piece was pursued by a party of the police, who, acting under orders, fired on him amongst the tents, but luckily missed, but eventually captured him.[6]

Rede had maintained the law but the license hunt only further alienated the diggers. What had been a largely peaceful protest movement now inexorably plunged into armed insurrection. Evans was not alone in thinking:

Among the many false steps our Authorities have taken recently none I think have reached in reckless foolhardiness the one they took this morning…A little forbearance on the part of the authorities and I believe all would have been well, but this morning’s disastrous policy has raised feelings of bitter animosity in the breasts of many who a little while ago were eager that the difficulties should be settled by moral means, and all now look forward with apprehension to the consequences. [7]

Who provoked whom between 27 and 30 November? The Argus reported that at the Bakery Hill meeting on 29 November:

The Resident Commissioner rode up to Mr Humffray…and said, ‘See now the consequences of your agitation’. To which Humffray replied, ‘No! But see the consequences of impolitic coercion’. I wish that our local authorities had but a little common sense. Was it right, was it politic to go on a license-hunting raid in such terms and under such exciting circumstances? [8]

Blame is normally placed at the door of the authorities. Hotham commented in his narrative despatch 162:

All cause for doubt as to their real intention from this moment disappeared; by the most energetic measures must order be restored, and property maintained; a riot was rapidly growing into a revolution, and the professional agitator giving place to the man of physical force. [9]

Rede was uncompromising in his insistence that law and order be maintained in Ballarat and has been regarded as the man responsible for the carnage when the Eureka Stockade was attacked. It was the authorities that reinforced the military presence at Ballarat, who rejected the League’s advances on 27 November and who initiated the license hunt three days later. This neglects the role of Captain Charles Pasley, Colonial Engineer to Victoria and a nominated member of the Executive Council from October and, after he arrived in Ballarat in late November, the unofficial government man on the spot. [10] He was quickly admitted to Rede’s council of war ensuring that Rede’s zeal for law and order was not diminished while not directly involving the government in Melbourne. In his daily letters to Hotham, sent through formal channels to John Foster the Colonial Secretary, he consistently made it clear that the burgeoning democratic movement needed to be snuffed out. In his correspondence Rede, by contrast had emphasised the need to restore law and order not protecting the status quo from democratic encroachments. It was only after Pasley arrived that Rede’s attitude hardened and he began to speak in terms that mirrored Pasley. [11]

However, the diggers’ deputation had given Hotham little room for manoeuvre and he felt, with some justification that he had already made important concessions. The crucial development in these four days was the failure of the moderates within the League’s leadership and the drift towards those with a more militant and republican approach. Yet many miners remained ambivalent in their attitude to the cause of the Eureka rebels. Faced, not simply by a threat to public order, but by full-scale rebellion as the diggers armed and established their Stockade, no longer prepared to negotiate. Fearing that the riot was growing rapidly into a revolution, Hotham and the authorities had run out of options short of military action.

[1] Ibid, Molony, John, Eureka, pp. 118-120, details the meeting.

[2] ‘Domestic Intelligence’, Argus, 1 December 1854, p. 5.

[3] Turner, Ian, ‘Peter Lalor (1827-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 50-54, provides a concise biography. Berry, A., From tent to parliament: The life of Peter Lalor and his coadjutors: history of the Eureka Stockade, (Berry, Anderson & Co), 1934; Turnbull, Clive, Eureka: The Story of Peter Lalor, (The Hawthorn Press), 1946, and Blake, Les, Peter Lalor: The Man From Eureka, (Neptune Press), 1979, are more detailed.

[4] ‘Ballaarat: Serious Outbreak at Ballaarat’, Argus, 2 December 1854, p. 5, gives a detailed account of this digger-hunt.

[5] Depositions against these individuals are in PROV 5527/P Unit 1, Item 10 (Ewins), Item 11 (Goddard), Item 12 (Bryan), Item13 (Chapman), Item 14 (McIntyre), and Item 15 (Campbell).

[6] ‘Ballaarat: Serious Outbreak at Ballaarat’, Argus, 2 December 1854, p. 5, provides a detailed account of this digger-hunt.

[7] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 30 November 1854, pp. 121-126.

[8] Argus, 2 December 1854, p. 5.

[9] Hotham to Sir George Grey, 20 December 1854, PROV 1085/P0, Duplicate Despatches from the Governor to the Secretary of State, Unit 8, Duplicate Despatch no. 162.

[10] Pasley hardly figures in accounts of events in Ballarat but Blake, Gregory, To Pierce The Tyrant’s Heart: A Military History of The Battle for The Eureka Stockade 3 December 1854, (Sydney Australian Military History Publications), 2009, pp. 98-100, considers his role to be fundamental to subsequent events. See also, McNicoll, Ronald, ‘Pasley, Charles (1824-1890), ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 409-412.

[11] Ibid, Blake, Gregory, To Pierce The Tyrant’s Heart: A Military History of The Battle for The Eureka Stockade 3 December 1854, p. 100.

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