View: Law and order on the Goldfields

The next Post Office Gallery exhibition Crime and punishment: a history of Bendigo’s law and order opens tomorrow. 

WB McInnes 1889-1939, Sir John Quick c1933–34, oil on canvas. Collection Bendigo Art Gallery 1934.1.

WB McInnes 1889-1939, Sir John Quick c1933–34, oil on canvas. Collection Bendigo Art Gallery 1934.1.

Running until November 30, the latest exhibition displays objects ranging from historical photographs to troopers’ boots from the 1880s to a full set of opium tools!

Since European settlement, the term ‘‘law and order’’ has been recognised as a way of life – and ideally, society would be ordered and lawful. 

However, in reality, our everyday existence is regularly infiltrated by crime and undesirable actions. The Victorian gold rush of the 1850s was certainly no exception. 

In its early years, Sandhurst, now Bendigo, was a relatively unlegislated society. The small, undeveloped community rapidly expanded with a flood of hopeful diggers seeking to make their fortunes. The huge influx of settlers from diverse backgrounds led to heightened anxieties and a dramatic increase in crime. 

Diggers were required to purchase a license to enter the goldfields. 

At 30 shillings each (which would have been equivalent to two to three weeks’ wages for the average male), the license proved both infuriating and problematic for every digger. 

Diggers were forced to pay this fee whether they were successful or not. The Red Ribbon Rebellion was in direct response to a colonial government creating a revenue-generating system by forcing each digger to buy a license. 

This revenue was then used to police the goldfields, purportedly to reinforce law and order; however, the majority of their time was spent controlling opium smoking and sly-grogging. 

In response to the self-governing spirit of the goldfields, there was a strong desire for responsible government and legal reform. With urgency, a group of distinguished Bendigo men with great legal minds implemented a range of measures to create order in the region. 

Among many others, Lachlan MacLaughlan, Joseph Anderson Panton, Sir John Quick and Barkly Hyett were forerunners in the implementation and organisation of Bendigo’s legal development. 

Bendigo’s recognisable institutions of law and order included the police, the court and what was then the prison. From humble beginnings as a tent, today the Bendigo Law Court stands as one of the most architecturally refined public buildings in Bendigo. 

The gaol developed from an appalling iron box through to ultimately providing the concept for several other major goldfields gaols. The gaol itself was the focal point of some of Bendigo’s most notorious stories.

Drawing on the archives of various local individual collectors and groups, Crime and punishment: a history of Bendigo’s law and order briefly explores the social history surrounding the evolution of the legal districts of the wider Bendigo community.

There is a range of fantastic programs coming up to accompany this interesting exhibition.

Join Fiona Maw, major projects planner at the City of Greater Bendigo for a behind-the-scenes tour of Bendigo 

Or join a member of the Bendigo Law Court to tour behind-the-scenes of one of the most impressive law courts in Australia.

And retired Supreme Court judge Howard Nathan will share his insights about juries and the justice system. 

To book for any of these programs, or for more information, phone 5434 6088.


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