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Book Review: Adjudication on the Gold Fields In New South Wales and Victoria in the 19th Century Print E-mail

(Hard Cover edition 260 pages)

Author: John P Hamilton

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Publisher: The Federation Press 

Reviewer: Brian Morgan

Do you remember that excellent Australian TV series in 1974 called Rush? (This is not to be confused with the later series by the same name). It encapsulated the Gold Rush period of Victoria and New South Wales in the 1850’s and John Waters, the lead character, could well have been the reincarnation of several of the characters discussed in this book. The first series of Rush was based in Victoria and the second, in New South Wales.

I, for one, had never consciously wondered how justice was dispensed on the gold fields. I knew that there were Commissioners, later known as Mining Wardens, who sat to decide disputes but I did not know that, particularly in New South Wales, these people were quite hands on. They did not sit in a court as such but resolved the early cases by actually visiting the gold field. One of them is said to have worked himself to death!

Although there must have been quite a movement of miners between NSW and Victoria, the method of resolving disputes, as between the two states, was quite different, Victoria opting for a more structured and judicial system than the hands on approach in NSW.

I have appeared in Tasmania in Mining Courts, in country towns, where the Court, presided over by a Warden (Magistrate) sat of an evening so that the miners did not miss a day’s work. I remember this well because the favourite spot to stand, to cross examine, was adjacent to a large log fire which was needed to keep out the freezing air from the snow falling outside.

As I read this book, it was easy to put myself back into the 19th Century. Some familiar names such as Rolf Boldrewood, the pseudonym of TA Browne, jumped out at me. He wrote the well known novel of Robbery under Arms, plus several other books including The Miner’s Right, both of which had a goldfields background.

He was appointed as Gold Commissioner at Gulgong (NSW) following the death of his predecessor who, as I said above, appears to have worked himself to death. The appointment included roles as Gold Commissioner, Police Magistrate, Clerk of Petty Sessions and Mining Registrar.

The one thing that comes through strongly to me, from this book, is the way the miners accepted the umpire’s decision. In the early days in NSW, where decisions were made on the ground, it must have been quite intimidating for the Commissioner to move among the miners, hear evidence and give a decision. But it is very clear that the winners and losers accepted the decision and moved on.

There might be a lesson here for today’s litigation focussed society.

This also reminded me that, as a young barrister, the first time I went to King Island in Bass Strait, I noticed a line of people outside the Motel as I was eating my meal. It appeared that there was some entertainment on, that night. There was, me. There had developed a habit, as they were so isolated, of people with boundary fence disputes and the like, taking advantage of a barrister when he stayed the night. Both parties would present their arguments and ask us to adjudicate. Payment was in kind. One did not have the luxury of reserving one’s decision.

I later returned to that Island, many times in a variety of roles, but I have never forgotten that first experience.

This book moves me to ask why there is not more emphasis on Australia’s history for there are some fascinating experiences from which to learn by reading books such as this.

Adjudication on the Gold Fields is easy to read, is replete with Appendices, including a register of complaints from various Mining Courts and some transcripts of various of the cases, where the evidence or the nature of the claims was actually recorded in writing.

This is a thoroughly interesting book.



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