The story of Australia's only armed uprising


When alluvial gold was found at Ballarat in 1852 a gold rush soon followed, life was hard, and tough, with miners paying very high prices for food, clothes, equipment and water (which was in short supply).

With much of Victoria being Crown land, the Colonial Government put in place a licencing system. The cost of this licence was quickly doubled, in the belief of rich findings, and the amount of money being generated by the licences. With the police intensifying their pre-occupation with ‘licence hunts’, the imposition of a licence fee, the method of licence inspection and the corruptness of some officials there became increasing unrest on the Ballarat goldfields.

The seeds of rebellion

When an angry mob rioted and set fire to James Bentley’s Hotel on the 17th October 1854 the diggers' outrage became apparent. The digger rage at the corruption and abuse of authority seriously scared Government officials, and they called for more troops. The arrival of more Government troops to the goldfields in November and the continuing provocative licence hunts further exacerbated the diggers’ anger.

On the 29th November 1854 some 12,000 Ballarat residents held a meeting at Bakery Hill. Hastily devised as a symbol of resistance, the Eureka flag was flown for the first time at this meeting. A little known Irishman (former railway engineer) Peter Lalor (1827-1889) addressed the crowd. Beneath the flag he encouraged the diggers to swear an oath of allegiance;

We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties

The battle

Peter Lalor and a band of diggers marched to the Eureka gold lead on the 2nd December 1854. Here they erected a roughly built stockade. The then Goldfields Commissioner Robert Rede believed the police camp to be in danger and sent for reinforcements. Tensions mounted throughout the day and the stockade was fortified with over 1000 men, but by midnight only about 120 diggers remained at the barricade.

The next morning (Sunday the 3rd December) around 3.30am at least 290 well armed troops attacked the stockade. A number of shots were fired and a bloody battle ensued. Agnes Frank who arrived in Ballarat in 1854 was an eyewitness to the rebellion. In a later interview she recollects;

My father was aroused on the Sunday morning by the soldiers firing and quickly called us...From our tent door we could see the redcoats as they knelt on the ground and fired... We returned home after the military had marched the prisoners away and visited the stockade and saw a number of dead bodies and some of the pikes the blacksmiths had made..
-(J.Harvey, Eureka Rediscovered , Ballarat, 1994, p.37)

Over thirty diggers, soldiers and bystanders were killed at Eureka. It was all over in a matter of minutes.

As the historian Weston Bate noted,

‘Eureka was a small rebellion about a large principle; the right of people to protest against Government action that infringes basic rights and liberties’.

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