Clunes 1873 – The Uprising That Wasn’t

In December 1873 the Victorian goldmining town of Clunes, about thirty kilometres north of Ballarat, was the scene for what is remembered as a major uprising against Chinese miners. This event is cited in assorted histories of Australian society in the nineteenth century, often being placed in terms of size and violence close behind the riots at Lambing Flat in 1861 and Buckland River in 1857.

Despite this ranking in national infamy, few historians who invoke the Clunes uprising in their writings offer much detail on what transpired there. Generally they mention the incident in passing, using it to moralise about colonial Australia’s hostility towards Asian peoples. This lack of particulars is probably to be expected because, it seems, most authors’ grasp of the episode is slender and derived from secondary sources. Minimal cross-checking is sufficient to indicate that what has been written on the troubles at Clunes is inconsistent, unreliable, and in some cases manifestly wrong; while a methodical search of colonial newspapers casts received wisdom into doubt, and places a mighty question mark over the race-riot explanation.

The best-known and currently influential account of the Clunes incident consists of a paragraph in the fourth volume of Manning Clark’s A History of Australia (1978):

“When news reached Clunes in Victoria on the morning of 9 December 1873 that numbers of Chinese were about to move onto their field, the miners took instant action. The bellman was sent round the town to alert the diggers of the impending arrival of ‘the leprous curse’. Work was immediately suspended in all the principal mines, and on what remained of the alluvial flats. Public meetings were held at which miners and diggers unanimously resolved to drive the unclean yellow men off the fields. Axe- and pick-handles and waddies of all descriptions were distributed to the men waiting for the arrival of the Chinese. Women turned out in hundreds to incite their menfolk against the Chinese. That morning one thousand men, accompanied by troops of women and children and inflamed by the fire-bells ringing out the alarm as well as by stirring music from the brass bands, erected barricades at the junction of the Ballarat and Clunes Roads to stop the Chinese coaches. Ploughs, drays, timber, stones and bricks were used. As soon as the Chinese coaches came within distance, a hail of stones and bricks fell upon the occupants. The police tried gallantly to protect the Chinese and restore order, but all in vain, as the miners, ably assisted by their better halves, who shouted and cursed and swore and cast stones with the best of the men, compelled the Chinese to retrace their steps back to Ballarat, to the cheers of the victors in this battle for Clunes. Before returning to work the miners again declared their determination to oppose the introduction of Chinese labour in the mines at Clunes. The Australians might not have been capable of creating a Paris Commune, but they were capable of defending the slogan ‘No Chinamen’.”

Clark cited three historical sources in the footnote for this colourful passage. Two of them—a reference in the Sydney Illustrated News seven years after the event, and a note in the Bulletin thirteen years later—were unmistakably second-hand accounts, although the historian did list a newspaper report from an unidentified “Clunes correspondent” printed in the Melbourne Age the day after the fracas. It is evident that Clark relied on the latter. Witness the Age’s account of the disturbance:

“The bellman was sent round the town to apprise the inhabitants, and work was immediately suspended in all the principal mines. The miners, to the number of over five hundred, assembled, and headed by a band of music, paraded the streets. Public meetings were held, and it was resolved to resist to the utmost the introduction of the Chinese … As soon as the coaches came within distance a perfect storm of stones and bricks fell upon the occupants, and a charge made to assault the Chinese. The police, though few in number, fought well, and for a short time maintained their position, but the overpowering and determined onslaught of the miners, assisted by their better halves, compelled them to retrace their steps back to Ballarat. The battle, for nothing else can it be designated, was fought with determined energy and bravery …”

It is plain that Clark’s passage is a reworked version of this Age report. The historian added detail to give dramatic vividness to the description, although in the process he took liberties, especially when describing the behaviour of the townspeople. Where the newspaper stated that their wives “assisted” the miners, he wrote that the women “shouted and cursed and swore and cast stones …” His additions also include descriptions of the Chinese as “unclean yellow men” and the quoted phrase “the leprous curse”. The implied suggestion is that these words—which highlighted the bigotry of the rioters—are recorded utterances of the miners. Neither of them occurs in the newspaper report, or any other record of the event. This is not a mere case of selective quotation: guilty words have been put into the mouths of participants.

Clark is not alone in building his history upon this 1873 report. Scholars exploring colonial race relations have used the same newspaper description as a chief source on the Clunes incident. In his 1979 book Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California 1850–1901, Andrew Markus is less emotive than Clark with his prose, and he refrains from embellishing on the blunt facts. But his account is distilled from this report. It appears to be used again by Eric Rolls in the 1992 book Sojourners: The Epic Story of China’s Centuries-Old Relationship with Australia. Rolls has added information from another colonial newspaper, the Melbourne weekly Australasian, yet despite a better grasp of events his text is not footnoted. So no source is offered for the assertion that the miners at the barricade “tried to haul the Chinese from inside [the coaches]”, or for the claim that the police sergeant escorting the coaches was “a kindly man who had helped Chinese lepers cast out of Ballarat”. Still, Markus and Rolls, as well as Charles Price (in The Great White Walls are Built: Restrictive Immigration in America and Australasia, 1974) do mention that the Chinese were being brought to Clunes to break a fourteen-week miners’ strike. This was stated as the riot’s cause in the newspaper report used by Clark, although he omitted this crucial point from his melodramatic telling of the event, leading readers to assume that the miners’ action was nakedly racist.

This alternative explanation, that the townspeople were angered by strike-breaking, places the incident in a different light—in fact, a rival historical school has developed an industrial version of events at Clunes. In the decade before Clark and Markus penned their descriptions of the uprising, prominent Labor historians such as J.T. Sutcliffe (A History of Trade Unionism in Australia, 1967), Edgar Ross (A History of the Miner’s Federation of Australia, 1970) and Joe Harris (The Bitter Fight: A Pictorial History of the Australian Labor Movement, 1970) had argued that far from being chiefly motivated by racial intolerance, the miners were protecting their livelihoods from erosion by cheap labour.

In a description that neatly avoided mentioning either the ethnic aspects or the violence of the Clunes incident, Ross insisted that it marked a turning in the labour movement:

“A miniature ‘Eureka Stockade’ in December, 1873, contributed to the militant spirit of the period. This occurred during a strike of Clunes miners for the right to have Saturday afternoons off. The Clunes Miners’ Association under the presidency of the Mayor of Clunes, W. Blanchard, erected barricades of timber and stone to bar the way to five cartloads of scabs recruited by the Lothian [sic] Mining Company and being escorted by police. About 1000 unionists and a contingent of irate women assembled, and the scabs and the police were forced to retreat to Ballarat. The Clunes action is generally regarded as providing a stimulus for the formation in 1874 of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association with a constitution to cover all miners in Australia and New Zealand.”

This invites further investigation. However, despite agreeing that a strike was under way, Ross, Sutcliffe, Harris and fellow labour historians diverge on the extent of the hostilities, and what the miners’ grievances were: one text has them wanting reduced hours on weekends, another that they pressed for an eight-hour day, another still has them after wage increases. Nor did historians give sources for these diverging explanations.

The strike-breaking version had also been advanced, twice—each time with the invocation of Eureka suitably deflected—by Geoffrey Blainey. The first occasion was in his 1963 history of mining, The Rush that Never Ended, where, following a passage outlining how mining companies shunned employing Chinese except when they could be used for some underhand purpose, he wrote:

“In December 1873 … Peter Lalor, the hero of Eureka, and his fellow directors of Clunes companies tried to break a strike by employing Chinese in their deep quartz mines, but the coachloads of Chinese they recruited were halted by an angry crowd on the outskirts of Clunes.”

For Blainey, the initial charge of racism should be directed at the Lothair company, which treated Asian employees as readily exploitable (a view apparently shared by Price in The Great White Walls are Built). Blainey had more to say on the townspeople’s motivations when he revisited the subject twenty years later in his 1984 history of Victoria, Our Side of the Country:

“In 1873 at Clunes, the Lothair gold mine, of which the Eureka hero Peter Lalor was a director, resolved to break a miners’ strike by recruiting Chinese miners and bringing them from Creswick in horse-drawn coaches. On reaching the edge of town the Chinese were driven back. Fear that the Chinese would lower the high standard of living for the average Victorian was the strongest of all fears directed against them.”

The inference here was that existing employment conditions were being threatened with reductions, hence the strike, although in neither text does the historian cite a specific source on the Clunes incident.

Where did they all get their information? In Blainey’s case, he clearly consulted the second edition of W.B. Withers’ The History of Ballarat, a rich fund of information on the district. Written fourteen years after the events at Clunes, the start of this account of the hostilities makes illuminating reading:

“There were a few Chinese digging gold in Ballarat as early as 1852, but there was no rising of the ‘yellow agony’ in the district till the year 1873, when a dispute at Clunes led to a disturbance of the peace of 9th December. There had been a strike of miners employed in the Lothair mine, as the directors refused to give a Saturday afternoon holiday shift as was generally the custom … The directors of the mine, including Mr Francis (then Premier), and Mr Lalor, the whilom hero of freedom, &c., at the Eureka Stockade, decided to counter-plot against the strikers by employing Chinese labor, of which Creswick and Ballarat offered an ample supply.”

The broader history profession’s neglect of this text, and its revealing aside on the political figures involved, is baffling. Withers worked for the Ballarat Star as a reporter and sub-editor at the time of the Clunes riot, and was in a position no other historical commentator has enjoyed when analysing the event. But few historians even list his book in their bibliographies.

If, apart from Blainey, scholars have overlooked Withers, what other sources have they used? Keith Windschuttle in The White Australia Policy (2004) identifies Timothy Coghlan’s pioneering work, Labour and Industry in Australia (1918), as the foundation for most left-wing versions of the incident. This is borne out by Coghlan’s text. He writes that the Chinese were being used by employers to thwart a controversial log of claims presented by their workforce:

“In December 1873 there was a strike of goldminers at the Lothair mine at Clunes. The men had asked for shorter hours and increased wages, the employers refused their request and determined to obtain Chinese from Ballarat to fill the strikers’ places. This infuriated the miners, who summoned a meeting of the Miners’ Association, and resolved to prevent the Chinese from working. The Government had sent an escort to protect the Chinese, but this did not prevent a riot, as soon as the strike-breakers prepared to set out, and they were unable to get to their destination. The Government made no attempt to prosecute the miners, and at the end of January the strike ended by the concession demanded being granted to the miners.”

This puts a different complexion on the industrial aspect of the confrontation. If it is correct, the mining company was not trying to force a lowering in wages and conditions, as Blainey suggested, but to prevent them increasing.

Like many later historians who used his book, Coghlan offered no source for this information. It appears to be derived, at least in part, from a work published a decade earlier in 1909, Australia’s Awakening: Thirty Years in the Life of an Australian Agitator, the colourful memoirs of the miners’ union organiser William Spence. This book (which is also quoted by Harris in The Bitter Fight) outlines the Clunes riot in some detail, indeed, there is a vividness to his account of violence at the barricade:

“The excitement and cheering was great, men, women and children joining in the resistance. Nearby was a heap of road metal, and arming herself with a few stones, a sturdy North of Ireland woman, without shoes or stockings, mounted the barricade as the coaches drew up. As she did so she called out to the other women, saying: ‘Come on, you cousin Jinnies; bring me the stones and I will fire them.’ The sergeant in charge of the police presented his carbine at the woman and ordered her to desist. Her answer was to bare her breast and say to him: ‘Shoot away, and be damned to ye; better be shot than starved to death.’ With the words she threw a stone, cutting the cheek of the officer. After that stones flew rapidly; the horses began to plunge, and the Chinese to yell; whilst the terrified director (by name of Solomon) in charge crawled into the boot of the coach for safety.”

Lively this might well be, yet Spence’s description of the Clunes hostilities is dubious. Penned thirty-odd years afterward, it smacks of a much-embroidered pub yarn. There is no record of an official of the Lothair Gold Mining Company called Solomon at the barricade, for example, and the three representatives who were there (Pascoe, Samuels and Bryant) did not retire into the boot of a coach. The police sergeant in charge gashed his temple when he fell to the ground, not his cheek when a stone struck him. As for the lowly Irish agitator who supposedly instigated the violence, she appears a fabrication arising from an unidentified stout woman at the front who tried to pelt the driver of the lead coach with stones, and managed to miss him each time. Spence, who was employed at distant Bendigo at the time of the riot he implies he witnessed, does not even get the year correct. It was 1873, not 1876 as he states.

Similar complaints can be levelled against most historical accounts of the Clunes riot, for they are peppered with plain errors of fact. The purpose of the strike, the number of Chinese involved, the nature of the clash, even how many coaches there were, all will be found incorrect. How do we know this? Because details are readily available in reports which appeared in assorted Victorian newspapers at the time. In Melbourne, not only the Argus, the Age and the Australasian—the sources cited by historians—covered the issue. So, too, did the Daily Telegraph, the Herald, the Weekly Times and the Leader. There were also pieces in numerous regional newspapers, including the Ballarat Evening Standard, the Castlemaine Leader, the Geelong Advertiser, the Mount Alexander Mail and the Bendigo Advertiser.

Five reports are especially valuable. No known copies of the Clunes Guardian for late 1873 are extant, although its two long despatches—one on the morning’s disturbance, and another on a town meeting late in the day—were widely reprinted in the colonial media. As well, both the Ballarat Courier and the Creswick Advertiser had journalists on the spot in Clunes, while the Ballarat Star interviewed two people from the coach party. When we read these five overlapping primary reports we assemble a markedly different view from accepted historical accounts of the strife at Clunes. So what did they say occurred?

The Incident at Clunes

By 1873 the days of individual prospectors working small claims, of panning along creeks and burrowing about nearby, were long finished. Gold mining at Clunes was now in the hands of several businesses—the most prominent being the Port Phillip, New North Clunes, South Clunes, Criterion and United mining companies. So when newspapers speak of miners, they are referring to employees working deep shafts for private companies. This was the primary context for the Clunes incident.

Notably in late 1873 there were acrimonious industrial disputes over working conditions at both the South Clunes Mine and the Lothair Mine: for reasons that are unclear, each company proposed to increase miners’ individual working hours from eleven to twelve shifts per fortnight, extending the two mines’ operating hours on Saturday and Sunday. The intended changes were considerable. Mines in the region mostly shut down at 1 p.m. each Saturday (a few in Clunes ran until 3 p.m.) and did not start up again until 7 a.m. on Monday, although the two mines wanted shifts to run until 11 p.m. on Saturday, and from 10 p.m. on Sunday. For this extra work South Clunes offered its employees a small wage increase, while Lothair proposed to put its miners on contract and pay only for work performed. The miners offered to extend working hours until 3 p.m. on Saturdays, but wanted new wages to be negotiated. Management would not budge. So on Friday September 5 the employees of the South Clunes mine went out on strike. Their comrades at the Lothair mine downed tools on Monday September 15.

The immediate outcome of the strike was the formation of the Clunes Miners’ Association. The town’s mayor, William Blanchard, a former miner, was elected the association’s president and charged with handling negotiations. The South Clunes mine backed down after several weeks, but the directors of the Lothair Gold Mining Company did not waver. In late October they threatened to employ a team of Chinese who were amenable to working all week, and at a reduced wage. On October 25 a deputation from the Miners’ Association travelled to Ballarat where, assisted by a government interpreter and the Rev. William Young, a social worker from the Chinese Christian Mission, they spoke with the Chinese community and explained the situation. By this time there were 150 men out on strike. The following day the directors of the Lothair mine—who included James Francis, the Premier of Victoria, and the wealthy businessman Peter Lalor (once a Eureka rebel)—met and agreed to hire blacklegs if needed.

Matters simmered for another six weeks. The dispute appears to have been compounded by work conditions in the Lothair mine, which was poorly ventilated. Some miners wanted it fixed. Then, in early December, a number of Chinese labourers were hired by the company’s agent in Ballarat, making their way to Creswick over the weekend of December 6 and 7. News of their imminent departure from Creswick for Clunes was telegraphed through and circulating around the Clunes district almost immediately. Then the rumours kicked in, which inflated the number of strikebreakers from fifty to ninety, then 150 persons. The townspeople of Clunes considered this intolerable. They were not just hostile that miners’ livelihoods were endangered: they were angry that a local business would operate on the Sabbath, and feared that others would follow. Not only the people of Clunes were agitated. The Creswick Advertiser, if refraining from taking sides in the dispute, noted that many in the region were angered that the sanctity of the Sabbath was to be broken.

Things started boiling over on Monday December 8. Telegraphs received at Clunes warned that coaches had been hired in Ballarat to transport the strikebreakers, and were expected at Creswick later in the day. From there, the Chinese would proceed directly to Clunes to begin work. Worse still, they were to have an escort of armed police.

Blanchard, as town mayor and Miners’ Association president, sent a bell man 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, several hotels and apparently churches, where speeches were delivered by civic and religious leaders: those who dared labour on the Sabbath would not enter Clunes.

Coundon, a director of the Lothair mine, put the company’s position to the assembly before the Royal Hotel. Pascoe, another director, likewise tried to speak, but he was shouted down, jostled and had his hat pulled over his eyes, so he retreated to the hotel for the afternoon.

In the meantime the mayor of Creswick, who had spent the morning in Clunes, returned to his own town, where he found that five Cobb coaches had arrived and were preparing to depart with forty-five Chinese passengers, along with a company director, Samuels, and an escort of twelve troopers from Ballarat. The party was led by Sergeant Larner from Ballarat, who was responsible for supervising the Chinese encampment there. The mayor and Sergeant Cooper, the Creswick district policeman, spoke with Sergeant Larner, McPhee of the coach company, and Samuels of the Lothair mine, advising them that it was unwise to proceed that afternoon owing to public unrest at their destination. A telegram also arrived from Superintendent Hill, who had gone on ahead to Clunes, and who ordered the coaches to delay; best to leave at first light and get into town as people were still rising from their beds.

Back in 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 strikebreakers 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. Lookouts and mounted scouts were also despatched along the main road, and all tracks, running to Creswick and Ballarat. A team of men went out to the toll gate on the Creswick road, which they took over and locked. Expecting a confrontation, most men armed themselves with sticks, while the town’s youth filled their pockets with stones. By all accounts, it was a busy, expectant night. The town’s two fire bells were rung in false alarm after garbled reports were received that the coaches were nearby (it was the regular mail coach) and, from midnight onwards, a large body of townsmen roamed from one hill to another, scrambling about in the dark.

The coach party left the Chinese encampment at Creswick at 5 a.m. They were met part of the way along the road by four mounted troopers from the district ahead, who warned that the tollway was blocked. With Sergeant Larner sitting beside him in the box, McPhee turned the lead coach into the Tourella 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. The fire bells were rung once more, and an estimated 1000 people rushed en masse up the hill then out along the Ballarat road, stopping at the intersection with Coghill’s Creek Road, adjacent to Short’s farm on 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.

They were still piling on rocks when, at around 7 a.m., the Cobb coaches and police escort drew into sight. McPhee, who was leading with a full team of horses, cracked his whip and bore down upon the miners. “Some primitive barricades of drays and earthwork had been erected,” the Creswick Advertiser explains, “but 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 …” The coach windows were shattered by stones thrown by the crowd, and the occupants huddled behind their belongings as more missiles were flung their way. Meanwhile one enterprising miner darted forward and determinedly tried to unbuckle the bridle of the lead horse in McPhee’s team.

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.

On all other points the four newspapers tend to corroborate each other, but on what happened next at the barricade they differ. The Clunes Guardian and Ballarat Star have the crowd throwing stones at the coaches and police without break. The Creswick Advertiser and Ballarat Courier tell it differently. According to them 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.

Less than an hour after it began—around forty minutes—the confrontation was over. One of the mounted troopers, Senior Constable Carden, announced that the coaches would withdraw. An intimidated McPhee ordered his drivers to turn back for Ballarat, with the crowd giving three hearty cheers as the party disappeared from sight. Meanwhile, Pascoe, an unpopular company director, who had been jostled, pelted with sods of earth and threatened at the barricade, was escorted back to his hotel by a policeman, more sods being tossed his way by children as he hastened off. By 8.30 a.m. 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.

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 strikebreakers, 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”.

Such was the eyewitness tale of events related by the Clunes Guardian, the Ballarat Courier, the Creswick Advertiser and the Ballarat Star. 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—T. 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. The Victorian Solicitor-General also wrote to Blanchard and asked him to account for his actions, querying whether he had abused his mayoral office on the day of the incident.

Then there was the matter of which government authority had despatched the troopers. Notably, the Maryborough & Dunolly Advertiser, while it did not carry a report on the trouble at nearby Clunes, ran a Bible-thumping editorial on the immorality of policemen the following Friday, while 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. (Reading between the lines, most in the district suspected the Premier of protecting his business interests.) And, significantly, the dispute at the Lothair mine was not settled for another six weeks.

There was also the gossip. “We are glad to report,” the Creswick Advertiser assured its readers the day after, “that with the exception of the damage to the coaches, the injuries were small and unimportant.” Nevertheless, the same piece expressed concern that “rumours of all kinds, and of the most alarming nature, were meanwhile circulating”, among them claims that the troopers had been escorting 150 Chinese labourers; that the mayor had refused to read the Riot Act to the protesters; that Sergeant Larner had been pelted with bricks, knocked from his horse and nearly killed; that up to thirty police had been mobbed by the protesters and were gravely wounded; that led by Mrs Bailey, a pillar of respectability and wife of a mine manager, the leading matrons of the town were responsible for hurling yonnies; and that one miner (whose identity kept shifting) had heroically stood his ground when Sergeant Larner put a pistol against his chest and threatened to shoot.

The rumour-mongering was clearly not all verbal. Only hours after the confrontation, the Ballarat Evening Post reported to its readers that “a party of Chinese were proceeding to Clunes by coach when they were met by a number of the wives and children of the disaffected miners, who stuck up the coach, upset it, and chased the Chinamen from the field”. Such gossip had enormous reach. The next morning saw the Ovens & Murray Advertiser report that miners opposed to Chinese labour had “attacked the police” at Clunes, while the day after that the Bendigo Advertiser reported that there had been bloodshed at the incident “though happily not of a fatal character” and that miners’ wives “took a prominent part in the unfortunate affair.”

By this time brief accounts were also being carried in the telegraphic section of intercolonial newspapers. Witness the Brisbane Courier Mail over two consecutive mornings:

Melbourne. December 10. A great riot took place today at Clunes. Two thousand (2000) diggers attacked one hundred and fifty (150) Chinamen who had been engaged by the Lothian [sic] Company and were under police escort. The diggers drove them back, and wounded the sergeant of police.

Melbourne. December 11. An increased force of the police has been sent to Clunes, but the Chinese refuse to return to their claims.”


Already the myth of a large-scale race riot was percolating. By Saturday the popular Sydney weekly the Town & Country Journal, which claimed a sizeable circulation through rural New South Wales, was likewise reporting that there had been a violent clash between miners and a “gang” of 150 Chinese labourers at Clunes. The story was taking on a life of its own.

Reports or Beat-Ups?

It is impossible to assess the Clunes riot without scrutinising the colonial media. To take old newspapers on trust and implicitly assume their accuracy is hazardous, because some reports were clearly less dependable than others. How did they obtain news? Within Victoria the rival accounts of three regional newspapers were telegraphed out and reprinted across the colony. For example, the Clunes Guardian’s report appeared in the Castlemaine Representative, the Ballarat Star’s in the Mount Alexander Mail, and the Ballarat Courier’s in the Geelong Advertiser. Readers were not always informed of sources, colonial newspapers commonly presenting a report with the by-line “From Our Correspondent”. This is the case with the piece which was carried in both the Age and the Argus on which Manning Clark, Andrew Markus, Eric Rolls and other historians rely, neither broadsheet identifying its source.

Other papers across Victoria took secondary material telegraphed from Melbourne, and many compiled articles late in the week from a jumble of different sources which probably arrived in the post. So, if the Pleasant Creek News at Ararat, several hours ride to the west of Clunes, lifted news direct from the Ballarat Courier and the Clunes Guardian, most rural papers were more like the Ovens & Murray Advertiser at distant Beechworth and relied on second- or even third-hand information. Thus the quality of “reports” deteriorated and the tale of a ferocious uprising grew.

Still, there was a pattern of response in Victoria. Nearly all rural newspapers exhibited a guarded sympathy for the miners. The lone exception was the conservative Ballarat Evening Post, which sided with management: “Employers have a perfect right to purchase their labor in the cheapest market,” the editorial of Wednesday December 10 thundered, before painting the striking miners in the most anarchistic colours. The same issue carried an unattributed report taken from the Clunes Guardian, although where other regional newspapers were calling what had taken place a “Miners’ Demonstration”, the “Clunes Disturbance” or the “Clunes Incident”, the Evening Post ran the piece under the inflammatory caption “Anti-Chinese Riot”—the first newspaper in the colonies to do so.

One regional newspaper deserves mention for its coverage—the Ballarat Star, and not only because it interviewed eyewitnesses for its initial report of December 10. Notably, where the Evening Post sided with the Lothair company and the Courier with the miners, the Star was the only Ballarat newspaper that attempted a non-partisan line. Its editors were also seemingly awake to how news may be distorted as it travels. In this spirit, on Friday December 12, along with a further analysis of the riot, the Star printed without comment entire paragraphs reporting on Clunes extracted from other newspapers in Melbourne and central Victoria. Anyone reading those columns could see that embellishments were appearing in the media beyond Ballarat.

The following morning the Star went further and, in an audacious editorial, took issue with the Age. The Melbourne newspaper was shifting ground each day, siding with the company one morning then the townspeople the next. The Star suggested that the Age’s coverage of the incident was unreliable and contradictory, indeed, presenting quotations as proof, it accused the paper of having a political agenda and editorialising instead of reporting. Still, the Star’s criticisms apparently had little effect on the broader media at the time, and they have been overlooked by historians since.

Melbourne, the capital of the colony, was a different story. With only minor changes in wording, both the Age (under the caption “Serious Disturbance at Clunes”) and the Argus (“Chinese Labour at Clunes”) ran the exact same unattributed piece on Wednesday December 10—a reprint from the Clunes Guardian. The next day their editorialists delivered stern sermons admonishing the miners. This time the Argus also carried a second report from the Clunes Guardian, while the Age ran the report from the Ballarat Courier with full attribution. The Argus dropped the issue on Friday, although the Age ran another editorial—this one retracting the previous day’s arguments and now pleading the case for the miners—and published the second report from the Clunes Guardian, also with an attribution.

The Herald and the Daily Telegraph attempted a broad coverage. An evening broadsheet, the Herald broke the news to Melburnians late on December 9 with a paragraph fashioned from brief telegrams from the Ballarat Courier and the Creswick Advertiser. The following day it ran the morning’s report from the Ballarat Courier (without attribution), and, under the caption “Riots at Clunes: Attack on Police by Crowds of Miners and Their Wives”, filled an entire column with the Ballarat Star’s report (with attribution). Thursday saw the Herald’s editorialists getting stuck into other newspapers for criticising the miners, and suggesting that if they were going to support the Lothair mine’s actions then those papers should themselves convert over to cheap Asian labour. Under the caption “Contemporary Opinion—The Clunes Riots”, the Herald also filled a column on the opposite page with attributed paragraphs lifted from the Bendigo Advertiser, the Geelong Advertiser and the Ballarat Courier, followed by a general comment on cheap foreign labour.

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph handled the event on December 10 by running one after the other attributed reports obtained from the Clunes Guardian and the Ballarat Courier, as well as material condensed from the Creswick Advertiser. This was followed the next day by a full report from the Ballarat Star, and a further long piece from the Clunes Guardian on the Friday. The Daily Telegraph also suggested in its editorials that the Clunes incident was inspired by a similar miners’ strike and picket line that had crippled Stawell about 100 kilometres to the west a few months before. What had taken place at Clunes was fairly much a repeat of events there, the paper proposed, the only difference being the ethnicity of the blacklegs: at Stawell they had been European, not Chinese.

Then, on the weekend after the event, Melbourne’s three Saturday weeklies, the Leader, the Weekly Times and the Australasian, published their analyses of events. The Leader, while condemning the hostilities, insisted that the entire business was a labour problem that had run out of hand. “Their protest no man will say was an unreasonable one,” the paper suggested, referring to Sunday work. “The Chinese laborer has no Sunday, no home, no family,” it went on, “and he is willing to sell his labor cheap.” Quoting a late despatch from the Clunes Guardian, it insisted that the erosion of working conditions was the crux of the issue. To this purpose the Leader also outlined the dispute at the Lothair mine. Its piece summarised the proposed changes to wages and rosters, and pointed to concerns over the expansion of working hours into Sunday—the troubles were about defending the Sabbath, not repelling the Chinese.

The Leader also referred to recent actions at Stawell, where blacklegs had likewise been brought in from Ballarat to break a picket line. On that occasion the authorities had turned a blind eye when strikebreakers were beaten up and expelled from the town. The paper’s remarks on the Clunes–Stawell connection deserve to be quoted:

“It must not be forgotten that a few weeks ago acts of wanton violence were committed in another district under the very noses of the police … They that sow the storm must expect to reap the whirlwind, and the power that would stand unmoved while a miner was being assaulted, as at Stawell, might be expected to nod approvingly … The Clunes miners remembering this little episode may have felt that they enjoyed immunity, in the indifference of the authorities, from interference …”

It was a salient point. Why had the government sent police into Clunes when it had done nothing at Stawell? the paper asked, hinting there were vested interests. Like the Australasian, the Leader scoffed at the line that an ethnic riot had taken place. It was Stawell again, a confrontation over working conditions, and to argue otherwise was to misread the situation.

The coverage in the influential Weekly Times, which enjoyed a wide circulation in rural Victoria, consisted of a long disapproving editorial. Under the heading “Mob Law”, it dismissed the issues that had prompted the action: “we neither know nor care exactly which of these two views [that is, the company’s and the miners’] is the correct one,” it declared. “The question simply resolves itself into one of law and order versus violence and mob rule.” The paper did not even summarise the order of events leading up to, and during, the incident. According to the Weekly Times, “Cornish Communism” and “American Rowdyism” had infected the townspeople, who had erected barricades and engaged in a “fierce fight” with the authorities.

Meanwhile the Australasian printed word-for-word the same unattributed report of the incident from the Clunes Guardian already used in mid-week by the Age, the Argus and the Daily Telegraph. It also ran a half-column editorial which condemned the hostilities and, selectively quoting from various reports, scoffed at the suggestion now said to be circulating that the fracas was motivated by fears of “moral pollution” should the Chinese settle in Clunes; in fact, its editors dismissed this as a flimsy excuse devised by apologists to conceal the real motives. For the Australasian what had happened at Clunes was not a race riot at all, but evidence of a slide into lawless bullying and mob rule in rural Victoria.

Nevertheless, the wild “anti-Chinese riot” interpretation was taking a hold on the broader community—for the world outside it became the only explanation that mattered. The scale of the confrontation, and the exact motives, disappeared as editors in far-off cities filled columns with colourful descriptions of a tumultuous uprising by a brutish mob. Most had the miners and their wives assaulting the Chinese, although according to the Sydney Mail there had been a “collision” between miners and the police so great that the latter were “compelled to retreat”.

Some journals had staff artists run up illustrations purporting to show the event. The Australian Sketcher printed one a fortnight later, a small innocuous scene showing a crowd of respectably attired matrons tossing stones at a policeman atop a distant coach. The most extreme image appeared three weeks after the event in the Illustrated Australian News, which ran a large engraving of the supposed Clunes barricade. Recalling to modern eyes popular images of Custer’s Last Stand, we look upon a single coach surrounded by troopers on foot who are being beaten and clubbed by a dark seething mob.

What is impossible to ignore when considering such instances of media alarm is how they highlight a broad response across the country that runs counter to accepted historical interpretations. Weaving through many historians’ references to the Clunes incident is an implied suggestion that it testifies to how shamelessly prejudiced colonial Australia was. Reading the reports printed around the colonies at the time it is not hard to find evidence of the colonial media’s aversion for “the Celestials”. Bigoted assertions abound. Yet newspapers did not support taking action against them. Far from rejoicing in the suggestion that there had been an anti-Chinese uprising, the national media were condemnatory.

For instance, the staff of the Brisbane Courier Mail followed its brief telegraphed reports, cited above, with a long editorial praising Chinese for their industry and sobriety, and censuring those who would take up arms against them: as it concluded, “This may be a temporary victory for the Clunes miners over the Lothario Company [sic] and the Chinese: but, unquestionably, it is a disgrace to the colony, and a defeat to the law, that may lead to very serious consequences.” In paper after paper one encounters editors and journalists similarly writing of events at Clunes with a mixture of repugnance and alarm—hardly the moral response one would expect of an irredeemably intolerant people.

From Newscopy to History

It is not difficult to reconstruct the general course of events at Clunes in December 1873. The testimony of reporters who witnessed the events—palpable evidence used to prepare the account above—has always been available in the newspaper rooms of assorted public libraries. No one who reads them through would deny that there was an ugly confrontation that lapsed into violence. Stones were certainly thrown, and the police treated with contempt; coaches were jostled and shaken by the crowd, their windows broken; and the Chinese were on the receiving end of insults, taunts and jeers. Tempers were heated, and people do shoot off their mouths in such circumstances.

As for there being a full-scale bloody uprising on the goldfields: the confrontation was neither as great, nor as widespread, nor as brutal as the sensationalist copy of remote newspapers suggested. By today’s standards, police and media would probably classify the event as a particularly rowdy protest which deteriorated into violence for no more than forty minutes. But the physical clash was limited: not a single person was beaten, the scene of the incident was very small, and the actual confrontation was of a relatively short duration.

As for the racist motivations, it cannot be safely asserted that the townspeople of Clunes were acting chiefly out of bigotry. Yes, ethnic insults were shouted that day, especially when the coaches were at hand—as Withers pointed out, the Chinese were detested on the goldfields as “alien competitors for the bread which the miners required for themselves and their families”. But we do not know what exact insults were aired, because the primary newspaper accounts do not repeat a single word of abuse overheard at the barricade. And there is not a scrap of evidence to suggest that the miners called the Chinese a “leprous curse”. Naked bigotry was not the issue. The townspeople had more direct, more pragmatic economic and religious motives for obstructing the coaches from entering town. As at the related and, probably, motivating strife at Stawell several weeks before when European blacklegs from Ballarat were likewise assaulted and repelled, the Clunes miners were seeking to protect livelihoods. They wanted to ensure that wages were not driven down, that working hours were not extended, and that the sanctity of the Sabbath was preserved.

The plain, if unpalatable truth is that the available primary evidence does not support the current historical orthodoxy that there was a large-scale race riot at Clunes. There are five firm witness-based newspaper reports of the day’s proceedings—four of them not previously cited by scholars—which taken together provide a very different version of what occurred. Indeed, the existing material backing the race-riot interpretation was penned by journalists and editorialisers who were not in the town’s vicinity on December 9, 1873, some of them surely desk-bound copywriters many hundreds of kilometres away who were engaged in deliberate exaggeration.

Still, there is a sobering moral to be drawn from observing how the sensationalist misreporting of the Clunes incident has passed uninterrupted from colonial journalism into our history books. Newspapers never have been impartial verbal photographs: they refract information. This choice example of a news item, which was embellished by the nineteenth-century media as it was transmitted through colonial Australia, and which has been taken on trust by later scholars, serves as an object lesson in what can occur when facts are not checked and sources not scrutinised.

The prevailing view of the Clunes incident is not an instance of conscious misrepresentation through selective use of sources: on the contrary, the problem here surely involves that Principle of Least Effort where minimal research leads to serious historical distortion. One hopes this is an isolated occurrence, but one fears the case is not unique.

Christopher Heathcote contributed “Genesis of an Art Boom” in the July-August issue. A footnoted version of this article is available from the Quadrant office.

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