Eureka - The Buninyong Connection

by Anne Beggs Sunter

,  Buninyong and District Historical Society

The new colony of Victoria was proclaimed on 1 July 1851. It was an inauspicious time to be founding a new colony, as NSW had just announced the discovery of gold at Bathurst in mid-May 1851. Who would want to stay in the new colony, much less to emigrate!

The commercial men of Melbourne in June took matters into their own hands, and advertised a rich reward for anyone who could find payable gold within a one hundred miles radius of Melbourne. The race was on, especially amongst ‟forty-niners‟, men who had ventured to California in 1849.

One such was ‟lucky Jim‟ James Esmond, an Irishman who had worked in Port Phillip before 1851, driving the mail coach between Geelong and Portland, familiar with the townships of Buninyong and Burnbank on the mail route. He returned to Sydney from California with one James Hargraves in February 1851, and made a mental note to look for gold.

Thomas Hiscock, the Buninyong blacksmith, had been interested in the subject of gold since a report had appeared in the Melbourne newspapers in 1849 speaking of a discovery in the Pyrenees. Apparently Hiscock sent innumerable parcels of rock down to the jeweller Mr Fulton in Geelong with the mail coach, but he was unsure what he was seeking.

Buninyong in 1851 was ‟the busiest town in Victoria outside Melbourne and Geelong.‟ Established for 10 years, it had recently been surveyed and the first sales of land in the township were held in Melbourne on 9 May 1851. Buninyong boasted a comfortable hotel - Mother Jamieson's Inn - a Presbyterian church, Victoria's only inland boarding school, the only doctor in the region, a post office, stores and of course a blacksmith. It was well on the way to becoming ‟ye ancient village‟ whilst Ballarat was still the resting place of the local Aboriginal people. The only signs of European habitation about Ballarat were the sheep and shepherd's huts of the Scottish squatter, Archibald Yuille, who had called his run ‟Ballaarat.‟

19 year old John Stoker Thomas was with Thomas Hiscock when he discovered gold, as was his brother Edward and Thomas Hiscock's son Thomas, all looking for a stray cow. The actual date is somewhat confused. John Stoker Thomas claimed it was Saturday 2 August 1851; the gold monument erected in 1897 states 3 August, and the Select Committee inquiring into who should be rewarded for gold discoveries in Victoria decreed in 1854 that Thomas Hiscock be rewarded for his discovery ‟on 8 August 1851‟.

It is very feasible that the discoverers would test the ground for a few days, collect their gold, and establish their claim before releasing the news to the general public. So it is quite possible that the discovery was made on 2 August, but not communicated to people in Geelong until the following week. Hiscock wrote to the editor of the Geelong Advertiser on Sunday 10 August, and sent the letter and gold specimens down with the Buninyong mail, which left Buninyong on Sunday night, 10 August. (Flett, p. 348)

The discovery was announced in the Geelong Advertiser on 12 August 1851.

We yesterday received from Buninyong a packet containing some of the finest specimens of gold, in quartz matrix, that we have hitherto met with. They were found within a mile or two of the township by Mr Hiscock, a respectable resident there.

This report was picked up by the Melbourne Argus on Thursday 14 August 1851.

Alfred Clarke, a journalist with the Geelong Advertiser, was sent to Buninyong, and his first report was filed on 15 August. He reported the exodus of Geelong people to Hiscock's Diggings near Buninyong. On 20 August he wrote ‟ The inhabitants of Geelong are becoming nomadic...Geelong is going out of town and coming to Buninyong.‟ (quoted by H. Stacpoole Gold at Ballarat, 1971, p. 16.) So many came that the reef was soon exhausted, and men spread out to prospect the ranges. On 27 August Clarke published a report of gold discovered ‟across the ranges on Yuille's Creek.‟ This was the report of the discovery of the Ballarat goldfield at Poverty Point by John Dunlop and James Regan.

The government reacted quickly to the rush. Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe issued a proclamation on 16 August that the gold belonged to the Queen, and that anyone digging for gold would require a license and proof that they had a certificate of discharge from a previous employment contract. News reached Buninyong on 25 August 1851 that the government would impose a licence fee of 30 shillings a month on all miners, in advance, for a specific area. That night a mass meeting was held on the Buninyong goldfield to protest at the news, chaired by Herbert Swindells of Geelong. The Geelong Advertiser's reporter Alfred Clarke attended the meeting under the stars and wrote that ‟there has not been a more gross attempt at injustice since the days of Wat Tyler‟ (Stacpoole, 1971, p. 17). ‟It is a solemn protest of labour against oppression‟ he wrote, ‟an outburst of light, reason and right against the infliction of an effete objectionable Royal claim... It is taxation without representation‟ wrote the passionate and well-educated journalist, aware of the importance of ‟ tonight for the first time since Australia rose from the bosum of the ocean, were men strong in their sense of right, lifting up a protest against an impending wrong, and protesting against the Government. Let the Government beware‟ he warns!

A letter from one P.W. Welsh, merchant of Geelong, appeared in the Geelong Advertiser and the Argus on 19 August, advising prospective prospectors that they should equip themselves with a horse and cart, a company of mates, a cradle and proper equipment. He recommended ‟a party of five, one to quarry, one to drive the cart to the river, and three at the cradle would do well.‟ He advised that there were two stores at Buninyong, well stocked with supplies. On his visit the previous weekend, he noted about 120 men at work, and he passed 50 or 60 drays as he rode back to Geelong.

One of the Geelong men who reacted to the reports of Alfred Clarke and P.W. Welsh was James Oddie, who owned a foundry in Market Square, Geelong. He had a horse, but no dray, and when two acquaintances who possessed a dray but no horse proposed they get together, Oddie agreed. He collected two weeks rations, and leaving his foundry in his partner's hands, and his wife in charge of their cottage, he set off with three Geelong businessmen on 23 August. The start of the adventure was not propitious - the already wet countryside was deluged again with heavy, persistent rain, and half way up they met a disconsolate party returning from Buninyong with poor reports (Ballarat Star 2 Sept 1909). However Oddie was determined to use his two weeks' rations, and arrived at the township of Buninyong on 28 August, to find Mr Connor's party leaving for some new location which was causing much excitement amongst the adventurers at Jamieson's Inn. He sought out Thomas Hiscock, and had a panning lesson from the blacksmith before beginning his own attempts. As he had been recently warned, the work was hard and unrewarding at Buninyong, so his party decided to try the new goldfield to which his Geelong friends Connor and Merrick had already gone. He invited another Geelong man, Thomas Bath, with his wife, to come along. This adventurous Cornishwoman was probably the first white woman on the Ballarat diggings.

At about 2.00 p.m., on the afternoon of Monday, 1 September, Oddie with several other parties from Buninyong, reached what would soon be known as Golden Point. There were but seven tents pitched on a slope above the creek near Yuille's shepherd's hut, and Oddie's party took up a site ‟a little to the West of where Peel street crosses the bridge over the Yarrowee.‟ (Ballarat Star, 1 April 1904, interview with James Oddie; Miner and Weekly Star, 5 September 1856) A tent was made of calico and saplings and Oddie was allocated the place nearest the door, because he was the youngest in his party. And because the weather was so wet, he had to empty his boots of water each morning before getting into them.

The best sites were already taken but there was no animosity between the parties, most of whom already knew each other from their business dealings in Geelong - for example Connor's blacksmith's shop was next door to Oddie's foundry!( Geelong Advertiser, 28 June, 1905, p. 4 ) So the men worked out a system of frontage claims, 10ft. by 60ft. in depth, with space for tents at the rear, and a 15 foot right of way separating a second line of claims higher up the hill. A right of way was also provided down to the creek, so the barrow loads of dirt could be washed. The reporter Alfred Clarke, who had arrived with Oddie, was surprised and delighted at the order which quickly prevailed on this new community in the virgin bush:

Six and twenty tents stretch along the hills commanding the creek: upwards
of a hundred diggers are already spread along its margin, which is divided in
proportion to the numbers comprising each party, by mutual consent.

(Stacpoole, p. 20, quoting Clarke's dispatch of 4 September 1851)

Oddie and his countrymen, mostly mechanics like himself, had responded magnificently to the challenge of creating an orderly society out of nothing. In the month of September 1851, the foundation was laid for Ballarat's future democratic tradition.

The arrival of the Gold Commissioner and the police on 20 September caused anger and resentment, as the Commissioner took authority from the diggers and imposed the order of the old establishment, which was based not on ‟mutual consent‟, but upon a premise that the riff-raff diggers must be put in their place and made to pay heavily for that place.

Commissioner Doveton announced that the diggers must pay to the Crown a license fee of 15 shillings for the rest of the month of September, and henceforth a fee of 30 shillings a month. This was bad news for those who had yet to gain any gold - but worse still was the Commissioner's tampering with the frontage system. He declared that claims be reduced to eight feet square and that a maximum of two claims could be held by a party. Such small claims would quickly be worked out, so the diggers met on 21 September to decide how they would respond to this unwelcome official intrusion. Resolutions were passed condemning the new frontage system and the license, and James Oddie was elected, with Herbert Swindells, as spokesmen to put the diggers' grievances to the Commissioner. (Stackpoole, p. 48-9)

The Commissioner dismissed their deputation arrogantly, saying that he was there to enforce the laws, not make them, and he would make the diggers pay! The Commissioner gave instructions not to issue Swindells and Oddie with licenses, because they were considered troublemakers. The seeds of Eureka had been sown!

By government proclamation, a court of Petty Sessions was established at Buninyong at the end of September, 1851, and a Police Camp was established under the authority of Captain Dana and his Aboriginal troopers, who arrived on 20 September 1851 (Withers, 1887, p. 35)

The seeds of resentment against the administration of the goldfields had been sown, culminating in the resort to arms and the resolve to fight for justice under the banner of the Southern Cross on 3 December 1854.

Raffaello Carboni writes in his book The Eureka Stockade that a number of the insurgents fled after the battle to the peace of Magpie Gully where no digger hunts ever occurred. (Carboni, 1855, p. 7) His friend Carl Wiesenhavern, a genial German, who had been licensee at the Prince Albert Hotel in Ballarat East, moved to Magpie where he called his new establishment ‟The Southern Cross‟. (Carboni, p. 171, 174). Carboni also mentions the publican Bradshaw and the storekeeper Patrick Sheehan as supporters of his at Magpie in 1855 (Carboni, p. 174)

Frederick Vern, another leading character in the Eureka story, also turned up as a miner at nearby Black Lead, and put himself forward as a candidate at the election for the first Court of Mines at Buninyong on 18 May 1857 (Griffiths, 1988, p. 32) Many of the Irish supporters of Peter Lalor settled in the Dunnstown-Bungaree area. Michael Hanrahan was one of Lalor's lieutenants and was leader of the pikeman. He selected land on the northern slopes of Warrenheip along with many of his countrymen in an area which came to be known as ‟little Ireland‟ (Griffiths, p. 73). One of the demands of the insurgents had been access to land, and the rich soil of the Buninyong Shire was finally opened up to miners who would be farmers by the Land Selection Acts from 1860.

John Dunlop, discoverer of gold at Poverty Point, was a Scot who had served in the British Army at Waterloo. But at Eureka he served beside Peter Lalor against the government he had once served. After the Stockade he settled at Elaine, where he had a butcher shop.

When the Amalgamated Miners Association of Victoria was formed in June 1874 at Bendigo, the Buninyong Miners Association was represented by J. Black (Courier, 26 June, 1874)

Read about the Buninyong monument
erected by the Ballarat Reform League Inc. in 2005

The Ballaarat Reform League and the events of Eureka were central to the development of Australia as an independent democratic country.

There is much to honour