The story of Eureka has been told to death. There is another, and it is far more interesting, replete with cross-dressing, actors and liberation. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Last week in our series about the weird and wonderful in Australian history, we had a look at reinvention. For the final episode we will do that again, but I guarantee you will be on the sideline cheering for the people I will introduce you to. The year is 1854, the place Ballarat, and therefore the setting is the goldfields. Yes, absolutely, we are going to talk about Eureka. But not the Eureka you know, the one that bored you to tears. This is a much more exciting version, with men dressing up in women’s clothes and fake pistols at dawn. This is the Eureka of the women. Not the ones who famously made the flag or waited for their husbands to come home. These women were not passive in any way. They were actors, in more ways than one.
But first, let me set the scene. 1848 had been the year of the People’s Spring in Europe. Throughout the continent, and even beyond, a quest for political reform swept up millions of people. France, Germany, the Italian states, Denmark, Walachia, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Ireland: over 50 countries were in the grip of revolutionary fervour. Unrest had started to grow seriously during the end of the first Industrial Revolution, which had changed the lives of almost everybody. Manufacturing had replaced agriculture as the biggest industry. Science was asking questions religion had no answer for. Colonialism was making empires incredibly rich and destroying whole older civilisations at the same time. Urbanisation transformed the way most people lived, as well as relationships between the sexes and the generations. And from the 1840s onward, electricity, better education and steam engines had their effect as well. The consequence of all of this was that working people and a new middle class started to think about their roles in the world. Assisted by people like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who wrote their Communist Manifesto in 1848, movements for change swept across the globe. Nationalism, Liberalism, Socialism: they were very different, but had one thing in common. Feudalism and the absolute power of monarchs and nobility were out, and more democracy was in. And arrogance and repression, like the British measures that had led to the Great Irish Famine, had to be fought, if necessary with guns in hand.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Daisy Bates: The self-styled Great White Queen of the Desert who enthralled a nation
- When white Australians fought against the Maori for control of their land
- The small town in the middle of the universe: When Skylab crashed into Australia
So the smell of revolution was in the air, and then, in a relatively new corner of the world called Australia, gold was found. This was the cue for many restless souls to make the trip. Amongst them were two women. Sarah Hanmer had been born in County Down, Ireland as Sarah Ann McCullough. In 1844, when she married widowed surgeon Henry Hanmer in London, she was a single mother, with a 4-year old daughter called Julia. Six years later she lived in Albany, New York, where she was working as an actress. We don’t know how she got there or why she went, but we do know that in 1853 she was on the Lady Flora, together with her brother William and little Julia. By this time she was 32, although she told the immigration agent she was 26. Her daughter was 12. As historian Clare Wright said: “nobody stopped to do the maths”. During her time in the States, Sarah had travelled to the Californian goldfields, so she knew what she was in for. And she had some American allegiances that would stand her in good stead during the whole sorry affair. There were a lot of Americans in Ballarat. Most of them were politically savvy, and after their own Revolution the idea of “no taxation without representation” was at the forefront of their minds. So when the shit hit the fan, they were there with bells on. Or actually, with their own military-style fighting force, the Californian Rangers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sarah, William and Julia arrived at the goldfields at the end of 1853 and a few months later mother and daughter were working as actresses. First in a theatre owned by somebody else, then Sarah managed to get her own, the Adelphi. The watercolour above shows her in her place of work. From the start it was a big hit. Miners toiled long hours, often in awful conditions, so at the end of the day they were in for some booze and entertainment. Sarah and her troupe supplied that. But she didn’t stop there. When things started to heat up in 1854, she started organising benefits for the miners. It was at the Adelphi that the leaders of the miners first held rousing speeches, proclaiming that they were “worse off than either Russian serf or American slave”, and that something needed to be done. Sarah gave them a platform, and she made sure that the benefits contributed to the war chest. At the same time, a few muddy streets along, Clara du Val was also gearing up for action. Like Sarah, Clara was a migrant, a single mother (of three, this time) and an actress. But in 1854 she was also the de-facto wife of Henry Seekamp, the publisher of the Ballarat Times, the fiery voice of the revolution. While Sarah gave the people a place to speak, Henry and Clara published their words, so everybody could hear them and be inspired.
Also on The Big Smoke
The Americans, in the mean time, were in two minds. On the one hand they didn’t want to be at the forefront of what was clearly going to happen. They considered themselves foreigners, guests in somebody else’s country, and thought they had no right to be at the vanguard of an open rebellion against the government. On the other hand, they had the experience. They had done this revolution-thing before, and thought they could be helpful. So when the Stockade was attacked that fateful morning of December 3rd, 1854, they were inside. And because most of them had military experience from fighting in the Mexican-American war, they were more able than most to hold their own against the government forces. Nevertheless, they too were overrun, so when it came time to get the hell out and make sure they didn’t get killed, they needed help like anybody else. That is where Sarah came in. Again. She had already helped them out by supplying them with weapons, partly real, partly props from her theatrical dress-up box. Now she dug a little deeper and hid in the bushes to assist at least one American, her good friend and leader of the Californian Rangers, James McGill, into a dress, shawl and bonnet. This is how he escaped, with a £500 reward on his head for sedition, but safe for the moment.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Nudity, riots and rebellion: The “harpies” of the first female penal colonies
- Herbert Vere Evatt: The Australian who led the UN general assembly
With the leaders on the run, Henry Seekamp got arrested, also on charges of sedition. Clara didn’t miss a beat. A few days later, the Ballarat Times, “printed and published by Mrs Seekamp, Ballarat”, called out the governor’s “illegal and even murderous excesses committed by your soldiery and butchers.” She asked him “why did you disregard our…prayers and our cries for justice…until the people, sickened by hope, deferred and, maddened by continued and increased acts of oppression, were driven to take up arms in self-defence?” It was shocking language, especially for a woman, and Clara’s competitor, the editor of the Geelong Advertiser, wrote that her words were “a manifesto…startling in its tone.” He hoped that Henry would be released soon, to save everybody from “a free press petticoat government.”
We know how Eureka ended. The leaders were found, put on trial, but acquitted. Some of them then went back home, others became politicians or businessmen themselves. A few years later, Peter Lalor, by then the co-owner of a mine, tried to break the industrial action of his employees by recruiting scab labour. The road from leader of the revolution to repressive capitalist had apparently not taken too much trouble. But for the moment, in 1855, the revolution was new and held a lot of hope. At the heart of it had been courageous women, not scared to take the lead. In America, one of its greatest writers took notice. Mark Twain wrote about Eureka that “it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution – small in size, but great politically. It was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.” Partly, that was because of Sarah Hanmer and Clara du Val. The forgotten rebels of Eureka.
For this story I have used the best source on women at Eureka: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka; Clare Wright, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2013