DIGGERS’ 1851 MONSTER MEETING STORY
Here you can read and listen to the story of the Diggers’ Monster Meeting in December 1851 at Forest Creek (now Chewton) – Australia’s first organised mass protest meeting. On Monday 15 December, all over the Mt Alexander goldfield the diggers downed tools and 15,000 gathered at Forest Creek to defy the colonial government plan to double the cost of their gold licence. They peacefully declared that they would not pay any more for their licence. The diggers did not have a vote and they had few civil rights but together they were not without power. Their show of strength caused Governor La Trobe to back down and the licence fee remained unchanged. And their Monster Meeting set in motion a democratic protest movement that spread across the Victorian goldfields leading to the Red Ribbon Rebellion in Bendigo in 1853 and finally to Ballarat in 1854 and the bloodshed at the Eureka Stockade that finally ended the old order on the goldfields. A full account of these events can be found in the book Mount Alexander Mountain of Gold 1851 – 1861: The gold rush generation and the new society, written by Marjorie Theobald and published by Chewton Domain Society in 2021.
Read storyteller Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky’s account of how the democratic protest movement, that began in 1851 with the Diggers’ peaceful Monster Meeting, spread across the Victorian goldfields, challenged Victoria’s colonial government and changed history. Read Argus journalist Howard’s report of the speeches from the Meeting and how the newspapers reported it and the actions of the ill-fated Governor La Trobe. Listen to interviews with six historians and local writers who explain why it happened and what impact it had on the people and the land.
READ THE STORY
FROM THE MONSTER MEETING TO THE EUREKA STOCKADE
By Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky,
Part One – The Gold Rush
When gold was first discovered in Australia, in the late 1840s, a sample was brought to Governor Gipps, in Sydney. Viewing the gleaming nugget, word has it the Governor said: For God’s sake! Put it away! Or we’ll all have our throats cut!
Well, if not blood on his shirt, the Governor’s world was about to be turned upside down; for if there was gold in the land, anyone, even a scumbag ex-convict or a mere labourer, could get rich. So the British Government proclaimed that all Australian gold was Royal Gold. It belonged to the Crown. But when word got out, nothing could contain the epidemic of Gold Fever. And in 1851, the world’s greatest gold rush was at Forest Creek (now Chewton) on the Mt Alexander goldfield in central Victoria. It lasted as long as World War One – and then the rush was over. And the gold from Forest Creek helped to change the world.
But before we go on with the story of the gold rush and the Monster Meeting, contemplate this. Originally – that is, about four hundred and forty million years ago – the gold around Forest Creek was more than ten kilometres under the earth’s surface where gold and quartz were dissolved in a reservoir of hot water that existed in tiny spaces within a huge volume of otherwise solid rock. At that time this hot mix started to move closer to the surface along fault lines in the rock and eventually solidified into reefs of gold and quartz. At the same time the land was rising from under the sea – the higher it rose the more it was subjected to erosion by the elements. Over millennia of storms, fire, wind, rain and sun, the land was weathered and so the gold-bearing rocks were revealed at the surface. The gold broke into smaller pieces, and was scattered on the ground and settled into creek beds.
And the original people of central Victoria, the Jaara, left the gold lying where it was. To them it was too heavy to carry on foot and too soft for tools, such as axe heads and spear points. They called gold kara kara, and Jaara elder Uncle Brien Nelson tells a story of what one shepherd boy discovered about the gold from a Jaara kid:
I asked Brien, “For you Jaara people, what was gold good for?” He said, ‘Nothing. The first white people who came here were farmers, and one day a Jaara kid and a white shepherd boy were having a chat, and the Jaara boy bent over and picked up a lump of gold.
The shepherd thought to himself, “That’s gold.”
The Jaara kid said, “See those crows, I bet I can hit him.”
And the shepherd said, “But wait, don’t throw it away, that’s gold!”
“No good to me,” said the Jaara kid, and he threw the nugget of gold at a crow. “Got him!” said the Jaara kid.
“Don’t you want that gold?” asked the shepherd.
“No good to me. It’s too soft for spear point and knife, and when I go walking, it’s too heavy to carry. So I leave it. Just rubbish.”
“Can I have it?” asked the shepherd.
“Sure,” said the Jaara boy.
So the shepherd ran and picked up the gold. Later he showed it to his master, the landowner, and the landowner said, “Put it away.”
The landowner Uncle Brien refers to was one of about 1,000 squatters or so-called ‘landowners’ who leased the land in Victoria to run their sheep. They were among the very few eligible to vote for parliament. And the new Victorian Government agreed with them – there was no gold in Victoria!
So why didn’t the so-called ‘landowners’ want gold to be found on their properties? Simple. They didn’t want a gold rush over-running their peaceful, profitable estates.
But in May 1851 gold was discovered in NSW. At the news, gold fever spread across the land, and an exodus of Victorians began. The Victorian colony faced financial ruin. So, to stop the flow of people to NSW, a group of Melbourne businessmen offered a reward of 200 pounds for the discovery of gold in Victoria. It was a case of, ‘Be careful what you wish for, or you just might get it’. Soon gold was ‘officially’ discovered at Buninyong and Ballarat – but these were short-lived rushes.
Then in July 1851, shepherds on William Barker’s pastoral run found gold in the creek at a place now named Specimen Gully – at Barker’s Creek, close to where the town of Castlemaine now stands. The pastoralist Barker didn’t want the shepherds abandoning his sheep, but in August the shepherds did exactly that, and continued panning in the creek in Specimen Gully. When Barker sacked them and ran them off for trespass, one of the shepherds wrote to the Melbourne newspaper, the Argus, announcing their discovery of a new gold field and just where it could be found. The letter was published on 8 September.
Argus, Monday 8 September 1851. p2.
NEW GOLD FIELD – We have received the following letter announcing the discovery of a new gold field at Western Port.
DEAR SIR, I wish you to publish these few lines in your valuable paper, that the public may know that there is gold found in these ranges, about four miles from Dr Barker’s home station, and about a mile from the Melbourne road; at the southernmost point of Mt Alexander, where three men and myself are working. I do this to prevent parties from getting us into trouble, as we have been threatened to have the constable fetched for being on the ground. If you will have the kindness to insert this in your paper, that we are prepared to pay anything that is just when the Commissioner in the name of the party comes.
John Worley, Mt Alexander Ranges, Sept 1st 1851
And as they say, the rest is history.
By December there were 25,000 diggers swarming over Dr Barker’s property and the creeks near the present town of Castlemaine, particularly Forest Creek, which runs through Chewton. Forest Creek was the richest shallow alluvial goldfield ever discovered. There was more alluvial gold found here than anywhere else, and that made Forest Creek and Castlemaine the world’s number one destination. Anyone prepared to swing a pick could find gold and, with no middle man, could convert it into cash.
Society was convulsed as servants, policemen, sailors, clerks, farmhands and people from every profession left their jobs and headed for the Forest Creek goldfield. The world was turned upside down. Nothing was talked of but gold, gold, gold. Gentlemen were reported to be foaming at the mouths at the very thought of gold, gold, gold. Ladies, it’s said, were fainting. Some were digging lumps of gold from the ground with a pocket-knife. Diggers went down a hole at daybreak poor men and emerged at sunset as lords. Servants had become masters. The world was upside down. Suddenly, there were only two policemen left in Melbourne.
The landlords and the government had lost control. Governor La Trobe couldn’t even find a labourer to chop his wood, and was reported to remark ruefully that: …One would be disposed to regard the discovery of these great mineral treasures in other light than a blessing.
Part Two – The Monster Meeting
The Monster Meeting took place in what now looks like an ordinary valley that is part of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park on Golden Point Road in the town of Chewton.
But in 2017 the Victorian Heritage Council declared that the site is a historically significant area and listed it in the Victorian Heritage Register (VHR H2368). Because, like many unremarkable spots, this is where a momentous event took place, when a reported 15,000 diggers attended what is now called the Monster Meeting of Diggers on Monday December 15, 1851.
The diggers were angry over a tax, a Gold License, imposed by Governor La Trobe. The government couldn’t stop the rush, so the tax of thirty shillings per month was imposed on each digger, whether they found any gold or not.
In Australia in 2010 we witnessed a multi-million dollar campaign by multi-national mining companies protesting against a tax on profits. But La Trobe’s tax on gold diggers in 1851 was before they earned a penny.
However, despite of the tax, people kept arriving on the diggings. By December 1851, three and a half months into the Forest Creek rush, there were 25,000 diggers camped on the creek, upstream and downstream from the Monster Meeting site.
So in a further attempt to stem the flow of people to the diggings, Governor La Trobe announced a plan to double the Gold Licence, from thirty to sixty shillings. That’s when a notice was posted calling the diggers to a meeting on 15 December, 1851.
The intelligence has just arrived of the resolution of the Government to Double the License Fee.
Will you tamely submit to the imposition or assert your rights as men?
You are called upon to pay a tax originated and concocted by the most heartless selfishness, a tax imposed by Legislators for the purpose of detaining you in their workshops, in their stable yards, and by their flocks and herds. They have conferred to effect this; They would increase this seven fold but they are afraid!
Fie upon such pusillanimity! And shame upon •the men, who, to save a few paltry pounds for their own pockets, would tax the poor man’s hands!
It will be in vain for one or two individuals to tell the Commissioner, or his emissaries, that they have been unsuccessful and that they cannot pay the licence fee.
But remember that union is strength, that though a single twig may be bent or broken, a bundle of them tied together neither bends nor breaks.
Ye are Britons! Will you submit to oppression or injustice?
Meet – Agitate – Be unanimous – and if there is justice in the land, they will, they must abolish the imposition.
Yours Faithfully, A Digger
And 15.000 diggers gathered under their new flag showing
- a pick and shovel, for their labour
- a bundle of sticks, tied together as a symbol of their unity
- the scales of justice.
- a kangaroo and emu; symbol of their identification with Australia.
The speakers addressed the crowd from a dray with their new flag flying overhead and the meeting ended with three cheers for Laurence Potts (one of those who called the meeting), the diggers and their wives, and three groans for Governor La Trobe, the traps, and the Melbourne Herald – for that newspaper had called the diggers ‘the scum of the country’.
Concerned about the possibility of mass uprising, La Trobe changed his mind. The Gold Licence remained at thirty shillings a month. The diggers had triumphed and set in motion a movement of democratic protest that spread across the goldfields.
Part Three – Agitation Hill
But the problems did not end with the Monster Meeting, and to frame up the Monster Meeting with what followed, we go first to the confrontation on Agitation Hill, Castlemaine, seventeen months later in May 1853. It is a good example of the overbearing authority that the diggers had to endure on the gold fields.Although they were often called the police, and colloquially the ‘traps”, it was a military style administration who ruled the goldfields under the Gold Commissioners. They set up camp at Castlemaine in October 1851 – a month after the gold rush began. And to cut straight to the heart of it, the camp quickly became known as a place of … cruelty, dissipation, partiality, injustice and other enormities… where one would know the officers of law by the a la militaire costume and hauteur; gold-laced strutters whose daily and nightly duties were burning tents and all property therein, and destroying stores, without enquiry or trial.
That description was from an auctioneer named Hitchcock, describing a brutal, corrupt police state, with a system of paid informers to lead police to supposed unlicensed diggers and sly grog sellers. One notorious trap was a man called Christian, who was a sub-inspector, and anything but Christian. As with all goldfields policeman, Christian was on a 50% cut of the fines he generated. Selling sly grog, for example, was a 50 pound fine, a year’s ordinary wages. So, as you can see, being a copper on the gold fields came with its perks.
And so it was, on the first Saturday in May 1853 sub-inspector Christian was informed, by a paid police informer named Mangan that a boarding-house keeper, Mr McMahon, was selling sly-grog. This was a lie but that night sub-inspector Christian and his troopers destroyed Richard McMahon’s boarding house and ransacked his possessions. Forty boarders stood outside in the dark and saw their belongings disappear into the government camp. The following Monday the boarding house keeper McMahon was brought to court. But he was acquitted for lack of evidence. Instead Mangan, the police informer, got 5 years for perjury.
God knows what may have happened if McMahon had been found guilty but even with the acquittal within hours there were signs all over Castlemaine, proclaiming:
MEN OF CASTLEMAINE!
MEET ON THE HILL!
Avenge your wrongs and demand your rights, or otherwise you will live and die all slaves.
By four o’clock one thousand diggers, traders, shopkeepers, clergy and businessmen met on the hill overlooking the government camp. Today the government camp location is a footy ground called Camp Reserve, but in 1853 the diggers called it, loathingly, the ‘Sacred Camp’. And the hill overlooking the camp, where the diggers met, is still called Agitation Hill, and is the site of today’s Christ Church.
On the hill in 1853, Mr Jones, a Campbell’s Creek auctioneer, summed up the situation: “The tyranny of the Government has been such that, unless people take steps to intercept a despotic invasion of their constitutional rights, the relentless and unscrupulous authorities would take further liberties”.
And a Dr Southee voiced the emotion, incanting to tremendous cheering that:…if the Government persists in their oppression, the public of Castlemaine are unanimously determined to oppose the authorities, crumble them to the dust as useless worms, and chivalrously demand their individual liberties.
Part Four – Red Ribbon Rebellion
The events of Agitation Hill in 1853, were preceded by the Monster Meeting at Chewton in 1851, and followed by the Red Ribbon Agitation in Bendigo. These three events all led towards the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat where, in 1854, 35 diggers and 6 police lost their lives.
But first, the Red Ribbon Rebellion in Bendigo.
Whilst the diggers at Castlemaine in 1851 were people already resident in Australia, by 1852 diggers were coming from all around the world. En route aboard ship they sang this song, by Charles Mackay, singing up their dreams for the new land, free of Europe’s problems:
There’s a good time coming, boys,
A good time coming:
We may not live to see the day,
But earth shall glisten in the ray
Of the good time coming.
Cannon-balls may aid the truth,
But thought’s a weapon stronger;
We’ll win our battle by its aid:
Wait a little longer.
There’s a good time coming, boys,
A good time coming:
The pen shall supersede the sword,
And right, not might, shall be the lord,
In the good time coming.
Worth, not birth, shall rule mankind,
And be acknowledged stronger.
The proper impulse has been given:
Wait a little longer.
There’s a good time coming, boys,
A good time coming:
Hateful rivalries of creed
Shall not make their martyrs bleed
In the good time coming.
Religion shall be shorn of pride,
And flourish all the stronger;
And Charity shall trim her lamp:
Wait a little longer.
There’s a good time coming, boys,
A good time coming:
War in all men’s eyes shall be
A monster of iniquity
In the good time coming.
Nations shall not quarrel then
To prove which is the stronger,
Nor slaughter men for glory’s sake:
Wait a little longer.
But at the Bendigo gold rush the scene was less than a good time a coming. Bendigo Creek was an open graveyard of shafts and, whilst some prospered, some went broke and returned to Europe or died. The native gum trees were chopped down, for firewood and mining. There were butcher shops under canvas, with piles of fly-blown offal out the back. The government had banned alcohol and sly-grog tents masqueraded as lemonade parlours. Some diggers drank themselves to death, others came close to armed insurrection due to the Gold License tax of thirty shillings a month – just to be on the goldfields. Think about it: that’s like someone paying Council rates every month, whether they owned a house or not.
And the troopers or ‘traps’ were immortalised in a song by the goldfields minstrel, Charles Thatcher:
The morning was fine,
The sun brightly did shine
The diggers were working away
When the inspector of traps
Said, ‘Now my fine chaps we’ll go license hunting today.
’Some went this way, some that,
Some to Bendigo Flat
And some to the White Hills did tramp
Whilst others did bear up toward Golden Square
And the rest of them kept ‘round the camp.
The traps lived in the government camp, fenced in like a Roman fortress. It was, and still is, called Camp Hill. From there the government officials and troopers looked down on the diggers, the rabble below, and emerged to conduct ‘digger hunts’:
‘Digger hunting’, as the search after men who had no license was called, was a favourite amusement of both officers and men, and it was followed up savagely, relentlessly, and with a refinement of cold-blooded cruelty that was not only exasperating, but disgusting in the extreme. Unless they had their license in their pockets they were placed under arrest, and were all subjected alike to the indignity of being treated like criminals, according to Mr Robert Ross Haverfield. And according to Frank McKillop, sometimes the troopers would collect as many as fifty un-licensed diggers, and frequently they were roped or handcuffed together and driven like beasts before the swords and bayonets of their captors, perhaps for the greater part of a day, over rough country, in the blazing sun in the summer and slush and mud in winter, until such time as a good haul was made. When at the camp they were chained like dangerous animals to logs to wait the convenience of the commissioner or Magistrate, where without proper trial or right of appeal they were fined five pounds or sent to work on the roads.
But the diggers at Bendigo were inspired by the successes at the Monster Meeting and Agitation Hill, and so they formed the Anti-Gold-License Association and drew up the Bendigo Petition. When presented to Governor La Trobe in August 1853 the Petition was 13 metres long, bound in green silk, and contained thousands of signatures, from all the surrounding Victorian goldfields. It was lost for many years but is now held in the State Library of Victoria and can be viewed at https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/200050922. (Details of the Petition and a full listing of the Petition signatories is in Geoff Hocking’s book The Red Ribbon Rebellion!)
The Petition read in part:
His Excellency, Charles Joseph La Trobe Esquire,
Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria.
The Humble petition of the undersigned Gold Diggers and other residents on the Gold Fields of the colony Sheweth
That in the present impoverished conditions of the goldfields, the impost of Thirty shillings a month is more than Your Petitioners can pay, as the fruit of labour at the mines scarcely affords to a large proportion of the Gold Miners the common necessities of life.
That in consequence of Armed Men (many of whom notoriously bad in character) being employed to enforce the impost of Thirty Shilling a Month, there is much ill-feeling engendered amongst the Diggers against the Government.
That the impost of Thirty shillings a Month is unjust because the successful and the unsuccessful Digger are assessed in the same ratio.
For these reasons and others which could be enumerated, Your petitioners pray your Excellency to Grant the Following Petition.
First: To direct the license Fee be reduced to Ten shillings a month
Second: To direct that Monthly or Quarterly Licenses be issued at the option of the Applicants….
The petition also requested that diggers be allowed 15 days after arrival on gold fields to pay the license, that the penalty be reduced from five to one pound, and that the armed force be discontinued.
Your Petitioners would also remind your Excellency that a Petition is the only mode by which they can submit their wants to your Excellency’s consideration, as though they contribute more to the Exchequer than half the colony, they are the largest class of Her Majesty’s Subjects in the colony unrepresented.
This was what added insult to injury: a tax, whether you earned any money or not, imposed by a government who would not allow you to vote, enforced by police or traps who were often thugs.
It’s worth considering at this point some of the ironies of the diggers and their situation. Firstly, upon experiencing the injustice in the ‘new land’, the lyrics of the Charles Mackay song changed to take in the ‘new’ circumstances, albeit a repeat of the injustices they ‘d hoped to leave behind. Neither did the diggers, according to a verse below, believe in the same freedoms and benefits for the Chinese, who in 1854 were arriving on the gold fields in great numbers:
There’s a good time coming, boys, a good time coming:
When it will it’s hard to say, but I hope twill be some day
This good time a coming
The comic song oft tells hard truth in place of weapons stronger
So now I’m going in to win, wait a little longer.
There’s a good time coming, boys, a good time coming:
Squatters shant permitted be, to overrun this colony
In this good time a coming
And English girls shant be allowed, though love than fire is stronger
To marry flash John Chinaman, wait a little longer.
There’s a good time coming, boys, a good time coming:
Camp officials shall have sense and try not to give offence
In this good time a coming
Some magistrates too will be found with love of justice stronger
And also know a little law, wait a little longer.
There’s a good time coming, boys, a good time coming:
No a schicer shall be sunk, not a digger e’er seen drunk
In this good time a coming.
A good time coming
A good time coming:
Neither could the diggers, like many Australians since, perceive that the same liberties the diggers longed for should also be the right of the original Jaara inhabitants. With the Jaara economy based on husbanding the country for fruits, meat and other foods, their culture revolved around song, dance and story. Their language – Djadja Wurrung– mapped every creek and gully, and drew a tangible web between the land and every living thing.
But the European and Chinese gold-seekers were blind to that Jaara network of meaning and ownership, all over the country, and so, like an arm brushing the black pieces off a chess-board, the Jaara were swept aside and the white pieces found themselves unleashed, to turn the land into whatever they wanted it to be. In their hearts were hopes of a better life and the desire for freedom and wealth that was beyond their reach in the Old World. A place with democratic rights where they could be citizens – even if the same didn’t apply to the Jaara people.
So as one Dreaming was decimated, the dreams of the diggers were sent to Melbourne in the form of the Bendigo Petition, and on 13 August 1853, about 10,000 diggers gathered at View Point, near where the Bendigo Art Gallery now stands on View St, to await the report from the delegation that had taken the Petition to Melbourne.
The Herald reported that:
Gully after gully hoisted its flag, and various nationalities were represented by different flags. The Germans in particular seemed determined to come out strong on the occasion, having ordered some splendid new banners for the purpose. The English nation was well represented by royal standards and union jacks, and the Irish provided themselves with a very beautiful flag, with the harp in the centre, supported by a pick and shovel. But the one that attracted the attention was the Diggers Banner.
The Diggers Banner, designed by local digger Mr Dexter, was similar to the one flown at the Monster Meeting in 1851, and showed the pick, the shovel and the cradle- that represented labour. There were the scales – that meant justice. There was the Roman bundle of sticks – that meant union: altogether – all up at once. There were the kangaroo and emu, that meant Australia”. (W Howitt, Land labour & Gold)
The delegates who had travelled to Melbourne with the Bendigo Petition addressed the 10,000 diggers from the back of a dray. The Governor, the diggers heard, would not reduce the license fee, or stop the digger hunts. But the diggers, although angered, refrained from violence. Instead, they decided to pay only ten of the thirty shilling license fee required, and to paint on their tents the words:
NO LICENSE TAKEN HERE
Fortunately, the Bendigo Gold Commissioner, Joseph Panton, was an educated man – unlike the likes of Christian at Castlemaine. When a delegation of diggers met with Panton and offered their ten shillings instead of thirty, Panton refused. But he agreed to represent their interests to Governor La Trobe.
A second meeting was set for a fortnight later, but many diggers were losing patience. In those days, tea chests were lined with lead, and in the fortnight wait, every tea chest in Bendigo was stripped of its lead lining. In the hidden creek beds the diggers were turning the lead into bullets, and come the day of the meeting the diggers came trickling out of the hidden gullies, then streamed up the creek beds to gather in thousands at the bottom of View Street, with their rifles, pistols, and bullets of tea-chest lead.
Each national group marched beneath their flag, with the Diggers’ Banner in the van, above an ocean of bearded, angry men. They proceeded to a spot where they could see the government camp along the hillside. They lit fires, talked, kept their powder dry, and waited. Close by, a spy looked on. The Chief Commissioner of Police, later to become Sir William Henry Fancourt Mitchell, had been sent by Governor La Trobe to report on the meeting.
And the meeting had barely begun when Mitchell, panicked by the sight of so many armed diggers, mounted his horse and thundered down the Melbourne road to alert the government that armed rebellion was about to begin. But Mitchell shot his bolt too soon, for moderate voices prevailed, and the diggers decided to all wear a red ribbon in their hats, ‘as a sign’ they said, ‘that those who wore it pledged no longer to pay the license fee.’
The movement against the tax was now called the ‘Red Ribbon Agitation’, and every hat, tent, shop door and dog in Bendigo wore a red ribbon.
Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Mitchell spurred his tired horse on to Melbourne. “Bendigo is in a state of revolution,” he told La Trobe, “if the license fee is not reduced, or if an attempt to enforce it is made, it will end in bloodshed.”
But La Trobe increased the Bendigo troops to three hundred.
In the next month only four hundred diggers paid the license fee – where before there had been 14,000. It was impossible to jail them all. So instead, La Trobe, introduced a sliding scale: one pound for one month; two pounds for three months; four pounds for six months; and eight pound for twelve months. Those who paid for the year could vote.
The digger hunts continued, and the diggers resistance continued, adding to their demands the right to vote and buy land.
Part Five – Eureka
The next year, 1854, La Trobe was replaced by Governor Hotham, who ordered twice-weekly digger hunts. His troopers were to collect the fees at all costs.
At Ballarat Hotham ordered thrice-weekly digger hunts and there the long-feared bloodshed finally took place.
At dawn on Sunday 3 December 1854 at Eureka a digger and a trap look each other in the eye. The trap, a good soldier, is here on Government orders.For the digger it’s freedom or die. It’s the Sabbath, and usually on the Sabbath they would have been resting or preparing for church. Under their flag, the Southern Cross, those diggers who had licences burnt them. The diggers knelt and together swore an oath. It’s like a prayer:
“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”
The diggers took arms.
Twenty minutes later, thirty-five diggers and six troopers had been bayoneted or shot dead at the Eureka Stockade.
So you might say that the diggers lost. But within a year, everything had changed.
The Gold licence was replaced by a Miners Right, where a digger paid one pound per year for the right to dig for gold and they eventually got access to land. And the men of Victoria got the vote, although it was another fifty years before women were allowed to vote in 1908.
Many diggers stayed to make Australia their home. And that gold rush changed the world. The gold that was found in their country went around the world, and helped to maintain the gold standard that underwrote the modern world financial system.
But it was a cataclysm for the Jaara people, for their land and lives were forever changed. With the devastation to their land, the Jaara people were swept off their country leaving few survivors. But in 2013, the Victorian Government formally recognised the DjadjaWurrung people as the traditional owners of the land and granted native title to 266,532 hectares of their stolen land.
AT THE MEETING: WHO WAS THERE AND SPEECHES FROM THE DRAY
David Tulloch’s 1851 drawing provides the only visual record of the Diggers’ Monster Meeting. In 1852 Thomas Ham made a lithograph of Tulloch’s drawing and accompanied it with his words describing who was there and what they did.
The exceeding richness of the Mount Alexander diggings, and the extraordinary success of many of the miners, led the Government to issue a proclamation, raising the licence from thirty shillings to three pounds. As soon as these intentions became known, a public meeting of all the miners was convened, and took place on the 15th of December, 1851. This resolve of the Governor and Executive Council was injudicious, since, in New South Wales, the Government proposed to reduce the fee to 15s.; and among the miners in Victoria, dissatisfaction was rife, on account of the apparent disregard by the Government of the wants and wishes of the people engaged in the gold diggings, and because of the absence of all police protection, while there appeared to be no effort made to remedy this defect. Indignation was, therefore, unequivocally expressed at the several diggings meetings which were held, and at which it was resolved to hold a monster meeting. The ‘Old Shepherd’s Hut’, an outstation of Dr Barker’s, and very near the Commissioners’ tent, was the scene chosen for this display.
For miles around work ceased, cradles were hushed, and the diggers, anxious to show their determination, assembled in crowds, swarming from every creek, gully, hill, and dale, even from the distant Bendigo, twenty miles away. They felt that if they tamely allowed the Government to charge £3 one month, the licensing fee might be increased to £6 the next; and by such a system of oppression, the diggers’ vocation would be suspended.
It has been computed that from fifteen to twenty thousand persons were on the ground during the time of the meeting. Hundreds, who came and heard, gave place to the coming multitude, satisfied with having attended to countenance the proceedings. The meeting ultimately dispersed quietly, thereby disappointing the anticipation of those who expected, perhaps even desired, a turbulent termination. The majority determined to resist any attempt to enforce this measure, and to pay nothing; but, happily, they were not reduced to this extremity, since his Excellency wisely gave notice that no change would be made in the amount demanded for the license.
As a moral demonstration, nothing could be more admirable. It proved that, as a body, the Miners were not a demoralised and treasonable set of men. While jealous of their rights, and prepared to withstand oppression, they were not desirous to evade any just claim of the Government; they were willing to submit to equitable taxation. The order, diligence, and industry of the Miners are remarkable. Among the sixty or seventy thousand men, congregated in engagements differing widely from the ordinary pursuits of life, some may be expected to exhibit irregularities which, in a more civilised position, they probably would not permit themselves; still the good order is surprising, infractions of the law being few, and exceptions to the rule.
The meeting brought fully into view this state of things. There were few who did not cease from work to attend, yet no disorder or intemperance was seen. The trees in this locality are chiefly stringy bark; some of them are peeled of their covering, as many persons prefer erecting bark huts to living in comfortless tents. The various groups, and costumes of the men, are characteristic of our gold digging community.
THE SPEECHES FROM THE DRAY
The Argus journalist, John Howard, was there to record the Meeting, including the rousing speeches from the dray. Howard’s full report of the Meeting, including the speeches, was published in the Argus on Thursday 18 December 1851 and is reproduced here. An unknown artist left us a pen and ink drawing of the speakers.
MEETING OF THE DIGGERS AT MOUNT ALEXANDER
Monday, 15th December, 1851
(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)
Early on Monday, preparations were made, flags collected, and a temporary platform brought to the spot in the shape of a dray, which being well secured, answered the purpose. As the hour approached, men began to collect in small groups along the Creek, and wend their way towards the appointed spot, and by three o’clock some eight or nine thousand persons had collected.
Hore’s band was heard in the distance, and as it approached large crowds made their appearance from the lower diggings, which were welcomed with hearty cheers.
Every preparation having been made, the Committee took their stand, and J. F. Mann, Esq.,was called to the chair, who stated the reasons why the meeting had been called, and trusted that the numerous crowd assembled would conduct themselves as became men. He then called upon Mr. Potts to address them.
On this gentleman’s appearance, he was welcomed with three hearty cheers, and addressed them as follows—
Brother Diggers and Fellow-Citizens;
This unrighteous proposition of the Government compelled me to appear before you on a former occasion. You all know what was said and done at that meeting and the decision come to, to call the present, and though I expected to have the pleasure of addressing a large concourse of my fellow-diggers, I must say I was quite un-prepared for the present assemblage.
I see before me some 10,000 or 12,000 men, which any country in the world might be proud to own as her sons. The very cream of Victoria, and the sinews of her strength.
Now, my friends let it be seen this day whether you intend to be slaves or Britons, whether you will basely bow down your neck to the yoke, or whether, like true men, you will support your rights. (Cheers)
On this ground are collected some 25,000 or 30,000 men, who have hitherto united in the bonds of friendship, discarded all distillation of nations and needs, and lived like brothers.
Why then should we bear a grievous imposition, while it is in our power to avoid it? You must be aware, that the 30s charged by the Government is an illegal taxation (not correct), and that His Excellency has no power to tax us.
We are willing to pay a small tax, but the question is, will we pay £36 a year? (Voices from all parts, never.)
Because a few men think proper to say, you shall pay, that is no reason why a body of men such as I now address, should accede to such extortion. (No, no, we will not.)
The Herald describes us as a set of cut-throats and scoundrels, from that journal little else could be expected, and I should not have brought this subject forward, but that I conceive there is something in the back ground. You all know George Cavenagh, and you may easily know, that the article was simply written to gain favour with Commissioners, and those who ride after the gold cart. (Good men.)
Now we want no favour from such good men. Talk of honesty! I defy the world to produce the same honesty among the same number as at Forest Creek. Is there one of you who locks your door. (Laughter.) When I retire to rest, the last inquiry I make of those in the tent is, whether they have put the skewer in the blanket. (Renewed laughter.)
Men go to work, leaving thousands of pounds in their boxes, without lock or guard, and nothing but a bit of calico between that and a robber, that is, if there is any. Do not fathers bring their daughters among us, husbands their wives and children, and where has there been a single case of one being insulted. You are living in better order here than they are in Melbourne, with all their blue coat force, pistols and carbines included.
It is useless to talk of physical force, moral force is what is required. You are men, possessed of the same power of reason, strength of mind and body, as your would-be extorters.
Now will you pay the £3 license. (Never, from all parts)
Good. Now my friends I tell you, that if you were sued for the 30shillings only, no Court in the British dominions dare give it against you; we are willing to pay a little, but skinned alive we will not be!
The Home Government does not require, nor do they possess the power to enforce unjust taxation. It was such taxation that lost Great Britain, America. I hope brother diggers, as a Briton, such unjust taxation will not be the cause of separating these splendid Colonies from the Mother Country.
But mind, if from any mis-government, the feelings and affection we at present possess as Britons, are torn asunder by Government misrule, and 50,000 British hearts are estranged by misrule— then, and then only, must violence be talked of. (Hear, hear.)
There are few here who would advocate separation; few who do not love the Country of their adoption; few who do not feel themselves Free! And none, I trust, who will be slaves! (Immense cheering)
I call upon you once more, to pledge yourselves to support one another – not only against taxation, but against disorder. We do not want the verdant youths of the Commissioner; they will do very well to rise after the gold cart- but, to keep us in order- why, men, the idea is absurd! We will see to one another. A Digger in distress shall raise a thousand brother-diggers, to support him.
This is the first chance the labouring classes have had to do good, but let them not abuse it. His Excellency is a squatter, a butcher, and he is interested in keeping down the price of labour.
They say, labour is too high, and men cannot be got. Why, I can employ a thousand men within a week. Let him pay a fair price; and he too will find no difficulty. Why should the laboring men be skinned alive, by what Sir Eardley Wilmot termed Wool Kings?
I will now read you the first resolution; seconded by J. O’Connor, Esq.
That this meeting deprecates as unjust, illegal, and impolitic, the attempt to increase the license fee from 30 shillings to £3. Carried
Capt. Harrison, with delegates from Bendigo Creek and other diggings, made his appearance on the platform, and was received with three hearty cheers. The Captain addressed them in a few words, thanking them for the flattering reception, and promised to have something to say when his turn came.
Mr Lineham rose to address the meeting, and commenced by stating, that he would occupy their time a few minutes with a small matter concerning himself.
You will remember, friends, that at the last meeting I drew your attention to the leading article of the Herald, wherein he kindly termed you the scum of Van Diemen’s Land, and many other opprobrious names. This has reached him through the columns of the Argus, and raised his anger against me individually.
He (George Cavanagh, Editor of the Herald) tells you, in his last leading article, that he has sent you an agent to watch over your interests, but I am more inclined to think it is for the purpose of looking after his own; and that I consider is very small, for I shall be much surprised if any man present will support the Paper which contains what I will read.
It was such men as George Cavenagh, and the lying Herald, that made peaceable men rebel against Government. (Mr Lineham then read the objectionable parts of the Herald’s leading article, which was heard with groans and laughter.)
Now, men, if George Cavenagh’s Paper is not a libel against the whole of you, I am not worthy of standing here.
Having satisfactorily proved to you that my former statements were true, I would now draw your attention to a subject of more importance. It is the tax. Will you pay £3? (No, never.)
That’s right. Now I will tell you how I intended to do, when the Commissioner came round. I should refuse to pay, and he would compel me to go with him. Now I should propose if one went, all went. (Yes, yes.) Of course we are too independent to walk, and it will take a curious number of horses to drag us to Melbourne. (Laughter)
I am not an advocate for forcible resistance, nor do I think any of you are; we can gain the day without it, though the Herald should use its thunders.
But, my friends, I find in the present number of that Government tool, that they have altered their mind. That they do not intend to enforce it, but to establish a royalty. Have we any assurance that such is the case? Or if such is the case, what guarantee have we that another change may not take place at the same breath?
I would advise, that until something definite is settled, pay nothing; it is the height of madness for Government to try the strength of a body of men like us, united as I believe we are; we can defy the whole colony put together if compelled to do so.
Some blame Mr. La Trobe for all this disturbance; now I beg to differ. Mr La Trobe has his faults, but I consider that he was too easily led by the advice of designing men.
I trust none will pay the £3 imposition or any royalty, though they were obtaining twenty-pound weight of gold per day. (Hear, hear)
He then read the second resolution, seconded by Mr Doyle, and carried:—
That this meeting while deprecating the use of physical force, and pledging itself not to resort to it except in case of self-defence, at the same time pledges itself to relieve or release any or all diggers that on account of non-payment of £3 license may be fined or confined by Government orders or Government agents, should Government temerity proceed to such illegal lengths.
Captain Harrison came forward, amidst deafening cheers, and as soon as he could be heard, said:
I am a little late, but you will bear in mind I have ridden 20 miles to address you. (A voice—”Put your cap on, Captain.”) I took my cap off, my lads, to honor patriots, but I might not do so for Victoria or her myrmidons. I feel proud to have it in my power to stand before such a noble set of men—men who will protect themselves against the oppression of an unjust Government. Why has Government made this change? They say it is to pay the expenses of protecting us, but I say, men, they are false pretences.
We might have our throats cut, our tents robbed or fired for all the protection Government affords us. How was it at Ballarat, when a serious row took place by a set of midnight scoundrels; when the lives and property of several were in danger, and expresses were sent to the Commissioner to send up the police, or that murder and robbery would be committed? What did Government do? What did the Commissioner say? I’ll tell you. He said—”I would send you the police with pleasure, but the truth is, I have not enough to protect myself.” What then are we paying for? We give a fee for protection, and get nothing in return. It is not the police protecting us, but it is we who are taking care of them.
There is now a surplus of £13,000, which has been screwed out of the sinews of the gold-diggers – (Shame, shame) – and what is to be done with it? They say it’s for the Queen. Has the Queen not enough, or does she want it to buy pinafores for the children? They will tell you her salary is small. I wish to God I had 1-20th for mine!
I called a meeting at Bendigo Creek the other day, and all came except the tent-keepers, to a man, and it was unanimously carried that we would not present an humble petition to withdraw the tax, but, like free and independent men, we decided that we would publish to the world, by every means in our power, our determination not to pay the tax.
A subscription was entered into to pay expenses, and every man paid his half ounce of gold. I was appointed a delegate to visit Forest Creek, and endeavor to cause the same feeling here, but I was proud to find on my arrival that you were beforehand with me.
Fryers Creek has not been behind hand, from 150 it has swelled to 3,000, a small beginning, but a small spark will blow up a magazine, or increase as your present number shows.
Talk of doubling the fee, let them reduce it one half of the present charge instead of doubling, or they will find, like the fable of the golden egg, that in grasping all, they will get nothing.
As for the statements of the Herald with respect to a royalty fee, it is only put in another and more obnoxious shape. They say that according to law the Queen is entitled to a royalty. The Colonies never cost the Queen or Government one shilling, and under those circumstances I consider that they are not entitled to the benefits of the land.
John Bull was a quiet animal, but if imposed upon, might do the same as the camel; he would stand quiet enough until they overloaded him, but if he got one ounce too much, he would kick until he kicked the whole load off, and threw his rider into the bargain. He considered the tax unconstitutional, and it was a similar tax that lost Charles the First his head; it was unjust taxation that caused the United States to throw off the burthen, and unless the Government learnt a little wisdom, an additional tax might lend to the same result here.
He knew he was rather warm on the subject, but he spoke as he felt, and he trusted all would do the same. He would not occupy their time much longer, but would wish to draw their attention to the support they had received from the Press, with the exception of one.
As to the lying Herald, whatever its proprietors might say, it was of little consequence, the journal was well known, it would crush all and every poor man, to exalt aristocracy. At first he professed to be the Catholic organ, they saw through his duplicity, and he, to save himself, panders with the Government. George Cavenagh put him in mind of the fable of the ass, who, when put between two bundles of hay, starved himself to death.
With respect to the squatter, he considered that class the worst used of any. They had been fostered up by Government for the purpose of preventing unity.
Let us, my friends, unite as one people (Great cheering) without respect to creed or country, and victory will crown our efforts. (It was some minutes before the next speaker could be heard, from the cheering.)
Dr. Webb Richmond proposed the third resolution, and observed that he had resided among the miners here and at Ballarat for three months — he had been associated with large bodies of men in various parts of the world, and had never in his life met with a better conducted, quieter, or honester set of men than the lucky or unlucky vagabonds of Mount Alexander; he had never experienced more kindly feeling or seen more exhibited than among the miners assembled, and what pretence the Herald could have for stigmatizing them as it had, he could not divine, and although quiet and orderly, the Government had done nothing out of the thirty shillings license money to protect them.
With regard to the said license, he did not consider the Government had any right to impose anything as a tax or royalty. These Colonies were vested in Parliament, and no revenue could be raised out of them except for the benefit of the people.
The Crown Lands Act appropriated the proceeds to the specific purposes of emigration and improvement, and if any surplus arose after paying the expenses of protection, to the Land Fund, &c., to no other could it legally be applied.
He doubted very much the wisdom of a license fee, it was expensive to collect, unequal in its bearing, and a perfect collection all but impracticable.
The Sydney Government had in hurry and consternation originated the system, and this Government had blindly followed it, without any substantial reason.
He was certain that not one-fourth of the diggers had paid license, or ever would, but the increased demand of £3 all were determined to oppose, not so much for the amount of the money, as the principle involved. If the Government obtained this increase, there would be no end to their demands, and they may depend on many increases.
He looked upon these measures as evidences of incapacity in the Government, and unless they did something towards governing themselves, they would inevitably fall into difficulties. They were in the condition of a large mercantile firm requiring good management, and they would find themselves compelled to a system of self-protection, and he should recommend an Association, having a joint-stock Bank, to issue notes, melt the gold into bars, assay and stamp it, and export to the best market the surplus not required as deposit, to secure the stability of the Bank.
They may conduct all their business themselves; but if they did not, preposterous as it may appear, they would find while gold was worth £3 17s 10½d in London, it would fall to £2 10s, or perhaps to £2 in Melbourne.
All sorts of schemes would be devised to operate on the diggers, and reduce their profits, while, if they united and acted wisely, they could not only protect themselves, but add largely to the commercial prosperity of the Colony.
He would now move – That Delegates be named from this meeting, to confer with the Government, and arrange an equitable system of working the Gold Fields. Seconded by Mr. Potts,and carried.
Moved, that Captain Harrison, Dr. Richmond, and Mr. Plaistowe be appointed Delegates from this meeting, to make arrangements with the Government in the spirit of the foregoing resolutions. Carried
Mr Booley succeeded the former speaker.
Fellow-diggers—If anything ought to cheer the heart of a man, and place him in society, it ought to make him glad. There are few people who properly understand what a Government is, or what it ought to be. It should be the chosen servants of a free people, and to be just they ought to be a right-minded people. To be respected by fellow man, is a right-minded man’s pride.
What ought to be the standard of man? Justice. Why do we cry out against Government? Because they do not do justice. Government ought to act with rectitude towards themselves. We ought not too readily to speak against Government. We do not wish to destroy the distance of a Government. We wish to look upon it as a beautiful picture, which that Government ought to represent.
I dare say you have seen a picture resembling a being with scales in one hand, and a sword in the other; the scales represent justice, and the sword represents the power of maintaining it. Such should be Government. A criminal, when brought to justice, hangs down his head and trembles but the innocent man stands erect, he asks no favor, and as equal man in estate, we ask but for justice! (Cheers.)
In America, the land sold, benefited the country. It caused immigration, repaired roads, and all and every part was fully and fairly accounted for. If Mr La Trobe has any foresight, he must see this tax ought to be appropriated to similar purposes and unfold the vast resources and manifest riches to the world. Why does he require it for the Queen, who will never receive a sixpence? Let him expend it to make the Colonies what they ought to be. Let him make it a Colony of virtuous and thriving people.
We have been told that the poor man is starving, that work is scarce, and they have nothing. Now the scale may be turned. The poor man may be elevated, the independency so much desired is within his grasp.
I could not but laugh, when, in Geelong, at hearing a friend of mine complaining, “Why, said a passer-by, do as I have done.” I went to the diggings – sank a hole – the next day I went down a poor man, and at night came out a gentleman. (Laughter)
Is it not as fair to give the poor man a chance as the squatter, when wool is up? Why should so much favour be shown them? What attention have they paid to the comforts of their men, – bad huts, bad food, and often bad treatment, while they were lolling in their mansions. Let the poor man get the value of his labour. If the rich would not give it, Providence, in his wisdom, has thought fit to do so. Let them make good use of it, and let them act on the great principles – morality – justice and truth.
They talk of the morality of Mr La Trobe in private life, but I unhesitatingly assert that Mr. La Trobe is an immoral man, in every sense of the word. Like the man who strained at the gnat and swallowed the camel, he lay the tax upon the people that were compelled to shear, sow, and reap, until he drove them to agitate. He finds his conduct deprecated, and that destruction must follow. He says we must let it pass; the people will endure it no longer, and thus he plays with their feelings.
Now, my friends, make up your minds; if you find a man who does pay £3 for his license, although he obtain 50 lbs. of gold per day, surround his hole, and prevent him working. (Long and continued cheering, accompanied with—we will, we will).
The Speaker then alluded to several instances, where men when combined, could do more with each other than the Government.
You, my friends, will not want to fight at all; make up your minds you will not pay; you may if united, defy all power. I wish distinctly and earnestly to beg of you not to let anything divide you; carry out your purposes; there is no danger, when a Government is corrupt in nature as this is. (Hear)
I trust you never, never will be slaves. Form associations, banks; let money out at interest. Should you, as a poor man, want money, pay interest. Out of this may grow importance, rich in mind, rich in morals—free and independent as we would be. (Cheers.)
Mr E Hudson came forward and told his numerous hearers, that when they had settled down he would say a few words.
Previous to my coming here this afternoon, I candidly confess I did not do you justice. I expected to find, as on most such occasions, numerous interruptions, with all the &c., but I must say, the greatest credit is due to all assembled, for the quiet orderly manner in which this meeting is conducted. You have effectually shut the mouths of your opponents, both blue and red.
Now I happen to be a short man, and not favorable to long speeches, and you can do a great deal in a short time, not by physical force, for I am not built for fighting or rigged for running, but by a firm determination to stand together, and support each other against the £3 imposition. Will you pay £3? (No, no, from all quarters.)
We will deal in suppositions, though they make but a poor meal for hungry men. Suppose Government send power. Will you stand firm? (We will.) Well, then, if the noonies do come, put them in your cradles and rock them to sleep—but mind, keep your powder dry.
When I came over from Adelaide, I had various opportunities of seeing what scarcity there was for labour – men could be obtained if fair wages were offered; this the settlers would not do, and the men came to the mines. Government wish to drive them back by a heavy tax, and compel them to accept the settlers terms; but I say, let the lazy, would-be-gentlemen, turn out themselves, or pay the price that gold will fetch.
Gold had no attraction, to leave picks, spades, and cradles, to come here to assert your rights. Be steady to your purpose, but as I said before, keep your powder dry.
The Speaker finished with once more entreating them to stand firm to their purpose, and if providence favoured them, to make good use of it on their return home.
The fourth resolution was then read.
That to meet the expenses of the Delegates and other incidents, a subscription of 1shilling per month from each cradle be entered into. Carried.
Captain Harrison then came forward to draw their attention to the necessity of enrolling themselves into an Association, each member to pay 6s entrance, for the purpose of meeting any demands at a future period; if not wanted, to be equally divided between Melbourne and Geelong, and devoted to charitable institutions.
The fifth resolution was then read, and carried – which was as follows:-
That the miners at each diggings appoint Committees to watch over their interests, and that a Central Committee be formed by a Delegate from the Committee of each Digging, such Delegates to be paid for their services, and report proceedings to a General Meeting of the miners, to be held the first Monday in every month.
As a Committee will meet at each of the diggings, and the various Committees meet together at places as may be agreed on, it is necessary now to select twelve parties; let them be divided so as to receive subscriptions and enroll their names.
Twelve gentlemen were then named by the meeting; and at the suggestion of Captain Harrison, Mr. Howard (Argus journalist who recorded the Meeting) was appointed treasurer.
Three cheers were then given for the Argus, which was heartily responded to, when Mr. Howard, as the agent for that paper, returned thanks in a few words. He sincerely thanked them in the name of his employers. He knew that it was ever the wish of the proprietors of the Argus to watch over the interests of the working classes. He had been sent there for that purpose, and until he might be recalled, should endeavour to the best of his ability, fearlessly and frankly to make his reports.
One cheer more for the Argus—three groans for the Herald, a vote of thanks to the Chairman, a tune from Hore’s band, and the immense crowds gradually dispersed to their respective tents.
At seven o’clock that evening no person could have surmised that anything of importance had taken place during the day. During Captain Harrison’s address, there could not have been less than 14,000 persons on the ground, not a cradle was to be seen working. The men appear to have risen en masse, at the sound of the band, and retired in the same order.
THE STORY ACCORDING TO THE 1851 NEWSPAPERS
Argus 8 September 1851.
The following item appeared, without fanfare, in the Domestic Intelligence column:
In the early 1850s newspapers were the new Colony’s only source of news and the gold rushes were the major news stories. All the major newspapers had journalists reporting directly from the goldfields. Their reports and the published letters of those who lived and worked there provided information on all aspects of life on the fields, including what could be bought in the stores, where gold was found and what price it sold for. The newspapers differed in their attitude to the diggers – some supportive and others more critical. A selection of the newspaper reports and letters are included here.
Letter in The Argus, 8 September 1851
“NEW GOLD FIELD. – We have received the following letter announcing the discovery of a new gold field at Western Port:
Dear Sir, – I wish you to publish these few lines in your valuable paper, that the public may know that there is gold found in these ranges, about four miles from Doctor Barker’s home station, and about a mile from the Melbourne road; at the southernmost point of Mount Alexander, where three men and myself are working. I do this to prevent parties from getting us into trouble, as we have been threatened to have the constable fetched for being on the ground. If you will have the kindness to insert this in your paper, that we are prepared to pay anything that is just when the Commissioner in the name of the party comes.
John Worbey [sic] Mt Alexander Ranges Sept 1st, 1851”
The writer was actually John Worley who, along with Christopher Peters and two others, was credited with the discovery of gold at Mt Alexander, by the Rewards Board in 1864. They had first found gold at Specimen Gully, Barker’s Creek, to the north of present-day Castlemaine. (David Bannear, Historic Mining Sites Part 1 1993)
The Mount Alexander Gold Rush commenced in October 1851 when gold was first discovered at Golden Point near one of Major Mitchell’s 1838 exploration camp sites. (“here from 8 to 12 inches of black soil overlaid deposits of gold, yielding from 12 to 20oz. to the tub of wash dirt. As the workings extended southwards down Forest Creek, similar yields were common, and many extraordinary finds were made of 200 to 2,000oz., aggregated in small hollows, or “pockets”, in the bed-rock). The first Gold Commissioners camp (Mr Powlett’s) was soon established and by November, the gold diggings had spread some 4 miles downstream, “tents are being pitched for four miles lower down than the Commissioners”). Soon the Commissioner shifted and a new camp was set up at Red Hill and in the vicinity of which canvas stores, post office and Argus office, and thousands of diggers’ tents, swiftly formed the goldfield’s first ‘village’. Known generally as ‘Forest Creek’, the settlement was given the name Chewton in 1856.
Melbourne Morning Herald 20 Oct 1851 reported:
“MOUNT ALEXANDER: His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor returned from these diggings yesterday morning. The reports from the mines are very favourable, several large yields rewarding the miners for their toil. One man obtained eleven pounds-weight of gold in forty-eight hours. We learn that His Excellency has expressed himself much gratified with his trip and is astounded at the success of many of the miners; it is His Excellency’s opinion that the Gold Fields here are much more extensive than at Ballarat.” Melbourne Morning Herald (20th October 1851) cited in Goldfields Reminiscences, Stan Tingay 1995.
Argus 5 & 8 Nov 1851. Correspondent on the spot reported:
“Though gold is found more or less along the creek the richest deposit appears to be at one point, and at this spot there are 122 tents pitched, containing as near as I could judge, 610 persons, independently of about 400 in the neighbourhood… There have been at least 300 persons arrived here since nine o’clock this morning, and hundreds more are coming across the country from Ballarat.” The Argus (5th November 1851).
Three days later, he wrote: “Since Saturday morning, the scene has greatly changed – then a tent would be seen here and there, but now they are becoming inconviently crowded… On Saturday, dozens were arriving at a time; on Sunday, hundreds; Monday and Tuesday, one continuous line of new arrivals. Your Melbourne departures are but trifling compared to the arrivals from Ballarat and the surrounding country… Gold continues to be found in abundance – two, three, and four pounds per day seem common among the luckies; but water is becoming more scarce. The Argus (8th November 1851).
He also set the record straight about the actual location of the goldfield:
“The diggings are not on Mount Alexander, as is generally supposed, but in a gully known as Forest Creek, and situated about seven miles from the Mount, and twenty from the Loddon, which receives the waters of this Creek … the more experienced are quietly retreating to the Loddon, where report states that gold has been found in abundance.” The Argus (8th November 1851).
The population of the Forest Creek area had reached 15,000 at the end of November 1851, and the Argus 27th November 1851 reported: “The escort brought into Melbourne from Forest Creek on November 26, 1851, 16,226 oz., about 6,000oz. having to be left behind as the conveyances provided for the transport of gold were unsuitable and the roads were in a very bad condition.”
Within months the rush was causing concern:
Melbourne Morning Herald 25 November 1851
“MOUNT ALEXANDER: The RUSH to the goldfields is now so great that serious fears begin to be entertained regarding the wheat crops, and it becomes a matter for the prompt attention of the Government as to what is to be done to save the country. Whether to raise the the gold licence today to 10 pounds a month for the next three months, or to prohibit digging for that time appears only feasible. The RUSH to these mines is FEARFUL, and no wonder.” Melbourne Morning Herald (25th November, 1851) cited in Goldfields Reminiscences, Stan Tingay 1995.
Argus 12 December 1851
Serious trouble was feared, and The Argus reported that a force of 130 soldiers was sent from Melbourne, and encamped at Castlemaine. On the morning of the 8th of December a notice appeared through the Forest Creek area.
Fellow Diggers! The intelligence has just arrived of the resolution of the Government to Double the License Fee. Will you tamely submit to the imposition or assert your rights as men? You are called upon to pay a tax originated and concocted by the most heartless selfishness, a tax imposed by Legislators for the purpose of detaining you in their workshops, in their stable yards, and by their flocks and herds. They have conferred to effect this; They would increase this seven-fold but they are afraid! Fie upon such pusillanimity! And shame upon •the men, who, to save a few paltry pounds for their own pockets, would tax the poor man’s hands! It will be in vain for one or two individuals to tell the Commissioner, or his emissaries, that they have been unsuccessful and that they cannot pay the licence fee. But remember that union is strength, that though a single twig may be bent or broken, a bundle of them tied together neither bends nor breaks. Ye are Britons! will you submit to oppression or injustice? Meet – Agitate – Be unanimous – and if there is justice in the land, they will, they must abolish the imposition. Yours Faithfully, A Digger. (The Gold Seekers, Norman Bartlett)
After the distribution of that notice, each of the diggings held small local meetings to plan the next step. A delegation of diggers approached Commissioner Powlett, asking him to sponsor a mass meeting so that diggers could express their views directly to him. He refused, saying he had urgent business in Melbourne. The diggers then called their own mass meeting for December 15th.
On the 12th of December the following notice was published in the Argus.
“NOTICE TO DIGGERS AT MOUNT ALEXANDER AND ITS NEIGHBOURHOOD A PUBLIC MEETING will be held on Monday next, the 15th instant, at four o’clock, on the ground near the Commissioner’s tent, for the purpose of taking into consideration the Proclamation of His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor of the 1st instant, relative to increasing the License Fee from 30s per month to 3 pounds, and for other purposes connected with the diggings. December 12th.”
Argus 13 December 1851
A letter in the Argus on the 13th of December from a correspondent “Bendigo” stated: “That we, the gold miners assembled on Bendigo Creek, having learned that the Lieutenant Governor and Executive Council of Victoria, by proclamation, have intimated their intention of doubling our license fee from mid after (sic) the 1st of January next; and considering that it is unjust and extremely oppressive, are, to a man, determined not to submit to the wholesale robbery which is contemplated by such proclamation, and to the uttermost will withstand its imposition. We, therefore, solemnly pledge ourselves to resist it in every shape and form, and will aid by all the means in our power those who will do the same elsewhere. We wish to be understood as not objecting to the present heavy tax of thirty shillings per month, although we consider it too much. As in proof of which, there is a large surplus fund arising therefrom, amount to £3,000.”
Argus 15 December 1851 letter
“Fellow diggers in bush and town! – Remember, 15th of December 1851, to rally round the standard of Australian Reform, and record your opinions against the tyrannical oppressors who wish to levy an enormous Tax upon the bone and sinew of the country – the capital of the poor man! What has developed the vast, rich resources of this Colony! Labour; which has placed the poor man, who after years of suffering toil to earn a crust for his starving family, is now, in a great measure, to be deprived of the chance of digging for gold (for it is a chance with the many), because the rich man conceives that your energetic spirit to raise yourselves and your families to a position above want, is to be crushed by the intended advance upon the license fee, which has no precedent in the annals of history. Why not tax the amount of gold produced from the soil?
Men, in equity, every man would pay in proportion to what he has received. On the other hand, has thirty shillings per month defrayed the expenses of the Commissioner, escort & company? If it has done so, then the increase of thirty shillings extra, is an imposition in practice, and unjust in principle. Why does not the Government make out a debitor and creditor account, and let the diggers know how the money they have paid has been expended, and where the surplus, which must be a large one, has gone to, or what is intended to he done with it? I remain, R.B.C”.
The same edition of the Argus editorialized:
“THE LICENSE FEE: We believe that we are warranted in stating, that the Government has seen the necessity of deciding that the exaction of the doubled license-fee shall not be enforced. Very ‘firm’ and very ‘judicious’ certainly, the whole proceeding! The adoption of a charge upon the gold, in the shape of a Royalty, is still under consideration; and the License system having proved a complete failure, we think that some better course should be decided upon.”
The scene was thus set for the 15th of December. As researcher Barbara James noted “we are dependent on the two contemporary Melbourne papers (the Herald and the Argus) for first-hand accounts of the meeting.” (Barbara James Collection held by the Chewton Domain Society).
Argus 17 December 1851 reported
“MOUNT ALEXANDER: MEETING OF DIGGERS. Our reporter left the diggings yesterday morning, and arrived with his report too late in the evening for insertion. From a hurried glance we find that it was attended by about 14,000 men, many of whom had travelled twenty miles to be present. Not a cradle was seen at work after 3 o’clock, until the meeting was over.
J.F. Mann, Esq. in the Chair. Capt. Harrison, Messrs Potts, Lineham, Hudson, Booley and Richmond addressed the crowd, which is reported to be one of the most orderly in the colonies.
Five resolutions were passed, a committee formed – and delegates appointed. We intend giving the report in full tomorrow.”
Argus 18 December & Herald 20 December
By mid-December the population of the Forest Creek goldfield was approaching 30,000. The cheap labour, on which the squatters and others relied to produce their individual wealth, had suddenly become self-employed persons seeking to strike it rich. The Government in Melbourne was thrown into panic. The Governor and his advisors in the Legislative Council were representatives of the wealthy employing class, and pressure was brought upon them to halt the flow of labour on the gold fields. Thus it was decided to put the cost of gold-digging out of reach of most working people, by doubling the License Fee to dig – from 30 shillings to 3 pounds per month (the equivalent of six spades or five axes). The Government stated that the increase in the License was needed to finance Law and Order on the gold fields. (Bruce Murray, 1995 Commemoration Booklet).
Summary of 1851 reports: Bruce Murray in 1995 Commemoration Booklet
The Argus & Herald reports of the meeting, each prepared by their “own Correspondent”, were summarized in the 1995 commemoration booklet as:
“The 15th of December was hot and dry, but the chosen meeting place near the Shepherd’s Hut at Chewton, was hung with bright banners and bunting was strung between tall stringy barks. By 3 o’clock, the cradles lay idle, and bands of diggers, many carrying shovels, made their way in from various corners of the diggings. Some were accompanied by musicians, including a brass band, giving the occasion a festive air. Cheers and greetings echoed about to welcome each arriving party. A roaring welcome was given to Captain John Harrison, who led in a delegation from Bendigo.
By 4 o’clock, a cooling breeze gave relief to the crowd. After waiting some time for A. Digger to present himself, at the dray which served as speakers’ platform, J.F. Mann, Esq. was appointed Chairperson. He called upon Mr. Lawrence Potts to speak. (From his turn of phrase, it is clear that the mysterious A. Digger was very well known to “Pottsie”.) Messrs Lineham, Booley, Richmond, Hudson and Capt.Harrison then spoke in turn. Five resolutions declaring opposition to the License Fee and setting out future actions were put and adopted, interspersed with good-natured heckling from the crowd.
1. That this meeting deprecates as unjust, illegal, and impolitic, the attempt to increase the License Fee from 30 Shillings to Three Pounds. Moved Potts. Seconded O’Connor.
2. That this meeting while deprecating the use of physical force, and pledging itself not to resort to it except in case of self-defence; at the same time pledges itself to relieve or release any or all diggers that on account of non-payment of the Three Pound License Fee may be fined or confined by Government orders or Government agents, should Government temerity proceed to such illegal lengths. Moved Lineham. Seconded Doyle.
3. That Delegates be named from this meeting, to confer with the Government, and arrange an equitable system of working the Gold Fields. Moved Dr. Richmond. Seconded Potts.
4. Moved that Captain Harrison, Dr. Richmond and Mr Plaistowe be appointed Delegates from this meeting, to make arrangements with the Government in the spirit of the foregoing resolutions. Carried. That to meet the expenses of the Delegates and other incidents, a Subscription of 1 shilling per month from each cradle be entered into. Carried.
5. That the miners at each diggings appoint Committees to watch over their interests, and that a Central Committee be formed by a Delegate from the Committee of each Digging, such Delegates to be paid for their services, and report proceedings to a General Meeting of the miners, to be held the first Monday in every month. Carried. Speakers and hecklers joked about the “Joes and Noonies” (police and troopers), saying that some were so young they had to be dragged from their mother’s breast and should be rocked in the (gold) cradles. Special invective was saved for George Cavenagh of the Herald newspaper. The Herald had printed articles describing the diggers in such terms as “vagabonds, cut-throats and scoundrels”, but speakers made a point of mentioning how safe and trustworthy was society on the gold fields.
To round off the meeting, the assembly gave three hearty cheers for the Argus newspaper; “who watch over the interests of the working classes”, and three groans for the Herald. After the speeches, the musicians played, and gradually the diggers dispersed to their respective tents.
According to the Argus report: “At 7 o’clock that evening no person could have surmised that anything of importance had taken place that day. During Capt. Harrison’s address, there could not have been less than 14,000 persons on the ground, not a cradle was seen to he working. The men appear to have risen en masse, at the sound of the band, and retired in the same order.”
The Governor had to back down by rescinding the order to double the License Fee, or risk greater insurrection. This decision was declared in an order dated December 13th 1851; that is, prior to the Monster Meeting. However, it was not reported by the Argus until December 16th and then said to be “under discussion”, while the Government Gazette did not confirm the decision until December 24th. Whether the rescission order was deliberately pre-dated, so that the Governor did not appear to buckling under Digger pressure, is open to conjecture. (1995 Commemoration Booklet)
Rescission Notice, Colonial Secretary’s Office, Melbourne. Dec. 13. 1851
Measures being now under the consideration of Government, which have for their object the substitution as soon as circumstances permit of other Regulations in lieu of those now in force, based upon the principle of a royalty leviable upon the amount actually raised, under which Gold may be lawfully removed from its natural place of deposit. His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, with the advice of the Executive Council, hereby causes it to be notified, that no alteration will for the present be made in the amount of the License Fee as levied under the Government Notice of the 18th August 1851; and that the Government Notice of the 1st inst., is hereby rescinded. By His Excellency’s Command, W. Lonsdale.
In 2014 the Chewton Domain Society published The Monster Meeting Book , written by Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky, with financial assistance from the Ballarat Reform League, the Australian government ‘Your Community Heritage Program’, Parks Victoria, Mt Alexander Shire and local businesses and community organisations.
Jan explains how the book came into being:
The principal matters I was trying to comprehend were about what was going on in Melbourne: how was La Trobe reacting to the goldrush; why was he making so many poor decisions; What power did the squattocracy have over government decisions; what were the middle class interests in favour of the diggers; and what was the wider Australian context of Chartism and the movement for democracy across the world. But very soon the main question became: What is the legacy of the Monster Meeting? What role did it play in the train of events that lead to Eureka and in the development of our Australian democracy? In this book, some of these questions are partly answered and some are left hanging. … There is still much more research and work to do to write this into a definitive history of the events leading up to the Monster Meeting and its aftermath, but this will now have to wait till another day.
However, notwithstanding this limitation, this book gives a reasonably clear narrative of events between 1 July 1851 and early 1852, and a sketch of the period through to the Eureka tragedy on 3 December 1854. I hope that this will help the reader come to understand that Eureka began on the Forest Creek diggings with the Monster Meeting of 1851.
Charles Joseph La Trobe was appointed Superintendant of the Port Phillip district of NSW in 1839 and subsequently became the first Lieutenant Governor of the new colony of Victoria in 1851 until his departure in 1854. For details of his life go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/la-trobe-charles-joseph-2334)
Overall there is general agreement (albeit with varying levels of criticism) about La Trobe among those who study the early years of Victoria. That he governed at a difficult time with little support is generally accepted and that he made positive contributions to the cultural life of the new colony. His generally acknowledged failures and the inadequacies of his administration, particularly in managing the gold rush, are variously ascribed to the difficult and chaotic times, the opposition of squatters and members of the Legislative Council, the hostility of the media, his personal characteristics and his distrust of democracy and lack of administrative skills. Indicative is the faint praise given in his citation for the Order of the Bath in 1858, reading:
With regard to his administration of the Government of Victoria, if it was not marked by any very brilliant results, he carried the colony through unprecedented difficulties with safety and laid the way for future success.
Charles La Trobe (1801 – 1875) was born in London into a family of the evangelical Moravian (Christian) faith. He was a cultured gentleman of his time: linguist, author and traveller in Europe and North America who, in keeping with his cosmopolitan outlook, married a Swiss national, Sophie de Montmollin, also from a wealthy Moravian family. La Trobe lacked the usual background for a colonial governor. He had no army or naval training and little administrative experience – he was a cultured gentleman rather than an intellectual or executive. From the time of his appointment in 1839, he was an active supporter of the religious, cultural and educational institutions of early Melbourne including the Botanic Gardens, Mechanics’ Institute, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Benevolent Asylum, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and University of Melbourne.
Historian Marjorie Theobald questions whether this background rendered him more or less fit for his 1839 appointment as Superintendent of the Port Phillip district. She notes that as Superintendant he was happy to play second fiddle to the Governors in New South Wales but his tendency to sit on the fence made him enemies. The squatters accused him of failing to procure their security of tenure in a timely manner, he did not press for the separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales; he equivocated on the matter of the transportation of convicts; and the Melbourne Town Council accused him of a number of vague and trivial sins and the splenetic editor of the Argus, William Kerr, set out to destroy him.
Then in 1851, soon after the Port Phillip district was granted independence as the colony of Victoria, events overtook the new Governor. The gold rushes hit the new colony with the force of a tsunami and overturned his plans for the ‘planned gradual development of the colony along sound religious and moral traditions’. The unstable conditions that were created by the gold rush lasted for the rest of his time as Governor. Historian Dianne Reilly, La Trobe’s biographer, notes that ‘for a man like La Trobe, with his profound mistrust of social disorder and democracy such social instability was intractable and baffling’.
La Trobe’s first response to the gold rushes was statesmanlike. He predicted that Victoria would benefit greatly from its new-found wealth, and he warned his superiors in Westminster that no measures could prevent men from pursuing this most democratic form of mining. But personally he had grave misgivings about what impact the discovery of gold would have on colonial society and in his private correspondence in June 1852 he lamented, “I would to God that not a grain had ever been found”. As historian Marjorie Theobald comments: “In his thirty-three tumultuous months in charge of the goldfields, La Trobe could never make up his mind whether he was presiding over a disaster of Californian proportions or the birth of a new and glorious era which would elevate the colony to pre-eminence in the British Empire”.
Reilly notes, ‘he was made nervous by the turmoil generated by the discovery’ and he was left with ‘a sense of the gold rushes as dangerous events with unpredictable outcomes’. With the exodus of civil servants to the goldfields he was left with few advisors and little support, a situation that ‘brought out two opposing traits in La Trobe’s character: timidity and authoritarianism. He was afraid of making decisions which might be wrong in the eyes of Governor FitzRoy in Sydney and the Colonial Office in London, and he believed in the authority with which he had been invested. The result was that, with no support, he lost confidence in ever being able to resolve the situation and gave up as the decision-maker’.
Reilly further notes that La Trobe had never found administration of the colony to be easy due to his personal characteristics but his management of the goldfields was the weakest part of his administration. He had little choice but to put in place some form of governance of the gold fields and some form of taxation for extracting gold from Her Majesty’s Crown lands. However, his choice of the monthly licence fee and the military-style Commissioner’s camps alienated men who saw themselves as British citizens with inalienable rights. When the miners organised to protest against the licence fee and the bully boy tactics employed to collect it, beginning at the Forest Creek Monster Meeting in December 1851, La Trobe panicked. He wrote to Westminster in terms which implied that sedition and republicanism were a real danger to Her Majesty’s Empire in the southern seas.
When the Bendigo miners, fresh from the Red Ribbon Rebellion, met with La Trobe in August 1853 to present their Bendigo Petition, he similarly responded defensively, refusing their principal request for reduction of licence fees and asserting himself as the authority figure. While he could see that the miners had real problems with the licensing system, he was fearful of anarchy on the goldfields and he still needed an alternative way to raise the necessary revenue to keep the colony functioning. The meeting was not a success. Reilly comments that ‘had La Trobe been able to act differently perhaps the tragedy of Eureka would have been averted. … He could not put himself in the miners’ shoes’. He could not feel for them in their struggle for basic acknowledgement and rights.’
La Trobe had little sympathy with the new society which was emerging in the Australian colonies. By 1853 his ailing wife and children had returned home to Switzerland and he concluded that his period of effectiveness as Governor of the Colony had come to an end. He tendered his resignation but his departure was delayed until early 1854 after he was replaced by Charles Hotham.
NB. The information and some of the wording of this note on Charles La Trobe are taken from the work of historians Dianne Reilly and Marjorie Theobald with thanks for their insight and scholarship.
One source of the term ‘Monster Meeting’ comes from Ireland in the 1840s – the decade before the Diggers’ Monster Meeting in 1851 – when Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell led a movement to repeal the 1800 Act of Union, a British law abolishing the Irish Parliament and making Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.
The campaign began during the general election campaign of 1841, which brought to power O’Connell’s bitter adversary, the British Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. The peasantry of Ireland contributed their pennies and farthings to a fighting fund, known as the ‘Repeal Rent’, and Daniel O’Connell addressed a series of ‘Monster Meetings’ across the country, some attended by gatherings of 300,000 people.
The greatest Irish monster meeting was on the Hill of Tara on 15 August 1843, attended by at least 750,000 people. To use an adjective that’s much degraded these days, the spectacle must have been awesome. For three days in advance, from a wide radius by carriage, horse and on foot, people thronged to the famed hill. The fields for miles around were filled with vehicles. Bands, ceremonial floats and thousands of banners added colour as the occasion became as much a festival as a political rally. Priests and laymen made sure that there was no disorder, no shillelaghs and no strong drink. Altars were erected on the various mounds around the hill and masses were celebrated on the morning of the rally. Two bishops and 35 priests were present as, soon after midday, O’Connell’s carriage slowly made its way up to the top of the hill.
As he spoke, O’Connell’s words were relayed down the hill by officials assigned to that task. The vast audience shouted, laughed, groaned and exulted at appropriate moments during O’Connell’s stentorian oratory – including those who were too far away to hear what was being said. In all there were over 40 Monster Meetings across Ireland in 1843, held at important historic and Celtic sites. Daniel O’Connell traveled up to 5,000 miles by coach to address 31 of these meetings himself.
In comparison the Forest Creek Monster Meeting was attended by an estimated 15,000 people. Barring a monumental gathering of Aboriginal Australians that we don’t know about, it was to that time the biggest gathering of people on the Australian continent. We’ve often wondered how the 15,000 there actually knew what the speakers said. The explanation from Tara of people relaying the speech to the back of the crowd is the most likely. However some may never have heard a word and, as Robyn Annear points out in her interview on this website, many wouldn’t have finally comprehended what was said till several days after the meeting when they read the Argus newspaper.
The Forest Creek gold rush was a ‘domestic’ gold rush, attended by people already living in Australia. The Forest Creek Monster Meeting was not attended by a coterie of Irish republicans with experience of the struggles in Ireland. They came later and were prominent at Eureka in Ballarat in 1854. Also, the men who spoke at the Forest Creek Monster Meeting identified themselves as proud ‘Britons’. But the population in Australia would certainly have read of the Monster Meetings and who could not be inspired by the gathering at Tara.
LISTEN TO THE STORY
These six interviews about the Monster Meeting and the related history of the 1850s Victorian gold rush, conducted by Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky, are interesting, informative, insightful, and full of wonderful storytelling, sharp historical insight, differing perspectives and new information about the political movement for democracy that was a hallmark of the 1850’s Victorian gold rushes.
The interviews are easy to follow, provide a fast track into understanding this significant event in Australian history and reveal events that former accounts of the gold rush have overlooked. The principal thesis behind them is that the Diggers’ Monster Meeting on 15 December 1851 at Forest Creek united the individual gold seekers into a political force that became the Diggers and subsequent events at the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat in 1854 had their beginnings at the Monster Meeting in 1851. The 1851 Monster Meeting was a first step on the path to democracy in Australia.
The order of interviews is structured to progress from an introduction and overview of the Monster Meeting and the gold rush through to in-depth political and social analysis and discussion of the machinations of the Victorian Legislative Council and Governor Charles La Trobe, global issues of democracy, then and now, the relationship of the Monster Meeting to the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat in 1854 and the legacy for us today, including issues such as the gold rush landscape and how Indigenous people fared in the gold rush.
You can also listen to parts of these interviews on disk 2 of the MONSTER MEETING CD where the story is told by them and others in words and music.
1. ROBYN ANNEAR: (69 minutes)
Robyn Annear is a writer and historian and gifted storyteller who paints a vivid and humorous picture of the goldfields, the characters, the political issues, the meeting itself and the meaning of it all. Robyn’s books include Bearbrass; Imagining early Melbourne (Mandarin 1995), Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852 (Text 1999) and A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne (Black Inc. 2005). Robyn also hosts a podcast, Nothing on TV, telling stories from old Australian newspapers. For more wit and information go to robynannear.com.
2. DOUG RALPH (35 minutes)
Castlemaine born and bred, Doug Ralph was a Castlemaine living treasure, well-known environmentalist, activist, and local historian who sadly died in February 2015. His knowledge of the local landscape was unparalleled, and his Sunday morning bush walks were a delight for many. In this interview Doug tells how the Monster Meeting was revived in 1995, contextualises the gold rush within a longer history of the land and Indigenous people, and talks about the legacy of the Diggers’ Monster Meeting. Doug was the instigator of the present day commemorations of the Monster Meeting.
3. GEOFF HOCKING (17 minutes)
Geoff Hocking is a Castlemaine based author, publisher, historian and artist. In the spirit of the Monster Meeting, Geoff provides a dissenting interpretation of the current Monster Meeting flag and talks of the history of Chartist monster meetings in Great Britain, and of the values we inherit from the Diggers’ 1851 Monster Meeting. His books relating to gold rush history include Early Castlemaine: A Glance at the Stirring Fifties (New Chum Press, 1998), The Red Ribbon Rebellion! Decade of Dissent , (New Chum Press 2001), Castlemaine: From Camp to City (New Chum Press, 2007), Gold. Off to The Diggings (New Chum Press, 2010), Under the Southern Cross (Five Mile Press, 2012) and The Rebel Chorus (New Chum Press, 2019).
4. PROF. MARJORIE THEOBOLD (54 minutes)
Marjorie Theobald (née Madigan) takes us deeper into the political machinations in early Victoria, the Monster Meeting and the gold license, with a keen and incisive eye for the character of Governor La Trobe, the squattocracy, the diggers, and the consequences of the Monster Meeting. Marjorie is descended from several families who came to the gold rushes and stayed to make a home. She inherited a love of goldfields history from her father who was still sluicing for gold in the 1930s and 40s and has written a history of her family and a history of Castlemaine’s first decade.
Marjorie left Castlemaine in 1959 for the University of Melbourne, graduated in Arts and Diploma of Education, became a secondary school teacher, completed her Ph.D. at Monash University, and then returned to University of Melbourne as a historian in 1988 and published extensively in the history of education. In 2002 Marjorie and her husband John returned to Castlemaine where she shifted her focus to the history of the goldfields and the town. Her latest book, The Accidental Town. Castlemaine 1851 -1861 (Australian Scholarly Publishing 2020) recreates the early years of the gold rush when Castlemaine was transitioning from a mining camp to a settled town.
5. PROF. WESTON BATE OAM (55 minutes)
With this great historian we go further into the social politics of the gold rush and the Monster Meeting, viewing the events and times as one of social revolution in concert with the 1840s revolutions in Europe, containing elements of republicanism and small-l liberalism, powered by the union of capital and labour and the liberation provided to the ordinary worker by the “democratic mineral” – gold.
Weston Bate, who died in October 2017, was a social historian and author of many books, including Lucky City: the first generation at Ballarat, 1851–1901 (Melbourne University Press, 2003), Victorian Gold Rushes (Sovereign Hill Museums Association, 1999), Having a Go: Bill Boyd’s Mallee (Museum of Victoria, 1989, with Bill Boyd) and Essential but Unplanned: the story of Melbourne’s Lanes (State Library of Victoria, 1994). Weston was Head of Australian History at Melbourne University and Professor of Australian Studies at Deakin University, served in the Australian Air Force during World War Two, and began his working life as a primary school teacher.
6. DAVID BANNEAR (28 minutes)
David provides a philosophical and emotional overview of the land of the gold rush: how the 1851 Meeting shaped the gold seekers into becoming the Diggers, which led to Eureka, and spawned the skilled communities that continue to thrive in the gold fields country – towns that are welcoming places to outsiders, where the story is still there in the country for everyone to become part of and to inherit.
David’s speciality is Victorian mining heritage – chiefly gold mining, but also copper mining in the South Australian context – as well as historic forestry and infrastructure.
He recently retired from working for Heritage Victoria as an archaeologist. He worked and liaised with a wide range of land owners/managers, including local and State government authorities, dealing with issues of historic heritage.
Written & co-produced by Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky
Filmed, edited & co-produced by Davide Michielin
Lighting & sound: Denise Martin
Executive producer for Chewton Domain Society: John Ellis
Funded by Ballarat Reform League with assistance from the Vera Moore Foundation & the Australian Government’s Your Community Heritage Program (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities).
In Disk 2 of the Monster Meeting CD Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky and others tell the story of the 1851 gold rush and its legacy in words and music.
Part One: The Monster Meeting Today. The modern Monster Meeting celebrations begin in 1995 with protests against the Kennett Victorian Government’s amalgamation of local councils, and the replacement of locally elected councillors with Government appointed Commissioners. It was Government Commissioners after all, who administered the conflicted gold fields.
Part Two: The 1851 Gold Rush. The rolling hills of Djadjawurrung country become a squatter’s paradise – Australia Felix. In turn the 1851 Mt Alexander/Forest Creek gold rush turns the squatters’ world upside down. To deter lowly paid workers leaving their jobs, Governor La Trobe institutes a gold licence of thirty shillings a month. The gold licence fails, and 25,000 diggers are camped on Forest Creek. La Trobe moves to double the fee.
Part Three: The Monster Meeting 1851.The Mt Alexander/Forest Creek diggers read in the Argus of La Trobe’s plan to double the fee and two meetings are called. At the second, the Monster Meeting of 15 December 1851, the speakers call for justice and their rights. The diggers vow not to pay the doubled fee.
Part Four: Bendigo and Ballarat. Governor La Trobe backs down. The gold licence stays at thirty shillings. But La Trobe brings in as system of corrupt policing to administer the diggings. The conflict between the diggers and the government moves to a new rush at Bendigo, with the Red Ribbon Agitation of 1853, then explodes into bloodshed at the Eureka Stockade Ballarat on 3 December 1854.
Part Five: The Monster Meeting Legacy. Historians and locals look back: the Monster Meeting set a path to democracy in Australia, and as the first mass protest against an Australian government, the Monster Meeting remains an inspiration for us all to stand up for our rights.
ON THE INTERNET
This 2.40 minute video tells the story of the Monster Meeting against some great graphics. It can be viewed here.
The electronic encyclopedia, egold, tells the story of gold in Australia through images, stories and interactive multi-media. It connects individual stories to wider historical themes including building the Australian nation and democratic change during the gold rushes. It locates the Monster Meeting in the wider stories about democracy and protest and development of law and order. Read more at www.egold.net.au (go to 1851 Monster Meeting @ Democracy & Protest and Law and Order)
Eurekapedia Wiki includes information about events before, during and after the Eureka Stockade battle of 3 December 1854. It is hosted by the Ballarat Reform League and can be accessed at www.eurekapedia.org. It contains a short article about the 1851 Monster Meeting at Forest Creek.