… the weapon for a gold-country is the baton not the bayonet. We shall try to have police protection; we shall NOT have martial law.
Argus, 14 August 1852
When gold fever struck in 1851, the police force suffered as a majority of men left to go digging for gold – in Melbourne all but two of 40 police resigned to join the rush. Initially it was difficult to recruit new police and men of dubious character (those with convict backgrounds and military pensioners from Van Diemen’s Land) were accepted into the force. But recruitment problems were temporary. The force was centralised and there was extensive investment in infrastructure and manpower. Wages were raised, policemen were recruited from England and Ireland, and a novel scheme to recruit a limited number of gentlemen as fast-tracked cadets proved remarkably popular. As immigrants poured in and luck ran out on the diggings, applications to join the police rose dramatically. By March 1852 the Melbourne force was at full strength. By mid 1853 there were 875 police stationed in Victoria and a year later 1,639 – establishing the relatively high police to population ratio of 1:144 in the colony.
Historians studying the police have examined the way in which the colonial force was influenced by two traditions of law enforcement: a crime-preventative ‘civilian’ style of policing epitomised by the London Metropolitan Police; and the paramilitary style of the Irish Constabulary, whose function it was to check social and political disorder and dissent, as much as crime. In his history, The People’s Force, Robert Haldane suggests that while the first model of policing was adopted in colonial Melbourne, the more militaristic style of Irish policing was applied to the goldfields. Manpower and arms were disproportionately deployed to the diggings – for example, at Castlemaine in 1854 the ratio of police to population was 1:56. This strategic concentration of resources was not, Haldane argues, an attempt to contain increased crime, but a conscious attempt to control the civilian population on the diggings. A primary responsibility of this heavily armed police force was administrative – to regulate and enforce the gold licensing system. Rather than combating crime, the police operated essentially as a repressive tax gathering and surveillance force. When giving evidence to the Gold Fields Commission of Enquiry in 1855, Chief Commissioner MacMahon admitted that police at Ballarat were used primarily as tax gatherers, and could not be respected or function efficiently as law enforcement officers while this remained their role. The enquiry determined that far too many police were stationed on the goldfields and that the ‘proper duty of protecting the people’ was not carried out effectively.
The repressive, inefficient policing policy on the goldfields was compounded by the government’s decision to grant half the proceeds of fines for evasion of licence fees and sly-grogging to the individual policeman responsible for the conviction. This kept most police intent on securing licence fees and fines (rather than combating crime) and led to widespread corruption. It also did nothing to curb the powers of some brutal and corrupt individuals. Many police, some accustomed to a system of convict discipline, were contemptuous of the diggers and performed their duty in a rude, bullying manner. Others, like Superintendent David Armstrong, were sadistic thugs. Armstrong’s habit was to burn the tents of suspects and beat those who questioned his modus operandi with the brass knob of his riding crop. He was eventually dismissed, but left boasting that in two years at Ballarat he’d made £15,000 in fines and bribes.
This policy and practice of policing generated hatred, contempt for the force, and ultimately rebellion from the diggers. They were angered by the lack of policing of actual crime and outraged by a system that cast them as criminals – one that took a digger who couldn’t pay his licence fee for a serious felon. As J.B. Humffray observed:
Honest men are hunted down by the police like kangaroos, and if they do not possess a licence, too often for the want of means of paying for one, as poverty is the lot of many a digger, they are paraded through the diggings by the commissioners and police . . . and, if unable to pay the fine, are rudely locked up, in company of any thief or thieves who may be in the Camp cells at the time; in short, treated in every way as if they were felons.