Principal Characters




Photo Courtesy of State Library of Victoria

After an impressive early naval career, Sir Charles Hotham arrived in Victoria and took up his appointment as Lieutenant-Governor in June 1854. He had been appointed by the liberal-minded Duke of Newcastle during his time as Secretary of State for the Colonies. However, during Hotham’s two and a half years in Victoria there were five changes of incumbency in the office of Secretary of State for the Colonies, and for Hotham the task of pleasing six masters, each with different priorities and political views, proved impossible.

He strove to improve the finances of the Colony, to keep control over the restive goldfields population and to resist claims to democratise the Constitution. But his authorisation of a military attack on sleeping miners at the Eureka goldfield, his subsequent determination to try the prisoners for high treason, and his stringent economy measures made him an unpopular figure. In November 1855, despite the inauguration of the new Constitution, he claimed autocratic powers that strained the new Constitution. A powerful campaign of dissent spearheaded by the Herald and the Age newspapers forced his ministers to distance themselves from his claims. Isolated and humiliated, he tendered his resignation, but before relinquishing his post, he became ill and died at the age of 49.



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Photo Courtesy of State Library of Victoria

As Attorney General, William Stawell opposed conceding political rights to the goldfields population.  He advocated a property threshold of £10,000 for membership of the Legislative Council. He urged the committee that was responsible for drafting the new Constitution to ignore popular opinion. He stifled debate regarding the principle of responsible government by falsely reassuring the Legislative Council that it was already ‘a main principle’ of the Bill. He attempted to entrench the Constitution via a ‘two-thirds’ clause to make change nearly impossible.

Five days before the conflict erupted at Eureka, the delegates of the Ballarat Diggers met with Hotham, Stawell and  the Colonial Secretary, John Foster in Melbourne in a final effort to avoid conflict. The diggers’ representatives pleaded for political enfranchisement, but Stawell advised the Governor that he had no power to grant it, although following the conflict at Eureka and the Report of the Goldfields Commission, the Governor did so. Stawell’s extremism was demonstrated when he charged eight of the prisoners from Eureka with the crime of High Treason. The prescribed punishment for this offence was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. When juries would not convict, he meddled in the method of selection of juries. 

At the time of the inauguration of the 1855 Constitution, Stawell relied upon an unusual definition of the term ‘responsible ministers’ to obtain increased pensions for some of his appointed government colleagues. This gave the ministers who were involved an incentive to support Stawell’s eccentric definition of ‘responsible government’ that did not include the concept of government being answerable to an elected legislature. He also strenuously, but unsuccessfully, opposed the introduction of the secret ballot in 1856.

As Chief Justice and Acting Governor of Victoria, Stawell continued to use his influence to restrain the powers of the Parliament and to frustrate popularly elected governments, particularly the very popular government of Graham Berry in 1877.




Photo courtesy of the Parliamentary Library of Victoria

As Colonial Secretary of Victoria until late 1854,  Foster exercised considerable influence over the drafting of the 1855 Constitution.  He worked with his cousin, William Stawell, to ensure that the interests of the landholders were paramount and to resist calls for consultation with the population of the goldfields. When reports of the failure of law and order on the goldfields led to calls to establish an independent enquiry, Foster resisted doing so. He was widely disliked by the population of the goldfields, and distrusted, even by Governor Hotham. Following the conflict at Eureka he was dismissed, although he served  briefly as treasurer under the O’Shanassy Government in 1857.

These three men used their considerable influence over the fledgling colony to oppose democratic sentiment, and to establish and entrench anti-democratic practices.

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