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The Clunes Riot



[An account of the Clunes riot (of miners and townsfolk) against employer attempts to introduce cheap Asian labour (as strike-breakers, or "scabs") into the local mining industry in 1873]




The first important gold discovery in Victoria was made at Clunes, twenty miles north of Ballarat, in July 1851 by James Esmond ('Happy Jim'), an Irish prospector who had recently returned from the Californian fields. The gold-seekers who flocked to Clunes soon found that the bulk of the precious ore was in quartz reefs requiring expensive shaft-sinking and crushing equipment; many went off in search of the easier alluvial gold. Companies were formed to exploit the Clunes reefs, and Cornish tin miners ('Cousin Jacks') were induced to leave their homeland and settle at Chines.

For years harmony existed on the Clunes field, despite the low wages paid to the Cornishmen, and the gradual introduction of economy measures by mine managers as the shafts went deeper. The miners began to grow restive and to complain that safety measures were inadequate and hours of work too long. The discontent came to a head in September 1873 when workers at the Lothair mine went on strike over Saturday shift hours. The management sought cheap Chinese labour in Adelaide, where migrants from China were constantly landing; and news of the arrival of this 'blackleg' work force at Clunes, turned the town into a battlefield. Cornishmen converged on the Lothair mine and wrecked buildings intended to house the Chinese. They set up a barricade of wagons, ploughs and tree-trunks at the junction of the Ballarat and Clunes roads on 8 December 1873, and there waited for the strike-breakers, escorted by Inspector Larner and troopers, to arrive in their convoy of coaches from Ballarat. A shower of stones met the advancing convoy; then, as it halted, men, women and children left their barricade and stormed the coaches, hauling out the frightened Chinese and handling them so roughly that they were glad when orders were given to the coach drivers to take them back to Ballarat.

The riot ended without loss of life; and the Lothair mine resumed production, the management having agreed to the men's demand for a shorter Saturday shift. It was a landmark in the history of labour-capital relationships in Australia; and it was a strong blow against employer attempts to introduce cheap Asiatic labour into the mining industry. Some historians have seen the Clunes riot as a vital contributing factor in the inauguration of the 'White Australia' policy.

A contemporary balladist summed up the events at Clunes in a song, only a fragment of which (collected by Dr Geoffrey Serle from Mr A.E. Kempson of Clunes), now apparently survives:


So you all come down from Clunes,
That town of great renown,
When gold was first discovered
By a shepherd on his round.

* * *

Mother Bailey was in front,
With her apron full of stones,
Determined if she could
To break some of their bones.

The Chows were driven back
All a-quiver and a-quake,
With Larner and his escort
Following in their wake.




This document is an extract from Australian Folklore: A Dictionary of Lore, Legends and Popular Allusions, compiled by W. Fearn-Wannan [Bill Wannan] (first published 1970), pages 131-132

The Association for the Advancement of Australian Culture