The Diggers Remembered

REMEMBERING THE DIGGERS’ MONSTER MEETING

The first commemoration of the Diggers’ 1851 Monster Meeting was in Castlemaine in 1995 and since 2003 it has been celebrated every year.

There are on-site gatherings every December with music and speeches to celebrate the stand the Diggers took to protect their rights. There are commemorative plaques at the Meeting site beside Forest Creek and on the highway at the entry to Chewton. The Diggers’ flag flies in both places and is now available to wear on a t-shirt. 

A song award competition in 2010 resulted in a gala concert of 14 of the songs in the Castlemaine Theatre Royal and a double CD of 13 the songs and the story of the Meeting. The CD was launched with another gala concert in Castlemaine in 2012.

In 2014 the Chewton Domain Society published The Monster Meeting Book by Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky and it maintains this website (www.monstermeeting.net) to tell the story of the Diggers’ Meeting and how it started a democratic movement of protest across the goldfields. 

Bundle of Sticks, Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky’s one-man performance about the Diggers’ 1851 Meeting, premiered in Chewton in 2019.

The flag, CD, book and t-shirt can all be purchased from CDS. Click here for how to order.

An important commemoration came in 2017 when the Victorian Government listed the Monster Meeting site in the Victorian Heritage Register (VHR2368). The listing formally acknowledged the historically significant role the 1851 Monster Meeting of Diggers in the early development of democracy in Victoria.

An annual record of the commemorative events and celebrations is included below. Reports of the annual commemorations an also be found at www.chewton.net and in the pages of the Chewton Chat, which provides monthly reports plus an annual summary of the previous year in each January edition. You can access the current edition of the Chewton Chat at www.chewton.net and the State Library of Victoria has a full collection which can be accessed on-line @ https://www.slv.vic.gov.au (search for Chewton Chat). The Castlemaine Mail has also reported events over the years.

ANNUAL COMMEMORATIONS

In 1995 the first commemoration of the 1851 Meeting was organised by Doug Ralph and other Castlemaine locals. They decided that the 1851 Meeting was so historically significant that it warranted commemoration. A re-enactment was staged as a protest against the Victorian government’s removal of the elected Newstead, Maldon, Metcalfe and Chewton local councils and replacement by non-elected Commissioners to oversee their amalgamation. The protest began outside the Council offices in Castlemaine and moved in procession to Victory Park where speakers addressed the crowd from a dray – as they did in 1851 – beneath a recreation of the 1851 Diggers Flag based on historical sources. 

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The Covid pandemic killed off our usual annual December celebration of the 2020 Monster Meeting. But CDS still managed to commemorate the Diggers’ Meeting with the finalisation and launch of this website in November and a flag raising at the Meeting site on Tuesday 15 December. 

Monster Meeting Website launched

The new Monster Meeting website was launched in Chewton’s Ellery Park in November. Thanks to COVID restrictions, there was only a small masked crowd on hand but Bendigo West MP Maree Edwards was ready to launch this exciting project, and representatives from the Chewton Domain Society, Parks Victoria and Mount Alexander’s Tourism Unit were present. 

Hosted by CDS president Helen McGeachin, the Editor of the new website was introduced. Pat Healy had already been receiving accolades for the work done, a small group having been given viewing permission prior to the launch. Pat acknowledged the work done by CDS members in actively recording Chewton’s history, and the new website now focuses on one aspect of that history. It tells the long overlooked story of how the transformation of the government, economy and society of the colony of Victoria began at the Diggers’ Monster Meeting at Forest Creek on 15 December 1851. There 15,000 gold diggers gathered for Australia’s first mass anti-government protest meeting against Governor La Trobe’s plan to double the cost of their gold licences. 

Although the gold diggers could not vote, and had few civil rights, by standing together they were not without power. And their peaceful defiance as they declared that they would not pay more for their licences spooked Governor La Trobe. Fearing insurrection the proposed increase he cancelled the proposed increase. And so the Monster Meeting began a pattern of gold diggers’ popular protests that spread across the gold fields, demanding the end of the licence system and greater civil rights.

The Monster Meeting began one of the most compelling of all the gold rush stories, of how the thousands of men and women who came searching for gold forged a protest movement that kick-started the development of parliamentary democracy in Victoria. Kick-started it right here in Chewton with the first organised mass protest in Australia. And that’s the story Pat has woven through the new website monstermeeting.net.

The Chief Ranger for Parks Victoria in this area spoke next. Karen Doyle pointed out the uniqueness of this goldfields area is significant at a national level, both for its extent and condition – the sites, the relics are there to be seen. And that history is part of who we are. She shared her own close family links to the goldfields before explaining the importance of the Monster Meeting site to the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park (CDNHP). The links to democracy, unity and the importance of being heard are values we aspire to, and in that vein Karen was proud to relate the genesis of the CDNHP was due to the overwhelming number of submissions received. Voices were heard again. And now there is gathering momentum for the CDNHP to be World Heritage listed. 

Maree Edwards MP began by noting this website was another milestone in a long Monster Meeting journey, a journey that she has been on with the CDS and Parks Victoria. In congratulating both the CDS and Pat for this website, Maree commented on the importance of the 1851 Meeting to Victoria and Australia. She also praised the use of this form of media to tell the story, taking it to a new and growing audience. The new website was then launched, with Maree adding, “I hope everyone looks at it because it’s fantastic!” 

A series of photos were then taken, and attention turned to Aubrey, a local pupil who had participated in a History Enrichment Program in the last school holidays. He completed a project on the Monster Meeting and was able to draw on historical sources to investigate the historical evidence of the Monster Meeting. This project has been posted on youtube and Aubrey screened the video on a laptop. A round of applause followed and Maree seized the moment by presenting Aubrey with his own Monster Meeting T-shirt. 

As thanks for launching the website, Maree was presented with a T-shirt too – and the conversation turned to that word on the back of the T-shirt. “Fie upon pusillinamity” always raises both questions and laughs. Can you pronounce pusillinamity, and do you know what it means? Maree jokingly (we think) suggested she may wear the new shirt when making a speech in the house. Imagine that! 

The launch was also reported in the Castlemaine Mail (Friday November 6, 2020 p5).^^

Monster Meeting – Raising the Diggers’ flag

Parks Victoria wanted to replace the tatty Diggers’ flag and leaning flagpole on the site, and it was decided that 4 pm on the 15th was an appropriate time for the change-over. So it was that a few invited guests arrived to witness the event, listen to some significant speakers and even toast the occasion. Non-alcoholically of course! 

Thanks to a team of fluoro-coated Vic Parks workers, the flag went up in no time, and Parks Ranger Noel Muller acted as ringmaster to get the show on the road. Pat Healy set the scene by explaining how the diggers kick-started the democracy we now take for granted. They were ordinary working people, they had no vote and not much by way of civil rights but they succeeded because they had the power of sticking together. And this carried through in succeeding years to the 1853 Red Ribbon Rebellion in Bendigo and the 1854 Eureka uprising in Ballarat. 

Academic historian and prolific local author Marjorie Theobald wasted no time in pointing out the family cottage where her forebears nurtured her love of gold fields history. This love has carried her through a successful career and many books as she did the hard yards in researching our central goldfields history. Referring to Governor La Trobe’s decision to withdraw the planned licence increase, gazetting it two days before this great meeting, she explained that an earlier meeting of 3,000 diggers on 8 December further down the creek, had set the wheels in motion for that withdrawal. They asked the local Gold Commissioner to organise a meeting of all diggers on 15 December to discuss La Trobe’s plan but when he refused they organised the Monster Meeting themselves. And the protest movement it started rolled on to the Red Ribbon Rebellion in Bendigo in 1853, that forced La Trobe to get on with the process of drafting a democratic constitution. The resulting constitution was on a boat bound for Westminster by the time the Eureka uprising began in 1854. How many people are aware of that? 

In 2021, the annual December CDS commemoration of the Diggers’ Meeting returned to the 1851 Meeting site in the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park. CDS also published Mount Alexander Mountain of Gold 1851-1861: The gold rush generation and the new society by Marjorie Theobald.

Mount Alexander Mountain of Gold

In November Chewton Domain Society published Mount Alexander Mountain of Gold 1851-1861: The gold rush generation and the new society by Marjorie Theobald. This book is a social history of the first turbulent 10 years of the central Victorian gold rushes that began the new Colony’s transformation from a colonial squattocracy to a modern democratic society.

It tells of how the thousands of fiercely independent men and women who came to the Mt Alexander goldfield began a protest movement that spread across the goldfields and kick-started the journey to building a new democratic society. It documents how the Diggers’ 1851 Monster Meeting at Forest Creek (now Chewton) led to the 1853 Bendigo Red Ribbon Movement, that forced Governor La Trobe to get on with drafting the new democratic Victorian constitution, and then to the 1854 Eureka Stockade uprising in Ballarat that finally ended the old order on the goldfields.

The launch of the book was reported in the Midland Express (Tuesday October 26, 2021) and the Castlemaine Mail (Friday November 6, 2021).

Monster Meeting Commemoration 2021 – the 170 Years Anniversary.

It was a warm day for the 2021 commemoration of the Great Meeting of Diggers at Golden Point Road, Chewton. Rosie Annear, Mount Alexander Deputy Mayor was MC for the day. Rosie was a very appropriate choice for this role as she is the daughter of Robyn Annear, one of the locals who originally researched and resurrected the story of the Monster Meeting in 1995, so people could appreciate the cultural and political significance of the event. Rosie told the audience how she remembered, as a child, seeing fabric laid out on the floor as her mother hand made the first replica Diggers’ flag. This was Rosie’s first time being an MC for an event, but she performed the task beautifully, sharing her story and thoughts about the Great Meeting of Diggers and adding light-hearted humour to the day. 

Each speaker acknowledged the traditional custodians of the land and paid homage to elders past, present and emerging. Gus Read-Hill brilliantly performed the original speeches of the 1851 meeting by Mr. Potts, Mr. Lineham, Captain Harrison and Mr. Booley. Gus’s rousing performance inspired participation by the crowd with people calling out, “No license fee”, “We will not be serfs”, “Pay nothing”, as well as cheers and “no” in responses to the protest speeches. 

Well-known local band Crosswind entertained the crowd with three songs including their vibrant upbeat song 1851, which was composed for the 2010 Monster Meeting Song Competition. The speakers for the event included Karen Doyle, Goldfields Area Chief Ranger, who spoke about the role of Parks Victoria in protecting cultural landscape, providing the opportunity for people to develop a personal connection to space and the history of the area. 

Maree Edwards, State Member for Bendigo West, gave an eloquent history of the Monster Meeting and how Governor La Trobe’s inappropriate attempt to control the chaotic frenzy of the goldfields was to double the license fee. Maree gave the example of the chaos of the times when workers were leaving their jobs to dig for gold. Some employers in Melbourne offered up to 120 pounds for a week’s wage for a position that usually paid 8 pounds a week. Two days after the peaceful Monster Meeting protest of 15,000 Diggers, news of Governor La Trobe’s decision to rescind the license fee increase reached the goldfield. With reference to current events, Maree finished her speech saying, “Protest that undermines democracy cannot be condoned.” 

Federal Member for Bendigo, Lisa Chesters spoke about how the movement of democracy borne of the Digger’s protest is faring now. She said that even though there are gaps in our constitution, and sometimes we question the health of our democracy, that on a federal level people are working hard to make our democracy strong. She applauded the 1851 Diggers who stood up and said that they wanted to have a say and she applauds the annual commemoration of the Monster Meeting as the sharing of the story keeps it alive. Lisa finished her speech by reminding us “our democracy is only as strong as the people who are part of it.” 

Local historian Dr. Marjorie Theobald spoke further about the history of the gold rush. She spoke of the young and fiercely independent gold rush generation and how they helped to transform Victoria from a squattocracy to a modern nation. The Diggers were determined to create a better way of life for themselves than they had left behind. The wave of gold diggers drove out the squatters from the district and began the protest movement that brought into existence the new constitution and parliamentary democracy. 

Rosie wound up the event by saying how in 1851 Hore’s Saxhorn Band played as the Diggers were leaving the meeting place to return to their tents and campfires across the diggings. Castlemaine’s Brasselmaine Brass Quartet, who had researched the music they played in 1851, performed some of the same music as the 2021 commemoration ended. 

It was a great line-up of speakers and performers on the day, and I personally learned a lot more about the 1851 event. As well as that, I had Crosswind’s catchy song 1851 in my head for days. 

Jackie McMaster