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Image of Peter Lalor

Peter Lalor
1827-1889

 

 

Peter Lalor and the Eureka Stockade

Ballarat a city of 60,000, seventy miles from Melbourne, Australia, is half the Globe away from Raheen, Co. Laois, yet one of the strongest historical links between the two places was forged well over a century ago in the person of Peter Lalor, younger brother of James Fintan Lalor whose pen had inspired the Agrarian policies of Davitt and Henry George.

In August 1851 the discovery of alluvial gold in the Ballarat district brought tens of thousands flocking to the Victorian Gold fields from the colonies of Australia, the Californian gold fields and most of all from the Isles of Britain and Ireland. In a short time the easy to get surface gold had been exploited and from there it was hard labour of digging shafts and tunnels in the hope of striking it rich and making fortunes. A few were rewarded but the majority had little or nothing to show for their hard labour and primitive living conditions. To add to the discontent the colonial government decided to impose a licence fee of thirty shillings a month - a hefty amount in 1851. The miners on hearing the news lost little time in organising a mass meeting with militant resolutions of opposition being carried. Troubles continued on the diggings and as the occurrences of government malpractice and police corruption increased too so did the anger and grievances of "the diggers". And yet by mid-October 1851 there were 2,000 tents on the Ballarat fields and 10,000 men were working on the diggings. Police harassment grew bolder as the diggers were forced to work longer hours with greater effort to find the available gold. In July 1853 a petition was presented to Governor La Trobe the head of an appointed Government, a Government the diggers had no franchise in the construction of or on the directions of its policies. The first section of the petition stated: That in the present impoverished condition of the Gold Fields the impost of thirty shillings per month is more than the miners can pay as the fruits of their labours scarcely afford them the common necessaries of life. On 13 August 3,000 diggers met to receive the returning delegation from Melbourne who had approached the Governor with their petition. A grand parade was held as delegations of different nationalities marched to the meeting.

They were led by the Irish with their green banner with the harp and shamrock on it, accompanied by the pick and shovel. The delegation reported that Governor La Trobe had refused all requests; in Melbourne meetings were held with dissatisfaction spreading against the Government, attributing it to the fact that the goldfields residents were denied their political and social rights. La Trobe was forced to resign and return to England. The position of Governor was taken by another Englishman, Charles Hothan. He had as little success as La Trobe in dealing with the dissatisfaction of the population of the goldfields. The Government again answered the diggers demands with an increase in military force; to the mass of diggers this was an open provocation.

A meeting of the diggers was held in November 1854. The Reform League was formed. Peter Lalor had never taken part in any of the diggers' political agitation before the meeting of 29 November 1854 although his family had been active in the Irish independence struggle for two generations. Peter Lalor stood and proposed that the members of the Reform League should hold a meeting to elect a Central Committee and that each of forty members have the power to elect one delegate to the Committee. The meeting flew a flag never before seen by the thousands of diggers who were present. It presented a silver cross extended on every length by four stars representing the Southern Cross constellation upon a sky blue ground. It flew as the first symbol of the diggers demands; a flag of freedom and Australian independence.

At the next meeting Peter Lalor's voice once more boomed out to the assembled men. Holding a rifle with his left hand he mounted a stump and called on the diggers to fall into divisions and to choose the best of the comrades as theft captains. The call was answered by unanimous acclamation and an army of 500 immediately sprang into being.

Lalor then said: "It is my duty to swear you in and to take with you the oath to be faithful to the Southern Cross. Hear me with attention. The man who after this solemn oath does not stand by our standard is a coward in heart. I order all persons who do not intend to take the oath to leave the meeting at once". Lalor kneeling down received the salute of the captains of each division and then, with his right hand pointing to the Southern Cross, by this timeflying with full glory in the afternoon breeze, exclaimed in his firm measured tone "We swear by The Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties".

Peter Lalor was not a revolutionary, but at a given time he was moved by a series of injustices. The spontaneous nature of the events at Ballarat gave him an opportunity to prove his leadership in response to the vivid threat of the authorities of a colonial power. Later Lalor wrote in the Ballarat Star "If these gentlemen mean by democracy opposition to a tyrannical press, a tyrannical people or a tyrannical Government, then I have been, I am still and will ever remain a democrat.

When the Reform League voted Lalor President and Commander-in-Chief Lalor in replying to the motion said to the meeting "I make no pretensions to military knowledge. I have not the presumption to assume the chief command, no more than any other man who means well in the cause of the diggers. If you appoint me as your commander-in-chief I shall not shrink. I mean to do my duty as a man. I tell you gentlemen, if once I pledge my hand to the diggers I will not defile it with treachery nor render it contemptible with cowardice".

The League received a further rebuff to their demands on 1st December 1854. Toward ten o'clock news reached the stockade that the red coats were under arms and that a further licence hunt was under way. Work was increased to reinforce the stockade where the diggers were to make theft stand. Guns were being obtained and a German blacksmith was turning out pikes with vigour. Through the services of a spy within the stockade the British commanders knew of the small size of the stockade defence in the early hours of Sunday 3 December, 1854. Although outnumbered the rebels fought heroically against the might of the colonial government. The story of the battle is another chapter in itself. Peter Lalor jumped on to the logged-up roof of a defence hole and encouraged his men to withdraw to better positions. As he was commanding he was shot down with a bullet that shattered his left shoulder. After the defeat of the diggers the captured leaders were taken for trial to Melbourne. In the following months jury after jury acquitted the men of treason and they were accepted on their release as heroes and patriots. A commission of enquiry was established and out of this enquiry came the recommendation to dispense with the licences to mine, and export tax was levied on the merchants instead and miners and all living in the gold fields were franchised. The battle of one-man one vote had been won and Government was no longer the interest of the vested class. The enquiry only rubber-stamped what had already been won by the diggers resistance.

After the acquittals, the reward offered for Peter Lalor was withdrawn. In the subsequent elections Peter Lalor was elected to Parliament and was elected to the Speaker's chair, which duties he carried out with fairness and distinction. He was also a Minister in that same Victorian Parliament. The real Peter Lalor was the leader of the miners' revolt. A young man of fierce idealism and uncompromising integrity; the man to proclaim "Liberty" in the country down-under.

He never returned to his birthplace in Raheen, Co. Laois. But the house where he was born in 1927 still stands though uninhabited. A plaque on the house, put there by the request of the Australian Government reads: "And with a burning feeling of an injured man I mounted the stump and proclaimed liberty" Peter Lalor February 5 1827 - February 9 1887. Elected President and Commander of Rebel Forces which fought at the Eureka Stockade, Ballarat, Victoria, December 3 1854, he was subsequently elected to the legislative Assembly in Victoria of which he later became Speaker.

Former Speaker

Speaker: 1880-1887
Legislative Assembly: 1856-1887

Peter Lalor is a name well-known in Australian history as one of the leaders of the miners at the 1854 Eureka Stockade uprising. Like all his predecessors he was born in Ireland, emigrating to Victoria with his brother Richard in 1852. On his arrival in Melbourne Peter Lalor initially found work on the construction of the Melbourne-Geelong railway, but he, his brother Richard Lalor and another Irishman also went into business as wine, spirits and provision merchants.

In 1853 Peter Lalor left Melbourne for the Ovens gold diggings, and in 1854 moved to Ballarat where he staked a claim with Duncan Gillies, a Scot, on the Eureka land. There was a great deal of unrest on the Ballarat diggings due to the imposition of the miners' licence by the government and the practice of 'digger-hunting', and Lalor was involved in agitation over these issues. When matters came to a head over the arrest of three diggers for burning Bentley's Hotel and some 1500 diggers determined on physical resistance, he became their leader. During the attack on the Eureka Stockade in the early hours of Saturday, 3 December 1854, when the police stormed the stockade killing thirty or more diggers and taking over one hundred prisoners, Lalor's left arm was injured. He escaped and reached the home of Father Smyth in Ballarat where the arm was amputated, and was then taken to Geelong where he was cared for by Alicia Dunne, whom he married on 10 July 1855.

A reward had been placed on Lalor's head, but was revoked in March 1855, and the thirteen diggers who had been charged with treason were acquitted in April. The Commissioners appointed to inquire into conditions on the goldfields recommended that the Legislative Council be enlarged to include goldfields' representatives; the suggestion was adopted and Lalor was returned unopposed to represent the area in November 1855.

When the first parliament under the new Constitution was elected in 1856, Lalor was returned unopposed as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for North Grenville, a Ballarat seat. He held the seat until 1859, when he stood for and won the seat of South Grant. In parliament he was not closely attached to any one faction, often preferring to follow his own judgment and conscience in individual matters rather than adhere to a consistent political line. In 1875 he became Commissioner for Customs in the Berry government, and in 1880 he became Speaker.

Lalor remained Speaker until September 1887 when, weakened by ill health and the deaths of his wife and only daughter, he resigned the position and took leave from parliament, of which he was still a Member, to go to San Francisco. He died at the home of his son, Joseph, on 9 February 1889.