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  • Writer's pictureMichael Murphy

Eureka Stockade: beginning of Australian democracy, or localised riot?

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Eureka Stockade 1854
At dawn on 3 December 1854, government troops stormed the stockade built by miners at the Eureka Goldfield near Ballarat. Image: State Library of NSW. Water colour by J. B. Henderson

At dawn on 3 December 1854 government soldiers stormed a barricade erected at Ballarat by miners of the Victorian goldfields. In a very short period of time, an estimated 22 miners and five soldiers were killed at what became known as the Eureka Stockade.

The event has spawned countless studies, books and documentaries, with tensions between government and miners emanating from a series of events that revolved around the gold mining licence, its fee, and the way compliance was enforced by the authorities.

Historians have debated the Eureka Stockade’s relevance to the development of Australian society. Some, see it as an armed rebellion that gave birth to Australian democracy; in the mind of others, it was a localised riot.

Contemporary reports, and particularly their headlines, differed depending on what part of Australia you were in during late 1854. A Queensland newspaper runs with “The Affair at Ballarat”, Sydney: “Ballarat Riots”, Adelaide: “Ballarat” or “Another Crisis”. Countless Victorian papers carry the headline, “Eureka Stockade.”

The legend of Eureka has enjoyed varying degrees of popularity over the years, but it now seems entrenched in Australian folklore, but what rebellion standing under arms for the rights of their comrades, has its soldiers leave the place of defiance and go home.

What had been a number in the 1000s as emotions swelled had been reduced to roughly 150 on the morning of 3 December. How committed were the majority of miners to the cause, or were many coerced?

The miners did win the right to vote, which for many, holds the Eureka Stockades place as a birthplace of democracy, and while those miners were unrepresented in the governing of the colony of Victoria, some of their methods in gaining support would not be considered democratic.

Those who tragically died at the Eureka Stockade paid a price that was perhaps out of proportion to the grievance.

Did the issue of the licence fee and its enforcement, and even alleged corruption by government officials warrant armed rebellion? Yes, there was universal discontent, but the vast majority of miners were against using violence. Was the taking up of arms the factor in achieving the rights that were ultimately obtained?

As the powerful oratory skills of men like Peter Lalor were subdued by the night air of 2 December and thoughts of injury and death entered the minds of many on the side of the miners, it is apparent that the cause was not as united as popular culture would have us believe.

Tension Rising

Sir Charles Hotham
Tensions rose on the Ballarat goldfields when the Lieutenant Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham (pictured) increased mining licence checks by police. Image: State Library of Victoria.

Up until the end of 1853, miner protests on the Victorian goldfields have been relatively peaceful and life in Ballarat, orderly. The mood changed significantly with a change in mining conditions and an increase in licence checks by authorities under Lieutenant Governor, Sir Charles Hotham.

The miners saw the monthly licence fee as increasingly unfair, as what could have once been found in a matter of hours and days when cradling and panning, was now taking a minimum of six-months when driving a shaft through clay, rock, water and shifting sands. The miners felt they were paying for something they had no hope of collecting for a considerable time.

The miners also reacted to what they saw as overbearing enforcement of the license as police increased their searches. The government saw it as a necessary action against miners who were deliberately disobeying the law. Tensions continued to mount; the Diggers seeing the checks by police as harassment, and the government as the purveyors of laws, that did not represent miners.

Driving a wedge between miners and authorities even further, were the instances of arrests when a miner could not produce his licence on the spot.

On the gold fields the police and other government officials were also perceived as being corrupt; a corruption that journalists claim grew under the La Trobe’s administration. Miner, Stephen Cummins, said at the 1855 inquiry into the Victorian goldfields that: “troopers were seen as the devil, no better.”

Tensions reached boiling-point, when miner James Scobie was killed by publican, James Bentley, on 7 October 1854 after attempting to enter the establishment after hours.

Mr Bentley, whose hotel was frequented by government officials, was acquitted, but miners burnt down the premises in protest on 17 October. While this episode, or any other single moment, was not the cause of the Eureka Stockade, it does display that a confrontation of some kind was likely.

On 30 November, after police began to inspect licences, a large crowd of miners gathered. Rocks and broken bottles were hurled at the police who had been driven back by the agitated crowd. The Riot Act was read, the military called in, and there were reports of a miner discharging a firearm.

Fervent speeches by people such as Peter Lalor also played its part in the Eureka Stockade. Strong words stirred the idea of the righting of perceived injustices by any means, with the feeling of a 'safety in numbers' allowed to grow until the tragic but sobering response by the government on 3 December.

The Ballarat goldfields, like those all over the world, hosted many different nationalities, and while there is a popular consensus that the miners were joined as one in their cause, statements taken by the 1855 commission for the inquiry into the Victorian goldfields tells a different story.

Miners like Thomas Budden felt that a select group of agitators were responsible for the tensions that would evolve into armed rebellion, citing that the majority of miners were happy to continue with their work in the diggings. Moreover, Budden claimed that these agitators coerced miners into joining meetings in order to boost numbers, and any miner attempting to return to his work was warned off at gun-point.

This being said, there was a feeling amongst miners that strong agitation would compel the government to act on the licence, its fee, and the way it was enforced. This solidarity amongst miners seemed apparent on 30 November.

Statements from miners, like Stephen Cummins, suggest that the building of the stockade and the employment of arms had indeed arisen from an uncontrollable momentum; a fervour of unchecked excitement. In his words: “they had advanced so far that it was hard to retrace their steps…”

This momentum was no doubt accelerated by the reported shooting of a digger by a trooper on the Thursday prior to the charging of the stockade on Sunday 3 December: the same day the Riot Act was read. It was a moment that certainly caused the diggers to question their safety.

Evidence suggests that the response by the government which ordered an attack on the stockade by soldiers was extreme, but it would have to be accepted that any organised assembly of arms in defiance of a government law at that time would most certainly be met with a military response, as it was in NSW's Turon Valley some six months earlier.

Authorities arrested 113 of the rebel miners, with 13 standing trial in Melbourne. The Eureka Stockade has many aspects that can be seen as pivotal, depending on a person’s viewpoint. The acquittal of those charged, largely due to public sentiment, displays how the historical moment is somewhat of an enigma.

Was it the general population of Victoria that influenced the government in granting the licencing concessions, more than the armed rebellion itself? Was it the large body of miners that had peacefully protested their frustrations in the many months before Eureka, the core of people who left the stockade, been the body that influenced the populous?

Could the support of the Eureka men by the public stem from what Ken Inglis described in the The Australian Colonist as a lack of national heroes in colonial Australia prior to 1870? Newspaper reports of the period certainly portray Lalor and his comrades as heroes, and the government as villains'.

Further Reading

Anonymous. Votes and proceedings of the legislative council of Victoria. extracts from evidence taken by the commission appointed to inquire into the conditions on the Victorian goldfields 1855. Melbourne, Vic. Government Printer.

Blainey, Geoffrey, Introduction, Journal of Australian Colonial History.

Blainey, Geoffrey, The Rush That Never Ended, University of Queensland, 2009.

Clark, C. M. H. Select Documents in Australian History: 1851-1900, National Library of Australia, 1955.

McIntyre, Stuart, A concise History of Australia, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

National Library of Australia: Trove.

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