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Chartism in Australia

Chartists played a prominent role in the Eureka rebellion of 1854. This page looks at their involvement, and reproduces a contemporary newspaper account of an event which led Australia down the road to democracy.

Australian democracy started in one explosive moment in the goldfields of Victoria. Just as the Chartist movement drew its early strength from campaigns against wage cuts and the poor laws, so the gold miners who initiated the “Eureka affair” of 1854 were goaded into action initially by poverty and a desire to resist the petty tyranny they saw in the licensing system that governed their claims.

But what started as a protest movement rapidly became a serious political force under the leadership of the Ballarat Reform League, and in November 1854 the miners adopted a clear and familiar set of demands:
1. A full and fair representation.
2. Manhood suffrages.
3. No property qualifications for members of the Legislative Council.
4. Payment of members.
5. Short duration of parliaments.

The authorities’ response was to dismiss all attempts at negotiation or conciliation and to despatch troops to deal with the situation.

An armed rising of the downtrodden gold miners was crushed with relative ease, and at least 22 men died in the hastily erected stockade where they made their last stand under their banner, a flag showing the Southern Cross. But a groundswell of public opinion against the authorities in the weeks that followed led to democratic reforms and has been credited as the catalyst for the fundamental changes in governance of the next few years that were to bring many of the Chartist demands to fruition in Australia long before they became a reality in Britain.

Eureka Flag
The flag that flew at Ballarat

This is not the place to tell the history of the Eureka affair. But it is undoubtedly true that several leading members of the Ballarat Reform League were Chartists – and among the thousands of miners, many of them recent immigrants, there must have been large numbers who had been involved in the Chartist cause in earlier years.

Although Australia adopted democratic forms long before most European countries, including Britain, historians have tended to downplay the influence of Chartism on the development of Australian society. However, Dr Paul A Pickering, who has written extensively on Chartism, suggests that recent work revealing Chartism in Britain to be far more than a narrow set of demands for political reform can shed new light on the influence of Chartism and the Chartists on Australia . He argues that a comprehensive assessment would draw attention not only to the structural democratic reforms introduced in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century but also to “the vibrant inheritance of symbolism, strategy and organisational form, as well as to the vast range of ideas cherished by legions of Chartists under the rubric ‘Chartism and Something More’.”

It is interesting to note that mass migration from Britain to Australia coincided with a period when many Chartists were becoming disillusioned with the democracy on offer in the United States of America (see Chartists in America). For some, as with migration to America, Australia will have been a place of safety, well away from the threat of arrest. Others saw it as a fresh start when it became clear that Chartism was making no headway at home.

Finally, of course, there were those who were transported to Australia. Most prominent among these were the leaders of the Newport rebellion. Although they eventually returned home, others, notably William Cuffay, stayed and made new lives for themselves. Granted a free pardon in 1856, Cuffay joined the campaign to reform the Tasmanian Masters and Servants Act and was a stalwart of the Protection Association until his death in 1870.

Though many must have taken the opportunity of a fresh start in Australia to leave radical politics behind them in favour of a quiet life, others took their Chartism and class consciousness with them. Dr Pickering has contributed a chapter to Elections: Full, Free and Fair (Edited by Marian Sawer, The Federation Press, 1991) in which he identifies a number of Chartists active in Australia. A summary of the case studies he presents is set out here, with thanks to Dr Pickering who kindly sent a copy of the chapter to me.

Robert Booley
An active Chartist in Suffolk, Booley had arrived in Australia as part of a migration scheme, arriving in Victoria in the late 1840s. He helped found the Geelong People’s Association for the “moral, social and political advancement of the people” in 1851.

George Black
A native of Nottingham who had been active in Chartism from its early days, Black was a framework knitter and Methodist lay preacher who served as Nottingham delegate to the founding conference of the National Charter Association in 1840. There he warned delegates against setting subscriptions that the poor could not afford. By 1841, he had been forced out of his trade because of his political involvement and earned his living as an itinerant Chartist lecturer. Black served a short prison term for his violently expressed views, and was regarded as too radical by the Northern Star. Black and his brother Alfred migrated to Victoria, where he set up the Gold Digger’s Advocate.

Henry Richard Nicholls
Active in the late Chartism of London, Nicholls was known both as a lecturer and poet before he emigrated in 1853 at the age of 23. He became assistant edigtor of the Gold Digger’s Advocate, but unlike his editor, George Black, was an atheist. He is credited with introducing “a flavour of the cosmopolitan radical milieux” of London to the paper, with letters from the Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini and Hungarian nationalist Lajo Kossuth running alongside Chartist poetry and editorials on republicanism and temperance. The paper failed in September 1854 and Nicholls moved to Ballarat, where he became a gold miner and correspondent for the Melbourne Argus. Nicholls lived on to 1912. An obituary from the Tasmanian Mail can be found here.

Charles Nicholls
The brother of Henry Nicholls, he moved to Ballarat in November 1854, becoming part of an expatriat Chartist fraternity that played an important role in the early phases of the movement that led to the Eureka rising.

Alfred Black
Brother of George Black and an activist at Ballarat before the Eureka rising.

Henry T Holyoake
Brother of George Jacob Holyoake, the final secretary of the National Charter Association, eminent Victorian secularist and leading light of the co-operative movement, Henry Holyoake had been an active Chartist in his own right before emigrating and becoming a member of the Ballarat Reform League.

John B Humffray
A Welsh Chartist who had migrated to Victoria in 1853, Hummfray was a member of the Ballarat Reform League, and would later represent the town in the Victorian Legislative Assembly.

Charles Jardine Don
Born in 1820 in Cupar, Fife, Don worked as a handloom weaver before following his father’s trade as a stonemason. In Scotland, Don was a Unitarian, Owenite, socialist and phrenologist – not to mention active Chartist from, 1839 to 1853 when he left for Australia. Don tried his hand unsuccessfully in the gold fields, and returned to Melbourne in 1857, working as a stonemason and joining their trade union. He helped to found the Operative Reform Association and in 1857 stood as Reform Association candidate in a Melbourne by-election candidate, including all six points of the Charter in his programme. Although defeated, he stood again two years later and was elected, working by day as a mason and attending the Assembly in the evenings. Don’s election campaign had been based at the Belvidere Hotel in Fitzroy, where radicals congregated in large numbers. Among them were former Chartists including Thomas Vince, James Galloway, Alexander Hunter and James Stephens.

James Stephens
Born in South Wales in 1821, at he age of 18 Stephens heard Henry Vincent speak in Newport and was said to have been captivated by his oratory. Stephens participated in the Newport rebellion but escaped capture. He moved to London, where he worked in his father’s trade as a stonemason, and during the 1840s became a skilled trade union organiser. Stephens arrived at Port Phillip in July 1855 and within weeks was involved in the Melbourne masons’ organisation, initiating a campaign for the eigh-hour day which proved highly successful.

Edward Hawksley
Born in Nottingham in 1807, Hawksley emigrated to New South Wales in 1838 and consequently missed the launch of the Charter. But heregarded himself as part of an international British Chartist fraternity and contributed to the Chartist press in Britain. As editor of the People’s Advocate, Hawksley ensured that it was a Chartist paper in tone and sentiment – placing it some way in advance of the less radical Constitutional Association whose voice it was intended to be. Hawksley expressed a class consciousness in the paper that directly contradicted the Constitutional Association’s attempts to promote class unity, declaring in his first isse that his would be a “peculiarly Working Men’s Paper”.

David Buchanan
Born in Edinburgh in 1823, Buchanan was the son of a barrister and prominent Whig who rejected his father’s politics for the Chartist cause. After narrowly escaping prison in 1848, he decided to emigrate, arriving in New South Wales in 1852. Buchanan continued to be active in radical circles while working in a succession of manual jobs, and in 1860 stood for the seat of Morpeth in a by-election on behalf of the Working Men’s Political Association, promising to “divide the House night after night until the Charter was established, and when the Charter had been established he would turn his attention to the rights of man”. Defeated, he tried again in the general election four months later and was successful.

What the papers said

Geelong Advertiser
2 December 1854
(From our Correspondent)
November 30th
Most happily yesterday passed over quietly. The meeting was held and the subjoined resolutions were unanimously passed.

About mid-day, a platform was erected, and the Australian flag, and it only, hoisted to attract attention. Messers. Black, Kennedy, and Humffray, arrived
by the conveyances from Geelong immediately before the hour of meeting. After their arrival some time proceedings began. Mr T. Hayes having been voted into the chair, the deputation to town was called on to state how matters stood there. It was stated that the hands of his Excellency are so bound that he is comparatively powerless, in so far as the extension of the franchise to the diggers, the more perfect unlocking of the lands, and the release of the prisoners, when demanded by the diggers.

Strong hopes however, are entertained by the deputation that if a memorial be presented the prisoners will be immediately released. The appointment of a liberally-constituted commission is considered to be an event of importance, as the instructions of the commission are to rectify all that is wrong, as far as there is power vested in them or Sir Charles.
Mr. Hoyloake had not returned from his mission to the upcountry gold fields, but he is at present hourly expected.

The principal speakers were Reynolds, Weeks, Salor, Brady, Vern, Quin, G. Black, Wheatley, Murname, Ross, Hummfray, Kennedy, & c.

The resolutions were:-
1. That this meeting views with the hottest indignation, the daring calumny of His Honor the Acting Chief Justice, while on the Bench, of the brave and struggling sufferers of Clare, Tipperary, Bristol and other districts, in their endeavours to assert their legitimate rights, and do hereby give the most determined and the most emphatic denial of the assertions of His Honor, in stigmatising as riots the perservering and indomitable struggles for freedom of the brave people of England and Ireland during the last 80 years.
2. That a meeting of the members of the Reform League be called at the Adelphi Theatre, on next Sunday at 2 o’clock, to elect a central committee, and that each 50 members of the League have the power to elect one member of the Central Committee.
3. That this meeting, being convinced that the obnoxious Licence-fee is an imposition and an unjusitfiable tax on free labour, pledges itself to take immediate steps to abolish the same by at once burning all their licences. That in the event of any party being arrested for having no licence, that the united people will, under all circumstances, defend and protect them.
4. That as the diggers have determined to pay no more licences, it is necessary for them to be prepared, for the contingency, as it would be wholly inconsistent, after refusing to pay a licence, to call in a Commissioner for the adjustments of such disputes, and that this meeting therefore resolves that when any party or parties have a dispute, the parties so disputing shall each appoint one man, the two men thus appointed to call in a third, and these three to decide the case finally.
5. That this meeting will not feel bound to protect any man after 15th December, who shall not be a member of the Reform League before that day.
6. That this meeting protests against the common practice of bodies of military marching into a peacable district with fixed bayonets, and also any force, police or otherwise, firing on the people under any circumstances, without the previous reading of the Riot Act, and that if Government officials continue to act thus unconstitutionally, we cannot be responsible from similar or worse deeds from the people.

Right Rev. Bishop Goold, and Rev. Mr. Downing, came from Melbourne yesterday. So urgent did they consider their business that, I understand, they travelled all the night previous. After their arrival, Rev. Mr. Downing and the Rev. Mr. Smith tried to persuade both the Committee and the meeting to give up the intended burning of the license, but without avail. The amendment to resolution three had scarcely a favorer. If I understand aright, this deputation came up at the instigation of the Government, which wished them to use their influence and prevent the hurrying on of the crises which nears, now that the licences are burned. The number of licenses already burned is pretty large; the next license hunting day is the one on which all eyes are at present centred.

During the earlier portion of the meeting, and for some time, the military under arms were posted in the gully beneath the Camp, and all the other force was under arms in the Camp. The Rev. Mr. Smith and Mr. Kennedy went over, at the request of the Committee, and wished military to be withdrawn from the sight of the meeting, as there was no real use for the display, and that may felt irritated at such open parade of power.

The meeting passed off quietly; there was a large number of persons fully armed, who kept up a running fire of small arms. The meeting dispersed with only a slight accident to a horse from a pistol ball.

A large body of police was marched up yesterday evening to the Camp, on Eureka, to watch it, as the night before, there had been a complete rush made on it by the diggers there, and some violence committed.

We have, I believe, (for I cannot arrive at correct official information) six soldiers and police in the hospital, some badly wounded, from the effects of Monday evening and nights row. This does not include Capt. Young, who was contractor for the conveyance of supplies from town, and who was cruelly used as to render his life in imminent danger. In addition to all this sad list, must be added one soldier of XII, who has died of a gun-shot wound.

Many others, both officers and men, are seriously hurt, though not in the hospital. I have heard several versions of the origin of this quarrel. By tomorrow I hope to know the real state of the matter. This morning gives promise of providing a brichfielder; the dust is flying in all directions, under the influence of a strong hot wind.