Digger Hunting

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Digger Hunt from the Guardian Eureka Centenary Issue, University of Ballarat Historical Collection
Down With License Fee Poster Displayed at Sovereign Hill, 2016.
Ballarat Heritage Services Picture Collection
Digger Hunts from The Revolt at Eureka’ by R. Wenban. Schools Publishing House, 1959.

3 March 1854

The following men were all charged on the same day, the 3rd March 1854, for being without a gold licence on the Ballarat Gold Fields. Entries throughout the court books testify to the same thing day after day.

Before Police Magistrate Clow JP Esq.

Charged by Commissioner Hackett with being on the Ballarat gold fields without a license.

Joseph Stanley charged by ? Commr Hackett with being on the Ballarat gold fields without a license on the 2nd inst. Fined two pounds

James McLune charged as above- on bail - five pounds forfeited

Joseph Cobb charged as above – discharged

William Furnice charged as above – discharged

William Green charged as above – does not appear

William Jack charged as above – on bail - bail forfeited

William Madden charged as above – on bail – bail forfeited

W. H. Martin charged as above –

Patrick Dollin charged as above –

Richard Fennett charged as above –

J. Reniet? charged as above –

William Southall charged as above –

Richard Edey charged as above –

Angus Rankin charged as above –

Robert Rice charged as above –

- O.Rourke charged as above –

Edwin Price charged as above –

E. Smith charged as above –

Peter Campbell charged as above –

L. Smith charged as above –

Samuel Jenkins charged as above –

Frederick Dowall. charged as above – - Stevens charged as above –

George Hughes charged as above –

David Davies charged as above –

Abraham Melhon charged as above –

Henry Fowlee charged as above –

Bartholomew Hickey Discharged

George Denham charged as above –

William Plumber charged as above –

James Atkins charged as above –

- Fisher bail – returned – discharged?

Isaac Abraham discharged

John Rutherford charged as above –

Angus Sinclair charged as above –

Thomas Jones charged as above –

I Chapman charged as above –

Benjamin Elsly charged as above –

- Chick charged as above –

William Anderson charged as above –

John Kennedy charged as above –

Chris? charged as above –

William Dalton charged as above –

James Harrison charged as above –

- Hutchinson]] charged as above –bails forfeited

Peter O’Donnell charged by William Stevens with assaulting him on the 3rd instant – ordered to enter into his own recognizance to keep the peace.

4 March 1854

J. Williams. Federation University Historical Collection (Cat. No. 15771)


Mr Commissioner JOHNSTON

Keeping Stores on the Ballarat Gold Fields without having Licenses

Note** These are business licences for stores on the goldfields. The fines and bails were all around five pounds, a substantial sum in 1854.

Francis Rartlette

Thomas Wright

James C. Johnston

E. H. Hall

F. Menzie

Henry Harris

Thomas Swallow

George Strutt

P. Paterson

Bindshaw & Salmon?

John Dixon

Christopher Thomas Howe

T. Mulder

Robert Buchannan

John Williams

I B. Budding

Charles Stewart

E. Millan

Joseph Willey

George Lilly

4 March 1854

Digger Hunting at Ballarat(1854)

To the Editor of the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer.
SIR,— Permit me to call your attention to the recent harsh proceedings adopted here for the recovery of the diggers’ license tax.
Since the visit of Sir Charles Hotham an unusual degree of severity has been exercised towards the more unfortunate of the mining population, and why, I cannot imagine, unless, as the officials here are known for neglect in thief catching, they are anxious to show their utility in digger hunting, and to endeavour to prove a case for the continuance of the office of gold commissioner.
The diggings, for some days past, have indeed been vigorously "patrolled" by a large and armed Military Police force, with carbine, broad sword, and holster pistols, well mounted too, (making allowance for the small cost), and accompanied by the additional "protection" in the shape of foot police, with batons only visible. Now, a very new chum would see in this a great amount of zeal in the pursuit of the gangs of vagabonds who steal our horses, poison our dogs, and prowl around our tents at midnight, to take life and property, or both, but we know the truth. It is to enjoy the now common sport of digger hunting. Almost daily these "armed bands," headed by the valiant and renowned Cornet Spriggins, parade the ground, and demand if the toiling and honest creator of colonial wealth is possessed of a license. I know that a license fee must be paid. "The court awards it," but, Sir, is it to be endured, in a possession of the British Crown, that an armed police force may "bail up," and require the production of your badge in all places and at all times. And here I may, I hope, reasonably ask how you manage in town?
A Digger Hunt, University of Ballarat Historical Collection( Cat.No. 4170)
Samuel Thomas Gill, The Invalid Digger, c1852, watercolour and gum arabic on paper.
Art Gallery of Ballarat, gift of Mr. Tony Hamilton and Miss. S.E. Hamilton, 1967.
We are ignorant and "wandering tribes," not much acquainted with civilised life up here. Does a military police parade your public ways, and ask you if you have paid your taxes? They do not so in England. If the law were humane, just, and discriminating, we could not, we ought not, to complain; and, if administered in a proper mode, it would be cheerfully borne. But poverty stretches its gaunt and withered hand on the diggings, as elsewhere, however many may be apt to believe and endeavour to prove the contrary. The unlicensed digger is, in nine cases out of ten, compelled, by sheer absolute need, to be without a license, and to expose himself to the chance of being heavily fined, or imprisoned, with common felons; and if he should still continue poor, he must, for the next offence, be still more inhumanly punished. I cannot tell by whose sage council the tax is enforced in so barbarous a manner, but whichever way it may be, it is a disgrace to a civilised government and demands, and should have, instant redress. Not content, as formerly, with asking for the license outside tents, they now enter them, and also the stores, and search so far as they dare, which is with the door in the rear. Two days ago a policeman came inside the store, and, looking round, said, "good day," and retired. At a loss to understand this mode of business, I enquired, and found that the fellow, under direction of the commissioners, actually came in search for diggers supposed to be stowed away. Such a very polite mode certainly deserves attention; and when I am visited again, I shall assist in the search in kicking the intruder out, if I can do so, "and the law on my side." Worse than this, these men in gold and silver lace, and armed from head to heel, have taken the aged and sick from their tents. The spectacle is presented to us of a wife taking round, for signature, a petition for the release of her husband from gaol, by reason of his poverty and ill health when captured by the valour of the men in arms. An old, and, as I know, very poor man, was lately sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for the heinous offence of having a license in a wrong name, which was current at the time, and had been made over to him by a party who had gone to town. It was an offence against law—but what a barbarous sentence—thrust into gaol with men under committal for felony. If discrimination cannot be used; if the successful are to pay the same as the unsuccessful; then the time has arrived for the total abolition of this most oppressive and inhumanly-collected tax, and, with it, the gold-lace, conceit, and broadcloth. The police might then be well spared from the camp, for we have (for what purpose who shall say) a regular body of infantry. At present the entire police duty appears to be digger-hunting, while the diggings are left, as Sturges Bourne wished to leave the poor, "to their own resources," for protection from violence and plunder.
John Foster, 1866 by John Botterill. State Library of Victoria Collection (H3)
John Foster was Acting Governor of Victoria from 8 May to 22 June 1854. This work was commissioned by Sir Redmond Barry and the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library in 1866.
I have already trespassed, at some length, on your space, but the subject is important, and my only desire, in addressing you, is to induce some more influential pen to enlist in the cause of the oppressed digger of whose interest no notice is taken in the maiden speech of the new Lieutenant-Governor, at which we should wonder did we not know that Johnny Foster is still Colonial Secretary. I enclose my name and address, and am, Sir,
Yours, &c.
Commissioners Rede and Johnson have staged a licence hunt. Rede says he has received instructions form a hight authority to carry out his duty.
Amid uproar and disorder the officials are compelled to withdraw.
Some of the diggers go to Eureka, others to Red Hill, where they hoist the “Southern Cross.”
The Police have been ordered to shoot.
A running fire of small arms is kept up at a last-minute meeting called by Kennedy and Father Downing.
There is a long line of diggers on Bakery Hill giving their names. All appear to be armed.
The Resident Commissioner rode up to Mr Humffray, the secretary of the league, and said, ‘See now the consequences of your agitation.’ To which it was replied, ‘No! But I see the consequences of impolitic coercion.’[2]

The Last License Hunt


Five Hundred Pounds had been offered for the capture of Vern, and £400 for Lalor and Black, but there was no man who knew of their place of concealment base enough to betray them. About the beginning of February, 1855, the diggings were very lively, and large quantities of gold were obtained on the various leads. The ground was exceedingly rich about the Gravel Pits, Red Streak, and Eureka. Money was plentiful, and diggers and business men were doing well. Everybody was settling down quietly to his ordinary occupation, full of hope for the future. The claims in those days were very small, 34 feet square for eight men. So it became customary – owing to the great expenses of sinking a shaft – for one or two in a party to “shepherd” a couple of claims until the lead was proved near enough to warrant a shaft being sunk. A large number of claims had been taken up on the flat at the foot of the Red Streak. As the lead had not yet been proved near by, the “shepherds” had a jolly time of it, some sinking an inch per day in their shafts; dressing a part of a log or a slab; playing cards with brother “shepherds”, telling long-winded yarns, or any other amusement to while away the time. I was one of the shepherds on the flat at that time. One hot morning we were lounging under the shade of a “fly,” when we were startled by a brother shepherd arriving on the ground with a Government proclamation in his hand, which he had torn from a stump on his way from home. The proclamation was read and consisted of a notice calling on the diggers to taking out their licenses, and informing them that the police would be out on a given date to search for unlicensed persons. This was a pretty state of affairs, after all we had suffered. The same abominable practice of digger-hunting was to be resumed and persisted in. Haines, who had stated in the House when the address to the Governor was debated, that the grievances of the diggers were about being enquired into, was now in power, having succeeded Forster. But “enquiring” into the grievances, appeared to be the limit of their intentions, as there was now not now the slightest evidence of their intention to redress them. The starling notice calling on the diggers to take out their licenses was signed “Charles Wale Sherard.” The question now arose, What’s to be done? After some time spent in discussion, it was unanimously decided that the order should not be obeyed, and that a meeting should be called on Bakery Hill. A Cornishman and I were deputed to take immediate steps for calling a meeting. We immediately consulted two of the old leaders, but we got little assistance from them. They were marked men, and as the State trials had not yet come off, they were afraid to make themselves conspicuous. We went to Fletcher’s printing office, and ordered 100 posters, headed “The License Hunt Again,” calling on the diggers to attend a public meeting on Bakery Hill next day at 11a.m. My Cornish friend and I got each a billy of paste, and took different routes with 50 posters each under our arms, and wherever we found a Government proclamation we posted one of our notices alongside as near as possible, or above if there was room. That was my first and last attempt at bill sticking, and I flatter myself that it was a most successful one. The appearance of the two notices caused an immense excitement among the diggers, and the opinion appeared general that the Government order should not be obeyed. I went up to the camp in the morning, a few minutes before the Government offices opened, to reconnoitre. I found about a score of the ultraloyalist or weak kneed men of the day around the door of the office, where the licenses were issued. I then returned to Bakery Hill, quite satisfied with what I had seen. On getting to the top of the hill I could see there were thousands of diggers wending their way toward the old trysting ground. The vast multitude assembled round a bullock dray, and it was some time before a chairman could be induced to preside over the meeting, which was one of the largest ever held on Ballarat. It was considered there were 15,000 men present at that meeting. A chairman was appointed after a little delay, the notice calling the meeting, and the Government proclamation were read. A large number of the new officials were present. Mr Foster, superintendent of police, and Messrs Daly and Templeton were conspicuous in their uniform. A resolution was submitted to the meeting, declaring that no more licenses would be taken out. The resolution was seconded by someone in the crowd. They both advised the diggers to take out licenses, as they believed the obnoxious licensing law would soon be repealed, and for the sake of peace they should take out licenses once more. Mr Daly asked them to take out the license for three months, and promised to use his best influence to get the money returned if the licensing law was repealed in the meantime. The vast multitude listened in silence to the officials and treated them respectfully but when they finished, a loud negative went up from the assembled multitude. The chairman put the resolution to the meeting and an immense forest of hands was held up in its favour. Of that large meeting there were only about 100 hands held up against it. The chairman declared the resolution carried by an immense majority, which announcement was received with loud cheers by the meeting. Another resolution was submitted, declaring that no resistance whatever was to be offered to the police, and that every man was to go quietly if arrested. This resolution was carried by acclamation, and gave rise to a good deal of hilarity in the meeting. Some of the diggers enquired factiously, “How are they off for room in the logs?” the meeting now quietly dispersed, a few of us congratulation ourselves on the very satisfactory results. A number of the leading inhabitants who were spectators, and the officials, went their home, while those who were instrumental in getting up the demonstration lingered behind, anxiously thinking of the morrow. That night was a sleepless one to many of us, and morning dawned with the nerves of many strung to the utmost tension. Every man went to his post, that is, to his work, excepting the week kneed ones, who either went for licenses or hid themselves to watch the events of the day. About mid-day word came round that the police were on the move. We soon saw about a dozen police coming up through the holes on the flat, unarmed, without any weapon, offensive or defensive, to be seen. They came quietly up, and something like the following passed between them and the diggers; - “Have you got a license?” “No.” “Arrah, now, thin, you divil, shure you bad better go and get one.” The police returned to the camp without a single prisoner. Thus ended the last “digger hunt” in Victoria. The blood of the patriots had not been shed in vain. We had not fought and suffered with redressing the wrongs of our fellow citizens. Young Victoria owes a debt of gratitude to the men of ’54. The peace, protection, and unfettered liberty we now enjoy were baptised with the blood of the martyr-patriots who fell at Eureka. No man was ever asked for a license after this. The license law was abolished immediately, and a miner’s right at £1 per annum established instead, and all laws treating the digger as an outlaw were repealed, and he has been treated ever since like any other member of the community. History has already taught us that English statesmen of the past never granted justice or reforms to colonial communities until blood was shed. I have worked on Ballarat with a man who was transported to Van Diemen's Land from Canada for taking part in a rebellion in that country. Reforms were immediately granted there the same as here, after blood had been shed over it. Soon after this the State prisoners were brought to trial in Melbourne. The first put on his trial was a coloured man. An immense concourse of people hung round the Courthouse anxiously waiting to hear the result. After a long trial the prisoner was acquitted and discharged. On emerging from the Courthouse he was put in a chair and carried round the streets of the City in triumph with the greatest demonstrations of joy. The whole of the State prisoners were shortly afterwards acquitted. This was the “last feather that broke the camels back.” The haughty spirit of Sir Charles Hotham could not brook this. His tyrant spirit would not bend. It broke. He never recovered the shock and died at the end of the year 1855 of a broken heart. Official arrogance now became toned down to a normal standard. The duties of “Policeman X” were confined to those for which police were invented, and he became altogether a model policeman. The bitter animosities of the past soon died out, and a bright future began to dawn and remove the sable clouds that hung over Ballarat. The law began to be administered on the lines of justice and equity. The digger could now appeal to the tribunals with full confidence that he would receive justice. He was a new man altogether. He was placed on the same footing as Her Majesty’s other subjects, and not treated as an outcast and a vagabond. I have often been asked the question, was it well that the insurrection was put down? I can now sit down and calmly review the 30 years that have almost expired since the eventful 3rd December. After considering the good Government that has prevailed in our adopted country since then and the unfettered liberty enjoyed by every man, no matter how humble his station, in life, I can say yes; unhesitatingly, yes. In conclusion, I may state that I have never before published any statement or narrative of the stirring early times of Ballarat. Mine was a humble part in the tragic drama. My name does not appear in any of the records of the time, excepting in the list of those captured on that eventful morning. In all human probability these papers would never have appeared if I had not, accidentally seen an article in the Ballarat Star containing a few kindly remarks on the men of 1854.

Transcribed by Chrissy Stancliffe[3]

In the News

The Troopers, Their Sabres, and How They Used Them.
It might be of interest to some of the readers of your widespread journal to know more fully the experience of my participation in the events of the stirring Eureka Stockade days, which had their culmination in the tragic happening of Sunday break of day, the 3rd of December, 1854.
Though many compilations on those occurrences have been issued during later years, they have all had the disadvantage of being written by those who having NO PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE of the facts, had to make their literary work as viewed through the lens of the dim vista of half a century or more of time.
Most of these accounts have been written on the authority of information given by those who had been on the Ballarat diggings at the time, or were compiled from previous publications. Of those the most reliable are, first, that of Mr. W. B. Withers, chief reporter of the "Ballarat Star," who, during the period of friction between the Government and the diggers, from September 1, 1851, till the fatal 3rd December, 1854, was continually over all the diggings, securing each day and being fully informed on every incident of importance for his daily paper.
Next comes "Carboni Raffaello," Italian patriot, and a man of great intelligence, and a guiding spirit when the revolutionary stage developed. His book, containing a full account of the incidents lending up to the final catastrophe, is still recognised by those best able to judge, as a classic in the records of Eureka, and the causes underlying it.
Personally, I believe those two histories of the Australian insurrection are a faithful and sufficient account. The tribute of Withers to the subject is contained in a section of his "History of Ballarat." Notwithstanding the above opinion, I believe there is still room to say something by way of clearing away some of the misconceptions at present existing as to the nature of the movement, the causes that made it inevitable, and the character of the men who faced death, and in many cases died, that their children might be free.
The early gold discoveries in Victoria in the early spring of 1851 brought a tidal wave of population pouring over th4 two goldfields opened up, then known as Forest Creek and Ballarat, Victoria had the preceding year been granted separation from the northern colony, N.S.W.; but, not yet having the grant of the now constitution had no responsible government, and was still under tho old Legislative Council, a nominee body appoint ed by the authorities at Sydney, prior to separation. This Council was composed entirely of the pastoral class, and was representative of property interests only. A full understanding of this fact is essential to a grip of the whole meaning of the insurrection.
The first proclamation of the gold digging license was issued on December 1, 1851, and was fixed at 30s. per month, and was received with indignation by the digging population; and the ANSWER TO THEIR REMONSTRANCE as to the injustice and amount of the tax was a further proclamation on December 1 that the tax would be three pounds a month from that date. This was met by such a storm of protest from all parts of the fields — now extended by new discoveries and a rapidly increasing population that the Council and Governor Latrobe gave way, and for a time the license remained at the original amount till the increasing cost of ad ministration, ever rising with a greater in flux of population, impelled the Government to again raise the obnoxious tax to two pounds a month. Be it remembered the digging community was the only section taxed, and supplied the whole of the revenue for the squatters were making fortunes by supplying meat at enormous prices, and a large commercial class had sprung into existence in Melbourne, and there also, like the bucolic class, making great fortunes as importers and merchants, the young colony depending solely on oversea supplies.
Further, the collection of the license fee from its first imposition was of itself enough to raise a revolution. It was collected by an armed force of foot police, supplemented by CAPTAIN DANA'S BLACK POLICE, a troop of mounted aboriginals. Originally organised to track and run to earth bushrangers and station marauders of their own race, they were armed, and the Americans and the white Australians were shocked and revolted at being bailed up to show their license by armed savages invested with authority.
The digger hunts, as the police termed them, had by this time been fairly instituted, and were of daily occurrence. The method was: A strong and armed force of police would set out from the Camp Hill, and would sally over the area of the diggings, demanding of every man to produce his license. A failure or a refusal to do so meant immediate arrest with unnecessary violence. One handcuff was attached to the victim's right wrist, the other to the ring bolt in the trooper's saddle, and smart move was made to the police camp. If the prisoner objected to entertain his brutal captor with a trotting match with his horse, the reply to any remonstrance was to put the steed into a can tor; and it was make the pace or go down. Should the maltreated one resent this treatment and the jeers and foul imprecations and scurrilous epithets by replying in kind, OUT WOULD COME THE SABRE, and the prisoner would be thrashed with the flat of the weapon, and no matter if at timed it came down edge-wise. This old scribe has a goodly scalp decoration of that order. Big men of choleric temper, who would, with their free arm, strike back at their tyrant, captor with power of punch, would arrive at the camp to mutilated as to require surgical aid. One digger, Arnold, was so near done to death that it was for a time doubtful as to his Survival.
To be accused as a sanguinary dog of a digger, a son of anything but a woman and man, and peremptorily told to fork out your license, and be crimson quick about it, was about the standard of police official courtesy of those days.
Let it be fully remembered that the work of the digger is of a muddy and wet nature, and, after a licence form on a piece of flimsy blue paper had been produced, on demand, eight or ten times a day, with wet and dirty bands, it would, by the middle of the mouth, be the worse for wear; and at that stage of its currency it would be EXAMINED BY SOME BRAGGART and rejected as out of date, torn up, and the possessor summarily Marched off to prison, known as "The Logs," so called from its blockhouse structure. Usually "The logs" lock-up was crammed to Calcutta blackhole congestion by noon of a busy digger-hunting day, and the surplus of the catch would be locked with the handcuffs on each side of a line of chain stretched from tree to tree on Camp Hill. This exposure on a Ballarat winter night—perhaps a keen frost —was an experience to me that the greatest duration of life will never efface, and during all this brutality—on every goldfield as well as Ballarat—the great majority of the outraged and maltreated urged "moderation," and their slogan was, "whatever is done, don't let us take the law into our own hands; let us adopt constitutional means.
And many of these most prominent disciples of turn-the-other-cheek, 40 and 50 years after, got INTO THE LIMELIGHT as Eureka Stockaders, and figured as such at anniversary celebrations; and at the Jubilee Demonstration of 1904—in which this writer had a prominent position as a well known survivor of the historic Sunday morning, when the pioneers of freedom, from the flume of their stockade volleys, lit the torch of Liberty, that made a light and leading for their posterity for the succeeding half century.
The character and the general estimate of the men who stood in the vanguard of the movement, and the storming of the stockade and its defence, with an account of the events that precipitated the final act in the tragedy of the Eureka Stockade, must be, in consideration of your space, held over till your next issue.[4]

See also

Gold License

Eureka 30, 1884


  1. Geelong Advertiser, 10 October 1854.
  2. The Argus,30 November, 1854.
  3. Ballarat Star, Saturday 21 June 1884, p. 3
  4. Melbourne Truth, 20 October 1917.