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    Prisoners, by Andrew Swift

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    Bendigo Goldfields Petition 1853

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    Talk of 'lynch law' to reduce crime on the Victorian diggings

Law and Order: Overview

It is quite impossible for me to describe to your Lordship the effect these discoveries have had upon the whole community... Not only have the idlers, to be found in every community, and day labourers in town and their adjacent country shopmen, artisans, and mechanics of every description, thrown up their employments, and in most cases, leaving their employers and their wives and families to take care of themselves, run off to the workings, but responsible tradesmen, farmers, clerks of every grade and not a few of the superior classes have followed … it would be quite impossible to withstand such a general popular movement … there is but one way, and that, to let the current spend itself, and meanwhile see that as far as possible it is kept within proper bounds …

Charles La Trobe


The central concern of Victoria’s new Lieutenant-Governor, Charles La Trobe, and many other contemporary observers, was how to maintain law and order in their fledgling colony in the face of the frenzied dash for gold. Not only did the government have to contend with the unprecedented upheaval in established centres, as thousands of men left for the diggings, it also suddenly found it had to expand its control over a much larger area, as makeshift settlements sprang up in previously isolated parts of the country. Thousands of diggers congregated in places like Ballarat, Bendigo, and Omeo, far from any infrastructure or sites of government.

The licence system

In a desperate bid to regulate this ‘scramble’ for treasure on Crown lands, and with a view to raising revenue to meet the administrative and infrastructure costs of the goldfields, La Trobe announced the introduction of a licence system in August 1851, to be effective from 1 September. Diggers were able to keep any ore they found, but had to pay a hefty monthly licence fee in order to dig for gold on a small claim. Following the model established in New South Wales, commissioners – backed by a contingent of police – were appointed to regulate the fields and collect licence fees.

With the luxury of hindsight, La Trobe’s decision to follow the New South Wales administrative system – a system about which he himself had grave reservations - seems rash and hasty. But historian Geoffrey Serle argues that La Trobe’s ‘inefficiencies’ must be measured against the ‘appalling difficulties’ he faced – the chaos provoked by the gold rushes as well as the internal governmental disputes that ‘bedevilled’ the situation. Members of the press were less sympathetic to the Governor’s plight, and immediately protested that this indiscriminate direct tax was unfair and defied common sense – it was a ‘juggernaut tax to crush the poor’ fumed a correspondent in the Geelong Advertiser. It was also unrealistic to expect diggers who had been working the ground for barely a month to be in a position to pay thirty shillings when many would, as yet, be unable to cover even personal expenses. Finally, there was no way established to enforce the system on the fields.

Deserting to the diggings

Government employees were not immune to the lure of gold: the police force and other sectors of the public service were decimated as members went off to try their luck on the diggings. The problems associated with imposing law and order on the itinerant gold communities quickly became severe. The difficulties associated with lack of manpower and communication meant government officials were usually among the last on the scene of a new rush. No officials or police arrived at Ballarat until 19 September, four weeks after gold was first discovered there. The crises became acute in the wake of La Trobe’s grossly misjudged (and soon revoked) proposal to double the licence fee, which provoked howls of protest from the press and the diggers. In one anxious despatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, La Trobe declared that the ‘whole machinery of government is dislocated.’ In other communications he despaired of ever securing a sufficient number of policemen, pleaded for military reinforcements, and requested two men-of-war to protect the gold stores on the wharves from potential plunderers.

Imposing order on chaos

During the first months of 1852, the government gradually established control. There was intensive investment in the police force and the administration of the diggings – or, perhaps more accurately, the police administration of the diggings. In March 1852, La Trobe reassured his superiors that ‘the police force has increased in numbers and efficiency.’ In September 1853, he wrote proudly that his force was, ‘in as efficient a state as any similar body outside the mother country.’ As early as May 1852, the governor was celebrating the large number of licence purchases recorded as indicative of the triumph of law and order on the goldfields, and of the law-abiding nature of the digger population: ‘Nothing can better show the power of the law, and the willingness with which the majority seek, by ready compliance with the regulations, to come under its protection,’ he wrote.

However, many of those on the goldfields had a different view. Diggers and other observers were complaining of a marked absence of effective law and order. Many licence purchases may have been recorded, but criminal activity was reportedly rife in some areas: ‘... no one intending to turn digger should leave England without a good supply of firearms. In less than a week, more than a dozen robberies occurred between Kyneton and Forest Creek – two of which terminated in murder,’ warned Ellen Clacy. La Trobe feared serious crime was a problem in some parts of the diggings, but he insisted unsympathetic papers, such as the Argus, exaggerated the problem. The central concern of La Trobe and his government seems to have been implementing and enforcing the licence system.

Policing the diggings

The fact that the police came to play an integral part in the regulation of this system was to prove one of the major causes of discontent on the diggings. Historians have noted the special significance policing acquired during the formative stages of colonial governments. In frontier societies like Australia and America, police (and/or the militarily) assumed an extraordinary range of administrative functions that would later become the province of other parts of the public service – ‘absence of effective local government in colonies,’ Michael Sturma has argued, ‘widened the ambit of police responsibilities.’ On the Victorian goldfields, policemen were responsible for the frequent licence inspections and for collecting fines. Thus, from the outset, they were focussed on managing and regulating the digger population rather than the criminal one.

Numerous, heavily armed, and influenced by a militaristic model of policing designed to manage potentially hostile populations, these policemen made repressive administrators. In 1853, eight thousand diggers signed a petition, presented to La Trobe, objecting to ‘the sending of an armed force to enforce the License Tax’, and complaining that diggers were being treated like felons, with those found without a licence being chained to trees and logs, and sometimes condemned to hard labour as punishment. The government’s reliance on police to administer and enforce the licence system led to a situation where many diggers felt that, not only were they not being protected from crime, but that they themselves were being treated like criminals.

Caitlin Mahar

Further Papers Relative to the Recent Discovery of Gold in Australia, British Parliamentary Papers, 1855. Details
Goodman, David, Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1994. Details
Serle, Geoffrey, The golden age: a history of the colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963. Details
Sturma, Michael, 'Policing the Criminal Frontier in Mid-Nineteenth Century Australia, Britain and America', in Finnane, Mark (ed.), Policing in Australia: historical perspectives, NSW University Press, Kensington, 1987. Details