Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter VII page 1

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)



The majority of the diggers on Ballarat were English and Scotch, but there was a considerable leaven of Yankees and Canadians, many of whom had been the rough and lawless life on the Californian mines in the Forties. These later were on the whole I think self-respecting fellows, perhaps not liking restraint over-much, certainly not bearing it with the quiet patience of the ordinary Britisher. I remember that because of their aloofness they were under suspicion by the local authorities until they were better understood.

There was also the Irish element, whether native-born or Yankeefied, against the government always, but ineffective for good or ill without leaders. They were at times troublesome on account of their readiness to quarrel among themselves, and, if they had the weight of numbers on their side, to encroach on the rights of others. Taking all these nationalities together, there was a steadily-growing discontent difficult to describe. It showed itself in a sort of sullenness of demeanour, and an increasing estrangement that gave the local authorities considerable concern. The authorities, both Gold Commissioners and Police with very few exceptions, were performing all their duties with the utmost uprightness and discretion; of this the diggers have been aware. If it were otherwise matters would much sooner have come to a head. This feeling of dissatisfaction was of steady growth. I do not, however, pretend to explain all the features of the situation; I desire only to show that the local officers were between the upper millstone of a stubborn and unwise central Government, and the nether millstone of a righteously dissatisfied community. The first display of resistance of any seriousness occurred in February, 1854, and arose out of a case in which Commissioner James Johnstone, one of the most capable amongst the officers, had awarded a certain claim to a small party of diggers after a full hearing of both sides. The defeated claimants were Irish, and they threatened, in the presence of the Commissioner, to drive out the successful party. Johnstone was a sturdy resolute fellow, and was determined that his award should stand. A squad of police, of whom I was in charge, was sent to the ground to protect those in possession at all hazards. The claim was on Ballarat flat, within easy view of the police camp—somewhere near the spot on which the Alfred Hall now stands, and as the hours passed without any sign of trouble we began to think that the Irishmen had changed their mind, rather than risk an attack so close to the Camp. They were only collecting their forces, for in the afternoon a large body of them, probably two hundred or more, rushed down upon us with shouts and yells. The men in possession picked up their tools ready to run away, but the police insisted that one at least should remain in the shaft which had been just begun, to represent the ownership of the claim. One of the Irishmen jumped into the shaft, it was only three or four feet in depth—and was arrested. Then the trouble began. The crowd did all they could to rescue him. They pelted us with clods and bottles, and we should certainly have been overpowered, the pressure on the constables being so great they could not use their batons, their only weapons, had there not been a sudden pistol shot, followed by one of the constables going down wounded. Thus so startled the crowd that they broke up and scattered, leaving the police and their prisoner alone without further interference. The explanation of the shot was this: The constable who was wounded had secreted a pistol under his tunic, and being hard pressed had attempted to draw it, and by accident discharged the weapon into his own leg.


In those early days men marked out their own claims by driving in a peg at each corner of a four-sided figure, square or otherwise, containing or supposed to contain so many square yards to each member of their party. The measurement was roughly done, and was often inexact, overlapping perhaps part of an adjoining claim. The amount of ground allowed to a party was, if I recollect aright, different on different leads. On Golden Point, Ballarat, the claims were very small, for the lead was rich, and the known run of good ground limited. Pegs were sometimes surreptitiously moved, and under the circumstances disputes were necessarily frequent. All such disputes were settled by the Gold Commissioner of the division who took evidence on the ground, and after hearing both sides gave his decision usually at once. These open-air courts generally attracted a crowd of interested listeners. Every decision was in the discretion of the Commissioner, and virtually there was no appeal. The supposed money value of many claims was considerable, but I never heard it suggested that the Commissioner ever gave an unfair or partial judgment.


In spite of a certain amiability of character that my fellow countrymen are credited with, they are capable at times of as great savagery as any uncivilized blackfellow, even against men of their own race. No one knew this better than good old Father Dowling of Brown Hill, the pioneer minister of any denomination at Ballarat in the early fifties. He often appeared heartbroken at the iniquities of his flock. The following is one of any examples of their ill-doing. Martin Dwyer, one of the early miners on Ballarat, found himself one day in the clutches of a party of his fellow-countrymen who had some grudge against him. After debating a while, they decided to drop him down a deep shaft on the Eureka flat. This they did, and then sat down and lit their pipes. It so happened that Dwyer found himself at the bottom of the shaft without any serious injury. After recovering himself a little he contrived to clamber up to the surface, and to his horror found his foes ready for him again. His pleas for mercy were disregarded; they dropped him in again and there left him to die. Dwyer did not escape so well this time, for his clothes were torn to shreds, and he was badly bruised all over. It seems marvellous that he was not killed outright. He waited until night came and then worked his way by the foot holes once more to the surface. This was the substance of evidence given before the court, at which the offenders were convicted.

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