Sunday, May 1, 2016

Making tracks: STAND AND DELIVER!

When gold fever hit the newly formed colony of Victoria in August, 1851, a phenomenal amount of wealth suddenly began to flow between the goldfields and the major towns. According to the Victorian Department of Mines, between the years of 1856 and 1896, miners extracted a staggering 1,898,391 kg of gold from mines and diggings across the colony. With this influx of capital however, came the need to transfer vast sums of gold, cash and other commodities around the colony. It was a problem both for the diggers who struck it lucky and for the colonial government which purchased the gold. Unsurprisingly, this led to an upsurge in numbers taking up that archetypal Australian occupation of bushranging.
Of course, with much of the gold discovered at Ballarat being taken to Geelong along with the movement of diggers potentially carrying large amounts of cash, the roads between the two places were as susceptible to  criminal activity as any in the colony. A quick look at the newspapers of the day will confirm this.
In August, 1852, a group of five bushrangers - known as the Eureka Gang - rode into Buninyong where they proceeded to dine; three at Sellick's Crown Hotel and the remaining two at Neil Jamieson's Buninyong Hotel. Whilst in the course of eating their meal, the chief constable from Buninyong, aided by his counterpart from Chepstow apprehended the three who were at Sellick's Hotel before also taking the pair at Jamieson's into custody. The latter arrests however were not made without a struggle as the constables had to disarm one of the offenders who fired at them as they attempted to make the arrest. A sixth member of the gang had been captured earlier in the day.
Perhaps the most sensational arrest however, was that of the self-styled "Captain" Melville - a career criminal who was transported from Scotland to Van Diemen's Land as a child. Francis Melville (alias Frank McCallum) was one of a number of ex-convicts to make their way from the island to Victoria with the outbreak of the gold rush. After terrorising the roads between Melbourne and Woodend, he headed west, hiding out near the Dundas Ranges before moving south to commit further offences at Fiery Creek, Woady Yallock, Buninyong, Rokewood, Bruce's Creek and finally at Fyansford outside Geelong in December, 1852.
A possible likeness of Captain Melville. Image taken from
The Geelong Advertiser, 21st November, 2015
The newspapers of the day suggest that he and a partner in crime, William Robert Roberts, had been in the area for some time, referring to "two daring bushrangers who have lately levied contributions from travellers on the Leigh and Buninyong Roads" - exactly those routes used by the diggers returning to Geelong. As early as February, 1852 under the name of Edward Melville (alias Edward Jefferies), he staged a successful robbery within three miles of Buninyong, having it was said, been recently in the employ of squatter Henry Winter. In April a reward was posted for his capture.
On the 19th December, Melville and Roberts staged a holdup at Bruce's Creek before heading to Fyansford where they staged another holdup. This time, two bushmen were the victims. Following that attack, the pair made their way into town where they dined at a hotel in Corio Street before retiring late in the afternoon to a nearby brothel where they continued drinking. During the course of conversation two of the women who worked there became suspicious, and hoping to claim the reward money, one distracted Melville whilst the other went for the police.
Suddenly realising that all was not well, Melville made a dash for freedom through a back window, over the fence, knocking over a police officer on his way and headed down Malop St towards what is now Johnstone Park. There he met a gentleman who had been out riding. Melville by now desperate to escape the pursuing police, immediately attempted to unseat the rider and steal his horse, however he was unable to mount the horse which by that time was rearing and bucking in fright and was detained by the good citizen until the police arrived to arrest him. Melville was held in the South Geelong Gaol whilst awaiting his trial and eventually received a lengthy sentence. With the exception of a daring escape attempt, he was never at liberty again. His exploits are described in some detail in George E.Boxall's History of the Australian bushrangers (1908) which is available online.
Melville's precipitous arrest and subsequent death in custody may in some part explain a long-standing local legend which claims that Melville had a hideout near Meredith along Coolebarghurk Creek. It was there, near a tree which pointed in the opposite direction to the prevailing wind that he allegedly hid a substantial stash. The site - which has never been found - was said to be near the creek in the vicinity of where the Meredith Creamery was later built. His arrest and subsequent death would explain why he never returned to claim his booty.
Coolebarghurk Creek at the end of Creamery Rd today. Click to enlarge
The crime along the roads between Geelong and Ballarat however, did not decline with Melville's demise and as Henry Mundy attested in A Young Australian Pioneer (Les. Hughes, 1988), the threat of robbery, not only on the roads, but also in camp where the only protection was a calico tent and a firearm under the bed, was a constant strain on the nerves.
In January, 1853 a gang of four was operating along the Geelong-Buninyong Rd and by late December it was reported that holdups were a daily occurrence between Buninyong and Meredith. In April, 1855 a group of three men armed with pistols was holding up travellers on the road between Steiglitz and Geelong near Colonel Kelsall's property on the Moorabool River. A party of men said to be returning from the diggings were robbed of £40 or around $5,000 in today's terms.
A bush holdup, William Strutt c1855, Image held by the National Library of Australia
Diggers however, did not have to take all the risk upon themselves. They could instead, either sell their gold to dealers at the diggings or they could consign their hard-won earnings to the authorities who in return for a deposit of 1 shilling per ounce of gold would issue the digger with a certificate. The gold thus deposited was taken to Melbourne or Geelong under police escort and could be claimed by the digger on presentation of the receipt along with proof of identification and description of the gold in question.
Neither option was without its problems however. Gold sold on the diggings paid a lower return than could be obtained in Geelong or Melbourne and still left the digger with the problem of protecting their cash until it could be banked, whilst if the gold escort were to be robbed, the government could not be held liable for the diggers' losses. On the goldfields, the diggers often paid for goods in gold rather than with cash. Likewise, payment of the gold license was also made in gold which resulted in large quantities of the precious metal being transferred directly to the government. All this gold also needed to be transported to town - a fact well-known to the bushranging fraternity.
The first gold escort to run between Ballarat and Geelong left the goldfields in September, 1851, only weeks after the initial gold discoveries. Not long after, a reliable mail contractor by the name of Greene was awarded the contract for carrying the gold for both Geelong and Melbourne in locked iron boxes. The escort was to be accompanied by police officers, mounted troopers and members of the Aboriginal Police Force and would travel via the Geelong-Buninyong Track to Geelong where the box for Melbourne would then be forwarded via steamer the following day.
The gold escort leaving Ballarat c1852-4. Image held by the State Library
of Victoria
Of course, if a regular gold escort was to be established, it needed to be serviced. Changes of horse and personnel would be required along the route and it wasn't long therefore before a police paddock was gazetted at the newly surveyed township of Meredith. From this convenient location at the halfway point between Geelong and the Ballarat diggings officers could serve the surrounding district, but were also well placed to escort gold from Steiglitz once mining boomed there too.
Along with the escorts and men came their horses and it wasn't long before contracts were regularly being sought for the supply of oats, hay and other consumables to be delivered to various staging points along the route taken by the gold escort such as Batesford, Lethbridge, Meredith and Burnt Bridge.
View across the Meredith Police Paddock which is now a nature reserve
To oversee proceedings on the government's behalf, Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe was quick to appoint Gold Commissioners who were supported by a raft of Assistant Commissioners and other officials. The role of the Commissioner and his staff was primarily to collect payment and issue gold licences. He was also responsible for collecting the gold to be taken by escort and for resolving disputes over claims which frequently occurred between miners. His most controversial role however, was probably that of law enforcer. It was the Gold Commissioner who ordered the hated "license hunts", during which diggers were required to show a current license or face arrest. In this role, he was backed up by police officers and - at Ballarat - by troopers from the 12th and 40th regiments.
This etching shows diggers lining up to pay for their hated gold licenses at
the gold commissioner's tent in 1852. Image held by the State Library
of South Australia
The first Gold Commissioner in Victoria was appointed and arrived at Ballarat on 19th September, 1851. His name was Francis Crossman Doveton. Upon arrival, he set up his tent on what became known as Old Post Office Hill overlooking Golden Point between the Yarrowee River and Canadian Creek. It was from this point that licenses were issued, gold was collected, ready for transportation to Melbourne and Geelong.
Whilst I found mention of various attacks on individuals and parties travelling between Geelong and the Ballarat diggings, there is no specific mention of an attempt on the gold escort along the route, suggesting perhaps that the diggers' faith in the authorities - in this instance at least - was well placed.