Lynn Beaton 2016

The Events at Clunes

Presented at Australian History Association Conference, Ballarat, 7th July 2016. The paper was incomplete at the time of the author’s death and some points which remained unresolved have been omitted. In particular, the author had not written a conclusion, so a very brief conclusion has been added.


There was mining at Clunes from at least 1859; despite difficulty and unreliability, shafts were being sunk to over sixty feet. Labourer was employed under contracts, but were reported to be earning almost nothing.[1]

In September 1873, a financial crisis known as The Panic of 1873 triggered a depression in Europe and North America that lasted from 1873 till 1879 and had been known as the Great Depression until the Great Depression of the 1930s became more worthy of that name. In September and October bank reserves in New York City fell from US$50 million to $17 million. This followed a rush to gold and a subsequent collapse of the silver price on ‘Black Friday’ 1869. [2]

Railways dominated the news; in the US, finance for railway construction was in part to blame for the speculation that led to Black Friday; in the UK, a stretch of rail known as the North Somerset Railway running 16 mile from Radstock to Bristol was opened, ten years after construction had begun.

In the central Victorian goldfields, however, deep mining was attracting capital and jobs were on offer.

The events at Clunes

Early in September 1873 the alluvial miners at the South Clunes Company went on strike because the owners of the company were insisting that to renew contracts miners were obliged to work a full day on Saturday till 10.00 pm. The contracts of quartz miners had included a half day holiday on Saturday and full day on Sunday as these were the conditions of the eight hours system, which had originally been won by building workers in Melbourne in 1856. The victory of the eight hour day was celebrated in Ballarat in 1856 with a march and grand dinner at which miners were present and represented among the speakers of the evening. [3]

The problem was the ‘alluvial’ ground that was being mined. The men agreed to ‘secure the ground’ before leaving work on the Saturday, but refused to work through their hard won weekend time off. As the men all worked on contract, the loss of the shift was their own, and not the company’s.

A meeting was called for the Saturday 13th September to form a union. The following Saturday, 22nd September the new union held a monster meeting in Apollo Hall. It was Chaired by Mr. Blanchard, who was the President of the new miner’s union and also the Mayor of Clunes. Several hundred miners marched up

‘Fraser and Service Streets to the hall behind the Clunes Brass Band. The Hall was packed with an estimated 500 people and many more clustered outside the Hall. Mr. Louise the Secretary of the union spoke and announced that the union now had over 500 members and that the Lothair miners and the South Clunes miners were now on strike.’

and that:

‘funds had been augmented by contributions from tradespeople of the town and others to over 120. [maybe $5000 today] When a loaf of bread cost 7d and a quart of milk 6d –[4]

The meeting was also attended by Major W. O. Smith MLA – who addressed the meeting in support of the Clunes miners. He said he was here ‘to support the weak against the strong’ and that he believed the ‘claims of the Clunes miners were reasonable and just, and he strongly supported the principle of men not working on the Saturday afternoon, night or Sunday.’ He supported this belief by saying that there were 32 Acts of the English Parliament which ‘accorded to the working classes the right of having one half-holiday a week.’ He repeated that the miners were on contract and the financial loss was theirs and said they would be prepared to work Saturday afternoons and Sundays if it was a matter of safety. He urged the miners to be ‘firm and united in their demands’.

After this meeting Miners Associations were formed at Stawell and Sandhurst and the miners began strike action.[5]

In October, the world economy collapsed. On 25th October a report in Bendigo Advertiser said ‘the men remain firm’ and then went on to report that the Lothair Company had asked for tenders for work to be done on Saturday nights, but received no response. Steps were then taken to ‘procure Chinamen to work the mine and agents have been despatched to Ballarat to make terms if possible with a number of the more experienced Chinese miners of that district.’ An attempt was also made to recruit Chinese miners from Castlemaine.

All of the Lothair mine were on strike by December. According to Clarke, when the director of the Lothair Mine refused to grant the men Saturday holiday:

On 9th December, Chinese miners arrived with police guard to work in the Lothair Mine . On 12th December, the Clunes Miners’ Strike is a headline and the report states that the town is quiet, and that work in the mines and business are being carried on as usual. Police are ‘still quartered in the town’

Prosecution of arrested miners took place on Tuesday 23rd December. When the court opened at 11a.m., miners were assembled outside the court-house. When the doors opened there was a rush and the courthouse filled up quickly. Charges were against Thomas Nelson, William Pearce, Bernard Began and Joseph Tonkin –charged with ‘assaulting various members of the police force in the execution of their duty.’ There was a fifth summons issued at the instance of Mr. Pascoe, the local director, charging Martin Grady with assault. Thomas Nelson was identified by Mounted Constable Durack who swore that the defendant was amongst the crowd and had ‘struck witness, and hit him on the thigh. He had also struck his horse on the nose and tried to get the reins. The defendant was likewise amongst the crowd who were throwing stones at the coaches and police. Defence witnesses were called and gave evidence that ‘Durack had been trying to ride over the defendant after the coaches had turned around, and were going back in the direction of Ballarat.’ The case against Tonkin was withdrawn the others were each fined 5 or ‘in default 14 days imprisonment. ‘The decisions were received in perfect silence.’ [6]

On 16th December a meeting took place in Bendigo. The hall was packed with many more people outside unable to get in. Three resolutions were passed unanimously. The first condemned the use of Chinese labor – (there was no censure of the Chinese as such.) The second condemned the interference of the police authorities, and the third called upon the Government to enquire into the action of the police; all were proposed and carried without dissent. Disorder broke out however when Mr. Gray made ‘some remarks about the Chinese which did not agree with the views of Mr Barker and the other gentlemen.’ Sharp words were exchanged and

‘Mr. Gray at the time, did not agree with the views of Mr. Barker and the other gentlemen, and they signified their dissent by some remarks’ which were inaudible at the other end of the room, but apparently cause annoyance to some of the miners near them. High words ensued, and the meeting became confused and disordered, and some of those present showed strong feeling in the matter. Nearly everyone rose from their seats, some stood on the chairs, some made for the platform, and others rushed for the door. The chairman did his utmost to try and preserve order, but without effect. While this lasted – probably two or three minutes – there was a continual shouting and hooting, ceasing only the struggle that had taken place at the door, during which some chairs were observed making aerial flights towards the entrance. It appears that Mr. Barker was struck a violent blow by some enraged individual and a second one by a chair, inflicting several nasty wounds on the left side of his face and forehead.’ (Bendigo Advertiser)

Meeting was restored to order and proceeded.

This article also reports that a crowded meeting at Stawell passed resolutions supporting the Clunes miners and raised 40 with more promised and another at Sandhurst raised between 20 and 30. [7]

On 17 January the Melbourne Leader, says that the Clunes Strike at the Lothair company has been going on for 4 months. The correspondent complains that the paper has not been publishing the point of view of the miners and their Association and only the viewpoints of the management. He has interviewed leading members of the Association and the men on strike.

On 19th January, a letter appeared in the Argus from Jas Vallins, who wrote to defend the miners against an article that had previously appeared. Vallins claims certain matters of clarity.

  • ‘that the Lothair miners have not attempted to alter or vary the condition under which they were working;’
  • that the conditions worked were laid down at ‘the very commencement of Clunes mining’ and have been adopted by every mine opened at Clunes since. These were ‘considered necessary to the preservation of the miners’ health. One of the rules is that work shall cease at 3 o'clock on Saturday afternoon and commence again 7 on Monday morning.
  • men at Clunes are paid by results, that is, they work under the contract system. Therefore by stopping work the miners lose the value of their labour and the companies lose through the standing still of the machinery.
  • Lothair were working under ‘their established rules’. The decision to try to make the men work longer hours was seen to put at risk the miner’s health and to set a precedent for other companies.
  • ‘The Lothair miners stood on the defensive and the whole of the Clunes miners supported them, because it was a question affecting them all.’

The Lothair directors have ‘attempted to work their mine upon wages’, that is, paying by the hour without contracts, and by using Chinese in order to ‘compel the Clunes miners to accept their terms. [8]

The argument in the Argus article to which Vallins is objecting is that the behaviour of the miners was a disgrace and that the complaint of Chinese being a threat was ingenuous, and used only as an afterthought and excuse for the terrible behaviour.

European labour had been sought, however, but none was available.

On Saturday 24th June 1874, the Melbourne Weekly Times reported under the heading “The Clunes Strike”

There were a few Chinese digging gold in Ballarat as early as 1852, but there was no rising of the ‘yellow agony’ in the district till the year 1873, when a dispute at Clunes led to a disturbance of the peace of 9th December. There had been a strike of miners employed in the Lothair mine, as the directors refused to give a Saturday afternoon holiday shift as was generally the custom ... The directors of the mine, including Mr. Francis (then Premier), and Mr. Lalor, the whilom hero of freedom, &c., at the Eureka Stockade, decided to counter-plot against the strikers by employing Chinese labor, of which Creswick and Ballarat offered an ample supply.” (Withers 1980)

It is of significance that Mr. Blanchard, who was the first President of the Clunes Miner’s Union, went on to become the first Secretary of the Amalgamated Amalgamated Miners Association of Victoria when it was formed in 1874 (Murphy 1888).


What is clear is that the widely accepted characterisation of the events at Clunes in 1873 as a race riot is a misrepresentation. The miners were on strike to defend their hard won conditions against an employer attack. European workers being unwilling to scab, the employer brought in Chinese labour to try to break the strike and the miners defended themselves.


Clarke, Gladys. Irish Fortunes: Clarke and Russell Families in Creswick. Canberra: K.M & G. Clarke, 1994.

“The Clunes Strike.” The Ballarat Courier, Monday 22 Sep. 1873.

“The Clunes Strike.” Geelong Advertiser, Tuesday 16 Dec. 1873.

“The Distrubances at Clunes.” Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 24 Dec. 1873.

Vallins, Jas. “The Clunes Miners.” The Argus, 1874.


1. The Colonial Mining Journal, Railway and Share Gazette and Illustrated Record Melbourne, Vic: 1859-1861 Thu 1 Sept 1859 – p7, Clunes


3. I assume that speakers were those who had won the Eight Hours although not sure.

4. "The Clunes Strike,” The Ballarat Courier, Monday 22nd September 1873.

5. Gladys Clarke, Irish Fortunes: Clarke and Russell Families in Creswick (Canberra: K.M & G. Clarke, 1994).

6. "The Distrubances at Clunes,” Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 24th December 1873.

7. "The Clunes Strike,” Geelong Advertiser, Tuesday 16 December 1873.

8. Jas Vallins, “The Clunes Miners,” The Argus 1874.

9. K.M & G. Clarke, op. cit.