DIGGERS’ 1851 MONSTER MEETING STORY
Most people know that the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat in December 1854 played a major part in the early development of Australian democracy – it’s an Australian legend. Not so many know that Eureka had its beginnings three years earlier at the Diggers’ 1851 Monster Meeting at Forest Creek on the Mount Alexander goldfields. There 15,000 diggers stood united and successfully defied Governor La Trobe’s attempt to double the already exorbitant cost of their gold licence. This 1851 Meeting ignited a protest movement that spread across the Victorian goldfields. The Eureka uprising was the final act in three years of organised protests demanding an end to licences and more democratic rights. It finally ended the old order on the goldfields.
The Gold Licence
In mid-August 1851, six weeks after the Colony of Victoria was announced, and following reports that gold had been found at Clunes and Buninyong, the Victorian Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe, issued new regulations. Persons searching for gold in Victoria required a gold licence costing thirty shillings per month and proof that they were not “a person improperly absent from hired service”.
The gold licence system had a two-fold purpose. First, it was to raise the money needed to fund the cost of goldfields administration and infrastructure. Second, it was to stop the rush, control the labour force and get people back to their jobs in workshops and farms in time for the shearing and harvest. But the money raised was not enough because many of the gold diggers were either not able or not willing to pay 30 shillings a month for a licence. Indeed evidence from various official sources, plus much anecdotal evidence, indicates that as many as 50 per cent evaded the licence fee at some time in their mining lives.
But more importantly, introduction of the gold licences did not stop the rush.
The Diggers Respond
Governor La Trobe had a deep mistrust of social disorder and democracy and he could see that his plans for the gradual development of the new colony along “sound religious and moral traditions” would be swept away by the social turmoil of the gold rush. The rush had to be stopped and the gold diggers forced back to the farms and the abandoned shops and workplaces of Melbourne and Geelong. But the diggers had other ideas. Although they came from all walks of life, most were ordinary working people and for them the gold rush was an opportunity to find riches and build a better life than they could get toiling in the workplaces of their masters, where they were bound by the Masters and Servants Act designed to control workers and repress trade unions. They could not vote and they had little in the way of civil rights but they were not deterred by La Trobe’s attempts to stop them joining the rush that was already threatening his plans for the new colony. Plans that did not include more civil rights and the vote for working people – he was no democrat.
The Diggers’ Monster Meeting
Then, in September 1851 the Melbourne Argus newspaper published a letter from miner John Worley describing where gold could be found at Mount Alexander. Within weeks thousands tramped up the Mount Alexander Rd (later to become the Calder Highway) to look for that gold. By December there were 25,000 panning and digging at Forest Creek, the richest shallow alluvial gold field ever found. Some were making fortunes, some were making wages (more than in the workplaces they left behind) but some found little gold and faced destitution. But whether they found gold or not La Trobe and his government expected them to pay 30 shillings a month for a gold licence or face fines and jail.
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
By December it was clear that the gold rush could not be stopped and La Trobe was faced with increasing government costs to administer the goldfields and a growing labour crisis as people abandoned their jobs and homes for the goldfields. In desperation he made a grave error of judgement. He announced that the already exorbitant cost of the monthly licence would be doubled to three pounds (sixty shillings) on the first of January. He believed wrongly that this would both stop the rush and raise more money for his cash strapped government. But it did neither.
There was an immediate response to La Trobe’s announcement. Across the goldfields groups of diggers gathered in their camps to express their opposition. The Argus, reporting on a campfire gathering of 50 miners at Buninyong, described them as “men strong in their sense of right, lifting up a protest against an impending wrong, and protesting against the Government.” It concluded: “It is a solemn protest of labour against oppression – an outburst of light, reason and right against the infliction of an effete, objectionable royal claim brought forward to crush a new branch of industry, whose birth was heralded by large rewards, and whose death will be laid at the door of the Government”.
And at Forest Creek copies of a Manifesto (printed on an illegal printing press) were posted along the creek. It conceded that gold was the property of the Crown and those who mined it should pay a fair percentage of what they gained but called for a more equitable tax than the gold licence system provided. But, as historian Marjorie Theobald notes, the Manifesto “spoke the language of class warfare that was anathema to the British ruling class”.
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
On Monday 8 December another notice appeared along the creek calling diggers to attend a preliminary meeting at 7.00pm that night, near the Post Office in the central part of the diggings, to consider the government proposal. John Howard, local Argus man on the spot, reported that some 3,000 attended. After the leaders of the meeting (and authors of the Manifesto) John Plaistowe, Edward Potts and Henry Lineham addressed the meeting, it was agreed that a committee be appointed to call on local Gold Commissioner Frederick Powlett and ask him to “call a general meeting of the diggers from all parts of Mt Alexander, for the purpose of taking into consideration the Proclamation of His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor relative to increasing the licence fee from thirty shillings per month to three pounds and for other business connected with the diggings.” The committee was appointed and called on Commissioner Powlett the following morning, requesting that he call such a meeting on the following Monday December 15. But Powlett, realising the implications of such a meeting, declined their request and left for Melbourne – no doubt to meet with La Trobe and warn him of their plans to call an even larger mass meeting of diggers on the Mount Alexander goldfield the following week.
Undaunted, the Committee went ahead and called the meeting for 4.00pm Monday 15 December at the old bark shepherd’s hut by Forest Creek. To advertise it, 1,000 handbills were printed (again illegally) and posted throughout the field and an advertisement was placed in the Argus of Friday 12 December calling men to come to the meeting. Given that the Friday Argus would not get to Forest Creek before the Meeting on Monday, the advertisement would not affect the numbers attending the meeting but it would inform the people of Melbourne and Geelong, including La Trobe and his government, of their intention to organise a mass meeting of thousands of diggers to voice their opposition to the proposed increase. Meanwhile opposition was growing across Victoria with critical articles and editorials in Melbourne’s major newspapers, the Argus and the Melbourne Morning Herald, and reports of opposition from all sections of society.
Argus, Friday 12 December 1851. p4.
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 Lieutentant-Governer of the 1st instant, relative to increasing the licence fee from 30s per month to 3, and for other purposes connected with the diggings.
In response to this growing opposition and fearing major civil unrest on the goldfields, La Trobe backed down. On Saturday 13 December the Colonial Secretary’s Office prepared a formal written announcement that the proposal to double the licence fee would be rescinded. This official notice was published in the Victorian Government Gazette on 17 December, but the news was printed beforehand in the Argus on Monday 15 December. But the diggers at Forest Creek did not hear of the proposed rescinding before their meeting went ahead as planned.
On the afternoon of Monday 15 December, all over the Mount Alexander goldfield, diggers downed tools and to the music of Hore’s Sax-Horn band 15,000 gathered at the old bark shepherd’s hut to hear and cheer the speakers: J F Mann, Robert Booley, Henry Lineham, Dr Valentine Webb Richmond, Edward Potts, John Plaistowe, Captain John Harrison and E Hudson. And once again John Howard recorded the speeches and resolutions for publication in the Argus a few days later.
See full text in SPEECHES FROM THE DRAY section below.
The meeting began at 4.00pm with a dray as a platform for the speakers and a new flag flying. J F Mann, the Chairman, called first on Edward Potts. He condemned the licence fee as an unlawful tax and reminded the Meeting that Britain’s American colonies had been lost because of such a tax. He then proposed the first resolution that was carried by the Meeting:
That this meeting deprecates as unjust, illegal and impolitic, the attempt to increase the licence fee from thirty shillings to 3 pounds.
Potts was followed by Henry Lineham who proposed a more controversial resolution, which was also carried by the Meeting:
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 three pound licence may be fined or confined by Government orders or Government agents, should Government temerity proceed to such illegal lengths.
This proposal was tested later at the McIvor (Heathcote) diggings in August 1853, when a crowd of diggers demanded the release of prisoners who were arrested for not having a licence.
Captain John Harrison spoke to great applause. He had ridden from the newly opened field at Bendigo where he had organised a meeting of 200 in support of the Forest Creek diggers the previous week. He urged the formation of an association to watch over the diggers’ interests and proposed the following resolution, which was also carried:
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 of the diggings, such delegates to be paid for their services, and report proceedings to a General Meeting of the miners, to be held the first Monday of each month.
The next speaker was Dr Valentine Webb Richmond, a British doctor and knowledgeable geologist who had organised the earlier Bendigo meeting with Captain Harrison. He proposed the following resolution, also carried by the Meeting
That Delegates be named from this Meeting to confer with the Government and arrange an equitable system of working the goldfields.
Captain Harrison, Dr Webb Richmond and John Plaistowe were appointed to confer with the government about this proposal.
The next speaker was Robert Booley, a Wesleyan lay preacher and pioneer of the British trade union and Chartist movements, who had migrated to Geelong in 1848 where he was a pioneer of the eight hour day movement. He used the issue of the licence to speak about the need for justice, for a just Government and the rights of working class people to full democratic rights and a better life and he urged those at the Meeting to act to support these principles and each other.
“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. …… What ought to be the standard of man? Justice. Why do we cry out against Government? Because they do not do justice.”
The final speaker, Mr E Hudson, acknowledged the “quiet orderly manner” of the meeting and urged everyone to “assert your rights, be steady to your purpose but keep your powder dry”.
The Meeting ended with cheers for the diggers and the Argus and people dispersed back to their tents and campfires to the music of Hore’s Sax-Horn Band. Argus reporter, John Howard ended his report of the meeting with the following words:
“During Captain Harrison’s address, there could not have been less than 14,000 persons on the ground, not a cradle was to seen to be working. The men appear to have risen en masse, at the sound of the band, and retired in the same order.”
Richmond, Harrison and Plaistowe later obtained a meeting with Colonial Secretary William Lonsdale, but it achieved nothing. Their written submission, Memorandum of Propositions for regulating the goldfields, was dismissed without any further consideration by La Trobe. But a few days later they addressed a large meeting on Melbourne’s Flagstaff Hill and announced that the Victoria United Gold Miners’ Association had been formed to melt and assay gold on the diggings and a miners’ bank was under consideration. The Association was short-lived and the bank did not eventuate but, as historian Marjorie Theobald points out, the Flagstaff Hill meeting importantly “demonstrated the potential to unite the men on the fields with their supporters in Melbourne and set a precedent for future action on other fields.” For La Trobe and his advisors the implications were clear and unwelcome: agitation on the goldfields could impact official Melbourne and its banks and jails.
The Diggers’ movement at Forest Creek dissipated within a few weeks but, as Marjorie Theobald notes, their actions “set a pattern of popular protest against the administration of the goldfields orchestrated by leaders who were better educated, more articulate, more politically aware, and willing to live outside the search for gold.” Their leaders shaped the Diggers’ concern about the licence system into a broader challenge to the established order. They “made the link between the inchoate discontent of the ordinary miners and the broader political context of the times”.
Although the Diggers’ success in stopping the licence fee increase did not end conflict over the licence system, it had a transforming impact. Their peaceful mass declaration of civil disobedience ignited the protest movement that spread across the Victorian goldfields demanding greater civil rights and an end to the gold licence. And it created a political force of men and women who understood that their strength lay in unity – a connecting thread through the spreading protests of the next three years.
And in response La Trobe came to the view that greater military force was needed to control the miners. A view Marjorie Theobald describes as “a decision looking backward to Australia’s past as a convict society under a military regime, rather than forward to a community of free and self-governing people. …. On the goldfields the presence of the military cast a pall over relationships between the camp and the miners, an everyday reminder that they were British citizens without rights, suffering under a military regime which controlled every aspect of their lives. A Gold Commission founded on the premise of military despotism inevitably set itself at odds with those it was called into existence to serve.”
And this was the dual legacy of the 1851 Diggers’ Monster Meeting at Forest Creek. It simultaneously ignited a protest movement across Victoria and strengthened the government’s determination to control the goldfields with military force. This inevitably created confrontations and unrest across the goldfields over the next three years and set the scene for the two major confrontations that transformed Victoria. In mid-1853 the Diggers’ Red Ribbon Movement in Bendigo forced La Trobe’s government to reduce the licence fee and draft the long delayed Victorian constitution which went to London for royal assent in March 1854. (Finally proclaimed by Governor Hotham in 1855.) The final confrontation was at Ballarat in December 1854, when the miners’ uprising and bloodshed at the Eureka Stockade abolished the gold licence. It finally ended the old order on the goldfields.
In considering the legacy of the Diggers’ 1851 Monster Meeting, Marjorie Theobald rightly poses the question: “When the first Victorian Parliament sat in November 1856 did anyone present on that momentous day remember the men and women who assembled around the shepherd’s hut at Forest Creek in December 1851? They are remembered now by the people of Chewton who meet each year on the same ground and they are honoured for the stand they took and the example they set to oppressed people everywhere.”
For more information about the Diggers’ 1851 Monster Meeting see the stories and interviews below and read the following books published by the Chewton Domain Society.
Mount Alexander Mountain of Gold 1851-1861.The gold rush generation and the new society. Marjorie Theobald. 2021. and
The Monster Meeting of Diggers. How Eureka began with the 1851 Forest Creek Monster Meeting of Diggers. Jan Wositzky. 2014.