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The “Battle” of the Eureka Stockade 1854

The 40th Foot In The Australian Goldfields

by Allan Percival

A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History

© Lancs Inf Museum & Allan Percival

In 1854, on the edge of the civilised world in southern Australia, a force of a few dozen soldiers drawn from the 12th and 40th Regiments of Foot (later the Suffolk and 1st South Lancashire Regiments respectively), accompanied by some colonial policemen, attacked and defeated about 150 gold diggers who had taken up arms against the authorities in the new colony of Victoria. The fight lasted 15 minutes. Thirty men lost their lives. Six of them were soldiers and the rest were diggers from Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada, Prussia, Württemberg and places unknown. 

The dispute was over the cost of gold digging licences and the aggressive and corruptible armed police and officials who enforced them. Improbably, the fighting was sparked by the squalid manslaughter of a drunken digger by an ex-convict pub owner.

The fight at Eureka was not the first time that gangs of hundreds or even thousands of gold diggers had challenged the authority of governors sent out by the Colonial Office in London. Shots had sometimes been fired. It had happened in the colony of  New South Wales in the gold rush of 1851 and twice in 1853. Sometimes the diggers’ intimidation had paid off and the governors had backed down. None of these confrontations interrupted the rough life in the goldfields for long let alone incited any lasting anticolonialism. Indeed, the very morning after the fight at Eureka a British Army major general was able to ride quietly among diggers and report no rancour against the Crown.  The incident at the ‘Eureka Stockade’ faded into obscurity. But years later its memory was progressively characterised as a stand by Australians for democratic rights and independence which is now rooted in national folk lore.

In 1854, the 40th Regiment was titled the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment of Foot. (It would become the 1st Battalion, The South Lancashire Regiment in the army reforms of 1881.) The 40th had arrived in Australia in 1852 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James Valiant and had detachments widely dispersed in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Infantry regiments had served in Australia since 1810 and the 40th had last been there guarding convicts from 1824 to 1829. Between times, the 40th had fought in the 1st Afghan War and the Maharatta campaign in India.

Officers of the 40th Foot, a rather grand and idealised view set in Dublin, shortly before the regiment transferred to Australia in 1852.

In May 1853, a doctor picked up a gold nugget in sheep pasture near a little place called Ballarat. He reportedly shouted ‘Eureka’ and so named the site which attracted 15,000 diggers within months. Victoria’s governor, 60 miles away in Melbourne, his young goldfield commissioners and his ill-trained policemen were obliged to enforce digging licences and maintain order among the shifting, rough and ready mass of in-comers. There was malice between diggers and officials and police and by May 1854, Governor Charles La Trobe had resigned in despair at the “atmosphere of insurrection” in the goldfields.

The new governor, Sir Charles Hotham, late of the Royal Navy, arrived in Melbourne in August 1854. He found the colony’s finances in chaos. The deficit for the year was £2 million and revenues were falling sharply. Vested interests in the legislative council saw the diggers as a prime target for taxation but half of them did not buy licences to work their claims. Governor Hotham had a dilemma: concede mob rule in the goldfields or face down the diggers and collect the legally due revenues which the colony badly needed. Police “licence raids” became more frequent and more punitive and the diggers became more militant. Most of them were not finding their fortunes. Many resented being taxed, as they saw it, not for what they earned but for the right to work. And they had no right to vote and so no voice on the legislative council levying the taxes.

The diggers’ armed clash with the 12th and 40th Regiments had an unlikely beginning. One late night in mid October 1854, two Scottish diggers, the worse for drink, had a row with the ex-convict owner of the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat. In the morning one Scot was found beaten to death and the other unconscious. The pub owner’s cronies included a magistrate and policemen and a quick inquest’s open verdict foiled criminal charges. The diggers were appalled, it seems justifiably, and, on 17 October, 5,000 of them mobbed into Ballarat and demanded prosecutions. Drink sellers did good trade. The Eureka Hotel was burned down.

The burning of the Eureka Hotel, sketched on the spot by Canadian artist and digger Charles Doudiet. From an original in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery

The burning of the Eureka Hotel, sketched on the spot by Canadian artist and digger Charles Doudiet. From an original in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery

The authorities changed their minds and the publican and his two mates were duly convicted of manslaughter and got three years hard labour. But three diggers were also convicted of setting fire to the Eureka Hotel and got up to six months each in Melbourne gaol.  Again, the diggers tried to over-awe the authorities and sent a delegation to the Governor on 27 November to demand the release of the fire raisers and for good measure, reconsideration of the cost of digging licences. They were rebuffed. Their mates would serve their sentences and gold digging licences would continue to be enforced although an earlier promise of a commission to review goldfield issues was renewed.  A detachment of the 40th Regiment in Geelong was ordered to march to Ballarat in case the police needed help against the angry diggers. An army baggage cart was stopped by armed diggers and a soldier was badly beaten, a drummer boy was shot in the leg and some ammunition was stolen. Elsewhere, diggers attacked mounted policemen with clubs and stones. Some wild shots were fired by diggers when mounted soldiers tried later to recover the ammunition.

On 29 November, about 10,000 diggers milled around Bakery Hill at Eureka and heard that Governor Hotham had rebuffed their delegation. Militant leaders like the Irish engineer Peter Lalor came forward; many moderate diggers went home.  A Canadian produced a flag, stitched together by some English women, which they ran up a pole. It was a white cross with a star at the end of each arm on a blue background. They called it the Southern Cross and there was much saluting of it and calls to defend any diggers from the police and abolish licence fees for good.  Defiant shots were fired and licences were thrown on the fires.

The massed Diggers swear allegiance to their Southern Cross flag

The massed Diggers swear allegiance to their Southern Cross flag. Another eye-witness depiction by Doudier. From an original in the Ballarat Art Gallery

On the 30th November, after some arrests by the police, Peter Lalor, clutching a rifle, called the diggers to arm themselves and to stand together for their “rights and liberties”. About 500 responded. They threw up a ramshackle stockade around an acre or so under their Southern Cross flag. A German blacksmith and a black American hammered out some crude pikes. A group of Cornishmen was armed with them. A Prussian organised some marching about and drilling. Some reinforcements arrived over the next two days including 300 diggers from the Creswick goldfield.

Less explicably, 200 Americans arrived, each man armed with a modern pistol. They called themselves the Independent Californian Rangers Revolver Brigade and they added to an air of revolution inside the stockade. But many more diggers left quietly, often persuaded by the local priest. The 300 Creswick men left when there were no firearms for them. All but 20 of the Californians marched off, ostensibly to ambush some artillery reported to be on the way from Melbourne. Nothing happened and it is likely that this strange corps was warned off by a United States envoy. Other men went off to the weekend bars and by Saturday night, 2 December, only some 150 or more diggers were in the Eureka stockade. The authorities were kept well informed by police spies among them

The Victoria authorities might have waited longer for things to calm down but they thought that might risk some sort of revolutionary insurrection spreading beyond the Ballarat goldfield. And so most of the 12th (East Suffolk) Regiment, the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment and four artillery pieces were progressively ordered up to the goldfields.  In Ballarat, martial law was declared and an experienced officer of the 40th Regiment was put in charge of ending the “insurrection” by force.  Captain John Wellesley Thomas, commissioned in 1839, had fought at Kandahar in the first Afghan War of 1841- 42. He’d been badly wounded in India in 1843 in the Battle of Maharajpore against the Maharattas.  He had 276 men and he saw no reason to wait for artillery to deal with the diggers.

Captain John Wellesley Thomas, pictured late in life as a Lieutenant General

Captain John Wellesley Thomas, pictured late in life as a Lieutenant General

Captain Thomas picked a total of 40 soldiers from his own regiment and the 12th Regiment and 26 policemen to attack the diggers’ stockade on foot. Their flanks were guarded by 100 policemen and soldiers on horses. The other half of his force stayed in reserve.  In the early hours on Sunday 3 December, when Thomas reasoned that most diggers would be asleep, some still drunk from the night before, they made a quiet, indirect approach through the bush and uphill to Eureka. Thomas ordered no shooting unless his bugler gave the signal. At dawn, they were spotted less than 200 yards from the stockade and some diggers opened fire. The bugle sounded and the soldiers fired well-aimed volleys and charged. The diggers’ leader, Peter Lalor, was among the first casualties, badly wounded. Lieutenant Henry Wise, aged 26, was shot in both legs leading the charge and fell still yelling encouragement to the 40th. There was a brief, vicious fight inside the stockade before the diggers surrendered and Captain Thomas ordered the ceasefire.

The troops storm the Stockade. From an original watercolour painted in 1854 by J B Henderson now in the State Library of New South Wales

The troops storm the Stockade. From an original watercolour painted in 1854 by J B Henderson now in the State Library of New South Wales

From the first shot, the attack lasted barely 15 minutes. Twenty four diggers were killed or died of their wounds. Had Captain Thomas waited for the artillery things might have been worse. Two soldiers of the 40th Regiment were killed outright and Lieutenant Wise of the 40th and three men of the 12th later died of their wounds. There were no police casualties. (For the 12th Regiment, it was all the more sad that these, their first casualties in action in 40 years, were inflicted by their own countrymen.)

Some accounts say that policemen finished off some of the wounded and set fire to tents and storehouses so that at least two intoxicated diggers died in their beds. An Irish policeman carried off the Southern Cross flag as a keepsake.

Opposition dissolved quickly. By the evening, Captain Thomas was able to report that police were already able to ‘patrol, in small bodies, the length and breadth of the Ballaarat Gold Fields, without threats or insults.’ 

Report from Captain J. W. Thomas, 40th Regiment, to Major General Robert Nickle, Head Quarters, Melbourne, following the quelling of the rebellion at the Eureka Stockade, 3 December 1854

Carts were brought up for the wounded and over 100 diggers were arrested. Peter Lalor escaped and a local doctor amputated his wounded arm the next day.  Privates Michael Roney and Joseph Wall of the 40th Regiment were among the dead buried later that day.  Lieutenant Henry Wise, his legs amputated, died four days before Christmas. 

Peter Lalor pictured in 1856, two years after the "battle", without the left arm which was amputated the day after the battle.

Peter Lalor pictured in 1856, two years after the “battle”, without the left arm which was amputated the day after the battle.

Martial law was lifted after Major General Sir Robert Nickle, the army’s commander in chief in Australia, reported the day after the fight that the district was quiet. If there had been any call to revolution, it had died very quickly. 

News of the Eureka fight raised mixed feelings among the Victoria public. Many blamed the authorities for mismanagement of the goldfields. The Ballarat press openly supported the diggers’ stand. In Melbourne, 6,000 people gathered outside the church to urge peaceful reform in the goldfields. As far away as Britain, France and the USA, newspapers reported Eureka with allusions to the American Revolution. 

In the event, most of the arrested diggers were soon released without charges.  They included all of the Americans, who had undeniably caused some of the army casualties, apart from the one black man who had helped to make pikes. On 8 December, only 13 men were committed for trial accused of high treason. The trials began on 22 February and ended on 27 March. Prominent lawyers waived fees to defend the diggers and the Melbourne juries acquitted everyone. The Eureka Stockade leader, Peter Lalor, and others came out of hiding without any legal consequences. 

Governor Hotham’s promised goldfield commission reported at the end of March. Digging licence fees were abolished, replaced by a £1 per year claim title deed which also gave a digger the right to vote in legislative council elections. Lost revenue was made up with a new export tax on gold bullion. So it could be said that the Eureka diggers achieved much of what they wanted. Their leader Peter Lalor was the first digger elected to the legislative council. By 1880, he was Speaker of the House of Assembly which merited a statue in Melbourne. Governor Charles Hotham died a year after Eureka.

40th bandsman 1856

A bandsman of the 40th in Australia in 1856

The 40th Regiment served in Australia until 1860 when it was posted along with the 12th Regiment to New Zealand to fight in the Maori Wars of 1860-61 and 1863-64. The regiment returned to England in 1866, 14 years after arriving in Australia.  Captain John Thomas was promoted to major after the Eureka Stockade fight. He transferred to the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment and served in China. He was wounded during the British attack on the Taku Forts in 1860, promoted to lieutenant colonel and commanded the 67th for some years. He left the army in 1881 in the rank of lieutenant general and was appointed Honorary Colonel of the Hampshire Regiment in 1893.

Eureka faded from memory until late in the nineteenth century when both disputing trades unionists and Australian nationalists identified with versions of the story.  In the Great War, Australian soldiers called themselves diggers reflecting the ‘mateship’ and independent spirit of the Eureka men. At the same time, the anti-war and anti-conscription movement claimed the Eureka legend for themselves. Australian Irish organisations, the Australian Communist Party, dockers refusing to load iron exports to Japan in 1939, protesters against United States bases in the 1960s, Australian republicans, anti-Vietnam war protestors, student sit-ins, women’s groups, striking building workers and locked-out miners have all claimed the Eureka memory for their own ends.  In the constitutional crisis of 1975, Australians protesting against the dissolution of Parliament waved the Southern Cross flag. 

The original flag, taken by the Irish policeman on 3 December 1854, survived. It was put on display in Ballarat in 1973, unveiled by the then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, on the 119th anniversary of Eureka.  Not far away are the graves of six British soldiers. A small obelisk marks their devotion to duty.