The Story of the Eureka Stockade
The Catholic Press 1st December, 1904 p 8
Saturday next, December 3rd; is the 50th anniversary of the miners’ fight for freedom at Eureka Stockade and a brief narrative of that memorable event at this stage will not be amiss. Specially interesting is it to the Irish-Australians, for the number of Ireland’s sons who took part in the affray and who gave their lives in the effort to cast off the yoke of oppression and tyranny under which the mining classes of Australia then laboured.
Not only were they the leading figures at the Stockade, their names are prominent among the discoverers of the historic goldfields.
In. his ‘History of Ballarat,’ Mr. Withers says ‘the “honour of discovery seems to be tolerably evenly balanced between the two parties (Patrick Connor and Thomas Dunn), though it may perhaps be held, that the balance of priority inclines to tho side of Connor’s party.” It is said in support of Connor’s claim that he was always regarded as leader of the diggers at the meetlngs held in those first days when the authorities made their first demand for licence fees.
It was an Irishman, also Cavonagh by name who made known the deeper and greater treasures that were concealed beneath the pipeclay which had hitherto been considered bottom. This led to such rich discoveries that people poured from all parts of the world on to the Yarrowee, where, in a month or two, 1200 cradles were rocking in one line.
How the Diggers Were Persecuted.
For a time the Victorian Government, taken by surprise, was utterly powerless in tho presence of this unexpected influx of population. It eventually recovered its self-possession, proclaimed the right of the Crown’ to the gold, despatched officials to preserve order, and issued licenses to dig for the, precious metal.
At first the license fee was fixed at £1 10s. per month, but it was soon doubled in the hope of thinning the crowds that continued to travel to the goldfields from all points of the compass. In the course of time this poll-tax, as it really was, assumed a most arbitrary and unjust character. It was levied on every digger, whether successful or unsuccessful. The brutal and insulting manner In which it was enforced became an insupportable grievance and led to a bloody conflict between the outraged diggers and the tyrannical authorities.
The ridiculous idea seemed rooted in tho minds of the governor and his advisors that the goldfield’s population could only be ruled and regulated on military principles. Hence the diggers were allowed no representation whatever in the Victorian Parliament, although the great majority of them were respectable men of good families and education. They were tyrannised over by ignorant and insolent officials, many of whom were originally, expatriated for their crimes, and were afterwards promoted into the ranks of the colonial constabulary. Those ex-convicts took a demonic delight in annoying and insulting the freeborn diggers and straining their petty authority to tho utmost. No sooner had an intending digger arrived on the field than he was compelled to appear before one of these insolent officials, hand over his first monthly payment of £8, and receive in return a licence to the following effect :
The bearer _______________ having paid to me the sum of £3 Sterling on account of the terrltorial revenue, I hereby licence him to dig search for, and remove gold on and from, any such Crown lands as I shall assign to him for that purpose during the month of ____________, 185__. This licence is not transferable and must be produced whenever demanded by rne or any other person acting under the authority of the government.
Those licences were demanded suddenly and unexpectedly at all times and places by the officials who were supported by bodies of mounted troopers. Unfortunates who didn’t happen to have their documents on them at the moment would be arrested and chained to logs at the Government camp until friends came forward with monetary assistance. A couple of incidents out of hundreds will show the coarse, reckless and unjustifiable manner in which these ignorant officials carried out the duties entrusted to them, and which eventually drove the gold-fields’ population into open rebellion.
In the Hands of Brutal Troopers
Father Patrick Smyth was one of the first of the Irish priests to arrive on the Ballarat goldfields. He had a devoted personal attendant named John Gregory, who was one day paying a visit of charity to some Catholic friends. A license hunting party of troopers came up, surrounded the tent in which they were, and the officer in charge “commanded the wretches to come out of the tent and show him their licenses.” Gregory quietly told him that he was the servant of Father Smyth, and had no such document. Tho troopers thereupon profusely damned both him and Father Smyth, and took him into custody. As Gregory was not a very able-bodied man, he asked his captors to take him to the Government Camp at once and not drag him after them all over the diggings in their search for unlicensed miners. This reasonable request was refused with many curses and blows and the poor fellow was compelled to follow the brutal troopers through the whole of the day’s campaign.
Next morning, although it was evident at a glance that Gregory was physically unable to dig for gold, he was fined £5 for having no licence and an additional £5 for having committed an imaginary assault on one of the troopers!
The late Venerable Archdeacon Downing, who came up to Ballarat almost simultaneously with Father Smyth, was frequently the victim of the harsh tyranny of the insolent officials of those early days. On one occasion Father Downing had pitched his tent at the Brown Creek diggings, and, with his coat off, was hard at work digging a trench round it to carry off the water. A brutal trooper, coming up, insisted that the priest was a digger, bailed him up, demanded his license, and subjected him to the grossest indignities.
How the Insurrection Began.
In addition to this persecution, no miner was allowed to cultivate the smallest portion of land for the maintenance of himself and family. The irresponsible regime soon became intolerable. Tho diggers organised a peaceful and constitutional agitation, having for its purpose the abolition of the oppressive monthly licence fee and the representation of the goldfields in Parliament. They were contemptuously rejected by the new Governor, Sir Charles Hotham, who succeeded Latrobe in June, 1854.
A retired navy captain, he tried to rule the colony like a martinet and, by his headstrong and senseless policy towards the exasperated diggers, he precipitated a collision with the authorities. He professed to regard the agitation on the goldfields as the result of the machinations of foreigners and, in the true spirit of the quarter-deck, defiantly declared his intention to put down all seditious manifestations with a stern hand. The raids by the troopers upon diggers became more numerous and irritating than ever. At last the utmost limits of patience were reached and the probability of a successful insurrection was openly discussed on the goldfields. The agitation came to a crisis on November 29th, 1854 when 12,000 diggers held a meeting on Bakery Hill, Ballarat under the presidency of Mr.Timothy Hayes, one of the most genial and popular Irlshmen on the diggings.
After carrying a series of resolutions setting forth the grievances of the goldfield’s population, and the unavailing efforts to induce the authorities to redress them, the meeting unanimously determined then and there to burn all their licences, and thus bid open defiance to the government. Amidst enthusiastic cheering a huge bonfire was made, and every dlggor, consigned his Crown permit to the flames.
Four of the principal speakers were Lalor, Qulnn, Murnane and Brady, and the most Important resolution agreed to was couched as follows,:—
‘That this meeting being convinced that the obnoxious licence fee is an imposition and an unjustifiable tax on free labour, pledges itself to take immediate steps to abolish the same by at once burning all their licences, and that, in the event of any party being arrested for having no licences, the united people under all circumstances will defend and protect them.’’
The Last Digger-Hunt.
The next day witnessed the last “digger hunt” on the Australian goldfields. It was carried out with a great military display in the hope of striking terror into the hearts of the rebellious diggers. Taken unawares, the latter retired as the troops advanced, rallying occasionally and receiving the enemy with a mingled fire of stones and bullets, the day’s work resulting in open war between the miners and the Crown. No sooner had the police and military returned to camp with a number of prisoners than the diggers assembled en masse on Bakery Hill, appointed a council of war, and elected Peter Lalor (son of a late member for Queen’s County, and brother of the then-present member) as their commander-in-chief. A declaration of independence was drawn up and signed, and a blue flag bearing the Southern Cross, in silver, was unfurled.
Under this Lalor took his stand and administered the following oath to his men :
‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’
Encamped With Guns and Pikes.
It was on that part of the field known Eureka, principally inhabited by Irish diggers, that the fortified camp of the ‘rebels,’ as they were now officially described, was erected. It consisted of an entrenched stockade that was capable of being made a place of great strength if the diggers had had time to utilise its natural advantages. It occupied an area of about an acre, rudely enclosed with strong slabs. Within the stockade drilling now became the main business of the hour; the diggers’ council of war sat almost continuously; blacksmiths were kept at work night and day forging pikes. “Let those who cannot provide themselves with firearms procure a piece of steel five or six inches long, attached to a pole, and that will pierce the tyrants’ hearts,” were the words of the commander-in-chief to his men.
Patrick Curtain was the chosen captain of the pikemen, and Michael Hanrahan was their lieutenant. Meanwhile the authorities were grievously alarmed at the spectre their stupidity, barbarity, and truculent insolence had created. They had never reckoned on the persecuted diggers turning and presenting an unbroken military front to their oppressors. Sir Charles Hotham and his ministers were in an agitated state of perplexity. Melbourne, the capital, was in a panic. The Mayor was swearing-in citizens by the hundred as special constables to resist the victorious diggers. The wild rumour of the hour was that they were marching in a body from Ballarat to pillage the city.
The rebellion was also spreading. Men of the other goldfields were hastening to the relief and assistance of their Ballarat comrades. The authorities of the Government Camp decided to attack the diggers’ stronghold before any of these reinforcements could arrive.
Early on the morning of Sunday, December 3rd, 1854, the assault was made by the combined forces of the military and the police under the command of Colonel Thomas, of the 40th Regiment. The insurgent diggers, commanded by Mr. Peter Lalor, made a brave and desperate resistance. The pikemen (an almost exclusively Irish detachment) stood their ground in double file around the enclosure and repelled several charges of cavalry.
Volley after volley was poured into the stockade and answered by the diggers until their want of ammunition and comparative unpreparedness became apparent. After half an hour’s desperate hand-to-hand fighting, the Eureka stockade was surrounded and carried by storm.
After the Battle: Tho Killed and Wounded.
The scene that followed was of a brutal and barbarous character. The ruffianly soldiers and troopers behaved towards their discomfited opponents in the most cowardly fashion. Not content with making a large number of them prisoners, they did not scruple in their savage glee even to shoot non-combatants down in cold blood.
The official list of casualties on the diggers’ side reports;
125 taken prisoners
These figures must not be accepted as literally accurate. Many lives were sacrificed and many persons wounded in the encounter whose names were not officially recorded. Subjoined are some of the Irishmen who fell or were wounded in this first struggle for freedom on Victorian soil :
John Hynes, County Clare;
John Diamond, County Clare;
Patrick Gittings, County Kilkenny;
Patrick Mullens, County Kilkenny ;
Thomas O’Neil, County Kilkenny;
George Donaghy, County Donegal;
Edward Qulnn, County Cavan ;
William Quinlan, County Cavan.
Thaddeus Moore, County Clare;
James Brown, County Wexford;
Edward M’Glynn, County Wexford.
WOUNDED AND SUBSEQUENTLY RECOVERED;
Michael Hanly, County Tlpperary;
Michael O’Neil, County Clare;
Thomas Callanan, County Clare;
Patrick Callainan, County Clare;
James Warner, County Cork;
Luke Sheehan, County Galway;
Michael Morrison, County Galway;
Denis Dynon, County Clare.
Peter Lalor, Queen’s County;
Patrick Hanofln, County Kerry;
How Lalor Fell.
Lalor fought with conspicuous bravery until he received a bullet near the left shoulder. His men then placed him under some protecting slabs in the stockade, where he was found by friends after the engagement lying in a pool of blood. He was taken to a safe retreat and the wounded arm was amputated by a friendly surgeon. Then, under the protection of Father Patrick Smyth, arrangements were made to remove him speedily from the vengeful pursuit of the authorities.
A few days after the storming of the stockade, Patrick Carroll, an Irish carrier, arrived in Ballarat with a load of goods from Geelong, and on the return trip he had a solitary passenger, the man for whose body, dead or alive, the Government emissaries were scouring the country in all directions. Carroll did his best to conceal the fugitive leader under a tarpaulin and the boughs of trees. By keeping as far as possible from the frequented roads and driving through lonely bush tracks, he succeeded in reaching Geelong without having attracted any hostile notice. Camping outside the town until night came on, the faithful Irishman drove his distressed compatriot to the appointed place of refuge.
Though a large money reward was offered by the Government for Lalor’s apprehension, and his place of concealment was well known to many, not a solitary scrap of information did the Government receive, so loyal and hearty was the sympathy of the people at large with the oppressed diggers and the cause for which they had suffered.
The Trial for High Treason.
The captured diggers were taken to Melbourne and tried for high treason. Though the authorities resorted to the hideous system of packed juries, and though every Irishman and citizen suspected of sympathy with the miners was told to stand aside, the current of popular opinion was so powerful that prisoner after prisoner was acquitted, amid tho ringing cheers of a crowded court and the more boisterous demonstrations of satisfaction from the thousands outside.
Freedom and Honours
Eventually the State trials were wisely abandoned by the Crown. The proclamations of outlawry against Mr. Lalor and his fellow leaders were unconditionally withdrawn. Tho concealed chiefs came forth into the light of day once more. A Royal Commission, with the late Sir John O’Shanassy as one of its principal members, was appointed to inquire into the grievances of the miners. The oppressive license fee was soon abolished on their recommendation. Parliamentary representation was given to the goldfields, and before the first anniversary of the storming of the Eureka stockade came round, Mr Lalor was one of the members for Ballarat, and the mining population was as quiet, law-abiding, and industrious as any other section of the community.
Peter Lalor became Speaker of the Victorian Parliament, and his statue in Speaker’s robes now stands in Stuart street, Ballarat, the proudest possession of the citizens. There is also a magnificent monument at Bakery Hill, Eureka, to commemorate the memory of those who lost their lives in the insurrection.
The armed resistance of the diggers paved the way for democratic freedom in the Australian colonies and Irishmen played the most important part in that exciting episode. To this day Irishmen continue to be the backbone and sinew of the flourishing city of Ballarat that has developed front he thousands of diggers’ tents in 1854.