Red Ribbon Rebellion

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Ludwig Becker, Government Camp, Bendigo June 1853, From Bendigo Monument in Rosalind Park, 2013. (original from the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)
Samuel Thomas Gill, Bad Results, c1852, watercolour and gum arabic on paper.
Art Gallery of Ballarat, gift of Mr. Tony Hamilton and Miss. S.E. Hamilton, 1967.


Goldfields unrest and agitation against what was seen as an unjust Gold License fee centred in Bendigo in 1853. Large gatherings of diggers took place in Bendigo over the course of August 1853. Over 23,000 miners signed the Bendigo Miners' Petition, with over 10,000 people welcomed the petition representatives back to the diggings on 13 August, assembled under the Diggers’ Flag, designed by William Dexter.[1]

The Red Ribbon Agitation of 1853 was one of the earliest in the string of events that led ultimately to the Eureka Stockade uprising in Ballarat. Miners were required to pay a licence fee of 30 shillings a month whether they found gold or not.[2] This was seen as an unfair tax. The Red Ribbon Movement was active on the Bendigo diggings where diggers demanded a license fee from 30 shillings to ten shillings. The diggers planned to offer 10 shillings for a license and allow themselves to get arrested so as to cause overcrowding in the prisons, and an increase in administration.

The miners wanted land and they wanted representation. They were taking up the American cry of `no taxation without representation.` The Bendigo diggers held meetings and wore red ribbons to indicate that they would not pay the full license. The authorities in Bendigo were sensible and suspended the license for a month. That one month without the license fee being collected provided a relief valve for building tensions on the goldfields, but it was only temporary. More meetings and protests followed the 1853 Red Ribbon Rebellion, and miners continued to protest the license fee and advocate for changes, and the Red Ribbon sentiment spread to the other goldfields. Tensions eventually erupted in the Eureka Stockade on 03 December, 1854.[3]

The Red Ribbon

Agitators involved in the Red Ribbon movement (who sported red ribbons in their hats to symbolise their defiance of the law and the prohibitive licence fees imposed on lucky and unlucky miners alike) organised the Bendigo Goldfields Petition in mid-1853.

The miner’s used the colour red to signify unity and defiance against an unjust government. On 27 August 1853, ten thousand miner’s peacefully protested against the despised 30 shilling mining licence fee. Governor Charles La Trobe had rejected an earlier petition to axe the fee. Following the agitation, he agreed to removal of the fee for the month of September. Civil liberties and injustices continued until the height of agitations in 1854 at the Eureka Rebellion. [4]

Diggers Flag of 1853, 2013, from the Bendigo Monument in Rosalind Park.

Forest Creek, 2nd September, 1853,
Yesterday being the 1st of the month, the excitement at Bendigo was most intense. Almost every digger had the red ribbon in his hat, as token of a favorable disposition to the reduction of the license-tax. Several of the storekeepers and parties well inclined to the Government had taken out their license during the latter end of last month. About 12 o'clock yesterday an express was received from the Government by Mr. Chief Commissioner Wright, to the effect that the license fee was to be suspended for this month, and the following notice was accordingly posted about the diggings:
His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor has been pleased to notify that it having been decided to propose, without delay, another mode of raising a revenue in lieu of that now derived from the gold-field, this measure will at once be presented to the Legislative Council; but in the meantime no compulsory means shall be adopted for the enforcement of the license for the month or September.
Several persons having applied for protection against violence, which has been threatened to them, all orderly persons are assured that ample means are at the disposal of the authorities for that purpose, and that prompt aid may be relied on whenever necessary.
Commission's Camp Sandhurst
During my stay at Bendigo on Thursday evening, everything appeared quiet, and the diggers evinced every satisfaction at the step taken by the Government, and up to Thudday night everything went on orderly/
At two o'clock, Captain Brown, the delegate and projector of the anti-license movement, was arrested under warrant at the instance of a Mr. William Adams, | for the offence alleged in the following information.
The information and complaint of William Adams, of Commissioner's Flat, storekeeper, taken on oath this 29th day of August, in the year or our Lord, Ono thousand eight hundred and fifty-three, before me the undersigned, one of Her Majesty's Justices of the Peace and for the said colony.
This afternoon the 29th inst., between four and five o'clock I was in the tent called the Sailor's Home, when a person commonly called Captain Brown, asked me for a subscription for the purpose of carrying out the expenses of the Delegates, and said, "all you have given me is a paltry two and sixpence, I know you have always been opposed to our views and the movement. You are a marked man, and look out to have your store pulled down about your ears on Thursday morning. I can get 20,00 men to back me when I like, in anything I wish to carry out; and it is only for me to speak to get plenty of men to do what I tell them"; and said that "If they took a store down he did not approve of, he would empanel a jury and hang the man on the first tree he came to. That he would have lynch-law," he added, "I do not care if I am lagged for it, for I have plenty of means." And added, " I shall give myself up on Thursday."
When Captain Brown spoke of the paltry two-and sixpence, I suppose he alluded to the circumstance when he was going down to Melbourne to wait on the Governor, he came to my store, and bought a coat and shirt, out of which I gave him. 2s 6d. He asked me then to put my name down as a subscriber for the 2s, 6d, which I refused.
At the time Brown was talking with me in the Sailor's Home this afternoon, a man came in with red ribbon in his hat. Brown addressed him saying, "Will you be ready to take away Mr. Adams's traps on Thursday!" Afterwards he remarked, "that private oonversation was private conversation, and public conversation public, and wished what had passed between us should be private, and told me that a certain storekeeper had given him 2/. this afternoon.
Taken and sworn this 29th August, before me at Sandhurst.
On the opening of the police court at two o'clock, Captain Brown was brought forward to answer the above charge, but owing to the absence of Mr Adams, the captain remanded, but admitted to bail himself in 200/., and two sureties in 100/. each.
After the arrest of Captain Brown, the authorities took the precaution to station mounted troopers at various parts throughout the diggings, to guard against any movement which might be maid to rescue the captain, but no movement was viable up to five o'clock that evening.
During the whole of last week the mounted police patrolled the Bendigo diggings, no doubt with the intention of keeping in check any outbreak which might occur. Since the above notice is reference to the sus. pension of the license tax had been posted up, this war like array has in part disappeared, and no doubt the military, foot and mounted polite, with the field-piece, will soon disappear, unless the Government intend keeping the three pieces of artillery with a strong force permanently on the Bendigo. Several of the detachments of soldiers from Forest Creek have returned to their respective quarters.
At Castlemaine, on Saturday but, a meeting was held, and the resolutions adopted at the public meeting at Bendigo, were acted upon, vis, the presentation of 10s. as the future license fee. The reply of the Commissioner was to the effect that the 10s. could not be accepted, and unless the 30s. was paid, all unlicensed diggers would be punished as the law directed. On Wednesday another meeting was held, and the conclusion arrived at was that a petition should be forwarded to the Legislature, praying for a reduction of the tax, and that the Government be requested to allow fifteen days' grace for taking out the licenses, so that a reply to the petition may be received. In answer to the letter which was handed in to Resident Commissioner Captain Bull, that gentleman informed them, that he should submit the petition and letter to Mr. Wright, but in the meantime nothing could be done for them. On the following day, the notices were posted about, which did away with both the petition and the time of grace.[5]

The Diggers' Banner

William Dexter designed a flag that depicted a pick, shovel and cradle (labour); scales (justice); Roman bundle of sticks (Union); and an emu and kangaroo (Australia).

Bendigo Miners Petition

By the time the petition made its way to Melbourne, it had 23,000 signatures and had grown to 13 metres in length. The petition called for a reduction in monthly licence fees and land reform for diggers. Once thought to be lost, the petition was presented to the State Library of Victoria in 1988 by Melbourne collector, Dr John Chapman.[6]

Red Ribbon on a Building in View Street, Bendigo, 2013. This building is in close proximity to the Bendigo Government Camp, where around 10,000 diggers wearing red ribbons congregated. The Bendigo Warden's Court was later part of the Trades Hall Council and Literary Institute Inc. in View Street, until it was destroyed by fire. Photography: Clare Gervasoni


Robert Benson; Captain Brown; William Denovan; William Dexter; R.R. Haverfield; George Holyoake; George Thomson; Captain George Harrison

(To the Editor of the Bendigo Advertiser.)
Sir,-Your Melbourne correspondent in his letter which appeared in your issue of to-day, gives a short account of the career of the late Captain Harrison on Bendigo during the anti licence agitations of the period, which, let me say, is incorrect in several particulars, and which, in justice to the deceased gentleman's memory, I wish to correct. Captain Harrison never entered into an engagement to hold meetings at the Black Swan in opposition to the digger's meetings conducted by the late Robert Benson and myself in front of the Shamrock. The facts are these: We only held two or three meetings there, and on the same days "Captain" Brown - with whom we would have nothing to do - held opposition meetings at the Black Swan, and which were better attended than ours for a time or two, until the novelty of his appearance wore off. The "bullock dray" too, must be pure imagination, as on the two or three occasions we met near the Shamrock, we had a platform erected. The last time I remember hearing Captain Harrison address the diggers, was at one of our meetings held where All Saints' Church now stands, and at a subsequent meeting I distinctly remember my making a collection for him, he being in poor circumstances at the time. Captain Harrison never had much to do with the anti-licence movement started by G.E. Thompson, Captain Brown, Dr Wall, Mr Hopkins, and myself, he having retired from the field after his efforts were successful in preventing the licence tax being raised from 30s to L3.
I am sir, yours truly,
Golden-square, 24th July, 1869.[7]

50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago to-day was Red Ribbon Day' in Bendigo. That day witnessed the gathering, on Hospital Hill, now the site of All Saints' Pro-Cathedral, of 20,000 diggers to protest against tlie gold license, says the 'Argus' of Wednesday.
Every man who agreed not to pay t!he licence pledged himself to wear a piece of red ribbon, and so unanimous was the pro test that the stocks of red ribbon ran out, and the diggers had to cut up their red shirts for badges. Of the speakers who addressed that me morable meeting, the only survivor is Mr. W. D. C. Donovan, one of the present mem bers of the Bendigo Stock Exchange. The 'Sunday Times' has more readers in the State of N.S.W. than any other paper. Half-a-crown a Quarter, post free.[8]

Fifty years ago to-day a strange and stirscene was enacted on the Bendigo gold-field. It was the culminating point to a bitter protest against the tyrannous treat-ment of the diggers by the administrators of the British Government. On the hill where All Saints' Pro-Cathedral now stands the gathering had assembled, and on that afternoon—the 21st August, 1853—every miner wore the symbol of disaffection, a piece of red ribbon. But why had these 20,000 miners risen in their angry might to make a mammoth demonstration of this character? Only the younger generation need be told. The ranks of the pioneers who took part in the red ribbon movement have been broken and sundered, but for years afterwards the story of their fight for justice was on every tongue, and their triumph, in the end, was no light thing to be forgotten in a day. With the increase of diggers, and the decrease of gold, the license fee of 30/ per month began to gall. It was resented by those who could not pay on the practical grounds of poverty, while others objected on the plea that it was an unjust tax. On every hand, almost; the tax encountered an enemy, while the method of collecting it was nothing less than barbarous. The taxgatherer and the taxpayer were brought into violent contact the one in harsh authority, the other in a spirit of stubborn rebellion. The digger did not want to escape his fair share of taxa-tion, and if the gold-laced officialdom of the hour had but reduced the tax to a moderate amount, it would have been cheerfully paid by the general body of diggers, and the aggregate revenue would have been larger. Moreover, a license was a necessity for security of tenure, as in those days a swarm of desperadoes were ready to rush in and possess themselves of a rich claim did opportunity offer. But the Government sought to press the yoke of authority so heavily on the neck of every miner that its action had an effect quite opposite to that intended. The law, in its majesty, demanded that the digger, should show his last receipt, at all hours of the day or night, and the digger replied. "I'll see you d..... first." This, at least, was the predominating spirit of the rough, and ready miners, who were led by men, the very mention of whose names appears to annihilate, time and space, and bring the old Bendigonian back into the sunshine of youth, when the battle for British liberty was fought and won.
Not only against the license fee, but against the general official administration, were the diggers incensed and it was considered the height of enjoyment to bam-boozle the police. There is the humorous as well as the serious side of pioneer life, and, notwithstanding the ominous temper of the people, the ring of loud laughter was frequently heard while a digger hunt was going on. it is remarkable, when looked at over a space of 50 years, that the tragic Eureka Stockade incident of 3rd December, 1854, was Ieft to Ballarat. It might easily have taken place, at an earlier period on Bendigo, but, no doubt, the leaders of the insurrectionary movement, did a great deal to. hold the 40,000 people constituting the gold fields population in check. The diggers were all armed, and they had the numbers. Under the circumstances, their, self-control was ad-mirable. They had already successfully fought against a step to increase the license fee to £3, and as the anti-license movement had taken a firm hold at each of the important goldfields, it was determined to resist strongly the arbitrary conduct of the Government. A monster memorial, signed by 31,000 diggers of Bendigo, Castlemaine, and McIvor, was presented to Governor Latrobe, but the reply came that no changes would be made in the existing laws. As a matter of fact, Latrobe called the diggers "grievance mongers," and threatened to let them hear the cannon roar. This, in itself, was eloquent of the demeamor of the administration.
And so it happened that just a half century ago the great meeting was held on Hospital Hill to make a demonstration, which thrilled the hearts of every miner who at-tended, swayed by the one common impulse to raise his voice in denunciation of oppres-sion and wrong. Fully 90 per cent, of that vast throng had mounted the red cockade; horses and dogs were decorated with the red symbol of liberty, and the deep undercurrent of excitement, which ever and anon rose to the surface and found vent in uproarious cheers, showed the tense nature of the posi-tion. The commissioners thought the dig-gers were going to take possession of the camp, and Governor Latrobe sent a body of soldiery and his promised cannon to the field. But the men maintained a constitutional demeanor. With a deep-throated and vocifer-ous burst of cheering, they carried a resolu-tion against the license system, and adopted the red political insignia by way of evincing their earnestness in the cause. Dr. Jones was in the chair, and amongst those present were. Mr. W. D. C. Denovan, who is still a citizen of Bendigo; Mr. G. E. Thomson, solicitor, who first started a restaurant, and be came the prime mover in the agitation; Captain Brown, Dr. Wall; Mr. E. N. Emmett, Mr. Ferrars (the secretary); Mr. Alfred O'Connor, and Dr. Owens, who was a prominent advocate for the men on the Ovens goldfield, and who, in conjunction with the late Mr. Angus Mackay, was one of the champions of the diggers. Others prominent in the crusade on behalf of the diggers were Captain Harrison, Mr. Robert Benson, Captain Baker, and Mr. R.R. Haverfield. It can readily be understood that the refusal on the part of the Government to abolish or reduce the fee put the climax on the public wrath, and the diggers were more determined than ever. On the 27th August, 1853, another great meeting, was held on Hospital Hill. The rain poured down in heavy showers, but it could not damp the ardor of the men, many of whom marched from White Hills, flying the red ribbon in their hats, the wild Skirl of the Scotch pipes increasing their enthusiasm. The meeting resolved that the diggers would pay only 10/, per month as the license fee, and no more Meanwhile, at Waranga the Goulburn diggings, the commissioners were foolish enough to attempt to compel the diggers to pay the old license fee, and they made a number of arrests. This was too much for the endurance of their comrades. A large body of diggers, fully-armed, marched to the gaol, demanded the instant liberation of the imprisoned men, and the terrified commissioners complied with remarkable celerity. This, incident greatly alarmed Governor Latrobe, who rushed to the Legislative Council of Victoria, proposed at once to abandon the license fee altogether, and to substitute some "other " tax. And, laughable as it, may appear, so confused did the authorities become that in a few days two proclamations, diametrically opposed to each other, were posted at the various gold fields. One set forth that the fee for the following month need not be paid, while the other stated that the diggers must pay the license fee as usual! The first was issued by Governor Latrobe, and the second by Chief Commissioner Wright, in charge of all the goldfields. Here, indeed, was a pitiable exhibition, of administrative imbecility and disorganisation. The Bendigo anti-license committee went at once, to the commissioners and asked them what course they meant to pursue. They declared that they would not attempt to collect the fee until a new law was passed. As already stated, the diggers did not want to see the fee abolished, and the committee told the authorities that they should make it 10/ per month. The sugges-tion was adopted, but inexplicable as it may seem, the addled headed Government accepted the immediate quiet and peace that set in on every goldfield as a sign of submission.
Accordingly the fee was raised to £1 per month; or £2 per quarter, or £8 per year. But they went a step further by imposing a £50 license on storekeepers, butchers, green grocers, etc., and even the humble vender of cabbages, had to pay the £50!' The diggers of Bendigo took all this quietly enough, owing principally to the fact that the slopes of White Hills were beginning to yield up their rich treasures, and a wide vista of apparent wealth was once more opening up. Later 0n however, the agitation was renewed with all the old vigor.
But it was decreed that the price of the miners' liberty was to be the shedding of human-blood, and the price was paid and the liberty dearly bought at Ballarat, when the memorable Sabbath morn attack was made on the double-breast work forming the strong-hold of the insurgents at the Eureka Stock-ade in the closing days of 1854. The sensational episode resulted in inquiry and a complete change in the law. Instead of the license fee, with its man-hunting incidents, the authorities granted miners' rights at £l per year to render the miner secure in his holding. Event this distant date a feeling of satisfaction is experienced at the reflection that no jury was found to convict the Eureka Stockade rioters, and they were acquitted.[9]

160th Anniversary

The 160th anniversary of the red Ribbon Rebellion was held at Bendigo's at Rosalind Park in August 2103. The Golden City Pipe Band led the revolt, piping loudly through Rosalind Park. St Kilian's Primary School, Camp Hill Primary School and Girton Grammar students donned the red ribbon, marching as disgruntled miners.[10]

Bendigo’s Historical Society president Jim Evans said the rebellion marks the “road to democracy”. “This is an important event for Australia and for our democracy, he said. “The miner’s fought against an arbitrary government and won their rights on the goldfields eventually leading to the Eureka Stockade.”[11]

161st Anniversary

Jim Evans wrote in August 2014 on the 161st anniversary of the Red Ribbon Movement that the Bendigo Historical Society commemorated the 161st anniversary of the Red Ribbon Movement on Wednesday, August 27, in Rosalind Park, starting at 11am.[12]

It was reported in the Bendigo Advertiser that: The Bendigo Petition, signed by thousands of miners, was originally more than 30 metres in length. One of the key sections of the Petition read:

‘‘Your Petitioners pray your Excellency to Grant the following Petition.

First – To direct that the License Fee be reduced to Ten Shillings a Month.’’

Amongst those who signed the petition were two women, Florence Foley and Sarah Williamson.

Other names that were well known at the time include J.H. Abbott, Theodore Ballerstedt, Robert Benson, Captain Brown, W.D.C. Denovan, Dr Jones, Captain Harrison and George Thomson.

Some, like Abbott and Denovan, were to remain well known for quite some time after the events of July and August 1853 – the time of the Red Ribbon Agitation.

The signatories included shopkeepers, brickmakers, butchers and shoemakers, for in Bendigo, everyone was a miner.

It was the rejection of this petition by Governor LaTrobe that led the miners to hold mass meetings, culminating on August 27 when thousands met, in the rain, near the Government Camp.

The miners wore a red ribbon as a symbol of protest against the gold license fee of 30 shillings a month.

This idea was suggested by William Dexter and it was fortunate that red clothing was very common on the goldfields, being the colour of shirts and even underwear. The Diggers’ Banner, designed by Dexter, consisted of the cradle, shovel and pick, scales of justice, bundle of sticks and the kangaroo and emu on a red background. People of all nationalities and from all continents took part in the protest.

It was George Thomson, together with Captain Harrison and Captain Brown, who offered Commissioners Panton and Wright the sum of 10 shillings for the September license on August 27 and though this was rejected, the Commissioners did not collect the fee for that month.

The license fee may be regarded as a tax on labour or a rent and in the protest may be seen the birth of both the major political parties of today.[13]

Also See

Ballarat Reform League Inc. Bendigo Monuments

Bendigo Goldfields Petition

E.N. Emmett

Charles La Trobe

William Denovan

Alfred O'Connor

George Thomson


  1., downloaded 15 March 2013.
  2., downloaded 15 March 2013.
  3., downloaded 15 March 2013.
  4. Bendigo Weekly, 27-Aug-2013.
  5. The Argus, 5 September 1853.
  6., downloaded 15 March 2013.
  7. Bendigo Advertiser, 26 July 1869.
  8. Sydney Sunday Times, 23 August 1903.
  9. Bendigo Advertiser, 21 August 1903.
  10. Bendigo Weekly, 27-Aug-2013.
  11. Bendigo Weekly, 27-Aug-2013.
  13. Bendigo Advertiser, August 2014