Protest on the Mount Alexander diggings
On the morning of 8 December 1851, the Argus correspondent on the Mount Alexander diggings reported that a notice addressed to ‘fellow diggers’ had appeared at Forest Creek. At the heart of the digger’s grievance was the Victorian government’s proposal to double the gold licence fee to three pounds per month. Initially, the requirement to possess a licence had been imposed in order to deter gold seekers; the government feared that the rushes would lead to a breakdown of civil authority, and a potential inversion of the social order throughout Victoria and New South Wales. The nameless digger, invoking the familiar language of radical dissent in the English-speaking world, criticised the tyrannical laws of the colonial legislature dominated by the conservative attitudes of the pastoral squattocracy.
The broadside continued on in an incendiary tone, informing the Forest Creek mining community that ‘intelligence has just arrived of the resolution of the government to double the licence fee. Will you tamely submit to the imposition or assert your rights like men?’ Aside from the ubiquitous appeal to masculinity and independence, and a subsequent tub-thumping appeal to British identity – ‘Ye are Britons! Would you submit to oppression and injustice’ – this missive represented the first challenge to the colonial licensing system on the goldfields. The provocative tone continued throughout the notice and concluded with a resolution to ‘meet – agitate – be unanimous – and if there is justice in the land, they will, they must abolish the imposition.’ The author, or authors, of this notice chose to remain anonymous preferring to sign ‘a digger’, however the intent of the document was already in train as word of the monster meeting spread rapidly throughout the diggings.
The response was overwhelming and more than 10,000 men convened at Golden Point, (near Shepherd’s Hut, Chewton) on 15 December 1851 to discuss why the makeshift measure of the gold licence had become the instrument of a corrupt regime. After all, it was designed to bring order to the diggings, to increase the consolidated revenue of the fledgling colonial government, and to deter men from deserting their jobs. Many rose to speak but the resonant theme was the need for unity in face of a tyrannical administration. Laurence Potts, describing the people assembled before him, commented (in a manner similar to that which Geoffrey Serle would use over a century later in his analysis of the gold generation):
I see before me some 10 000 to 12 000 men, which any country in the world might be proud to own as her own sons . . . This very cream of Victoria, and the sinews of her strength.
Potts beseeched his audience not to pay the licence fee and was rewarded with a universal response of ‘“never” from all parts’ of Golden Point.
The scale of the meeting, coupled with the resolve of its participants, startled the colonial government in Spring Street into a hasty retreat and the licence fee remained fixed at thirty shillings a month. But already other policy devices were being formulated, and weeks later the Legislative Council moved that any man found without a licence on the diggings was liable for a fifty pound fine or six months’ imprisonment. The arbitrary nature of policing this draconian law was the basis of the digger hunts that typified life on the goldfields for many.
However, at the monster meeting the enormous crowd effectively carried the day for the diggers against the goldfields administrative agenda of the government. It wasn’t until 1853 that the Mount Alexander diggers reconvened on Agitation Hill, overlooking the Government Camp, to once again demand their rights, protest against the licence, and agitate for a more equitable replacement.