Background To The Rebellion


The colonial authorities of Victoria faced a disastrous financial crisis in the 1850s. In spite of the wealth from gold mining, 1853 imports into Victoria reached £15,840,000, were substantially greater than exports, £11,060,000. The situation worsened in 1854, with imports exceeding exports by £5,880,000. The merchants objected to import duties because it would have increased the price of goods and made them more difficult to sell. There was a growing volume of unsold goods & the merchants were not prepared to make a tariff impost law against their interests.

In fact, by 1852 they reduced the number of items subject to import duties from 160 to 5. The other force on the Victorian Legislative Council was the pastoralists/squatters who were able to reduce the stock tax from threepence to twopence a head for sheep.

Because the Legislative Council did not solve the problem of matching expenditure with income the Victorian colony consequently faced the crisis of bankruptcy. By 1854 the Government in Victoria had a deficit of £1,085,896. Governor Hotham demanded that the sum of £4,801,992 be collected in tax for the year 1855 of which £1,860,830 was allotted to cover the costs of the extensive public works.

Because the 3 possible sources of large scale revenue, customs (on imported goods), land (tax on squatters’ leases) and gold (export duty) were not a possibility as far as the merchant and pastoralist controlled Legislative Council were concerned, the miners were targeted for the expense of balancing the budget.

Being the largest class of the community, the diggers were paying in direct taxation more than a half million pounds, whereas the great landholders and wool producers were paying only 20,000 pounds. Hotham initially wanted the miner’s fee to be increased from 30 shillings to three pounds per month. But the Legislative Council cautioned that this might well inflame the miners into full revolt!

Undaunted the miners had agitated for the reduction of license fees, the right to vote and purchase land. Agitation for these demands commenced with the Forest Creek Monster Meeting of December 1851 and included the formation of the Anti-Gold License Association at nearby Bendigo in 1853.

Consequently, concessions were made to the miners and the monthly mining license fee was reduced from thirty shillings to £1/10 shillings or a yearly license of £8. The diggers considered this fee also exorbitant, because in 1851 a squatter could buy twenty square miles of land from the Victorian government for the same amount of £1/10 shillings.

Nevertheless, civil disobedience and protests in Ballarat began to grow as the burden of increased taxation was placed on the diggers and resulted in numerous injustices from the police and troopers who carried out abusive ‘license hunts’.

The problem of the Government bankruptcy was aggravated by the increasing refusal of the diggers to pay their license fees. Hotham demanded they should obey the law and pay their license fees therefore assist his budget problems. He ordered twice weekly ‘license hunts’ to achieve his needed tax collection. The increased pressure on the diggers was a result of the expanding colonial Victorian deficit and the unwillingness of the big monopolists (pastoralists/squatters) to pay tax.


Parent Category: Spirit Content

Further Unrest

Additional events inflamed the politically charged atmosphere in Ballarat. On 6 October 1854, the Scottish miner James Scobie was murdered at the Eureka hotel. Ten days later between 5,000 and 10,000 miners gathered at the Eureka Hotel to protest that James Bentley, the hotel owner and key murder suspect had not been charged. Bentley was a business partner of one of the Gold Commission officials and his acquittal was seen as government corruption. Bentley’s hotel was burnt down and he and his wife fled the gold fields.

On 23 October 1854 as result of the arrests of miners, McIntyre and Fletcher for the Eureka Hotel fire, a mass meeting assembled which attracted 4,000 miners. The meeting established a "Digger's Right Society", to uphold their rights. Nine days later, 1 November 1854, 3,000 miners met again at Bakery Hill and were addressed by key speakers, such as the Chartists, Thomas Kennedy and Henry Holyoake. The miners were further incensed by the arrest of another seven from amongst their ranks for the Eureka Hotel fire.

Parent Category: Spirit Content

Ballarat Reform League


On Saturday, 11 November 1854 an assembly of more than 10,000 miners met at Bakery Hill. At this meeting, the Ballarat Reform League was formed, with the Chartist, John Humffray being elected the first Chairman. Kennedy and Holyoake, who had involvement with the Chartist movement in England, were also elected leaders of the Ballarat Reform League. In fact large numbers of miners had earlier connections with the Chartist movement and the social turmoil that occurred in Britain, Ireland and continental Europe of the 1840s.

In forming its goals, the Ballarat Reform League took on the British Chartist movement's objectives.

1. A full and fair representation

2. Manhood (sic) suffrage

3. No property qualification of Members for the Legislative Council.

4. Payment of Members

5. Short duration of Parliament

Immediate objects of the Reform League were:

The immediate disbandment of the Gold Fields Commissioners and the abolition of the Miners' and Storekeepers license tax.

The Bakery Hill meeting affirmed "that it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called on to obey, that taxation without representation is tyranny". The meeting also determined to secede from Britain if the situation did not improve….

"If Queen Victoria continues to act upon the ill advice of dishonest ministers and insists upon indirectly dictating obnoxious laws for the Colony, under the assumed authority of the Royal Prerogative, the Reform League will endeavour to supercede such Royal Prerogative by asserting that of the People which is the most Royal of all Prerogatives, as the people are the only legitimate source of all political power."

During the following weeks, the League sought to negotiate with Commissioner Rede and Governor Hotham, on both the matters involving Bentley and the men being tried for the burning of the Eureka Hotel, and on the larger issues of abolition of the license, democratic representation of the miners, and disbanding of the Gold Commission. Commissioner Rede's response was to increase the police oppressive “license hunts” and call for reinforcements from Melbourne.

On November 29th a meeting of some 12,000 miners heard the Reform League delegation explain its failure in negotiations with the Colonial establishment. The miners declared open resistance to the authorities and burned the despised licenses.

Response was swift and the police were ordered to conduct a license search on 30 November. Eight miners without a license were arrested, and the military had to rescue the arresting officers from the angry mob that had gathered.


Parent Category: Spirit Content

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The Spirit of Eureka Committee was established in the lead up to the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade in 2004, to give a strong and united voice to the current struggles of Australia’s working people.

The Spirit of Eureka draws on the continuity and relevance of this important event in the history of Australia to present day endeavours and struggles for justice, democracy and sovereignty.

The Eureka rebellion laid the foundations for Australia’s continuing social, industrial and political struggles. It was advanced for its time and represents an important fighting tradition that continues to inspire our fight today.


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