Eyewitness at Eureka

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Anthony Fyson | Published in History Today Volume: 54 Issue: 12

Anthony Fyson reads a letter from his great-grandfather, who as a young man was caught up in the Eureka Stockade, where gold-miners in Ballarat, Victoria, famously clashed with state troops, 150 years ago this month.

In December 1854, growing tension between the government of Victoria and the thousands who had flocked to the gold-fields near Melbourne over the previous three years flared into armed insurrection. Provoked by corrupt and insensitive policing, and harbouring long-standing grievances about extortionate mining licence fees and a restrictive system of land ownership, hundreds of miners burnt their permits and built a makeshift defensive stockade on the Eureka gold lead at Ballarat. The British colonial administration responded with overwhelming force. A brief but bloody assault led to some hundred casualties, including a likely total of thirty-five dead miners, in an act of repression commemorated in Australia to this day. Here is a contemporary account of what happened written by one miner, Alfred Madocks from Ipswich.

Madocks arrived in Victoria in May 1852. An adventurous young man twenty-one years old, he found the gold-rushes already in full swing and joined in with energy and enthusiasm, believing, like so many that one lucky strike would set him up for life. Melbourne’s population shrank as optimists and opportunists alike headed for the alluvial plains and craggy quartz hills inland from the city. Business and domestic life suffered for lack of staff and ships swung unattended at anchor in Port Phillip Bay. Seamen and people of all classes infected by the ‘gold fever’ set off with whatever equipment they could muster to seek their fortunes. Those who succeeded (sometimes with spectacular and well-publicised finds) sustained the enthusiasm of the rest. Shrewd traders went too, recognising the opportunities presented by the requirements of a migrant population in need of all manner of comestibles and creature comforts, however rudimentary.

Ballarat in 1854 boasted the richest alluvial goldfields ever discovered, and Madocks was drawn back time and again living in a tent city with thousands of others, or in a shack knocked together by himself and his mates. He worked on the goldfields – and eventually on a modestly productive gold-bearing quartz reef – until 1859, with intermittent periods of respite and odd-jobbing back in Melbourne. He wrote at irregular intervals to England, and twenty-three of his letters from Australia survive. Many of them are written in the paper-saving ‘crossed’ manner, which involved first writing normally across the page, then turning the paper through ninety degrees to allow a vertical layer of script, and occasionally the addition of some final ‘diagonal’ writing.

The Eureka letter is one such. Some 4,500 words long, it was addressed to Emily Gill, the girl Madocks had left behind in England. It was begun on December 19th, 1854, sixteen days after the Eureka engagement, and was completed in five instalments. He wrote from a timber hut, shared with mates, on or near Clayton’s Hill, Ballarat:

Dearest Emily
The excitement caused by the late unfortunate affair has prevented my answering your very kind letter which I received about November 2nd before this. I trust that you are safe and well as myself. I received your letter on my way to work the evening it being my watch below. I had the pleasure of reading it at fourteen feet below the surface among water, timber mine props, shovels, ropes, sperm candles, buckets, picks and so on and am sorry to say I made it very dirty.  
I arrived here two and a half days after leaving Geelong and was at work next day and soon felt comfortable again. Since then I have bottomed two 140-foot shafts, worked out one (sharing 2 lb weight [of gold] among 12 men) and half worked out another, but little better. These are worse than good honest blanks because they take time and experience, and more than that prevent one perhaps from other chances which might make a fellow’s pile. Had it not been for the late disturbance we should have been halfway down with another by this time, but all work was suspended, the water rose in the shafts, and scores of rich claims were smothered. Our drives caved in and the bottom of the shaft burst. A sweet pretty job we had all last week. Even worse it is uncertain if we can repair it and the ground is not worth sinking a fresh shaft for. So much for civil war as regards personal interest. But we must not complain for we might have lost a number of our mess. As it was, one of our mates got shot and the poor fellow died next day. Another was taken prisoner and narrowly escaped getting lagged.

It may be that this brief account was the only reference that Madocks originally intended to make to the Eureka affair, since it is followed by a much longer report of the difficulties one of his uncles was experiencing on the gold-fields. Madocks was also a devout Nonconformist, was acutely conscious of his own failings and somewhat tearaway character, and was writing to a respectable lower-middle-class young lady in the hope of persuading her and her family that he would one day make her a suitable husband.

He may have had much to hide: oral family history (uncorroborated by firm evidence), has it that he was considerably more involved in the revolt than is stated anywhere in his letter. Many years after the stockade events, he confided to his daughter that he had shot and killed one of the few men who had died on the government side, a deed which lay heavily on his conscience for the rest of his life. Whatever the exact truth of that – and there are some plausible reasons for accepting it – the pressure for solidarity among the miners surely would have prevented Madocks from remaining entirely detached while his close mates were apparently so deeply involved.

The letter is untypical in the lengthy discussion it contains of news beyond the immediately domestic and personal. Although his first concern was probably to hide unwelcome information from his family and friends back in England, it would have been equally important not to reveal it in writing for fear of the letter falling into the hands of the Victorian authorities. Thirteen surviving ringleaders had been hauled off for trial in Melbourne after the engagement, but at the time Madocks was writing they were yet to go to court, and their sensational acquittals on the charge of high treason by a succession of juries did not occur until February and March 1855.

Despite these constraints Madocks seems to have had a change of mind after writing his first summary and decided to go into more detail, while taking care to distance himself from the events. So the unusual nature of the letter was established three days later, as he got on with penning a second instalment:  

(22nd) I suppose by the time you receive this the Ballarat fracas or the ‘Eureka Massacre’ as our highly democratic Paper called it, will be known to your critics. They will have said their say about it of course, knowing as much again as us ‘Vagabonds’ who have witnessed both the affair and the long course of bad policy and mismanagement which originated it. I say this not because I by any means agreed with the miners here setting themselves up to subvert the present Government (for it must be obvious to all that although the country is at any time completely at the mercy of the People if they choose, a worse time than the present could not be) but because had there not been gross mismanagement it would never have occurred.
I will just state the whole affair briefly. A foolish Government when the diggings started made a law that no spirits should come on the mines (similar to the splendid American Maine Liquor Law) and this in a country where man nowhere forces his way through the trackless bush without leaving traces of the bottle in his path. It was evaded in every state and nothing weakens dependence in a young Government as the making of laws it cannot enforce. The only consequence was that men paid £1 or £1 l0s 0d for filthy poisonous stuff instead of about 8/- for a good article. After about two years of finding it sold at an average profit of 600 per cent by every store and petty Grog-shop-keeper on the mines, the Government swung to the opposite extreme and licenced large wooden Hotels on all parts of the diggings – about three times as many as could get a living. Thus instead of as before, when the miners had no regular places of rendezvous, they now had every opportunity of meeting and carrying on with impunity. I always like before giving any strong opinion on a subject to understand well not the after scenes but its origins and I now come to the origin of all this ‘shine’.

This matches in most particulars what is already known about the alcohol-related origins of the Eureka episode. It also suggests that in his mind, at any rate, the miners’ long-standing grievances about licence fees and land rights were no more than background to the real trigger of events. He is anxious to explain and to some extent justify what had happened. There were many points at which the build-up to the fighting could have been stopped, but to Madocks the main causes and effects are clear. He takes care to state his disapproval of the revolutionary aspirations of some of the leaders of the revolt, but is clearly also critical of government action.

What then follows, after another three-day pause in the concoction of the narrative, is a graphic description of the riotous attack on the Eureka Hotel of October 17th, 1854, which was a precursor of the main uprising. (This section was written on Christmas Day, when the miners always awarded themselves a holiday). The mob violence which Madocks records was, in his opinion, a direct reaction to the failings of the authorities then lodged at the government ‘Camp’ on the edge of the fledgling town. The police, military, magistrates and the Camp commander Robert Rede failed to proceed as the community thought they should against the murderers of one of the miners. The authorities responded to peaceful protests about unjust arrests with repressive patrols, usually carried out by ‘troopers’, as the armed mounted police were called. It was the troopers who would make unannounced forays into the diggings to check licences. Among them were transported convicts who had served out their time on Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). They were notoriously high-handed and aggressive, deliberately antagonizing a busy, if rough and ready, community, the majority of whose members were decent and law-abiding. Time was crucial to mining success, and it was no small matter to be summoned to make the lengthy climb out of a deep mineshaft to produce a piece of paper that the authorities might have already checked a number of times that month.

The third instalment begins: 

(25th) The Eureka Hotel was the largest public house on the mines. From being in the vicinity of the Eureka lead, which was chiefly worked by the very worst men in the country (most of whom are from the counties of Clare and Tipperary), it was almost from the day of opening the scene of [violence] and robbery. Men had even been knocked down on the staircase, robbed and half-murdered. In spite of all remonstrance the Camp Office refused to notice these things, owing it was said to the Magistrate having an interest in the place. When the murder of Jas Scobie took place [on October 7th] (not 100 yds from the house) indignation was again raised. The proprietor Bentley and his wife were taken up on the charges and in spite of the clearest evidence and to the utter amazement of the Ballaratains, they were both acquitted. The most foul means had been used to smother the evidence.
Bills were posted round the diggings by the friends of deceased, calling a public meeting to find the murderer. All could see the consequences; the house was doomed to fall by the people. They met on the spot of the murder and but little oratory was necessary to excite the mob to fire the building, in spite of Officers, Troopers and Soldiers. It was a scene our shaft had run in and we could not get away [before] the fire commenced.

At this time Madocks had a share in at least one claim on the Eureka line, which at its closest ran within two or three hundred yards of where he may have been living. The Eureka Hotel seems to have been a little further away, on the early Melbourne Road, near where the Eureka Lead was joined from the north by the tributary Black Hill Lead. The stockade site was half a mile or so from the embryonic track running up Clayton’s Hill which Madocks gave as his address, but which may have been simply the location of the nearest store acting as a post office. Madocks elsewhere refers to the ‘bachelor hall’ he shared at the time, which had a separate bedroom and probably took the form of a timber ‘slab’ hut. But each claim they worked, whether near the Eureka Hotel or within the stockade area, would also have had some form of temporary, probably canvas, shelter on it.

The precise geography of the Eureka area in 1854 is unknown, not least because of the substantial transformation of the land surface brought about since by mining and subsequent building activities. Computer-aided research has recently confirmed that the nineteenth-century stockade monument is actually in the right place, though the exact extent of the ground enclosed remains uncertain. The general view is that its area was about one acre, though Madocks thinks it four times that size.

The description continues:

The Hotel itself was then just fire with a hot wind blowing the flames everywhere. Being of wood it burnt like a match. It was full at the time. Soldiers etc hurried out. Bedding, plate and furniture were thrown from the upper windows and piano, fiddles and pictures were smashed by the crowd below. I was sorry to find that they could not be kept from the drink of which there was a great store. Here was a fellow grasping a violincello and beating it against a smashed powder cask with a dozen more trying to get it from him. Here a drunken mob in all the variety of working costume battled with their fists. Now it was the piano – some thumping on the keys and others trying to capsize it. One big unshaven fellow fresh from work was trying at one end to produce an accompaniment to the first lines of ‘Sweet Alice Ben Bolt’ while at the other end another wielding an enormous shillelagh was with the aid of fearful oaths doing his heaviest to smash it. Another fellow climbing one of the lamp posts was placing in the broken frame of what an hour before had been one of the finest of public house lamps a specimen of earthenware which had just been thrown out of one of the servants bedchambers. Another with great gravity was earnestly endeavouring to fit a mounted trooper with a bellows in the shape of a battered tea urn. Meanwhile as about the most ridiculous scene of all a tall down-Easter was catering from the door with a box of cigars under his arm, distributing them with the polite question ‘Would you take a Birsley, Sir?’ In the rear of the premises was a scene for father – scores were leaping into the burning ruins, dragging out bottles of warm porter wine, etc and handing them round. Bentley escaped on horseback.
Next day some of the principal leaders were arrested. Meetings were called and the old licence question came up again. Many burnt them and all refused to pay any more. The very next morning as if on purpose to irritate the people out came the ‘traps’ for licence. They shot one man and took several prisoner. The natural indignation consequent on this wanton provocation was immediate. A rescue was talked of. Work was stopped. Soldiers and troopers drove back to the Camp. The diggers armed themselves and leaders were not wanting. More meetings were convened. Men drilled in companies night and day and soon, from the laudable and just object of rescuing the prisoners, a total subversion of the existing government was proposed.

This paragraph, which compresses a crucial six-week period of rising tension after the hotel fire, omits a great deal that Madocks must have known. A board of inquiry investigated the fire and heavily criticized the corrupt practices of Bentley’s magistrate friend D’ewes and a police officer. The colonial Governor Sir Charles Hotham promptly arranged to have them dismissed, but would not pardon three miners convicted of rioting. ‘Monster meetings’ were convened on Bakery Hill to protest against such perceived injustices and to promote the case for radical changes to the gold-fields administration. One, on November 11th, reportedly attended by 10,000 miners, launched the Ballarat Reform League, with a manifesto which was probably influenced by Chartist sympathisers known to be on the goldfields. It included demands for abolition of the licence fee and the gold commission, for full manhood suffrage and for fair representation in a parliament which imposed no property qualification on its members. Another meeting on the 29th resulted in a great crowd, enraged by news of the Governor’s rejection of the League’s demands, defiantly building a further bonfire of licences. The following day a smaller gathering swore allegiance to the miners’ flag, the Southern Cross, and that evening resolved to defend themselves against further licence hunts. Rede, meanwhile, kept himself informed of developments through  spies and informants among the miners but became convinced, mistakenly, that an attack on the government Camp was imminent.

Madocks continues: 

Many of the better disposed drew back and on Friday 1st December the insurgents foolishly threw up a stockade on the Eureka line, enclosing some four acres of ground on which were stores, tents, holes and all the motley assemblage of buildings which always surrounds the working end of a line. Here they remained on Saturday drawing supplies from stores and sending round detachments for arms etc. On Saturday night, instead of attacking the Camp which had been strongly barricaded, the greater part went into the forest to intercept a large body of soldiers reported to be en route here, leaving the Stockade in the charge of about 150 men, and these mostly pikemen.

The decision to intercept this force, removing most of the armed miners from the stockade, was not as irrational as it may seem, because the detachment was bringing field guns up from Melbourne, against which no defence of the stockade would have been possible. They had to be stopped in circumstances where the guns could not be deployed. In any case, licence hunts only took place during the day, so the miners apparently saw no pressing reason to stay overnight in the stockade.  

At dawn of day on Sunday the fatal 3rd, the soldiers of the 12th and 40th attacked the Stockade and although those inside made a gallant resistance they were borne down by superior numbers and discipline. About 23 were killed and a great number wounded. The rest fled to the bush. Had the whole body been at quarters at the time the soldiers would have stood a poor chance. As it was several were killed and many wounded including several officers. Once in possession the soldiers bayonetted all who were not dead, fired the tents and stores and took off 150 prisoners.
That hated body of men, the troopers, committed acts of most wanton barbarity, murdering inoffensive people. (They had had none of the fighting being kept as a reserve). As an instance – one man living a long way from the scene and in bed with his wife was dragged from her arms and murdered in his tent, which they afterwards fired. They thus at one blow deprived her of her husband and everything she was possessed of. Some of these Gentlemen have since been picked off – they are all spotted and vengeance is not wanting.

The last sentence has an uncharacteristically vindictive ring. Could the pacific and pious Alfred Madocks have perpetrated such an act of revenge? The oral evidence suggests that the shooting he was involved in resulted from a close-quarters confrontation in which it was ‘him or the other chap’ – a common enough circumstance where attackers are storming low defences. However, it may be significant that the word ‘trooper’ rather than ‘soldier’ or ‘policeman’ has been handed down by word of mouth to describe the victim, most recently by Madocks’s grandson, who was unaware of the distinction between the categories of government militia at the time.

Madocks is correct in reporting that the troopers did not take part in the attack on the stockade, and that they did go on a murderous rampage afterwards. It is also certainly the case that in his letters Madocks reserves his highest moral tone for the situation of families and women on the diggings, so his indignation at what he witnessed is no surprise.

He was also a good shot. He was never without his five-shooting Colt revolver. He probably bought the firearm in England before setting sail and it served him well for killing kangaroo and other wildlife for the pot. It survives to the present day, the worn engraving on the chamber and deeply indented hammer testimony to its frequent use.

Crucially, however, Alfred Madocks offers no account of his whereabouts, nor any description of his actions, during the Eureka engagement itself, which only lasted a matter of minutes, or during its immediate aftermath when, with the rout complete, miners escaped as best they could or hid in the many mine workings within the stockade area. At least a hundred were taken prisoner, though most were released shortly afterwards unless any soldier or civilian would testify that they had taken an active part. The omission of any such personal account is intriguing. Madocks would have been far more likely to keep silent on a subject than to lie about it.

The attack on the stockade came just after dawn on a midsummer’s day, at about 4.45am. The only written evidence hinting that Madocks may have had more than a distant observer’s knowledge of what took place is to be found in the pages of a book he bought in Melbourne some three or four years later. The volume, a history of the state of Victoria to 1856, gives a fairly balanced account of the miners’ cause but absurdly eulogises the life and death of a Captain Wise, the senior soldier killed in the engagement. Madocks made a few marginal notes, one of them opposite a particularly fanciful description of Wise’s heroic demise and the retribution meted out to his killer. ‘Positively false – Patrick Murphy shot Wise,’ he wrote. An American called Ferguson later described how he was fighting alongside a certain Captain Burnette on the miners’ side and saw him shoot Wise, while others witnessed the black American John Joseph gun the officer down. They are all quite likely to be right, since the fighting was chaotic and Wise suffered multiple wounds, none instantly fatal, and was to survive for eighteen days after the battle.

The letter continues:    

I was at the Stockade about seven o’clock. It was a lurid sight: dead bodies, arms of all descriptions, burning goods, wives and others mourning over the bodies of husbands or friends, all forming a scene which will be long remembered by hundreds. What must it have been like at Sebastopol? [The Crimean War was raging at the time]
Some of the leaders perished. The Commander in Chief Peter Lawler [Lalor] escaped. Many of the prisoners have since been [released] and some have been conveyed to Melbourne for trial. Martial Law was declared for a short time and reinforcements of men and artillery have been sent up. It has been a melancholy and unfortunate affair throughout but like most evils it will do good. The Licence Tax will have to be abolished and the lands thrown open.

It is only here that Madocks acknowledges directly the two long-standing political grievances that historians have held to have led to Eureka. He was right about the inevitability of reform, which the Eureka events certainly accelerated, though by how much is still disputed. He then reflects sadly on the condition of those attempting to get a living in Victoria:

Things in general are very bad in the Colony. Hundreds of poor deluded emigrants are wandering about the Towns unable to get employment. For a person who has made anything, he would be as well and do as well at home or in one of the other colonies. I know that should I next year be so lucky as to obtain a smile from fortune, who has hitherto looked so frowningly at me, I should soon leave here for ‘Home sweet home,’ for any old resident at Ballarat can now easily see that staying too long is as bad as not staying long enough. Of all those in Ballarat who are engaged in mining, there are not more than one third who intend stopping here any longer than they can help and most of these are married men. Most of the others have parents, wives, sweethearts or friends in some part of the world and stay hoping to join them soon.

The melancholy tone continues in the fifth and final instalment of the letter (the fourth is taken up with news about his friends):

(January 10th) I have resumed my pen. I think I never aim to finish my letter. You must excuse me for we have been working 36 hours out of 48 and though it will not do much more than pay expenses we are obliged to do it or lose the ground. But now the water has beat us after all, barely allowing us time to come up.
… What you have said about the diggings is very true except that for ‘exciting’ I should put ‘tempting’. From the experience I had in Town I decided on following mining once more as I could see that owing to the continual influx of immigrants wages would lower and that it would take two or three years to raise money enough to take me home with sufficient to go into anything whereas in mining I might if lucky make enough to give me a good start in something either here or at home. I trust it will not be very long for I know you are making many sacrifices for me.

[Emily did not accept the hint that their future together might be spent in Australia, though Alfred’s obvious liking for the country suggests that it would have suited him.] 

... You talk of scrawls. When I compare your neatly written letter with my dirty, illegible, blotted, mistakeful, crossed, scrawl I am nearly too ashamed to send it or to write a shorter and clearer one. But the weather is so hot and my eyes get so weak from the mine and water down below and I have had so many different spells at this that you really must excuse it and must guess what you can’t make out.
... We have got two more claims on the Eureka and they show very well. As soon as we have drawn our timber out of our old shafts we are going on with them night and day and sincerely hope we may hit it this time. I have had a bad spell of luck but am nothing daunted.
… I have been reading this paradoxical letter and can’t make it out myself so I don’t know how you will manage it. I suppose the ‘Lady Hotham’ nugget will soon be famous. Some of my old mates were in that Party. They are lucky fellows – it is a splendid bit of Gold. I saw it the day after it was taken out.

The nugget in question was huge, weighing 1,177 ounces, and was named after the Governor’s wife. It turned up in the Canadian Lead a few yards south of Clayton’s Hill. By mentioning it, Madocks must have hoped to boost his beloved’s morale as well as his own, an exercise he found himself repeating in one form or another for a further five years. He ends on his customary note of piety:  

I must now conclude and wish dearest love to yourself and friends and hoping that the New Year may bring blessings and prosperity to you and that the Almighty may protect you,
I remain, my ever dear Emily,
Your devoted Alfred

Alfred Madocks arrived back in England in December 1859 with about £1,500 profit from his gold-mining career. He trained as a brush-maker and set up a brush shop in the High Street at Chelmsford, Essex. He married Emily in 1861, but sixteen months later she died in childbirth. He never remarried, running his shop until his death in 1908.

  • Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer and Alfred and Emily Madocks’s great-grandson. He is currently researching their story, using their many surviving letters.

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Gold Mining

The earliest gold discoveries in Victoria were of water-worn nuggets scattered on flood plains and stream banks. Prospectors used ‘pans’ to ‘wash’ gold from the clays and gravels. Where the alluvium was deep, as at Ballarat, there could also be old stream channels (or ‘leads’) buried which often contained rich deposits. The difficulty lay in predicting the course of a  subterranean stream-bed from the surface and then in staking a claim ahead of everyone else.

Each miner could claim a small patch of ground: in 1853 the maximum permitted area was 12 x 12ft per man. Narrow shafts were dangerously prone to flooding and collapse. The gold-bearing alluvium would be dug out and taken to the surface to be washed.

Gold was also found in the solid rock from which the alluvial gold had originally been eroded. Most such lodes were embedded, often invisibly, in the hard quartz, in veins formed during past geological eras as molten gold had intruded through cracks and fissures. Extraction was laborious, involving pick-axing and crushing tons of rock. The processes employed gave rise to lucrative technical specialisms and to the formation of ever larger mining companies.

Eyewitness at Eureka | History Today

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