Laoisman was the hero of Australia’s 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 country’s 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 Bentley’s 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 to prison.

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 with cowardice.”

Every effort at reconciliation was spurned by the authorities. The frustrated miners prepared themselves for a crucial confrontation.

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 O’Carroll, 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 Lalor’s 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 Stockade’s 150th anniversary.

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.

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
January 2005