Remembering the Past Australia

The Riots at Lambing Flat 1861

As published in the Truth (Sydney), 18 November 1951.


Originally published in the Truth (Sydney) 18 November 1951 by Frank Driscoll : —

Back in 1826, following hard on the heels of the explorers, James White, a free immigrant butcher of Sydney Town, with his family and his convict servants, drove his little flock of sheep and his small heard of cattle into the vast outback, there to squat and make his fortune.

Away to the south-west, between the waters of the Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee, the fertile alluvial flats along the Burrangong creek won his heart. For a handful of trinkets and a few blankets he “bought” the land from the blacks, built his sturdy slab homestead, and settled down to the pioneering life he loved.

Burrangong was a Treasure Valley of sweet grasses and sparkling waters, an ideal station holding. In the years that followed, the pick of the lot, a delight fully-grassed flat near the homestead, a hand-picked nursery for the young of the flock, became known far and wide as Lambing Flat. Born in peace and tranquillity, Lambing Flat, years later, by chance became a fabulously rich goldfield and the battle-ground of a bitter race war, when the white diggers rose in their wrath and drove the Chinese from the diggings. These Lambing Flat Riots set the whole countryside ablaze.

It was during the Christmas season of 1859 that the Whites of Lambing Flat first heard the rumblings of the approaching avalanche. Away to the south, fossickers at Kiandra had discovered a rich goldfield in a secluded valley of the Snowy River. 

Within a month thousands of diggers were on the field and thousands more on the way.

EVERYONE went to the diggings at Kiandra, and White’s stockmen were among them. Presently White’s stock began to go, too, duffed and stolen, to provide food for the diggers.

Old Man White decided to put up stockyards on Lambing Flat, but with the very first, post hole, fencer Denis Regan shovelled up nuggets of gold. The family had been fattening lambs on a great goldfield. He broke the glad news, and feverishly all hands and the cook began to shovel up the golden soil, stacking away fortunes before news of the find leaked out.

But those old diggers could smell gold miles away when it had been uncovered and by Christmas, 1860, some 25,000 gold-crazy diggers were working on Lambing Flat. Not a shrub, not a blade of grass remained. It was as if a magician had waved his magic wand for skirting the area, blanketing the very homestead itself, a canvas town popped up like a paddock of mushrooms and just as quickly.

There were butchers’ shops, stores, and banks, shanties, grog houses, dance halls and gambling hells. There were fights and brawls and robberies, and CHINESE.

The Chinese, like the old diggers, could smell the gold all the way to Shanghai. Every boat that reached Sydney or Melbourne carried an army of them especially recruited for the goldfields by the bosses. They took to the roads and jog-trotted mile after mile to the diggings with their bundles on their backs and their long pigtails swinging; against their rumps.

FOR a time they were content to rake over the mullock heaps left by the diggers and made good money. But soon they pegged out claims and working in organised gangs did so well that they became a menace to the Europeans. They were shunned, insulted, and maltreated, but they stuck out.

The diggers on the Victorian fields had made things so hot for the Chinese there that the Orientals trekked in their thousands to the new Eldorados in New South Wales.

They flooded Lambing Flat and set up their own canvas Chinatown complete with stores, fan tan schools, and Joss houses at Victoria Hill, Petticoat Flat, Tipperary Gully, Stony Creek, Back Creek, and Chance Gully.

The diggers hated them. Not over-clean themselves, they sickened at the filthy habits of the “heathen.” They charged them with polluting the drinking water, stealing wash dirt and anything else they could get their hands on, but most of all they hated the Orientals because they seemed to be so successful in their work.

By Christmas, 1860, indignation bubbled over. Diggers took the law into their own hands and went on the rampage, tearing down and firing the haunts of the crooks and the painted ladies, and the crooked gambling hells. Then they turned on the Chinese of Chinatown, and drove them from their quarters, burning and plundering, killing, and wounding.

THAT was the start. A monster meeting was called at Golden Point one Sunday in January 1861. The Gold Commissioner-magistrates and the police had no chance of stopping the mob, but, before the meeting began. Commissioner Griffin mounted a soap-box among the crowd and read the Riot Act amid the greatest disorder.

The leaders of the diggers decided to wait till the afternoon when the crowds from Stony Creek and Spring Gully would arrive. Then the leaders, Allen, Spicer, Cameron, Stewart and Torpy, urged their mates with fiery speeches to drive the “heathen scum” from the fields. The mob yelled themselves into a frenzy. 

Soon they got out of hand and began a headlong charge on the Chinese quarters, grasping in-flight anything that would break ahead.

Some call this the first fight for White Australia. White Australia policy was far more important than this riot. This was simply a fight for the elusive gold.

The Chinese who had kept under cover heard and saw the rag-tag army bearing down upon them. Grabbing hastily compiled bundles, they ran into the scrub.

Lambing Flat

The younger diggers ran after them, flogging the runaways with waddies and even slashing off the swinging pigtails and using them as whips. Others ransacked the vacated tents and humpies, tore them down, and applied the fire-stick. It was a bloody victory against non-fighters.

THE diggers then ordered all storekeepers on the fields to stop serving goods to the Chinese. Anyone offending would be driven from the fields and his goods taken.

It looked like a victory for the diggers, but when the smoke of the battle had died away the Chinese began to sneak back to new quarters in ones and twos, and then in the 10’s and 100s until Chinatown sprang up again with renewed vigour.

Then the fight was on again.

Police reinforcements and troops were summoned, and order was restored for a time.

Then in May, ’61, the diggers made a lightning raid on Chinatown of Victoria Hill, and the mad chase through the scrub was on again.

This time the whole of Chinatown was given up to the flames and thousands of pounds worth of property destroyed.

Warrants were at once issued for the arrest of the leaders, Spicer, Cameron, and Stewart, who immediately followed the Chinese example and took to the bush.

From their hiding places, they directed the operations of the diggers and planned for a monster meeting on July 14 at Blackguards’ Gully. Forty police, bristling with arms, were at the meeting place. 

When the three red-shirted leaders stepped up to the platform they were arrested. The roaring mob of some 4000 demanded their release and made terrible threats.

With the excitement at its peak. Commissioner Griffin mounted a soapbox among the mob and read the Riot Act again, but the diggers refused to disperse. Instead, some hothead in the crowd fired a shot. The mob moved forward to release their leaders, and the police were ordered to fire a warning volley over their heads.

Soon an all-in melee began. The police had to fight their way out of the mob.

In the mad donnybrook, amid screams of anger and pain, the mob broke and scattered, yelling and cursing, down the banks of the Burrangong creek. 

Four troopers were wounded, one digger was killed and dozens injured. By nightfall, tension was at fever pitch.

The diggers, sullen, and still looking for a fight, crowded round the court-house and gaol in their thousands, demanding the release of their leaders. The police could not take their prisoners away through such a crowd and they couldn’t hold them there. To add to their troubles the bank managers had all raced to the court-house with their golden treasure as soon as the fight began.

FINALLY the prisoners were released and while they were being mobbed and congratulated as heroes by their mates, the police and the bankies made their escape through the bush and began a wild 65 miles ride to Yass and Burrowa.

The miners now had an open field with no police to harass them. Again they looted and fired the Chinese quarters.

The troops were overtaken and sent back to the fields. They marched out to Tipperary Creek and arrested six men named as instigators of the riot. Rewards of £100 each were then offered for the capture of Spicer, Cameron and Stewart.

THE six men were tried and acquitted amid scenes of the wildest enthusiasm, for there was little evidence against them. In any case, they were no more guilty than most of their mates. Seeing how things were going, Stewart and Cameron gave themselves up to the police, through friends, who collected the £200 reward and used part of it to brief counsel for their defence.

Spicer refused to give himself up, but after many weary weeks of hiding and nearly starving, he was captured and sentenced to three years hard labour. After serving six months he was released.

So that the riots would not be perpetuated, the name ‘Lambing Flat’ was, by solemn proclamation, expunged from the records and the place was renamed Young, after Sir John Young, the Governor of New South Wales. But while people talk of gold and goldfields, Lambing Flat will always be remembered.

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