The history of Ballarat is inextricably linked with gold (1851) and the miner’s rebellion which became known as the Eureka Stockade (1854).
The first record of Europen settlement in the area which is now Ballarat, was in 1837 when a squatter, Archibald Yuille took up a sheep run which he named Ballaarat, a constriction of the local Aboriginal name for the area, Ball Arat. The spelling of Ballaarat was officially adopted when the town was declared a municipality in 1852 and was retained until 1994 when the spelling was officially changed to Ballarat.
In 1851, the same year that the area known as Port Phillip became Melbourne, the capital of the Colony of Victoria, gold was discovered at Ballarat and the resultant gold rush changed the idyllic landscape into a crowded tent city as miners moved in panning the creeks and gravel pits.Ballarat grew quickly and by the time James Ford arrived (1868) it was a bustling city of some 60 000 people, a decade and a half after the Eureka Stockade. Given that William, James’s brother was already living in Ballarat it is more than probable that both men knew some of those who were witnesses to the events around the rebellion. Much has been written about the Eureka Stockade both within the context of the local Ballarat history and its wider political implications for the rest of what was to become Australia.
The Ballarat Goldrush is acknowledged as occurring between 1850 and 1860. The gold exported to the UK during the 1850s effectively paid off all the foreign debt of the fledgling colony and changed Melbourne from a dirty overcrowded outpost of Britain into a wealthy prosperous city. By the 1860s the population of Victorian was about half that of the rest of the Australian colonies.
As history records it the events leading up to the Eureka Stockade have their genesis in an ugly incident that occurred near the Eureka Hotel on the night of Friday 6, or the early hours of Saturday 7 October 1854.
The Death of Peter Scobie
James Scobie and his friend Peter Martin were out celebrating their renewed friendship by doing the rounds of the local hotels. In the late hours of Friday the 6 or the early hours of Saturday 7 October 1854, the pair approached the Eureka Hotel which was closed. Probably more inebriated than they realised they demanded entry to continue their celebration. Entry was refused after which there was some altercation during which a window of the hotel was broken.
There is some confusion in the historical record as to the name of James Scobie’s who was his companion on the night of his death. Some records have it as Peter Martin, others as Thomas Kennedy. I have elected to use the name Peter Martin although in the transcript of the Supreme Court trial his name is recorded as William Martin.
It seems that as both Scobie and Martin walked away from the hotel and when somewhere between 100 to 200 yards from the hotel were accosted by three men and one woman. Scobie and Martin were accused of breaking the window after which a ‘scuffle’ or a fight broke out during which both men were rendered unconscious. After Martin gain consciousness he found that his friend Scobie was dead.
This unfortunate and tragic event, in the normal course of human affairs, would have been quickly forgotten. But there were also other issues forming a corrosive undercurrent within the mining community.
Essentially, the Victorian Government had been remiss in failing to appreciate either the miners or the conditions under which they lived and worked. The miners enjoyed a level of education higher than the general population, most could read and write. As John Moloney notes;
The population on Ballarat was far from being an unruly, reckless and improvident mob. There were about 15 000 diggers whose level of education was higher than that prevailing in the British Isles. They had some means, often slender, but had come to Australia without government assistance. To penetrate down to the deep leads often took months, hence they were called diggers. By 1854 many of them were building homes in Ballarat, which had all the signs of a peaceful and settled community.
(John Molony; Eureka and the Prerogative of the People, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/~/~/link.aspx?_id=FEB904C647E747FFB28319258C23F52B&_z=z
Further, the thousands who flocked to the Ballarat goldfields, numbering some 20 000 in 1852, were not only unrepresented in the Victorian Parliament but were treated as non-residents and particularly resented the fact that a standing army was stationed on the goldfields.
The Ballarat Goldrush which was bigger than the Californian Goldrush (1848) and imposed increasing expense on the government in their effort in securing some sort of order. To offset these costs increasing license fees were imposed along with pedantic restrictions such as imposing imprisonment on any miner found not actually in possession of his license. To miners scraping a living off the alluvial goldfield, such impositions imposed unrealistic financial burdens. Many no longer bothered to obtain a license which only served to increase police activity. The resultant riots in the nearby Beechworth and Castlemaine goldfields should have sent a warning to the government but as Ballarat was, apparently, ‘renowned for its progressiveness and quietness’ the miner’s opposition was largely ignored. Scobie’s death was about to change all that.
The Court Case
Following the death of Scobie, the owner of the Eureka Hotel, James Francis Bentley, his wife Catherine, John Farrell and William Henry Hance were all charged with the murder. The evidence supporting the charges accused Farrell of striking Scobie with and fist and kicking him when Scobie was on the ground. Hance was accused of kicking the deceased while Bentley accused of striking Scobie with some sort of instrument, perhaps a spade. However, the evidence is far from conclusive. Given that Scobie’s death was the direct result of being struck by a ‘blunt instrument’, the doctor who performed the post-mortem, held later that day, noted that a strong odour of alcohol came from the deceased stomach. It is probably safe to assume both men were drunk.
Today we know more about the dangers of striking someone who is heavily intoxicated: the victim dies not necessarily from the impact of the assailant but from the impact of the head hitting the ground. It may well be that Scobie, heavily intoxicated, was killed when his head hit the ground and not when he was struck with a spade.
But there was more to this incident than what appears on the surface. During the subsequent court hearing held the following Thursday 12 October a number of witnesses testified that James Bentley was safely ensconced within the Eureka Hotel at the alleged time of the attack Scobie and Martin. There was, however, one witness, a ten-year boy named Bernard Welsh who was an independent eyewitness to the attack. The lad claimed that on the night in question he saw two men involved in the incident, one man being rather stout whom he recognised as Bentley. He also heard a woman say, ‘How dare you break my window’. The lad’s mother supported her son claiming that the women’s voice was that of Catherine Bentley. After the incident, Welsh claimed that he saw the assailants return to the Eureka Hotel.
Given that the assault took place during the hours of darkness at a time before any gas street lighting was installed, Welsh’s statement is feasible. The moon phases for Ballarat in 1854 shows that full moon occurred on 6 October 1854.
The witnesses for the accused were George Bassar, a butcher living at the hotel, Henry Green another resident and Everett Gud the Manager of the hotel’s bar who also resided at the hotel. It was noted in a number of newspaper articles at the time reporting on the case that these witnesses perhaps had something of a vested interest in supporting James Bentley.
In the court hearing, the Magistrate promptly dismissed the charges and discharged the accused. One witness to the court proceedings, William Corkhill, publically challenged the magistrate’s decision and was lucky to escape sanction by the court and possible imprisonment. Essentially, the magistrate’s decision had the effect of galvanising the miners. Believing that the magistrate was in the pay of the Bentley’s, not an unreasonable assumption given Bentley’s criminal past, the miners organised a number of meetings held over the following days and weeks.
One such meeting resulted in a petition being drafted seeking His Excellency Sir Charles Hotham, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Victoria, intervention imploring him to have the case bought before a judge and jury and;
- Your petitioners beg to state, that not only the decision, but also the manner in which the case was conducted, both by the magistrates, and the coroner, has strongly tended to destroy the confidence hitherto placed in them by the public.
William Corkhill and Peter Lalor were, amongst others, signatories to the petition.
The Eureka Hotel Fire
On 17 October at another ‘meeting’ of the miners, an enraged mob, one estimates notes some 8 000 miners present, resulted in the Eureka Hotel being set on fire and burnt to the ground. The owner of the hotel, James Bentley, escaped apparently with police assistance as the Sub-inspector of police lent Bentley his horse on which to flee. A number of arrests and imprisonments followed.
Ballarat Reform League
Another meeting was held on the 11 November which led to the inauguration of the Ballarat Reform League on the 11 November to which Peter Lalor was subsequently elected leader on 29 November 1854.
Peter Labor’s tent was alongside James Scobie’s tent.
As the miner’s unrest escalated so did the police and military presence.
Melbourne Supreme Court
Meanwhile, the petition seeking a review of the death of Scobie sent to the Governor-General was successful. The accursed men and women were subsequently arraigned before Melbourne’s Supreme Court in the case of the Queen v James Francis Bentley, Catherine Bentley, William Henry Hance, and Thomas Farrell.
Transcripts of the evidence presented by Bernard Welsh and his mother, Mary Ann Welsh and Peter Martin, Scobie’s friend leave little doubt as to the involvement of the accused.
I am the son of Benjamin Welsh, gold-digger ; I heard a noise outside our tent on the morning the man was found dead; as I lay in bed I looked out through the back of the tent, and saw two men and one woman ; this was between one and two, and it was quite a moonlight morning ; one of the men picked up my spade from the corner of the tent ; the spade now produced is the same ; I had heard some disturbance at the hotel a little before this ; one of the men whom I just said I saw, stooped down as if to pick something up, when another of the men said, “No, don’t throw anything at them”; a few moments after having taken my spade I heard a scuffle and a blow ; the people then came back and threw down the spade on the opposite side of the tent they took it from ; I had put the spade away myself the evening before, and found it in the morning where I had heard these people throw it down in the night ; after passing by the tent the second time, the people went towards the hotel ; I could see from where I was lying in bed ; to the best of my belief Mr. Bentley was one of these men, and Mooney, his barman, the other ; from having seen Mr. Bentley so often before, I knew his appearance very well.
I am the wife of Benjamin Welsh, and live near the Eureka hotel ; early on Sunday morning I heard a disturbance outside my tent, and a short time after, three or four persons came out from the back, entrance of the hotel, and passed by my tent I heard a voice say, “Don’t throw anything at them”; somebody then picked up a spade, which was outside the tent, and they all went together a little further on ; I then heard a scuffle, and a very heavy blow ; previous to this, I heard a woman’s voice say, “How dare you break my window ?” this voice, which was very familiar to me, I swear to the best of my belief was Mrs. Bentley’s ; they then returned and the spade was thrown down again ; I heard another voice; a man’s voice say, “That is the way to treat such sweeps”; to the best of my belief I will swear this was Mr. Bentley’s voice after all was quiet, a man called out for help, “In the name of God go some one for a doctor!” I then got up and looked out of my tent; a body was lying on its back about twenty five yards off, one man standing on the right and another on the left; the man on the right fell down and burst out sobbing over the body. Shortly after this I heard heavy footsteps passing my tent, as if persons were carrying the body away.
I was a mate of the deceased; we had been out spending the evening of Friday in a tent near the Black Hill; in going home we passed the Eureka Hotel ; we stopped there and wanted to go in ; this was a little after one o’clock in the morning ; we were both the worse for liquor at the time ; we were refused admission, and went away; a short time after three or four men came up to me from the hotel; one I swear to be James Bentley, the landlord ; he was not the man who struck me ; I think he was not the man, because there was another man between him and me, and it must have been the nearest man who knocked me down ; when I got up I went to where my mate was, and found him lying on his back as if dead ; I do not know that he was dead at that time ; I then went to a butcher’s in that neighbourhood, and roused him up and told him what was the matter ; a few minutes after, a doctor was called, and my mate was found to be quite dead ; it was a moonlight morning ; since the occurrence I have been detained at the Ballarat camp; I did not mention Bentley’s name at the coroner’s inquest ; I omitted doing so because I was very much excited by the death of my mate ; I did not wish to say more at that time than was necessary; I am sure that Bentley was one of the men who attacked us ; there was no need for me to recollect it afterwards, for I knew it at the time ; I was sure of it then, and am now, not from the impression of my feelings, but from the conviction of my eye-sight … I do not know whether Bentley’s name was mentioned to me by anyone before I accused him myself; I think not.
Bentley and his staff Thomas Mooney, the hotel watchman; Thomas Farrell, a clerk; and barman William Duncan denied taking part in the murder but agreed that two men did come knocking after midnight. https://eurekapedia.org/James_Scobie
The jury, after hearing the evidence took just fifteen minutes to reach its verdict. They found the three men guilty of manslaughter while Catherine Bentley was found not guilty. The three men were sentenced to three years hard labour working on the roads.
The events of the Supreme Court were sure to inflame the situation back in Ballarat. The ‘guilty’ verdict and subsequent imprisonment of the accused only served to convince the miners that the police and authorities on the goldfields were indeed corrupt.
At another meeting of miners, Peter Lalor called for volunteers to enlist in the Ballarat Reform League and on 1 December 1854 and they marched under the recognisable Eureka flag to the Eureka Diggings and erected a barricade. There, the miners took allegiance to the flag. But in a pre-dawn raid on Sunday 3 December, British troops and mounted police launched an assault on the barricade. The battle was over in some fifteen minutes. Five British troops were killed, including their Captain, while 22 ‘diggers’ died. Peter Lalor escaped with a shattered arm which later had to be amputated.
Peter Lalor and the ‘diggers’ lost the battle that has become entrenched in Australian history as the Eureka Stockade. But in having lost the battle they had, in fact, won the war. What followed was a prompt about-face on the part of the government. Reforms were implemented and the dreaded licensing system abolished and replaced by a miner’s right. The arrested miners were all dismissed of charges, except one Henry Seekamp, the editor of the Ballarat Times who was convicted of seditious libel. Essentially, the diggers got everything they had asked for.
Peter Lalor, minus his left arm, went on to be elected to the Legislative Council where he later became speaker of the House in 1855. Ballarat settled back to its previous image of being ‘renowned for its progressiveness and quietness’ which is how James would have experience the town when he arrived with his wife Elizabeth and his two daughters, Janet Muir Ford and Margaret Ford.
The question which arises when any discussion is held around the topic of the Eureka Stockade is that the rebellion was about democracy. To suggest, as some do, that Ballarat was the ‘cradle of Australian democracy’ smacks of ideology rather than history. Certainly, there is some element as to the matter of ‘representation’ apparent in the rebellion and I’ll let historians debate that at their pleasure. What is apparent from the historical record is that there was something more important underpinning the rebellion than some idealised social agenda which the unfortunate death of James Scobie publically exposed.
At the subsequent Magistrate’s Court hearing, the charges bought against the four persons accused of Scobie’s murder were summarily dismissed and the accused discharged. With the cursory dismissal of the charges, the court effective confirmed what the miners experienced in their daily lives; that they were valued, and treated, less than cattle or sheep. What the miners, who were educated and who had worked their passage to the goldfields, sought was respect. They simply wanted to be treated as humans and any reasonable educated human having heard the evidence could have so precipitately dismissed the charges. Knowing how much their labour contributed to the colonial coffers, the miners simply objected to being treated as uneducated fools. Unfortunately, it took a rebellion before the authorities acknowledged their status.
The information surrounding the Eureka Stockade is freely available on the internet from which I have made free use.
Copyright John Ford 2019