Focus question 3: What influence did the Chartists have on the goldfields and did the struggle at Eureka contribute to the establishment of democracy in Australia?
Teaching and learning activities
It took time for the Chartists' ideas to be adopted in Britain. What happened to their ideas in Australia?
Many people came to the Australian colonies in the 1850s to try their luck on the goldfields. Most of these migrants came from Britain and many had participated in the Chartist struggles or had been influenced by the Chartists' six-point plan.
One of the largest goldfields was at Ballarat in Victoria. On 3 December 1854 a battle was fought at Ballarat between gold diggers and troopers sent to keep order on the goldfields. The diggers wanted changes which the following stories will explain.
Activity 1: Eureka stories
1a Read the following stories in a group of three or four students and answer the questions that follow. The characters are fictional but their stories are based on the lives of people who lived through the period.
Harry Elliot, November 1854
Harry Elliot is my name. I was born in England but left my homeland as a lad of 16.
I went with my family to the United States. My father had been active in Chartism in England but became disillusioned with the movement after some of the leaders turned to violence to achieve their ends. He said ordinary folk had too much to lose with that kind of strategy, so we left looking for opportunities elsewhere.
In 1852 I heard of the discovery of gold in Victoria and decided to come here and try my luck as a gold digger. Along with thousands of other hopeful diggers I found my way to Ballarat.
Each month I have to pay a licence fee of 30 shillings, regardless of whether I find gold or not. It's said the money raised goes to pay for the cost of running the goldfields - things like paying the salaries of those who keep law and order, and there's been talk of building roads and giving the place a bit of a tidy-up. Not that there's been any improvements made since I've been here. Some of my mates reckon the licence fee is really there to put people off digging for gold. The rich bosses and landowners want people to go back to the cities, slave away for wages and give up their ideas about being independent and working for themselves.
At first the licence fee was not such a burden. There was plenty of alluvial [surface] gold to be found. That's run out now and we have to dig deep and work long and hard to find any gold.
The most irritating thing about the licence is not only paying it, which is hard enough, but also putting up with the police licence checks. When you're found without your licence there is trouble. Last week a digger called Frank was caught without his licence and chained to a log for six hours by the traps [police]. On another occasion my friend Sam had to hide down a disused mine shaft for several hours in order to escape the licence check. He didn't have a licence to show as he hasn't had a find for several months.
Most of us are getting fed up with the treatment we've been receiving. We're a
hard-working, industrious lot. All we want is to strike gold and get enough money to set ourselves up for life. I wouldn't mind buying land - it's plentiful here and farming has always got good prospects. Like most diggers, I'm prepared to work to make something of my life.
Just recently I attended a huge meeting at Bakery Hill. A number of diggers burnt their licences. I thought that was going a bit far. It's asking for trouble, as there is sure to be a licence check. I hate the licence as much as any man but I don't want to get involved in any trouble. My father left home because we did not approve of violence to get change. Now it seems there are some here who want to take on the authorities. A silly idea! What chance would they stand against a force that is better armed and trained? It'll only end in bloodshed. There's got to be a peaceful way. Send a delegation to meet with the Governor. Explain our troubles. Surely he'll listen if we show him we are prepared to stay within the laws.
a Why did Harry Elliot's father become disillusioned with the Chartist movement?
b Why did the government set a licence fee?
c What did the diggers think the licence fee was really about?
d What methods did the authorities use to discover whether diggers had purchased a licence?
e What were Harry's objections to this method?
f What were are some of the methods being used and evidence being proposed to protest against the licence fee?
g What alternative to violent protest does Harry suggest?
h Do you think the authorities are likely to listen the diggers? Explain your view.
Eamon's story, November 1854
My name is Eamon McCourt. I left Ireland in 1845 along with thousands of others escaping from the great potato famine of 1845-9. They say a million Irish died during that time. Went to England for a while. Became involved in Chartism but after the petitions failed I said, enough is enough, I'm going to Australia. Land's plentiful there and if you work hard you've got a chance to make something of yourself.
Well now, got to Sydney in February 1850. Stinking hot! Then moved to Maitland, New South Wales to work as a shepherd. Found working as a shepherd a boring and lonely life. Hated that miserable squatter boss too. Mean and lousy he was. Anyhow, didn't have to be a shepherd for too long. Gold was discovered in New South Wales in 1851, then in Victoria. Thought if I found gold I'd save money and become a farmer. Always fancied that. Me grandad had been a farmer back in Ireland till he was forced off the land when the English landlord put up the rent and threw him out when he couldn't pay. He fought them along with many others - Rightboys they called them. A right fighter he was too.
When I heard about the gold - that was it for me. Like thousands of others I took off to the diggings. Never know, I might get so rich that I can go back and buy the farm off that miserable old squatter!
Being a digger's a hard life. Not for the soft-hearted I can tell you. Living in a tent, paying a fortune for basic goods like soap, tobacco and meat. Then of course there's that bloody licence. We pay for the right to dig for gold and then we are expected to obey unjust laws. It's taxation without representation. The Americans had a revolution about that. Well, now I understand why! I reckon people obey laws when they have a say in making them. We Irish know how to fight oppression!
Like many others around here I've been attending the meetings called by the Ballarat Reform League. Ten thousand attended one of these meetings recently. Imagine, 10,000 of us, strong and determined!
I've decided to stand up for my rights. I'll fight if I have to - like me grandad. The future of this country rests with the likes of us - decent hard-working men who deserve a fair chance in life.
a Why did Eamon leave Ireland and go to England and then Australia?
b What references are there in the story that indicate that there was a class system in Ireland, England and Australia?
c According to Eamon, under what circumstances will people obey laws?
d How far is Eamon prepared to go in order to achieve change? What ideas and personal experiences might have made him think this way?
e Who do you think is right about violent protest, Eamon or Harry? Explain your view.
Annabella's story, December 1855
Annabella Whitson is my name. I was born in Hobart in 1838. My father is native-born too. His father was a convict in Van Diemen's Land. My parents met in Hobart in 1835. My mother's family was newly arrived from England and had come to Van Diemen's Land looking for a better life. I am the eldest of the four children. My father, Daniel, worked in numerous labouring jobs in Hobart. We always managed to survive, sometimes even save a little, but life has never been really secure for us. In 1852 my father decided to try his hand at gold digging. Stories of the riches to be claimed in the colony of Victoria enticed many of us to try our luck. We've had some success but never really got much for all the time and effort we've put into it. It's been a tough life on the diggings, especially in the past 12 months.
My father, like many others, became involved in the struggle for miners' rights at Ballarat. In late 1854 he became angry at the treatment the miners received at the hands of the authorities. As always, our family was struggling to get by, although things had eased a little since I got work as a cleaner at a hotel.
Things got steadily worse all through November 1854. By the end of the month some of the diggers believed that the authorities would not listen to their complaints. They decided to act.
They erected a fort on top of a hill, took up whatever weapons they could find and swore an oath on their flag, the Southern Cross.
'We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties. Amen.'
My father was in the stockade on 3 December 1854 when it was attacked by soldiers and police. Thirty diggers were killed and many others wounded. Father was captured and marched off and gaoled along with 113 other men. He was held for several weeks and during this time my mother suffered terrible anxiety on his behalf. Our family survived on my meagre wage. We believed Father would be hanged for treason because he took up arms against the police and those in power. Luckily for us he was released, although 13 prisoners did stand trial. The jury found them not guilty.
Many of the diggers' complaints were finally addressed. The licence fee was replaced by a miner's right of one pound a year and the diggers got to vote. I suppose it turned out all right in the end but I can't help thinking there could have been some other way. Men killed, women widowed and children left fatherless. All that anxiety waiting to see what was going to happen to my father. Thinking he'd be hanged.
My hope for this colony is that there will be ways of getting grievances heard without resorting to guns.
a In what way is Annabella's background different from Harry's and Eamon's?
b Who does Annabella blame for starting the battle?
c Who won the battle? What happened to the diggers in the stockade?
d Does Annabella think that the cost of the battle was worth it? Explain your answer.
The stories of Harry, Eamon and Annabella will have given you some understanding of the complaints the diggers had about the licence system and the police on the goldfields.
The situation on the Ballarat goldfields became very tense and strained in October and November 1854. The timeline here will help you to understand the events leading up to the Eureka Rebellion.
Timeline of events leading to the Eureka Rebellion
Gold to be found in the creeks and rivers runs out.
The diggers' resentment about the police and licences grows.
A digger, James Scobie, is murdered near the Eureka Hotel. The diggers believe the owner, James Bentley is responsible. Bentley is tried but allowed to go free. The diggers believe that the magistrate who heard the case is a friend of Bentley.
The diggers burn down the Eureka Hotel. Three are arrested for the crime.
The Ballarat Reform League is formed. The members press for changes such as getting rid of the licence and the vote for all diggers.
12,000 diggers attend a meeting at Bakery Hill. Some burn their licences. They fly their flag, the Southern Cross, and swear an oath of loyalty to each other.
Licence check ordered by the authorities. The diggers refuse to show their licences, and begin to collect weapons and build the stockade.
270 troops attack 150 diggers in the stockade. The battle lasts 15 minutes. Thirty diggers and five soldiers are killed.
A commission of inquiry is formed to find out about the miners' complaints and problems.
From the resolutions of the diggers at Bakery Hill, Ballarat, November 1854. Enclosure no 2 in Hotham to Grey, 20/12/1854.
Activity 2: Bakery Hill demands
2a Read Figure 4 which shows the demands made by the diggers.
2b List the demands which are the same as, or similar to, the Chartist demands. Then list the demands that are specific to the goldfields.
2c Would it be a reasonable statement to say that the diggers were influenced by the ideas of the Chartists?
Courtesy Gold Museum, Ballarat.
A miner's right. Previously miners had been allowed to mine on the land they held a 'claim' on. Now they had the 'right'. The 'right' also gave other rights such as to vote, to collect timber from Crown land (to line mine shafts with) and to build a hut on the land they were mining.
What happened in the end?
You know from Annabella's story that 13 of the diggers were put on trial in Melbourne in 1855. No jury would convict them and they were released from gaol. The government changed the licence system in the same year. Instead of paying the licence, the diggers purchased a miner's right for one pound a year. This gave them the right to dig for gold and the right to vote.
Activity 3: Why the Eureka Rebellion is remembered
The events at the Eureka Rebellion helped to bring democracy to Victoria, but not the other colonies. As a class discuss why Australians in all States and Territories remember Eureka. Consider these suggestions:
- It was violent.
- Soldiers killed 30 diggers.
- 5 British soldiers died.
- The diggers produced a good flag.
Activity 4: The mining game
Use the Stories of Democracy CD ROM to play the mining game.
Collect information for this activity from the Stories of Democracy CD ROM. Imagine you are the editor of the Ballarat Times. Create the front page of your newspaper for 4 December 1854. What would it say?
You will need to:
- create a striking headline to catch the attention of your readers
- give a brief account of the attack on the stockade describing the battle and casualties
- suggest why these events have occurred - this will mean going into the background to the dispute.
Things to mention are:
- the licence system
- the police and their enforcement of the licence system
- the demands of the diggers for political rights like voting and being allowed to stand for parliament
- how gaining political rights would help to address the diggers' immediate concerns on the goldfields.
As the editor you may favour or have a bias towards one side. This would come through in your reporting. You can get an idea of bias by examining the sources below. Read these carefully and answer the question that follows.
Which side did the writer of Source A favour? What about the writer of Source B?
Add to the presentation of the front page by including such things as a sketch of the battle, the diggers' flag, and an interview with an eyewitness.
Your work will be assessed on:
- clear explanation of the reasons for the rebellion
- clear explanation of how political reforms could solve the grievances about unjust laws on the goldfields
- historical accuracy
- presentation and creativity.
Back to 'Democratic Struggles - At a glance'