The miner’s right is regarded as a formative development in Victorian society during the second half of the nineteenth century. The diggers’ campaign for greater political representation, and improved administration of the Victorian goldfields, proved to be more complex and prolonged than the rapid series of events that led - following the first monster meeting at Golden Point, (near Chewton) on 15 December 1851 – to the withdrawal by the government of the proposed licence fee rise. The struggle was also more violent and reached its dénouement at the Eureka Stockade, Ballarat, in November 1854.
The chief bugbear was the monthly gold licence fee and the system by which it was policed. On each goldfield, there existed a government camp filled with gold commissioners (not to be confused with the inquiring commissioners dining at the Criterion), police, and soldiers. Their principal purpose was to ensure that every man on the goldfield held a licence – costing thirty shillings a month and payable in advance by lucky and unlucky digger alike – or, if he didn’t, was apprehended and punished. Other business of the government camp included adjudication of mining disputes, issuing of licences for stores and other businesses, and prosecution of sly grog dealers. All such transactions were open to corruption, a fact on which some officials were not slow to capitalise.
The licensing system and government camps had existed for more than three years – almost from the time when gold was discovered in Victoria. What had begun as a makeshift measure – to bring order to the diggings, revenue to the government, and to keep men from deserting their jobs – had hardened into a regime, and a corrupt one at that.
In the months following the tumultuous events at Eureka, a goldfields commission was instituted to resolve the conundrum. On 5 January 1855, John O’Shannassy, having patiently waited for his fellow commissioners to make their comments, rose at the Criterion Hotel, Castlemaine, and proclaimed a new twenty shilling annual fee as the ‘miner’s right’. This proclamation addressed many of the diggers’ grievances and ultimately led to the miner’s right being formally recommended by the Goldfields Commission, and its subsequent introduction as law by the Victorian Government.
Led by O’Shannassy, the introduction of these recommendations signalled a victory for the European miners. An astute political operator, O’Shannassy used his role on the commission as the basis of his candidacy for the next state election. He won comfortably, as pro-miner candidates swept the goldfields electorates, and was subsequently returned to office on two separate occasions.