The Eureka Stockade

By TOM O’LINCOLN [email protected]

The gold miners who rebelled at the Eureka Stockade (at Ballarat, near Melbourne) in 1854, and their flag bearing the Southern Cross, have become icons of the Australian left. We should celebrate these revolts against authority. However they can’t serve as models for the left today, owing to the petit-bourgeois nature of the rebellion, which lends itself to nationalist myth-making.

Background: the gold rushes in Victoria

The gold rushes had a subversive impact. Suddenly anyone might get rich, and out on the diggings, working class people with experience at manual tasks sometimes had an edge on their supposed betters. Everything had assumed a revolutionary character, wrote the English gold seeker John Sherer, so that ‘all the aristocratic feelings and associations of the old country are at once annihilated ... It is not what you were, but what you are that is the criterion.’ (Hughes: 564-5.) Such eruptions were naturally unnerving for those champions of tradition and privilege, the police. The Victorian gendarmerie, already much reduced by defections, was further demoralized by the frustration of daily arresting drunks and brawlers who might be carrying £500 or £600. Most diggers did not get rich, but for a brief spell large numbers of people dreamed of escaping from wage labour. When the alluvial gold began to give out, these hopes faded, and their thoughts returned to the traditional dream of independence on the land.

There were some opportunities for women to break out of the confines imposed on them since Macquarie’s day. We are apt to think of the gold fields as uniformly male, except for prostitutes and entertainers, however this is to focus too narrowly on the diggings. The growth of other industries around the gold fields created employment for both sexes. The most colourful female figure was Agnes Buntine who worked as a bullock driver and carrier carrying goods to the diggings. In later years ‘Mrs Buntine took the first packhorse team into Walhalla, was the first to slaughter a beast there and acted as a butcher for some years.’ (Donkin: 130)

In the cities, the sudden shortage of male labour opened up some career opportunities or, in other cases, drove women out to work In Sydney, all the initial appointments of pupil-teachers in the early 1850s went to females. In Melbourne, a sprawling tent city called Canvas Town grew up in Emerald Hill (near what is now South Melbourne). Its population consisted mainly of wives waiting to join their husbands, and others abandoned by men amidst the chaotic social conditions, though some assisted migrants of both sexes made use of the cheap accommodation on offer. Here women engaged in a range of business activities. (Alford 1986).

Even the actual diggings were not exclusively male. There were the likes of Ellen Clacy who went to Bendigo to dig as a full partner with her brothers, as well as wives in cabbage tree hats ‘capable of chopping wood "with great axes".’ (Kiddle 1990: 163) Although they don’t appear in official statistics, observers at the time also mentioned women fossickers working out abandoned claims

The sheer numbers of diggers, the collapse of established social and political relationships, particularly in Victoria, and also a wave of price inflation which undermined property requirements for voting, all helped generate radical democratic sentiment. Moreover, having left behind the injustices of the Old World (or of Sydney or even Melbourne) the diggers hoped for political as well as economic freedom, and were angry to find it lacking. Rafaello Carboni complained that after travelling sixteen thousand miles to escape Austrian tyranny, he had met with new tyrannies under the Southern Cross: ‘grievances inflicted upon us, not by crowned heads but by blockheads’. (Carboni: 53)

Charles LaTrobe’s administration at Melbourne, having run up substantial debts, could not deploy adequate forces to administer the far-flung mining centres, and critics foresaw scenes of bedlam like those reported from the California rushes. Certainly the goldfield were sometimes chaotic. Charles Harpur, who hoped that freedom from wage labour would create manly independence and solidarity, was disappointed to find the diggers he met as a NSW Gold Commissioner to be ‘so grasping, so unfraternal and dishonest.’ (Hirst 214) They would also prove capable of terrible race riots. Yet it was the law enforcers themselves, the ‘traps’ and the mounted troopers, who caused much of the trouble. This had something to do with incompetence, brutality and corruption amongst the forces of order that Governor LaTrobe and his successor, Hotham, were able to scrape together: the Gold Commissioners, police and mounted detachments. But the main issues were economic and political.

The most immediate irritant was a license fee levied on each miner. The two governors and the Legislative Council wanted to make the gold fields pay their way. The government struck an initial fee of thirty shillings which it kept trying to increase, enraging the diggers who knew the Council was full of rich men, many of whom had paid trivial amounts to occupy huge tracts of land.

Beyond the license fee issue lay other fears. Diggers worried about their longer term economic prospects. These concerns were later to be an important factor at Eureka , for by 1854 at Ballarat, ‘the easily worked surface-gold was becoming exhausted, and the fear of wage labour for capital-intensive deep-mining companies haunted the miners’ imagination. Already there were three steam engines in use and a modified Chilean crushing machine under construction.’ (Kociumbas 309.) The diggers were beginning to want land, at first mainly to provide food at reasonable prices, but later as a means of achieving economic independence when the mines gave out. This brought them into conflict with the squatters. To achieve these ends, they wanted the political power that came with the right to vote.

Plans to raise the monthly licence fee to £3 provoked the first upheaval. An outcry from Bendigo and Forest Creek (scene of angry speeches by what the Melbourne Morning Herald (22.12.51) called ‘Red-Republican Ranters’) frightened the government into withdrawing the increase. In February 1852 diggers’ representatives called a meeting in Melbourne to demand better policing and criticise the inefficiency of the Gold Commissioners; in mid-year, there were complaints about the cost of provisions due to inadequate roads; in October, the Forest Creek diggers formed a Mutual Protection Association with the aim of providing some measure of local government. On 23 October, four thousand miners met to demand better police and to denounce a proposed export duty on gold.

1853 saw a march by nearly a thousand diggers on the Turon field north of Bathurst, NSW in protest against taxation without political representation. It also saw ‘monster meetings’ on the Ovens in Victoria, a remote location administered by one assistant commissioner, twelve police and two troopers. Two officers placed in charge of the police faced successive charges of misconduct; the second, though convicted of bribery, remained in the force. The assistant commissioner himself, an inexperienced and arrogant man, caused the first round of trouble in February by ordering troopers to cock their guns when handling a disputed claim. One gun went off, killing an innocent bystander.

The constable holding the weapon was lucky to escape with his life, as two thousand diggers converged on the scene. The crowd disarmed and roughed up the police, then proceeded, by now three thousand strong, to storm the assistant commissioner’s camp, smashing to pieces all the weapons they found.

A second meeting on the Ovens in April raised, for the first time on the Victorian gold fields, demands for political representation. However over the following months large numbers of diggers departed for other fields and the agitation subsided; by August, when another sizeable meeting was held to demand reform, the majority of those present were not acquainted with the earlier events. So the migratory nature of gold fields life might slow the maturing of political consciousness temporarily, yet it also helped spread the agitation. In the same month, new protests broke out in Bendigo.

In June, a public meeting had voiced concerns that the influx of people would cause ‘pauperisation amongst the diggers’, then in July a second meeting launched a petition complaining that ‘in the present impoverished condition of the Gold Fields, the impost of thirty shillings per month is more than [the diggers] can pay.’ The petition went on to cite other grievances including the high cost of living, the lack of land for settlement, and harassment. Later in the month a monster meeting heard Dr D.G. Jones argue that oppression was a general feature of all the diggings, citing the Ovens, Mount Korong, and Forest Creek and complaining that ‘the whole management of the gold fields was radically bad’. (Kent: 270, 271).

The miners were gaining support in Melbourne, where public gatherings demanded a reduction in the licence fee. Meanwhile in July 1853, a Castlemaine protest meeting, called after an act of wrongful seizure by police, elected three men as ‘people’s commissioners’. Finally in August the Bendigo miners resolved to pay ten shillings and no more for their licenses, in what amounted to open rebellion. Virtually all the diggers wore red ribbons to show their support for this stand. ‘All available military forces in the colony were drafted to Bendigo, leaving the sailors of a British warship to patrol the streets of Melbourne ... A regiment was dispatched from Van Diemen’s Land to support the forces in Victoria, but at the same time the Governor decided to seek a compromise.’ (Gollan: 25) Latrobe offered the gold fields population a token representative in the Legislative Council, but the diggers voted no confidence in the Governor’s nominee. Finally the Council agreed to cut the licence fee to forty shillings a quarter.

The crisis passed, but by the end of the year agitation had begun again in Bendigo, fostered by a newspaper called the Diggers’ Advocate. In December and January there was talk of a Diggers’ Congress to unite all the fields. Thus by the time Charles Hotham replaced LaTrobe and decided to make a tour of the diggings, the miners had accumulated several years’ experience of political struggle. On the other hand, the police were also becoming more formidable. Their number, initially much reduced by gold fever, had risen again as the metal became harder to get. By June, 1853 the Victorian police numbered 875, by mid-1854 they totalled 1639, with the men being heavily concentrated on the gold fields. The ratio of police to population was 1:144 in the colony as a whole, but 1:56 in Castlemaine. (Goodman 75)

Hotham and the diggers of Ballarat

Hotham arrived in June. On 15 August he traveled to Geelong, where he rashly informed a mayoral banquet that his administration would follow the principle that all power sprang from the people. ‘These words were hailed with delight by those who were hoping for radical liberalization of government policy; the conservative-minded were filled with misgivings, fearing that he intended to undermine the privileges of the "ruling class".’ Hotham probably just meant to convey some vague concern for the welfare of the people as a whole. ‘He certainly did not intend his remarks to be interpreted as a Chartist declaration.’ (Roberts: 114)

The new Governor’s mind was rather more focussed on the £3 million deficit he had inherited from Latrobe. He had arrived in the colony to find large amounts of public money had been misused, and that the government was dependent on bank loans. He responded by sacking a thousand government employees, increasing taxes, and seeking additional revenue from the gold fields.

A mass meeting in Bendigo seized on his Geelong statement, the diggers demanding total abolition of licence fees and of the Gold Commission, along with an extension of the franchise. They presented the Governor with a petition when he came to Bendigo as part of his September tour of the diggings. Still, Hotham received a friendly reception on all the fields, and came away believing the miners were reasonably prosperous and contented. He concluded that they could and would pay the licence fee. On 13 September, he accordingly ordered licence checks to be carried out twice a week, instead of two or three times a month.

It was a bad error of judgement. In reality, life was hard for most miners. ‘Their tents were poor shelters from the seasonal extremes of weather. Their work was a battle against mud in the winter and dust in the summer. A limited diet of mutton and damper led to vitamin deficiencies and made them susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis. Serious accidents, such as falling into disused mine-shafts, were common ...’ Few struck it rich, some found no gold and hence could ill afford the license fee, while the license itself was surrounded by complications. One observer wrote of a young man who waited in vain for two days in a crowd outside a license tent. When returning on the third day to try again, he was arrested and fined for not having a license. (Roberts: 116, 123).

With so little reason to be content, why should diggers remain compliant? By 1854 they had substantial experience of agitation, and included a fair sprinkling of people who brought radical political experiences or ideas from beyond the seas. There was an abundance of Irish, some of whom had been deported or left Ireland on the run after rebellious activities; there were continental Europeans like Carboni whose memories of the great revolutions of 1848 were still fresh; there were the Americans with their republican traditions; and there were British Chartists of both ‘moral force’ and ‘physical force’ persuasions. A Ballarat mass meeting, held just a day before the diggers built the Eureka stockade, praised the ‘persevering and indomitable struggles for freedom of the brave people of England and Ireland for the past eighty years.’ (Churchward: 44)

Two incidents, relatively minor in themselves, began the chain of events leading to Eureka. On 7 October, 1854 the miner James Scobie died, apparently at the hands of pub owner James Bentley; and three days later a constable brutally assaulted the crippled servant of the local Catholic priest. Both events might have been quickly forgotten, had the subsequent hearings not been a mockery of justice. The servant found himself fined for assault, while Bentley was discharged by a rigged inquiry. The presiding magistrate in both cases, John D’Ewes, was Bentley’s business partner. These injustices hardened the diggers’ view of the authorities.

Ballarat’s Catholics held a mass meeting on 15 October to remind the government that they were ‘a large and influential body comprising inhabitants of every recognised country under heaven’, and more particularly that most of them were Irish. (Molony: 60) Upon this gentle hint, much stronger action followed two days later when a general mass meeting of miners convened at the site of Scobie’s death. The meeting began quietly, but by noon some ten thousand people had gathered and some were becoming restless. They were not far from Bentley’s Eureka Hotel. Fearing the worst, Bentley fled the scene, encouraging one ‘Yorkey’ [Henry Westerby] to exclaim: ‘I propose that this house belongs to the diggers.’ (Molony: 64) A section of the crowd set about demolishing the building, and within a short time it was on fire. The forces of authority proved ineffectual, the police trying vainly to beat down the flames while the army retreated to its camp. These anarchic scenes gave the diggers a temporary sense of power, reflected in Carboni’s reaction: ‘The diggers are lords and masters of Ballarat; and the prestige of the Camp is gone forever.’ (Carboni: 30)

Gold Commissioner Robert Reed had two men named McIntyre and Fletcher arrested as ringleaders, although the two were fairly clearly innocent, evoking new outrage among the diggers. They were tried -- along with ‘Yorkey’, against whom some sort of case existed -- in late November. The jury’s reluctant guilty verdicts came with a portentous rider:

‘The jury feel, in returning a verdict against the prisoners at the bar, that in all probability they would never have had that painful duty to perform if those entrusted with the government at Ballarat had done theirs properly.’ (Molony 67)

Onlookers cheered this statement. In a letter to the Ballarat Times, John Basson Humffray warned that the diggers who had burnt the hotel had been provoked; the ‘circling flames’ were a warning and repression would not succeed. ‘The people ask for justice, not bullets!’ (Molony 67) Humffray, a moral force Chartist, was emerging as a leader among the miners. Meanwhile a Board of Inquiry, established by Hotham, heard evidence. This less than impartial body reached the comforting conclusion that for the most part all was well in Ballarat -- though D’Ewes was removed on its recommendation, and it criticised both the license system and the local administration. Hotham now appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into problems on the diggings generally. Too late.

The miners were organising. On 11 November, a monster meeting on Bakery Hill resolved to establish a Ballarat Reform League, in emulation of the successful Association at Bendigo. The meeting adopted a manifesto that amounted to a full political program, extending far beyond immediate grievances about licenses or the Scobie’s death. The diggers affirmed that ‘taxation without representation is tyranny’, and asserted their right to resist it; they called for manhood suffrage, no property requirements for Members of the Legislative Council, payment of members and short parliamentary terms. In addition, they cautiously raised the prospect of separation from British rule. (Molony: 99-100) However in light of later uses of the Eureka flag for nationalist purposes, it’s important to stress that the politics of the struggle had little to do with Australian nationalism as we understand it.

A subsequent mass meeting resolved to contact diggers on other fields ‘with a view to the immediate formation of a general league’. More immediately, there were also meetings taking place on the nearby Creswick diggings. (Molony: 98) In late November, Peter Lalor first came to the fore. Lalor, who had been Scobie’s friend, proposed electing a committee to lead the agitation. The general expectation was that such a committee would be more radical than the existing leadership. Until this time Humffray, along with his fellow moral force Chartist Henry Holyoake, had generally set the tone. However other voices were also heard from the platforms at monster meetings, such as that of Thomas Kennedy, best remembered for his doggerel:

Mere persuasion is all humbug,

There’s nothing convinces like a lick in the lug.

Kennedy apparently declared himself an admirer of the French revolution and an advocate of socialism, but on many accounts was somewhat erratic. Lalor, despite coming from a family of Irish rebels, was less political. However he was prepared both to fight and to take practical responsibility. Lalor and others who accepted physical force naturally assumed leadership when armed conflict had become inevitable. Humffray would later resume his leading role when the struggle again took peaceful forms.

Hotham’s response to the continuing agitation was to send more armed detachments to the scene. This caused the next casualty, on 28 November, when a contingent of the 12th regiment clashed with diggers as it entered Ballarat. A drummer boy was fatally wounded. Two days after that a licence hunt provoked a further confrontation, resulting in eight arrests. The miners, having voted to protect anyone arrested, felt the time for decisive action had arrived. Lalor called a meeting on the spot; the diggers marched to the Eureka field, unfurling the newly devised Southern Cross flag. That night, they constructed a crude stockade. ‘Vinegar Hill’ became their password. On Friday, 1 December, Kennedy and another of the more radical leaders, George Black, roused several hundred men from Creswick to join the rebellion. They marched picturesquely over the hills singing the ‘Marseillaise’, with Kennedy in the lead waving a sword.

The miners continued to look in vain for compromise with Hotham and Rede. Hotham took umbrage at being confronted with people who chose to ‘demand’ rather than ‘pray’, while Rede dismissed proposals to suspend the licence system even temporarily. Rede thought the licence question ‘a mere cloak to cover a democratic revolution.’ (Molony: 142) Bloodshed was becoming inevitable.

The diggers were hardly prepared for armed conflict. Only five hundred took the famous oath by the Southern Cross, and many of those were absent when fighting eventually broke out. Most of the Creswick continent had left by that time, too. Kennedy, the man who believed in a ‘lick in the lug’, was not around when the time came. Those present were poorly armed: only a minority had guns, and one of the more pathetic aspects was the metal pikes some of the stockade’s defenders bravely wielded before they fell. At 4:45 am on Sunday, 3 December, police and troopers attacked the stockade, where they prevailed after a short clash. They then proceeded to butcher the conquered, along with many innocent bystanders, for the next hour or so. An observer wrote a few days later that he was leaving the gold fields because after watching this carnage, ‘I could not breathe the blood-tainted air of the diggings.’ (Molony: 169) Peter Lalor managed to escape with a wounded left arm, later amputated.

At first Hotham seems to have believed he could rally the Melbourne populace to his side. On Monday he addressed MLCs and other notables, blaming ‘idle and disreputable persons’ including foreigners for the trouble, and asking who would defend the city against attack. (Molony: 177) That Melbourne needed defending may seem far-fetched, yet the Morning Herald had published claims that armed bands of diggers were on the way to sack the city. On the prompting of local pioneer, landowner, and business figure John Pascoe Fawkner, the Legislative Council backed Hotham, as did a meeting of squatters. But when the Mayor called a public meeting the next day for the same purpose, it turned out very differently. An estimated four to five thousand people gathered. When the authorities called out troops, they failed to intimidate the throng. The initial speakers, including Fawkner, called for restraint on all sides, but his audience grew restless. When asked to choose between the flag of Britain and the Southern Cross, they refused to co-operate, whereupon the Mayor tried to close the meeting by vacating the chair. The crowd simply replaced him, then further speakers demanded the sacking of Colonial Secretary John Foster. Before dispersing, the assembly carried a motion to this effect.

It returned the next day. Fawkner was there again, now railing opportunistically against the squatters. So was David Blair, co-editor of The Age, who referred to the American colonists. ‘Despite his avowed abhorrence of violence, Blair, carried away by his own rhetoric, was soon advocating an armed rebellion.’ (Roberts: 155). Blair calmed down again, but his listeners did not; a section of the crowd later surrounded two uniformed troopers in Swanston Street and threatened them with violence.

Hotham tried to calm thing by offering limited concessions such as sacrificing his Colonial Secretary, John Fitzgerald Foster. As the Melbourne personality Thomas McCombie wrote shortly afterward, ‘the Governor and Executive Council were alike too glad to allow Mr Foster to immolate himself to ensure their safety. When they actually saw a revolution impending they were all anxious to appease the public indignation.’ (Walshe: 62) The government lifted martial law in the face of a citizenry which was ignoring it anyway, and Foster’s replacement began promising liberal reform. Yet Hotham and his Attorney-General William F. Stawell still hoped to gain some sort of vindication by putting the Eureka rebels on trial. This was their greatest folly. It made possible the consolidation of a radical democratic movement.

After Eureka

The Ballarat diggers had risen up at a time of crisis in the colony as a whole:

‘Commercial depression, induced by mercantile speculation in the gold boom, was sharpening a number of long-standing grievances. The finances of the government were in disorder and there was a huge deficit. Official corruption was widely suspected. Unemployment had arisen in Melbourne from mid-1854, and the land-hunger of the unemployed was giving a sharp edge to the long-standing animosity towards squatters. British government efforts to revive transportation had called forth bitter anti-Imperial feeling, which was at a peak in the month preceding Eureka.’ (Walshe: 63)

The newness of the Victorian population, together with the general confusion of the gold rushes, had at first slowed the development of political movements. The various issues were not automatically linked in the popular mind. Yet there were signs of unrest even before Eureka. The working classes were by no means entirely enthusiastic about the rushes. ‘At a public meeting held in Melbourne on 10 June 1851 to discuss the effects of the New South Wales rush on Victoria, and to consider offering a reward for gold found in Victoria, there occurred a surprise intervention. One of the audience, identified only as ‘A WORKING MAN’ ... rose to put a dissident point of view:

‘He did not believe that the meeting was really called for the advantage of the working class. If those who had called it had wished to serve the working classes, they would have done something during the last three years, to remedy the dirty lanes and alleys, and the stagnant pools of Melbourne, for he could tell them health was always gold to the working man ... He protested against the whole of the proceedings; the meeting was merely to enrich the rich and oppress the poor man.’ (Hisses and applause.)’ (Goodman 40-41.)

When Hotham had sacked a thousand employees in an effort to repair government balance sheets, the unemployed mounted a thousand-strong protest meeting, at which the chair, a carpenter named Cathie, had complained that no jobs were available but ‘pick and shovel work’. Cathie added that the option of farming was not open; people could not get land due to ‘land sharks’. Yet the problems of the colony could not be solved ‘unless the people are located on the lands’. Another speaker declared that every economic interest except that of the workers was being looked after. He too, expressed the petit-bourgeois aspirations of those workers when he told the meeting that future prosperity depended ‘not upon the large capitalist, but on the small one. The large capitalist intended to return to England.’ (Melbourne Herald 10 October 1854) A second, larger meeting followed on the Flagstaff Hill.

Now Eureka provided a focus for every discontent in the colony. Melbourne’s new paper, The Age, offered a measure of political leadership for radicals, while the trials provided a repeated occasion for public agitation as well as a series of victories to celebrate. For try as it might, the government could find no jury prepared to convict the rebels.

The first digger they tried was a black American, John Joseph, who had distinguished himself in the battle. Perhaps the authorities have hoped his race would prejudice some jurors against him; if so, they were sadly disappointed. The jury returned promptly with a verdict of not guilty, whereupon the cheering from the public gallery was so loud that Chief Justice Sir William a’Beckett singled out two people for a week’s jail. When a second trial ended in the same way, the authorities adjourned the proceedings for a month, in the hope that public passions might cool. ‘But public meetings continued with unabated enthusiasm and insulting the Governor became a popular pastime.’ The Age reported one meeting where the speaker was busily attacking Hotham when the Governor happened to pass in his carriage, and ‘was saluted with three as vigorous and emphatic groans as ever conveyed an unwelcome demonstration to the ears of a man publicly disliked.’ (Roberts: 164)

When the trials resumed, the results were much the same. Far from vindicating the government, they left the public with an unflattering picture of both the gold fields administration and the legal system. The testimony revealed a pattern of spying and acts of revenge by the authorities on the scene, while perjury and confusion pervaded the prosecution case. Stawell was felt to have manipulated the jury system by constantly challenging Irish jurors, though with ironic result, since the acquittals were all the more impressive given no Irish had served on the juries.

On 27 March the Royal Commission reported, recommending the replacement of licences with a £1 miners’ right that qualified the holder to vote. The revenue foregone was to be made up through an export duty on gold. It said further that land near the diggings should be made available for sale, and that eight elected, plus four nominated MLCs should represent the mining centres. The government had little choice but to act on these proposals. In November 1855 Humffray and Lalor won election unopposed to represent the diggers of Ballarat.

Once removed from the context of popular struggle, both became quite respectable. Lalor denied he had ever been a democrat in the sense of being a Chartist, republican or communist, though he added that ‘if democracy means opposition to a tyrannical people or a tyrannical government, then I ... will ever remain a Democrat.’ (Molony: 205-6) Even in his early years in parliament he sided mostly with the squatters, while expressing strong support for the British constitution. To those who accused him of deserting the diggers, he replied that ‘he never belonged to them: they were a class which he always despised.’ (VPD) By the early 1870s he had become a director of mining companies.

Lalor’s behaviour was neither surprising nor exceptional. The diggers’ radicalism did not run very deep; it was actually the urban movement that really challenged the government. And middle class democrats of whatever kind had been very cautious in their support for popular struggles. They appealed for restraint from the crowds in the streets, and none endorsed the diggers’ resort to arms. For example, David Syme’s Age expressed general sympathy with the miners, but called upon them to ‘stop in their career of revolt’. (The Age 5.12.54)

Caroline Chisholm also professed sympathy for the diggers, but likewise condemned the rebellion which had ‘stained the hands of the people with blood’, urging everyone to ‘cast aside all party feeling class interest’. (Kiddle 1990: 73) Chisholm’s abhorrence was not, to be sure, directed at violence per se, but only at violence which challenged the social order. She told a Castlemaine audience the government should give the diggers a better deal in order to enthuse them for national defence. ‘Give them good homes, and if the Russians came tomorrow, the diggers would all turn out and fight in their defence like men.’ Chisholm urged Hotham to made land available to the diggers, in order to secure the support of the ‘small capitalists’ and provide the assistance of ‘that first minister of finance, the Plough’. (Kiddle p. 155.)

This vision of land for the little people had an immense popular appeal, for life in the cities was still very difficult and uncertain. In 1860, one hundred seventy-eight wives of unemployed men in the Melbourne working class suburbs of Carlton and North Melbourne signed an appeal for help to the government. Although their action meant deviating from "the path prescribed for our sex’, they were driven to it ‘when we see our children wanting bread … and with no prospect for the future.’ (Aveling & Damousi 51) This in post-gold rush Victoria!

But was it possible to build a nation of rural smallholders? Out on the frontier, that question was being decided in the negative. Small farmers (selectors) had great difficulty surviving in a land where rich farmers and graziers (known as squatters because they hadn’t actually bought the land) were dominant. This would later lead to a second famous rebellion led by Ned Kelly, who became an icon in his turn.


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(VPF) VPD: Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Old Series Vol 1, p. 83.

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