was the hero of Australias famous workers rebellion
150 years ago
By Teddy Fennelly of the Leinster Express
The last stand taken by diggers at the Ballarat goldfields
in Victoria on Sunday 3 December 1854, was a turning point
in Australian history. It is more than a historic event.
For many it has come to represent the spirit of democracy
and freedom that is an integral part of that countrys
national identity and pride.
It was at the Eureka Stockade where a small band of angry
gold diggers, many of them Irish, who had been exploited,
abused and denied of the most basic rights, threw down the
gauntlet to a ruthless and corrupt administration; and while
they lost the battle the most certainly won the war. Their
brave leader was a Laoisman, Peter Lalor, and a member of
the famous Lalor family of Tenakill.
Peter Lalor (1827-1889) travelled to Australia with his
brother, Richard (1823-1893) on the ship Scindian
in 1852. Gold had been discovered in Ballarat, Victoria,
in the previous year. Due to the influx of 20,000 gold prospectors,
Ballarat was soon proclaimed a town. By 1855 it was a municipality,
a borough by 1863 and a city in 1870.
Lalor initially found work on the construction of the Melbourne-Geelong/railway
but he, Richard and another Irishman also went into business
as wine, spirits and provision merchants. In 1853, he left
Melbourne for the Ovens gold diggings and in 1854 moved
to Ballarat where he staked a claim with Duncan Gillies,
a Scot, on the Eureka land.
There was a good deal of unrest at Ballarat due to the imposition
of the miners license of thirty shillings a month
by the government ( a huge amount of money in those days)
and the practice of digger-hunting.
The license inspections were conducted in a contemptuous
way by a corrupt police, many of whom were ex-convicts.
The miners, mostly recent immigrants into the colony of
Victoria, had no voting rights and had, therefore, no voice
in the administration of their own affairs, which further
frustrated them. Lalor became deeply involved in agitation
over these issues and in the fight for true democracy for
his fellow gold diggers. Lalor wrote in the Ballarat Star:
If democracy (means) opposition to a tyrannical press,
a tyrannical people or a tyrannical government, then I have
been, I am still and will ever remain a democrat.
When matters came to a head over the arrest and jailing
of three diggers for burning Bentleys Hotel, it provoked
a determined campaign of physical resistance to the injustices
being perpetrated by the administration. Bentley had been
acquitted of the murder of James Scobie at his hotel on
October 7th 1854 and this triggered the arson attack five
days later. Bentley was found guilty at a retrial and sent
On November 11, the Ballarat Reform League was formed with
a view to abolishing licenses and having the miners released.
Due to the lack of response to these demands the diggers
became more militant by the day and Lalor threw himself
into a leadership vacuum and took charge. On being elected
President and Commander-in-Chief of the Reform League, Lalor
replied: I make no pretensions to military knowledge,
I have not the presumption to assume the Chief command,
no more than any other man who means wells in the cause
of the gold diggers. If you appoint me as Commander-in-Chief
I shall not shrink.I mean to do my duty as a man.
I tell you gentlemen, if once I pledge my hand to the diggers
I will not defile it with treachery not render it contemptible
Every effort at reconciliation was spurned by the authorities.
The frustrated miners prepared themselves for a crucial
Licenses were burned, the Eureka flag of freedom and justice
was unfurled, a council of war established, captains were
appointed and, forming brigades, the miners marched in a
long column to the Eureka on Thursday 30 November, where
a makeshift defensive stockade was hastily built. The miners
at the Eureka were mainly Irish but many also came from
England, Scotland, mainland Europe, China, the U.S. and
Australia. Lalor stood four square at the head of this motley
crew of goldfield workers fighting for their basic rights.
On Bakery Hill pikes were forged, firearms were readied
for use, and provisions and horses were sourced. As tensions
run high that night, the Catholic priest, Father Smyth.
made two trips to the Government Camp, which was in sight
of Bakery Hill, in an unsuccessful attempt to mediate.
The miners were surprised that the expected attack on the
stockade failed to materialise on the Thursday or Friday
nights. But when it did eventually come, in the early hours
of Sunday morning, the defenders of the stockade were badly
outnumbered and caught totally by surprise. The barriers
were stormed unexpectedly by a party of 276 police and military
personnel, under the command of Capt. J.W. Thomas, and a
battle lasting less than an hour ensued. It is known that
a spy within the camp had informed the authorities of the
small number of rebel miners defending the camp at that
early stage of Sunday morning. Thirty miners, many of them
Irish, and six trooper were killed and 114 miners were taken
prisoner in the battle and marched to Melbourne for trial.
The rebels resisted gamely as Lalor time and again shouted
commands at them to stand their ground, regroup and eventually
retreat. The miners resisted gallantly as the Eureka flag
flew proudly over the stockade before it was seized by one
of th attackers. As the battle waged and the soldiers and
police ruthlessly cut down the ill-armed rebels, Peter Lalor,
seeing the situation as hopeless, jumped onto the logged
up roof of a defence hole and encouraged his men to withdraw
to better positions. As he was shouting commands he was
shot down with a bullet that shattered his left shoulder.
With the help of an Irishman by the name of OCarroll,
Lalor escaped and reached the home of Father Smyth in Ballarat
where the arm was amputated.
He was taken to Geelong where he was cared for by Alicia
Dunne, whom he later married on 10th July 1855.
After an initial witchhunt to locate and punish all involved
in the rebellion, public opinion forced the government to
take a more benign view of the diggers, grievances. A reward
had been placed on Lalors head, but this was revoked
in March 1855 and the thirteen diggers, who had been charged
with treason, were acquitted in April. Within six months,
legislation was passed to give the miners a fair deal, which
included the abolition of miners, licenses and the introduction
of the franchise to the workers in the goldfields.
Lalor was returned unopposed to the Victorian Parliament
in November 1855 and remained a Member until he resigned
due to failing health thirty two years later. He took an
independent line in politics and was a highly respected
figure among Members on all sides of the House. In 1875
he became Commissioner for Customs in the Berry Government,
and in 1880 he became Speaker, a position he held until
his retirement in September 1887.
He died at the home of his son, Joseph on 9 February 1889.
For a generation or more both sides felt it better to forget
about the rebellion and the bloodshed, and preferred to
put that dark episode in Australian history behind them
so that they could move on to more peaceful, more equitable
and more prosperous future. But interest in the battle as
the Eureka has reawakened in recent decades and its significance
on the political and social landscape of Australia.
Interest in the role Peter Lalor played in it has also been
reawkened and a big programme of events have been taking
place this year to commemorate the Eureka Stockades
Peter Lalor is commemorated with a number of places and
institutions named after him. In Melbourne there is the
suburb of Lalor, the Peter Lalor Secondary College and the
electrotate of Lalor to name a few. The grave of Peter Lalor
is visited on the Walking Tour of Melbourne General Cemetery.
Films have been made of the event, countless books, poems,plays
and articles have been written and artists have also tried
to encapsulate the birth of democracy and civil rights in
Australia Post have issued new stamps one depicting the
Eureka Flag and the other Peter Lalor.
The Perth Mint has also produced a unique 2004-dated coin
- the first base metal Australian legal tender coin to be
struck by the mint in its 105 year history.
Courtesy of the The Leinster Express