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Licence evasion, treachery and triumph on the Mt Alexander Diggings, 1852

Posted 10/03/2019 in History

There are many fascinating old tales of mischief and misdoings across the diggings of the Victorian Goldfields. One such tale was shared around the Mt Alexander Diggings in the early 1850s and has all the typical makings of a good story - love, rivalry, treacherous deceit, and a humorous triumph over adversity. 

James Bonwick referred very briefly to this interesting incident in his 1852 book Notes of a Gold Digger and Gold Diggers Guide. Bonwick wrote:

A policeman one day demanded a sight of his license from a digger at Friar's Creek. The man civilly said it was in his waistcoat down the hole, and that he would go and fetch it directly. He departed, and forgot to return. The hole was visited, but the bird had flown. As it happened, there was much tunnelling in that part, and the man had quietly passed along the subterranean passages, and raised his head from another and distant cell. (source)

Ellen Clacy related a much more detailed and spirited narrative of the incident in her book A Lady's Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53. Her account is well worth reading and is told as follows:

'The License Inspected', by ST Gill. State Library of Victoria

As evening approached, our new acquaintances became very sociable, and amused us with their account of the diggings; and the subject of licensing being naturally discussed, led to our being initiated into the various means of evading it, and the penalties incurred thereby. One story they related amused us at the time, and as it is true I will repeat it here, though I fancy the lack of oral communication will subtract from it what little interest it did possess. 

Before I commence, I must give my readers some little insight into the nature of the licence tax itself. The licence, (for which thirty shillings, or half an ounce of gold, is paid per month) is in the following form: 

No. 1710, Sept. 3, 1852.

The Bearer, Henry Clements, having paid to me the Sum of One Pound, Ten Shillings, on account of the Territorial Revenue, I hereby Licence him to dig, search for, and remove Gold on and from any such Crown Land within the Upper Loden District, as I shall assign to him for that purpose during the month of September, 1852, not within half-a-mile of any Head station. 

This Licence is not transferable, and to be produced whenever demanded by me or any other person acting under the Authority of the Government, and to be returned when another Licence is issued. 
(Signed) B. BAXTER, Commissioner.

At the back of the Licence are the following rules: 

Regulations to be observed by the Persons digging for Gold, or otherwise employed at the Gold Fields. 

1. Every Licensed Person must always have his Licence with him, ready to be produced whenever demanded by a Commissioner, or Person acting under his instructions, otherwise he is liable to be proceeded against as an Unlicensed person. 

2. Every Person digging for Gold, or occupying Land, without a Licence, is liable by Law to be fined, for the first offence, not exceeding £5; for a second offence, not exceeding £15; and for a subsequent offence, not exceeding £30. 

3. Digging for Gold is not allowed within Ten feet of any Public Road, nor are the Roads to be undermined. 

4. Tents or buildings are not to be erected within Twenty feet of each other, or within Twenty feet of any Creek. 

5. It is enjoined that all Persons at the Gold Fields maintain and assist in maintaining a due and proper observance of Sundays. 

So great is the crowd around the Commissioner's tent at the beginning of the month, that it is a matter of difficulty to procure it, and consequently the inspectors rarely begin their rounds before the 10th, when (as they generally vary the fine according to the date at which the delinquency is discovered), a non-licensed digger would have the pleasure of accompanying a crowd of similar offenders to the Commissioners, sometimes four or five miles from his workingplace, pay a fine of about £3, and take out a licence. After the 20th of the month, the fine inflicted is generally from £5 to £10 and a licence, which is rather a dear price to pay for a few days' permission to dig, as a licence, although granted on the 30th of one month, would be unavailable for the next. The inspectors are generally strong-built, rough-looking customers, they dress like the generality of the diggers, and are only known by their carrying a gun in lieu of a pick or shovel. Delinquents unable to pay the fine, have the pleasure of working it out on the roads. 

Now for my story - such as it is. 

Mike and Robert were two as good mates as any at the Mount Alexander diggings. They had had a good spell of hard work, and, as is usually the way, returned to Melbourne for a holiday at Christmastime; and then it was that the bright eyes of Susan Hinton first sowed discord between them. Mike was the successful wooer, and the old man gave his consent; for Mike, with one exception, had contrived to make himself a favourite with both father and daughter. The exception was this. Old Hinton was a strict disciplinarian - one of what is called the "good old school" - he hated radicals, revolutionists, and reformers, or any opposition to Church or State. Mike, on the contrary, loved nothing better than to hold forth against the powers that be; and it was his greatest boast that Government had never pocketed a farthing from him in the way of a licence. This, in the old man's eyes, was his solitary fault, and when Mike declared his intention of taking another trip to the "lottery fields" before taking a ticket in the even greater lottery of marriage, he solemnly declared that no daughter of his should ever marry a man who had been openly convicted of in any way evading the licence fee. 

This declaration from any other man, who had already promised his daughter in marriage, would not have had much weight; but Mike knew the stern, strict character of Hinton, and respected this determination accordingly. The day of their departure arrived, and with a tearful injunction to bear in mind her father's wishes, Susan bade her lover farewell, and Robert and he proceeded on their journey. Full of his own happiness, Mike had never suspected his comrade's love for Susan, and little dreamt he of the hatred against himself to which it had given birth - hatred the more to be dreaded since it was concealed under a most friendly exterior. 

For the first month Mike behaved to the very letter of the law, and having for the sum of £1 10s. purchased his legal right to dig for gold, felt himself a most exemplary character. Success again crowned their efforts, and a speedy return to Melbourne was contemplated. In the ardour of this exciting work another month commenced, and Mike at first forgot and then neglected to renew his licence. "The inspector rarely came his rounds before the 14th; the neighbourhood was considered deserted - fairly 'worked out;' he'd never come round there." Thus argued Mike, and his friend cordially agreed with him. "Lose a day's work standing outside the Commissioner's tent broiling in a crowd, when two days would finish the job? Not he, indeed! Mike might please himself, but he shouldn't get a licence;" and this determination on the part of his "mate" settled the matter. 

In one respect Mike's self-security was not unfounded; the gully in which their tent was now pitched was nearly deserted. Some while previous there had been a great rush to the place, so great that it was almost excavated; then the rush took a different direction, and few now cared to work on the two or three spots that had been left untouched. Like many other localities considered "worked out," as much remained in the ground as had been taken from it, and as each day added to their store, Mike's hilarity increased. 

It was now the 10th of the month; their hole had been fairly "bottomed," a nice little nest of nuggets discovered, their gains divided, and the gold sent down to the escort-office for transit to Melbourne. A few buckets-full of good washing-stuff was all that was left undone. 

"To-day will finish that," thought Mike, and to it he set with hearty good-will, to the intense satisfaction of his comrade, who sat watching him at a little distance. Suddenly Mike felt a heavy hand upon his shoulder: he looked up, and saw before him - the inspector. He had already with him a large body of defaulters, and Mike little doubted but that he must be added to their number. Old Hinton's determined speech, Susan's parting words and tears, flashed across his mind. 

"You've lost your bonnie bride," muttered Robert, loud enough to reach his rival's ears.

Mike glanced at him, and the look of triumph he saw there roused every spark of energy within him, and it was in a tone of well-assumed composure that he replied to the inspector, "My licence is in my pocket, and my coat is below there;" and without a moment's hesitation sprang into his hole to fetch it. Some minutes elapsed. The inspector waxed impatient. A suspicion of the truth flashed across Robert's mind, and he too descended the hole. There was the coat and the licence of the past month in the pocket; but the owner had gone, vanished, and an excavation on one side which led into the next hole and thence into a complete labyrinth underground, plainly pointed out the method of escape. Seeing no use in ferreting the delinquent out of so dangerous a place, the inspector sulkily withdrew, though not without venting some of his ill-humour upon Robert, at whose representations, made to him the day previous, he had come so far out of his road.

But let us return to Mike. By a happy thought, he had suddenly remembered that whilst working some days before in the hole, his pick had let in daylight on one side, and the desperate hope presented itself to his mind that he might make a passage into the next pit, which he knew led into others, and thus escape. His success was beyond his expectation; and he regained the open air at a sufficient distance from his late quarters to escape observation. Once able to reflect calmly upon the event of the morning, it required little discrimination to fix upon Robert his real share in it. And now there was no time to lose in returning to Melbourne, and prevent by a speedy marriage any further attempt to set his intended father-in-law against him. The roads were dry, for it was the sultry month of February; and two days saw him beside his lady-love.

Although railroads are as yet unknown in Australia, everything goes on at railroad speed; and a marriage concocted one day is frequently solemnized the next. His eagerness, therefore, was no way remarkable. No time was lost; and when, three days after Mike's return, Robert (with his head full of plots and machinations) presented himself at old Hinton's door, he found them all at a wellspread wedding breakfast, round which were gathered a merry party, listening with a digger's interest to the way in which the happy bridegroom had evaded the inspector. Mike had wisely kept the story till Susan was his wife. (source)



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