Thursday, November 29, 2012

John Douglas and the New South Wales gold rushes.

Douglas migrated to New South Wales in 1851 to purchase a pastoral property and experience life and adventure in the colonies. His was a well-worn path for those young aristocrats unfortunate enough to have older brothers and heirs.  Life on the colonial frontier was a ticket to wealth, prosperity and assets on a scale that the younger sons of the aristocracy would have been hard-pressed to achieve at home. 
Douglas’s dreams of owning a pastoral property In New South Wales were eclipsed by momentous events that unfolded there while he was en route to Sydney, for payable gold had been discovered in the central western New South Wales, the first major gold find in any British colony.  As it had with the discovery of gold in California in 1848, this and other finds had profound economic and social impacts on the hitherto agrarian backwaters that were New South Wales and Victoria.[1]  Gold quickly eclipsed wool as Australia’s major export, and its discovery led directly to the granting of responsible government and the almost trebling of the population within a decade.[2]  This increased population resulted in a much greater workforce, larger markets, an increased demand for public works, and a wider range of schools and churches for the diverse beliefs and needs of the new immigrants.
Among the immigrants was a new class of settler, independent men out to make their fortune.  They challenged the power and pretensions of the squatters and officials, for they had no ties or investment in the old convict Australia.[3]  Douglas, despite being considered an impeccable gentleman of aristocratic origin, was sympathetic to this new settler class, and when running for political office in later years would seek and receive their support. 
Douglas arrived in Sydney at a fortuitous time because the remote Australian colony was at a critical juncture in its history.  Transportation of convicts had only recently ceased,[4] agriculture was still the backbone of the economy, and it had yet to fully recover from the economic reverses of 1841-43.[5]  The discovery of payable gold the same year he arrived in New South Wales meant that he would be fully involved in the change from an agrarian penal settlement to that of a vibrant colony, based on the extraction of vast quantities of this precious metal.  In the political arena, pressure for electoral reform led, before the decade was out, to an elected and representative parliament in place of one controlled by the governor.
Ophir, near Bathurst, was the main goldfield in New South Wales, with more than 2,000 people reported at the diggings by 1 June 1851.[6]  Children of a tenant farmer near Bathurst remarked that they “never thought there were so many people in the world before,”[7] while Thomas Icely, a significant squatter in the area, so feared the miners trudging to the Ophir field that he retreated to Sydney, in the process removing all his ‘plate and valuables’ from his residence.[8]  Employers elsewhere in the colony were concerned that there would be no shearers or other workers available because they had all gone off to the diggings.  The colonial government had no laws, policies or procedures to deal with this unprecedented situation, and was forced to come up with workable legislative solutions, because many of the remedies suggested by some settlers, such as proclaiming martial law and barring workmen from digging, proved impossible to implement.[9]
By early 1851, gold fever had gripped the colony to such an extent that the government was forced to issue two proclamations declaring all gold found on crown land to be its property and giving it the power to control mining.  A monthly licence fee of 30 shillings was payable to the government through a gold commissioner, the first of whom, J. R. Hardy, was appointed for the Ophir field.[10]  From now on, no man could dig without permission.  However, the payment of the licence fee and its subsequent issuance entitled the miner to keep the proceeds from the sale of any gold found.
The licence had to be purchased in advance and was only available to those able to prove they “were not improperly absent from hired service.”[11]  Moreover, the required fee was beyond the means of many labourers, and was introduced in an attempt to ensure that essential labour would be retained in cities and towns, revenue raised, and the pace of the gold rush controlled.[12]  The total number of licences issued to the end of October 1851 was 12,186, including 2, 094 issued at Ophir, 8,637 at the Turon and 405 at Araluen.[13]
Gold was next discovered at the Turon River, north of Bathurst, in June 1851, where the town of Sofala sprung up.  Numerous other gold discoveries took place in the New South Wales and Victorian colonies during this decade, acting as a magnet for those seeking their fortune. [14]  As Catherine Spence, a Scottish visitor to Melbourne at the height of the gold fever remarked:
Religion is neglected, education despised, the libraries are almost deserted; ...  everybody is engrossed in the simple object of making money in a very short time.[15]

Douglas had sailed to Australia to seek his fortune and purchase a sheep run.  However, the discovery of gold during this voyage led him to postpone these plans and so it was to Turon, which had now replaced Ophir as the major goldfield, which he travelled to following his arrival in Sydney in August 1851.[16] 
Douglas saw in the gold rush immense opportunities for the economic development of the colony.  Although only 23 years old, he debated this point with William Charles Wentworth, leader of the New South Wales Legislative Council, whom he met in Bathurst while the latter was denouncing the evil effects of the gold discoveries on the colony because employees in the pastoral industry were flocking to the goldfields.  As Douglas recounts, he (Douglas), “ventured to contest the point, not knowing what he was in for but he soon found out.”[17]  Even at this early stage in his life, Douglas evidenced a propensity to speak his mind and a willingness to enter into debate with others.
Douglas then travelled to the Darling Downs, presumably to appraise sheep properties, “calling at many stations and always being hospitably treated.”[18]  Meanwhile, Edward Douglas had entered into a partnership with Thomas Hood, who in 1852-53 held a depasturing license for a 16,000 acre run, Boree, in the Central New South Wales Wellington district.[19]
Appointed sub-commissioner of crown lands
After his visit to the Darling Downs, Douglas was appointed sub-commissioner of crown lands for the New South Wales southern gold district, stationed at Major’s Creek near Araluen.[20]  Why Douglas took up this post is unclear.  Perhaps he welcomed the additional money, or was content for his brother to manage their properties while he became involved in life on the goldfields.  Whatever the reason for his interest in the position, securing it would not have been difficult for a man of his background, education and pedigree, because the area was isolated, the work unglamorous, and there would have been few competitors, most aristocratic gentlemen of the day being interested in either a pastoral vocation or a senior government appointment.
This was the first of many government appointments in what would become a lifetime of public and parliamentary service.  Gold had been discovered at Araluen, in southern New South Wales in October 1851.[21]  Araluen was 32 kilometres from Braidwood, in a narrow valley which made access difficult.  Three townships sprung up in the valley, with about two hundred diggers working the field.[22]  Douglas arrived there in early April 1852,[23] and was mainly responsible for collecting the 30-shilling licence fee and ensuring that order on the goldfield was upheld.[24]  Living conditions were primitive, especially for a man brought up at Kinmount Estate and Durham University.
Interacting with the miners would also have been a novel experience for a cultured and erudite aristocrat used to the genteel and refined life that made up upper-class society in Great Britain.  As an earlier emigrant, D. Mackenzie had noted:
The people of this colony care not one straw about the emigrant’s rank or titles.  Neither is this the field for display of great literary talents.  The colony is yet too young either to appreciate or reward such intellectual luxuries.[25]

Collecting and supervising miners’ licences on the goldfields was no simple or routine task, for, as the historian James Jervis observed,
When the commissioner appeared on the scene the croak of the crow was heard.  This was the signal agreed upon to warn diggers who had not paid the fee.  The miners acted immediately; one shouldered the cradle and ran to earth like a fox, while his comrades dispersed themselves among the legitimate diggers and assumed the look of spectators.[26]

Another contemporary account described the process thus:
The Commissioner, attended by a policeman, walks along the banks of the river, stopping where any cradles are seen at work, or persons assembled, and demands to know if any wish to take out licences.  Much time is lost in discussion, and in weighing out the amount of the fee, which is often paid in gold-dust, its cleanness or freedom from “emery” being sometimes a point of debate, before the licence can be delivered to the individual.

Those who cannot pay are warned off, but of course, with so small a staff it is impossible for the Commissioner to prevent some from working clandestinely when his back is turned.[27]

The fee was unpopular because it was expensive, with many struggling miners unable to afford it.  Others considered the fee unjust, as it had to be paid even if no gold was found.  Protests against the licence fee resulted in the burning of effigies of William Charles Wentworth[28] at Sofala in 1853, whereupon the fee was reduced to 10 shillings a month.[29] 
It is unknown how Douglas managed the issuing of licences, for he merely noted “it was his duty to see that the miners had their licences” and that “in this occupation he had many varied experiences.”[30]  However, in later years he remarked that the fee was “a most exorbitant tax” and that “the great objection to the tax was that it was not only heavy, but that it fell unequally, and taxed all diggers alike - whether they were successful or not.”[31]
These comments suggest that Douglas found it difficult to undertake some of the more unsavoury aspects of his duties as a goldfields sub-commissioner.  His sense of duty and fair play, combined with his liberal beliefs and attitudes, would have been at odds with his obligation to tax those unable to afford the licence, and was probably a factor in his subsequent resignation in June the following year.
During his seven-month tenure in 1852 as sub-commissioner for the Southern gold district, the number of miners in the district fluctuated from a high of 898 in May to a low of 560 In July.[32]  In May of that year, Douglas was also appointed clerk of petty sessions at Araluen.[33]
His departure from both posts in late October 1852 was most irregular,[34] for while a letter from the colonial secretary approved his “temporary resignation,”[35] two weeks later he was appointed sub-commissioner to the Tuena goldfield, situated at Tuena Creek, north-west of Goulburn.[36]  This was unusual because the normal practice would have simply been for him to have been transferred.  Later that month Douglas was appointed a magistrate for the district with responsibilities for police, law and order, and the administration of justice. [37]  Fortunately for Douglas, Australian fields were renowned for the good conduct of the diggers, in stark contrast to the lawless state of Californian mining communities.[38]
The Tuena and Mongalo goldfields issued the fewest licences of any goldfield in the southern district, with 81 licences issued in April 1853, 102 in May, and 83 in June.  This contrasted with 224 issued at Major’s Creek and 594 at Bell’s Creek in April 1853.[39]  Thus, compared to his previous position in the Major’s Creek district, Douglas had fewer miners to supervise and licences to issue.  This was reflected in his complement of men, which comprised himself and two troopers at Tuena, compared with a sergeant, a corporal and four troopers at Araluen.[40] 
However, it should be remembered that being a magistrate would have entailed additional duties.  Whatever the reason for his ‘temporary’ resignation and subsequent reappointment to another field, Douglas was not destined to remain here long either - less than eight months.

[1] Jan Kociumbas.  The Oxford History of Australia, vol 2.  1770-1860, Possessions.  Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 294
[2] Clark (1955), p. 2
[3] Ronald Laidlaw.  Australian History, Melbourne, Macmillan, 1991, p. 123
[4] Although the transportation of convicts to New South Wales ended in 1840, the British government proposed that ticket-of-leave men still be sent to the colony.  However, the New South Wales legislative council had resolved, on 1 October 1850, less than a year before Douglas arrived in Sydney, that no more convicts would be accepted.  (Manning Clark.  A Short History of Australia.  Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1986, p. 99)
[5] Kociumbas, p. 295
[6] James Jervis.  “Early Discoveries in New South Wales.”  In, Charles Barrett, ed.  Gold in Australia.  London, Cassell, 1951, pp. 8-10
[7] Kociumbas, p. 303
[8] Ibid., p. 302
[9] Ibid., pp. 302-3
[10] Jervis, p. 9
[11] Kociumbas, p. 303
[12] Ibid.
[13] Thomas Richards.  An Epitome of the Official History of New South Wales From the Foundation of the Colony, in 1788, to the Close of the First Session of the Eleventh Parliament Under Responsible Government, in 1883.  Sydney, Government Printer, p. 179
[14] Ibid., p. 12
[15] Stuart Macintyre.  A Concise History of Australia.  Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 89
[16] Cooktown Pilot, 30 July 1904.  As Douglas later noted, “the world of Australia was turned upside down and everyone was trooping off to the diggings.”  (Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 28 November 1903.)  Edward Douglas went straight to Colinton Station in Moreton Bay.  (Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 28 November 1903)
[17] Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 28 November 1903.  The young Douglas told the august politician “the goldfields might attract a most enterprising population from the old country, and after all, if the worst came to the worst, the sheep would look after themselves for a while.”  (Douglas (1902), p. 44)
[18] Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 28 November 1903
[19] Mason, p. 20.  A depasturing licence allowed a pastoralist to run stock on a property.  Eve Douglas contends that John Douglas was also involved in purchasing this property (Eve Douglas, p. 4), but while John Douglas himself stated that “he and his brother purchased a property with 15,000 sheep, at three shillings per head,” it is unclear whether he is referring to Boree or their subsequent property, Talgai.  (Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 28 November 1903.)  In late 1852 Edward Douglas also bought a large sheep run in partnership with W. Hulme from Berwickshire, who lived in Sydney and acted as agent for the joint estate.  (Helen C. Mackenzie to John Macarthur, 2 December 1852.  Macarthur Papers, MLA A2923, vol 27.  Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales)
[20] New South Wales.  Government Gazette vol 1 no 33, 26 March 1852, p. 519; New South Wales Blue Book, 1852, p. 306.  Douglas commenced on 25 March 1852, with an annual salary of £200.
[21] The Braidwood Araluen Goldfields.  Braidwood, Braidwood and District Historical Society, 199-, p. 2; Jervis, p. 12 
[22] The townships were Majors Creek, Bell’s Creek and the Araluen Valley.
[23] Mason, p. 21
[24] Jervis, p. 12
[25] F. Mackenzie.  Ten Years in Australia.  4th ed. London, 1852, p. 105.  Quoted in Nadel, p. 44
[26] Jervis, p. 11
[27] John Elphinstone Erskine.  “Ophir and the Turon.”  In Nancy Keesing, ed.  History of the Australian Gold Rushes by those who were there.  Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1971, p. 30
[28] Wentworth, the leader of the New South Wales legislative council, was deeply unpopular with the working class at this time.  (“Wentworth, William Charles.”  The Australian Encyclopedia.  5th ed.  Sydney, Australian Geographic Society, 1988, vol 8, p. 3027)
[29] Laidlaw, p. 117
[30] Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 28 November 1903
[31] “Gold Export Duty Bill.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 275
[32] Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council of New South Wales, 1853, vol 1.  Reproduced in, Clark (1957), p. 75.  The district comprised the fields of Major’s Creek, Bell’s Creek, Mongalo, Tuena and Adelong.
[33] New South Wales Government Gazette, vol 1 no 54, 28 May 1852, p. 847
[34] Mason, p. 22
[35] Colonial Secretary Letterbook, 18 October 1852.  New South Wales State Archives Ref. 254 16/10.  In Mason, p. 23
[36] New South Wales Legislative Council.  Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1853, p. 560
[37] New South Wales Government Gazette, vol 2 no 114, 26 November 1852, p. 1725.  Douglas received an additional £100 for these duties, which made his salary £300 per annum.  (New South Wales Blue Book, 1853, p. 312; Mason, p. 23)
[38] Jervis, p. 11
[39] New South Wales Legislative Council.  Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1854, p. 1433
[40] New South Wales Legislative Council.  Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1853, p. 560