… though your chief business will be to protect the interests of the Crown in matters of revenue, it will be an essential part of your duty to preserve the peace, to put down outrage and violence, and to protect the community generally.
Colonial Secretary Thompson’s instructions to NSW gold commissioners, 23 May 1851.
When gold was discovered in the colony, a Goldfields Commission following the administrative model set up in New South Wales was established in Victoria and a commissioner appointed to each field. These officials administered their respective fields with the aid of a number of assistant commissioners, a detachment of troops, and the local police. They performed magisterial duties, had the authority to settle disputes over claims, and the responsibility for maintaining law and order in their district; however, their primary obligation was to supervise the collection, storage and transportation of gold, and to manage the gold licence system – issuing licences and exacting fees and fines.
For the most part, the commissioners were young, inexperienced English gentlemen, whose major recommendation was that they were of ‘good family’. They were paid handsomely (£700 per annum) and generally lived so comfortably that one commissioner later nostalgically recalled: ‘Those were snug times! We had handsome salaries, all our expenses paid, as many servants as we pleased, all paid for: and nothing to do but order whatever we choose, and send in the accounts.’
The pseudo-military uniforms and superior manner of many of these men, coupled with their role administering the hated licence system, meant that most were disliked and mocked by the diggers. Robyn Annear quotes Claus Gronn’s view of them as ‘petty tyrants encased in musical comedy uniforms’ as being typical of contemporary opinion. ‘Young men for the most part they were, a-glitter with buttons and braid and eating their heads off at the expense of a community ill-fitted to subsidize such parasites.’
As time went on, more and more of the commissioners themselves came to openly criticise the licence regulations, and, although the arrogance of some of these men continued to rankle, the diggers’ anger came to focus on the system itself.