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Clunes Riot

Background History

Until 1851, Clunes enjoyed peaceful aboriginal and pastoral occupation. A Scot, Donald Cameron, had his homestead in the Clunes valley and the existence of gold was soon suspected. On 7 July 1851 James Esmond announced payable gold at Clunes, the earliest such announcement in Victoria. A small rush ensued but little or no permanent development occurred until 1856 when the London based Port Phillip and Colonial Gold Mining Company negotiated an agreement to mine on the privately owned Clunes pre-emptive right (part of Cameron’s original pastoral run). The gold was primarily found in quartz reefs, requiring considerable capital and many miners working co-operatively. The Port Phillip Company erected a large stamping battery and pioneered many innovations in company mining. Relatively few companies worked the reefs although small parties continued to operate, especially under the Cornish ‘tribute’ system, where miners were paid an agreed percentage on the gold won. 

Commercial development commenced in ‘Lower’ Fraser Street although by the late 1860’s, when mining prosperity peaked, business houses in the central section of Fraser Street were rebuilt and development consolidated. Residential development stayed close to the mines initially (especially on Camp Hill and at North Clunes) but soon spread to South Clunes. Like business premises, residences were often enlarged and Clunes retains some examples of tiny cottages which have been enveloped by later extensions. 

Impressive institutional buildings began to be erected in the 1860s and 70s, culminating in the grandiose Town Hall (1872-1873) and urbane Post and Telegraph Office (1878-1879). Of the churches, the Wesleyans had the largest congregation (boosted by the many Cornish miners in Clunes)) and this is clearly demonstrated by their church in Service Street. By contrast, churches of other denominations were either closed and reused or their toothed stonework left incomplete. 

The landscape character of Clunes changed radically in the period 1880-1930.The bare hills of the 1860s and 70s gave rise to an impressive tree planting programme – both public and private – especially in Queens Park and along Creswicks Creek. Within a generation, the ravages of mining gave way to the treed character we observe today. Mining ceased in the mid 1890s and miners drifted to other goldfields, such as Kalgoorlie. 

Several secondary industries were established at Clunes during the twentieth century following collapse of the gold mining industry locally. Knitting factories reused earlier buildings and several factories were erected along the creek. Walking paths now lead along the bank of Creswicks Creek and a fine view of the town can be obtained from ‘the Rocks’ on the Scenic Road. 

Lothair and South Clunes Mines

South Clunes Mine commenced operation as a quartz mine in 1859. The Lothair Mine commenced operation in 1864 and developed into a quartz mine by 1871. 

The 1870’s saw little new development on the Clunes field, in fact, the field gradually slipped into depression. None of the companies formed during the late 1860’s boom had been successful, and the older established mines were beginning to struggle. 

At this time the South Clunes mine was getting gold from working the alluvial section of their claim.  The Lothair Company had also commenced deep lead mining. The Lothair mines directors were continually being questioned by their shareholders because of the lack of dividends.  The mine was poorly ventilated, having only one shaft. Accidents were common and deaths occurred frequently. 

The South Clunes group of mines ended up being the field’s most successful deep lead mining venture.  ‘Capitalistic greed’ regarding working hours and pay was what sparked the strike.  The Lothair gold mine, of which the Eureka hero Peter Lalor was a director, decided to cancel all contracts with the miners and pay 7s a shift for a 6-shift week. They were told this by the mine manager  once they had started their shift on Monday morning and were down the mine ready to start work. The miners were already being paid 7s 6d. per shift and wanted Saturday afternoon off. After the miners had been on strike for some weeks, the company was resolved to break a miner’s strike by recruiting Chinese miners. This led to what became known as the ‘Clunes Riot’ (originally referred to as ‘the Chinese Riot’). 

The 1880’s commenced with several mines still working, but with no outstanding prospects.  Despite the flurry of deep lead mining at the end of the decade – by the South Clunes Extended – the eighties closed with the Clunes field in a very poor state of health.  

Mining in Clunes ceased during the 1890’s. 

Story of the Riot

In 1873 events were occurring in Clunes which culminated in a serious riot.  

In September 1873, Directors of the Lothair Mine, near where the railway station now stands, decided to change the method of payment to the miners from contract rates to seven shillings per shift and requested the men to work extra shifts on Saturday afternoon, 3pm to 11pm, and Sunday night from 11pm to 7am on Monday morning. 

This meant that the miners would have to work two extra shifts per fortnight for the same money. Additionally, the miners were unwilling to work on the Sunday, as many in the region were angered that the sanctity of the Sabbath was to be broken.  

The dispute seems to have been compounded by work conditions in the Lothair Mine that was poorly ventilated. Some miners wanted it fixed. An Old Miner wrote that he had ‘through foul air’ in the Clunes mines, been laid aside, and many are in their graves. The Lothair Mine, he wrote,  

“…has only one shaft, no means of insulation, and in case of water breaking in, they have no means of escape. Allow me to urge my brother miners not to allow anything to induce them to resume work till some means are set on foot for the preservation of their lives.” 

Negotiations proving useless and the miners, backed by the newly formed Clunes Miner’s Association, went on strike.  

By the end of November, the Lothair directors had accepted that the Sunday night shift would not be worked, but refused to give ground on the Saturday afternoon shift. 

After the strike had dragged on for nearly fourteen weeks, the directors of the Lothair mine – who included James Francis, the Premier of Victoria, and the wealthy businessman Peter Lalor, previously a Eureka rebel, met and agreed to hire blacklegs if needed, finally deciding to work the mine with Chinese labour and engaged a large number of Chinese miners from Ballarat and Creswick. Word reached Clunes on the afternoon of 8th of December 1873 that coaches were waiting in Creswick to transport a party of Chinese to Clunes and word went around the town to rally the miners.  

“The feeling on the part of the miners against the employment of Chinese labour is perfectly intelligible to every European, and no one can be surprised that men seeing an effort made to deprive them and their families of their means of subsistence by bringing a host of Tartars into the field against them should be highly exasperated.” – Bendigo Advertiser. 

William Blanchard, as town mayor and Miners’ Association president, sent Jimmy Hewitt, bellman, around the streets to summon every soul to a public meeting in the 5000-strong town, and all other activity – industrial, commercial, agricultural, domestic – ceased in Clunes for the day. Then, in the afternoon, a group of many hundreds of people marched behind the Clunes Brass Band along Service Street, Bailey Street, Talbot Road, Fraser Street and several other streets, stopping before the town hall, where speeches were delivered by civic and religious leaders stating that those who dared labour on the Sabbath would not enter Clunes. 

The townspeople made preparations as night fell. A group of miners went up Service Street to the Lothair mine and made sure it could not be worked should the strike-breakers get through: cages were lowered to the bottom level, the lift engine disabled, planks bolted across the shafts, ladders removed from the site, gates padlocked, and a picket line established. A shed that had been erected to house the blacklegs was pulled down. 

After an all-night vigil during which the miners in practically all the other mines stopped work, word was received early on the 9th of December that the coaches, had left the Chinese encampment at Creswick at 5am. They were met part of the way along the road by four mounted troopers from the district, who warned that the tollway was blocked. With Sergeant Larner sitting beside him in the box, McPhee turned the lead coach into the Tourello road and took the party over to the Ballarat road, from where they could drive straight into Clunes without obstruction. 

News came through at dawn that the coaches and a mounted escort had been sighted and would soon be along the Ballarat Road.

An estimated 1000 people – men, women and children – rushed en masse up the hill then out along the Ballarat road, stopping at the intersection with Coghill’s Creek Road, near the edge of town. Farmers nearby called on the leaders to take their drays, ploughs, harrows, assorted agricultural equipment and some loose lumber to build a barricade, which they hastily did.

“When women are led to take up arms, we may be sure the cause is one in which it would be utter folly for the adverse party to persist” – Bendigo Advertiser.

They were still piling on rocks when, at around 7am, the Cobb coaches and police escort drew into sight. McPhee, driving the first – an immense, handsome vehicle with a splendid team and evidently bent desperately on driving over any mortal opposition, cracked his whip and bore down upon the miners.

“…the great and real barricade was the living acting mass before them. There was a little parley, but it was to no avail. An attempt was made by the police to break through, but the attempt was easily frustrated…”  –  Creswick Advertiser

Coach windows were shattered by stones thrown by the crowd, and the occupants huddles behind their belongings as more missiles were flung their way.

Then came the police effort. This consisted of Sergeant Larner climbing down from the coachman’s box – slipping as he did so and falling to the ground, badly gashing his temple – and assisted by Constable Durack, who dismounted his horse, clambering onto the barricade. One brandishing a carbine, the other a pistol, they ordered the townspeople to stop throwing stones at them and the coaches. Their bold gesture was undermined by an unidentified trooper at the rear, who shouted to the miners, “Don’t be frightened, boys” calling out that none of the squad bore loaded weapons.

The volley eventually halted, and pious speeches – mingled with robust interjections – started up in which it seems the police, the coachmen, the mine manager, the company directors present, and the Chinese were regaled for threatening the livelihoods of decent family men. In the meantime, the crowd swelled by hundreds as more residents and their families flocked to the barricade.

“Crowds rushed over the barricades and surrounded the coaches. They struck them with sticks and threw stones at the Chinese, and drove them away. The police fought well, and did all in their power to beat the men off and to save the wretched Chinese, but it is feared that these got severely punished, although they hid as much as possible under the seats and behind the luggage. There was much praiseworthy forbearance from unnecessary force and stoning, as soon as the police gave in. Senior Constable Carden came forward and gave his word that no further attempt would be made to intrude the Chinese, and his announcement brought three loud cheers. The whole barricade was removed and the material placed where it had been taken from.”  – Ballarat Courier

Less than an hour after it began – around forty minutes – the confrontation was over.

By 8.30am the barricade had been dismantled and components returned to the owners, glass shards from the smashed windows of the coaches swept off the dusty road, and, led by the Clunes Brass Band, the demonstrators were parading back to the Town Hotel.

The miners, “…accompanied by troops of women and children, proceeded to the residences of several miners who had rendered themselves obnoxious by continuing work…warnings were given those offending men to leave the town…

An outdoor meeting was held in the evening. There were more speeches, starting with William Blanchard, who declared that justice had been served. Then a resolution to be sent to the government – which affirmed the town’s opposition to the introduction of Chinese labour and criticised the police for their role – was drafted by Rolfe, a community leader, and endorsed by the meeting. There followed an address by Philipps, the local Member of the Legislative Assembly, who congratulated the miners for driving off the strike-breakers, praised the townspeople for their restraint, thanked other mines for supporting the action (at this the crowd gave three cheers), and criticised the authorities for intervening in a labour dispute. And a most contrite Bryant, the manager of the Lothair mine, declared that he was never in favour of the company’s changes, and offered to donate £50 to the Clunes hospital. The day ended with the 800 members of the new Miners’ Association marching five abreast through the town behind the brass band, and triumphantly singing “God Save the Queen”.

Of course, it was not the end of the affair. In early evening a squad of fifteen armed constables arrived from Ballarat, setting up a guard-post at the mine, and assertively re-establishing peace in the town. Five of the more rowdy barricaders – Thomas Nelson, William Pearce, Bernard Began, Joseph Tonkin and Martin Grady – were soon charged with obstructing police, and each fined £5 by the district magistrate later in the month.

Some sources say that the mines department thereafter included a clause in every mining lease issued preventing Chinese labour to be used in mines.

There is little direct evidence in newspaper reports immediately after the disturbance at Clunes that the protesters attacked the Chinese labour on racial grounds. Indeed, The Age in January 1874 argued that “…the miners were keen to prevent any body of men be they moon faced opium-eating celestials or sturdy British diggers working the strike bound mine.”

Of more immediate importance was the impact that the successful employment of Chinese labour could have had on the living standards of miners. However, it was a short step from seeing Chinese Labour as an attempt to dilute the position of European workers to a discourse in which the language of racism played a central role. What was significant about the ‘incident’ of Clunes was not the incident itself, but the ways in which Australia as a whole ‘experienced’ the event through the press. After the event, a struggle between employer and employees was then reported and became part of an anti-Chinese crusade.

Original summary by F. Conrad Weickhardt, additional content reprinted from ‘Clunes 1873 – The Uprising That Wasn’t’ by Dr Christopher Heathcote published in the Quadrant Magazine, 19 February 2009, used with permission.; plus content from ‘Clunes 1873: Constructing a new narrative’ blogby Richard Brown. Other attributions as noted in the text.

The Police

The Clunes riot was not the work of a lawless, aimless mob. There was obviously a high level of organisation with mounted scouts on the roads and meetings to decide the course of action. More particularly, there was a high level of civic organisation, for example the use of the town fire bell to sound the alarm, respect for property, consideration of Bryant’s family. The singing of “God Save the Queen” marked the event as a patriotic gathering of Britons doing no more than upholding their constitutional rights. 

Although the Maryborough and Dunnolly Advertiser did not carry a report on the trouble at nearby Clunes, it ran a Bible-thumping editorial on the immorality of policemen the following Friday. 

A fortnight later, the Clunes Guardian reported that an official investigation by the Governor of Victoria had failed to determine who authorised the escort of armed police, though many in the district suspected James Francis, the Premier, of protecting his business interests. 

However, consensus is now that the decision to deploy police in breaking a strike was made by Police Chief Commissioner Standish personally after consultation with the mine directors. He later described Francis as a ‘cowardly low-bred cur’. Standish was not a newcomer to industrial disputes over wages and conditions, as his own men had first organised and taken their grievances into the public arena in 1860. But the Lothair mine case posed special problems for him and he was bound to consider the rights of the mine, directors and Chinese, as well as the strikers. It was generally agreed that had the police not supported the employers, there would have been no attempt to break the strike by using Chinese labour. Police involvement in the dispute contributed to the overnight transformation of a 14-week passive protest into a riot. Standish’s decision was not so much indefensible as imprudent and he defended his actions on the grounds that his object ‘was not to support one sector of the community against other, but simply to preserve the peace’. His remonstrations had a hollow ring when it was disclosed that the police originally intended to smuggle the strike-breakers into Clunes at 3am, under cover of darkness. That after the initial confrontation, Standish wanted to disarm members of the volunteer military force in Clunes and move 100 police into the town. Amid shades of Eureka, the Chief Secretary urged conciliation and the dispute ended without further serious violence. The police had by then been exposed as willing to intervene in an industrial dispute and the Age reminded the public that Standish’s men were not just police but also the colony’s standing army. 

Victorian Chief Police Commissioner , Captain Frederick Charles Standish

“…The Clunes outbreak contains one feature that will be regretted by all classes of colonists. This feature is a defeat of the police. It comes with a shock that there should be an organised and armed opposition to the police in any part of Victoria. But that the police should be driven off the scene and mob law prevail will be admitted by men of all shades of opinions to be distinctly demoralising in its effects…” 

“…That which concerns us is the outrageous breach of the public peace, which was committed by the rioters assemblage that threw up a barricade and forcibly compelled the Chinese miners and their escort to return to Ballarat. If the police had resisted there would have been bloodshed; and in the inflamed condition of the popular mind, there is no telling where the criminal action of the turbulent crowd would have stopped.” 

“…The worst portion of this unfortunate affair is the contempt into which the law has been brought. It is not that an assault has taken place, but that the government which undertook to do a certain thing – to convey in safety the Chinese miners to Clunes – has signally failed in doing so…” 

“…this community would suffer severely were the mining leases to be worked by an inferior and barely tolerated race…If it be not advisable as a matter of public policy for the capitalist to have resort to a semi barbarous race when unable to bend his fellow countrymen to his will, then the police were wrongfully employed in furnishing aid to the one set of disputants against the other” 

There Are Two Sides to Every Story


The Age, Melbourne 9 January 1874 


At the last half-yearly meeting, your directors had the pleasure of congratulating you on the greatly improved Prospects of your mine, and confidently anticipated, not only a speedy liquidation of all liabilities, but further, the payment of a dividend before the expiration of the last half-year. With extreme regret they have now to inform you that, as far from their anticipations being realized, their liabilities have been largely increase, notwithstanding that a large field of payable washdirt has been laid open before them, which they have been prevented from working by circumstances which they have now to explain to you. The puddling machines and sluices, which it had been resolved to erect for the purpose of washing the alluvial, were completed in August, and, on trial, worked most satisfactorily. Unfortunately the mine was then inundated by a sudden influx of water, which stopped all operations for some time. When the water was overcome, sluicing operations were recommenced, and continued for a few days, the results being very satisfactory. On or about 27 September the men left the mine without any notice, and refused to return to their work unless paid for twelve, while only working eleven, shifts per fortnight. Upon this your directors met the directors of the South Clunes in conference, when it was resolved that those terms could not be acceded to, and should therefore be declined. To this resolution the directors have rigidly adhered. The president and vice-president of the Clunes Miners Association waited on the local board of directors at Clunes, and proposed terms of arrangement. A conference was then held in Ballarat on 20 November 1873, between your directors and three delegates of the association. The delegates stated they could concede nothing, having no authority to do so. Your directors, finding that nothing could be done with the association, called a meeting of shareholders, which was fairly represented from Clunes, Ballarat and Melbourne, when the following resolution was passed:- ‘That this meeting instruct the directors to employ Chinese Labour at once, in consequence of the refusal of the European miners to work the mine.’ In upholding your interests, when they found all other sources of labor cut off from them, they had recourse to the only one left – the Chinese. 


The Age, Melbourne 12 January 1874 


For over four months them men employed by the Lothair Company, Clunes, have been on strike, and during all that time they have never attempted to lay their case properly before the public, while the press of the colony seems to have accepted the reports and statements made by the directors as embracing all that can be said on the subject. Such being the fact, and acting under specific instructions, I, on Saturday last, succeeded in obtaining an interview with the leading members and representatives, not only of the Clunes Miners Association, but of the men on strike.  They manifested the utmost willingness to explain their case, and deprecated in strong terms the misrepresentations which they alleged had been published by the Lothair Company’s directors in reference to the facts of the dispute. They stated  that for over fifteen years a certain system had prevailed in Clunes in connection with the working of the mines, which differs, in some respects, from the system pursued on other goldfields. There are three modes by which a mine may be worked by a company, namely, by the payment of wages, by tribute, and by tutwork. This latter phrase appears to be of Cornish origin, and means working by contract.  In Clunes it has been the rule to work the mines upon this system, one peculiarity of which it that there is no Saturday afternoon’s shift, and eleven-night shifts in the fortnight count and are paid for as twelve day shifts.  In Ballarat and other places the rule is different, inasmuch as the men, unless when ‘working tribute’ are paid so much a shift day or night, and every man works six shifts in the week. On Monday, the 27 September, the men employed in the Lothair Company assembled as usual at seven a.m. to go to work. There were at the time about 110 men engaged. They were allowed to descend the shaft, and when about to commence operations they were called together by Mr Bryant, the underground manager, and informed that from that day the ‘tut’ or contract system should cease; that for the future the men would be paid wages at the rate of £2 2s. per week, or 7s. per shift, six shifts to constitute one week’s work. No reason was assigned for the change, and no notice whatever of the intention of the directors had been previously received. 

The Coachman

John McPhee, a discouraged digger who left the Ballarat Goldfield just before the Eureka uprising, pioneered coaching in Victoria. He ran the first coach out of Melbourne to Kilmore, a distance of about 40 miles, in 1854.

After a stint driving mail coaches between Tarcutta and Gundagai in NSW, he came back to Ballarat in 1858. McPhee won the contract to carry the mails between Ballarat, Lexton, Glenorchy and Horsham. In those days, his stables were in Lydiard St, next to where the Provincial Hotel now stands. The coaches left Ballarat at 11 o’clock at night, and the horses were changed often. In 1860, he joined Cobb and Co and held important positions in the business in the Ballarat and Geelong divisions. Cobb himself started the company and at one time it comprised five different companies running in conjunction, but each on its own account.

McPhee drove the leading coach in the caravan hired to take Chinese Breakers from Creswick to Clunes on December 9th, 1873. As the caravan neared the township, it was stopped by a barricade, behind which was several hundred Clunes men and women. They let fly with such a volley of missiles the caravan and police had to retreat to Ascot.

A typical coach of the time.

Only about 18 months earlier, on March 9, 1872, McPhee had visited Clunes on a much happier occasion – the opening of the Clunes Waterworks. Then he earned great praise for his organisation which allowed a large number of guests from Ballarat to be taken there and back in the same day. At one stage McPhee, in partnership with a man named Vines, had up to 900 horses supporting his operations. He later began to acquire land and bought “Woodstock” near Avoca. McPhee had five sons and a daughter. The arrival of the daughter was of great moment, and McPhee drove through the street of Moonambel, shouting “It’s a girl, it’s a girl”, and throwing gold pieces to his drivers gathered there.

Supplement to the Ballarat Courier 4/10/1984.