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The Influence of Chartism on the Victorian Goldfields

Chartism had an influence on the political life of goldfields society, even amongst some of those involved in the Eureka Stockade, and did so within a diverse political climate. H.C. Harris observed that the Chartist tradition in Victoria in the 1850s is best assessed as ‘an indirect undercurrent promoting faith in democratic methods and objectives, particularly concerning electoral reform.’ It is important to consider the aims of European miners in terms of the Eight Hour Day movement, Liberalism, and Trade Unionism. After all it was in Melbourne, Victoria, that the Eight Hour Day was first proclaimed, in 1856. Similarly, it was not by accident that electoral and labour reform occurred in the aftermath of the uprising at Eureka. Helen Hughes made this observation when commenting succinctly that ‘the success of the shorter hours movement cannot be accounted for without consideration of the atmosphere of social and political radicalism in Victoria during this period.’

In the tradition of the treatment of British democratic dissenters of the 1790s, a number of Chartists were transported to Australia for their political beliefs. Others, not as overtly political, were immigrants attracted to Australia by its offer of the political autonomy not available to them in Britain. Invariably, some found their way to the Victorian goldfields, and it was through them that echoes of Chartism could be found in the egalitarian attitudes and the social transformation of the goldfields, particularly in the theme of the world turned upside down – an inversion of the social order that is readily associated with the gold rush era. Ernest Scott has argued that the Ballarat Reform League agenda was essentially a variant of Chartism modified for a Victorian context.

Keir Reeves

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Hughes, Helen, 'The eight hour day and the development of the labour movement in Victoria in the eighteen-fifties', Historical Studies, vol. 9, 1961, pp. 396-412. Details
Murphy, W. E., and Eight Hours' Anniversary Committee, History of the Eight Hours' Movement: (under patronage of the Pioneers of the Eight Hours' System and the officers and members of the Eight Hours' Anniversary Committee, 1896, Spectator, Melbourne, 1896. Details
Pickering, Paul, 'The finger of God: gold's impact on New South Wales', in Iain McCalman and and Andrew Reeves Alexander Cook (eds), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details
Pickering, Paul, ''Ripe for a Republic': British Radical Responses to the Eureka Stockade', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 34, no. 121, 2003, pp. 69-90. Details
Walshe, R. D., The Eureka Stockade, 1854-1954, Current Book Distributors, Sydney, 1954. Details
Walshe, R. D., 'The significance of Eureka in Australian history', Historical Studies, 1954, pp. 62-80. Details
Walshe, R. D., Australia's fight for independence and parliamentary democracy: centenary of responsible government, 1856-1956, Current Book Distributors, Sydney, 1956. Details
Wilson, Alex, 'Chartism', in J. T. Ward (ed.), Popular Movements, C. 1830-1850, Macmillan, London, 1970, pp. 116-134. Details