May 1853. A party of police, led by the reviled Inspector Christian, raided two canvas boarding houses late one evening, casting out the sixty-odd occupants (including women and children), breaking up the tents, and impounding them and all their contents at the government camp. The tents’ proprietors were thrown in the lock-up. And the reason for the raid? A police informant had tipped off Christian that sly grog was being sold there. Now, as an incentive to stamp out sly grog on the diggings, both the informant and police stood to share half of any fines imposed, as well half of the impounded goods. In this case however, both the arrested men – respected citizens of Castlemaine township – were next day set free, while the informant, Mangan, was charged with perjury.
That same day, placards went up around the township:
MEN OF CASTLEMAINE! MEET ON THE HILL BEHIND THE BAPTIST CHAPEL!
DIGGERS! – Avenge your wrongs and demand your rights,
or otherwise you will live and die all slaves.
At short notice, about a thousand people assembled at four o’clock that Monday, 9 May, on Agitation Hill, where they could see the government camp – and be seen. The men who called the meeting and addressed it were business- and professional men of the township – the very men, some of them, who would pioneer institutions like the hospital and the Mechanics’ Institute, and who would eventually become town councillors. But though the town’s leaders had already risen to the surface, though the town was capable of governing itself, still it was the denizens of the government camp, public servants bespangled with gold braid, and armed to boot, who ruled – nay, lorded it over – the town and the goldfield.
The Reverend Mr Jackson chaired that afternoon’s meeting. He had been an eyewitness to ‘the disgraceful proceedings . . . on Saturday last.’ Mr Adams, keeper of one of the raided tents, was a member of Reverend Jackson’s congregation. But when the Reverend went to Mr Adams’ side to sympathise and lend counsel, he had himself been threatened with the lock-up. Here’s how the Reverend Jackson addressed the meeting:
I appear before you under circumstances perhaps very different from those under which I entered the colony; for on Saturday night I had the threat held out to me of being locked up. . . . I would put it to the meeting, if I was a minister of the gospel, and had been thus assailed and insulted because I presumed to sympathise with an unfortunate sufferer, what might the people not expect this year twelve months?
Mr Hitchcock, auctioneer, proposed a motion – in part, that:
. . . the whole of the district is so tyrannised over and disturbed, that this meeting declares its solemn belief that we are on the eve of a general revolution.
Dr Gill spoke next:
That a handful of men, to whom, in their official capacity, the civilians of the population are emboldened to look for protection, should pull down a house about a man’s ears on the information of a perjured scoundrel, instigated by an unscrupulous authority, unworthy the name of Christian – [Laughter and cheers] – for selling fermented liquors where no liquors were retailed, and the witness swore falsely, – was this conduct that which Englishmen ever submitted to? [‘No’.] Then why should they submit to such tyrannised treatment here? [‘Never, never,’ and ‘Down with the camp.’] It is time that these affairs should be brought to a crisis. It is time that the people should form an unanimous organisation, and proclaim their intention to demand a reformed Government, and a different system . . . than has hitherto oppressed the Australian Colonies. [Cheering.]
Then came the popular Dr Preshaw:
I support the foregoing resolution with all my heart and soul and strength, and wealth and influence. [Great cheerings.] I support the foregoing resolution with inexplicable pleasure, and I do so as an out-and-out Tory and conservative; but as an out-and-out radical if necessary. . . . [Loud cheering.]
Could Mr McEwan, of the Bank of New South Wales, match that reception?
Measures ought to be taken, and that immediately, for the suppression of such great and intolerable grievances as the people now complain of. [Hear, hear.] It becomes all to respond to this public requirement, and to be unanimous in demanding an alleviation of these great grievances. It is an unexampled and intolerable tyranny on the part of the Government to treat the people as they do. . . . [Loud cheering.]
Then came Mr Jones, auctioneer, of Campbells Creek:
I am well known by you all as being one of the oldest hands on the grounds. . . . The tyranny of the Government has been such that, unless people take steps to intercept a despotic invasion of their constitutional rights, the relentless and unscrupulous authorities would take further liberties. [Loud cheering.] The local population consists of an extraordinary amalgamation from every country in Europe and throughout the colonies; it now becomes an obligation with the residents on the diggings to be unanimous and not trampled on. [Hear, hear.]
Last of all to speak that day was the firebrand Dr Southee:
If the Government dares to oppress the public much longer, a warrantable retribution will speedily follow. And what would be the character of that retribution? Why a revolution would ensue, sanguinary and exterminating. I have at every period of my existence been forward to support authority, when legitimately exercised, but I am also antagonistic to any infringement of the people’s rights. . . . The people are determined to have satisfaction, and if the Government persists in their oppression, the public of Castlemaine are unanimously determined to oppose the authorities, crumble them to the dust as useless worms, and chivalrously demand their individual liberties. [Tremendous cheering.]
Those present voted to appoint three People’s Commissioners to present the meeting’s grievances to the Governor in person. The situation at Castlemaine was defused, in large part through the deft handling of the Chief Gold Commissioner here. Inspector Christian was moved on. But antagonisms between the goldfields population and the ‘Campites’ continued to fester over the months ahead – not just here, of course, but on other goldfields. Violence flared at Beechworth, and at Bendigo, in August 1853, diggers tied red ribbons on their hats (and round their dogs’ necks) in protest at the licensing system. More importantly, they refused to buy licences and presented a petition to the Governor. Their actions triggered a government inquiry into the gold licence system, and diggers soon could buy a three-month licence for two pounds, or an annual licence for eight pounds – but the hated thirty-shilling monthly licence remained, and was all that most (and more than many) diggers could afford.