EJANZH: Davies on the Queensland Gold Field Commissioners of the 1870s

Glenn A. Davies

The post of Gold Commissioner was never a sinecure on the Queensland tropical frontier. The population of the Charters Towers gold fields in the early 1870s included many miners who had followed the gold rushes northward from the beginning of Australia’s gold era in Victoria, through fields where there was a strong tradition of overt opposition to unpopular Gold Commissioners. There exists one tantalising reference to the action of a group of New Zealand rowdies on a central Queensland gold field, who a ttempted to drown Gold Commissioner John Bligh O’Connell, in whom the ancestral ability to foment violent opposition appears to have survived, for he was a descendant of William ‘Bounty’ Bligh. Indeed, the action may have been a further manifestation of the Bligh personality. Throughout the voluminous squatter memoirs there is a sense of a vague discontent that nature had furnished the lower orders in Australia with an alternate path to wealth and an alternate livelihood. One writer went so far as to allege in 1876 that the first Queensland Minister for Mines, W.M. Walsh:

the bucolic champion … a grass man pure and simple [considered the miners to be] … Wandering Vagabonds ruining the squatters runs by sinking useless holes for their cattle and sheep to fall in.(1)

This may have been a caricature, but like all such it was an exaggeration of existing characteristics. Atkinson discusses the formula used by Gold Commissioners to exercise authority on the goldfields. The Gold Commissioners understood that in the new e galitarian atmosphere the diggers had created, they needed to embrace the egalitarian habits of the diggers and yet, at the same time, set themselves apart, as a ruler of common people. In such an egalitarian society, authority belonged only to those who moved with an outward show of honour and dignity. (2) Although the first Gold Commissioner in the Australia colonies, John Richard Hardy, may have possessed such authority, on the Charters Towers gold fields, Gold Commis sioner W.S.E.M. Charters was a reflection of the failing of the English aristocratic ideal. The personalities of the various Gold Commissioners undoubtedly contributed to their problems, but the main cause was the inchoate and often contradictory regulations under which they administered their gold fields. The conflict between the official powers of colonial Gold Commissioners and the limitations their environment placed on the exercise of such power provides a window into the nature of nineteenth centu ry colonial bureaucracy.

For Hirst, the gold fields were responsible for the birth of democracy: a democracy not so much of government as of manners. As Hirst has observed, “there was one major social inequality at the diggings – that between the commissioner and everyone else.” (3) When discussing the early Gold Commissioners, Hirst states that

All official power on the gold fields came to rest in the commissioner’s hands … the power to punish minor crime, settle small debt cases, and commit serious offenders to the higher court. (4)

Hirst’s hero was John Richard Hardy, the first Gold fields Commissioner, who wholly embraced the egalitarian habits of the diggers and at the same time set himself apart as a ruler of the people. On the gold fields Hardy was “the Crown writ small”.(5) This was a position for which he was an ideal choice. (6) Hirst describes Hardy as

patient, good-humoured, firm but not overbearing or haughty in manner, and he dealt decisively with troublemakers … Dispute settling quickly became one of Hardy’s chief duties. (7)

The 1852 Gold Fields Act in Victoria instituted the office of Gold Commissioner with the power to settle disputes on the gold fields. (8) Hardy was eager to serve those he ruled, took great pains to know their business and was impartial in their judgements. These virtues were much appreciated on the diggings. As first Gold Commissioner, Hardy was a hard act to follow. Order could only be maintained on the early New South Wales diggings, “so far from the seat of law, and apparently beyond its reach”,(9) through the inherent desire on the part of the miners for upholding the law. However, problems arose when miners considered they were being administered unfairly or incompetently. Quaife quoted a common complaint of miners:

The complaint has been that many incompetent parties, under the name of Commissioners, have been sent to settle their disputes, men of little experience in mining operations and who have used their powers rather harshly, and often partially, in not listening fully and fairly to the complaints of both parties. (10)

Along with incompetence, the recurrent complaint of miners on the gold fields was the corruption of officials. Nicholson demonstrated that much of the criticism directed at public officials in Australia, Canada, and the United States “was concerned with the partial application of their authority.” (11) They were accused of corruption because they were perceived to treat some people differently from others. Hardy was seen by these early diggers as a ‘first among equals’. Unfortunately, the Roman dictum was not to be extended to many of the Gold Commissioners that followed.

The Gold Fields Regulations had been criticised since the first discovery of gold by miners throughout Queensland yet seemed to be the victim of governmental indifference. In 1863, in an effort to create order on the gold fields, Macalister tabled in the Legislative Assembly “Regulations for the Management of the Gold Fields.” (12) Vaguely drafted, and gaining their authority from Act of Parliament 20 Victoria, No.29, these regulations were changed in 1867, then revised in the First Session of the 1870 Legislative Assembly, and by the Third Session, the Minister for Mines, W.H. Walsh had introduced “A Bill for the Better Regulations of the Gold Fields.” (13) Finally, Pring’s Royal Commission in 1871 had, with the peculiar circularity of Royal Commissions down the years, established what it had been appointed in theory to rectify, that the miners were discontent with the existing Gold Field Regulations. (14) During the 1860s, there had been four attempts to pass a comprehensive Gold Field Act. All had foundered in Parliament.

The first attempt occurred on 6 February 1867, when Lilley moved to introduce in the Queensland Legislative Assembly “A Bill to Amend the laws relating to Gold Fields.” (15) The second occurred on 30 March 1869, when Macalister moved to introduce “A Bill to Regulate the Gold Fields of Queensland”.(16) The third attempt occurred on 4 June 1869, when Macalister moved “That this House will, at its next sitting, resolve into a Committee of the Whole for the consideration of the desirableness of introducing “A Bill to Regulate the Gold Fields of Queensland.” (17) Four days later this was agreed in whole. It was then read and debated and sent to the Legislative Council on 13 July 1869. (18) The Legislative Council agreed to the Bill with amendments, however, the Legislative Assembly disagreed to some of the amendments when it was returned. On 1 Sept 1869 the Bill was sent back to the Legislative Council but never succeeded. (19) In the 1871-72 Parliamentary session W.H. Walsh introduced the fourth attempt at a Gold Fields Bill, but it never passed the first reading. Like its predecessors, it foundered from governmental indifference.

By 1872, the administration of Queensland’s gold fields was in chaos. The unfortunate Gold Commissioners were compelled to suffer obloquy for their interpretations of a remarkably vague set of regulations.

There is ample evidence that W.S.E.M. Charters, irrespective of the difficulties inherent in the position, was not personally suited for the post of Gold Commissioner. Executive power on gold fields was concentrated in the office of Gold Commissioner in the days when the only qualification needed to gain an appointment to the colonial service was to be a gentleman in the embryonic Queensland establishment. Born in Belfast in 1830, (20) Charters was an imposing figure at 6ft 4 inches and 18 stone. An imposing man he held an even more imposing name: William Skelton Ewbank Melbourne Charters. After a successful period mining in Victoria, Charters was appointed Inspector in Charge of Police in the Maranoa district in 1861. (21) He had been the first Gold Commissioner for the North Kennedy, and was appointed to the Cape River rush in 1867. Charters was one of the longest-serving of the colony’s civil servants, and it appears that he took his rank seriously.

By the time the new Charters Towers gold field was discovered in late December 1871, Charters was administering not only the Cape River gold field, but also the Broughton gold field. The Broughton, where a minor rush had broken out in late 1871, was about twelve miles south east of the soon to be discovered Charters Towers gold field. In late November 1871, Gold Commissioner Hackett had travelled the forty miles from Ravenswood to lay off the new Broughton township and its gold claims. The authorities decided that as Charters’ former empire on the Cape River had dwindled due to the departure of most of the fossickers for the Ravenswood or the Gilbert gold fields, and since the administration of the Ravenswood gold field was both turbulent and extensive, they would hive off the Broughton field and appoint as Gold Commissioner the underemployed Charters.

Charters rode down to Ravenswood for Christmas in 1871. During the journey, on 9 December 1871, he inspected the two alluvial rushes at the Pyramids and the Seventy Mile, and announced that in future his headquarters would be at Broughton township. (22) Charters’ appointment to the Cape River gold field had not been a spectacularly successful one. As a grace note to his three years at Cape River, there were three murders on the field within a week of his departure. (23) His term had been marred by idiosyncratic interpretations of the Gold Fields Regulations, and opposition from the mining community. (24) He was soon in trouble on Charters Towers for the same reasons. (25)

At the beginning of a year that would prove to be continually in crisis for him, Charters had some reason to feel dissatisfied. He had a decade of service on fever ridden frontiers behind him, and while Gold Commissioner Hackett, many years his junior in service, had the comparative flesh pots of Ravenswood as a capital, his new headquarters at the Broughton township was another raw, gold rush village. (26) On the other hand, the Department of Public Works estimates for 1872 show Charters was to be paid £400 for salaries and contingencies, £50 for forage, and supplied with two troopers for £274. He was certainly not underpaid. (27)

The gold field of Charters Towers was discovered by Hugh Mosman, George Clarke and John Fraser, west of Bowen, north Queensland, in late December 1871. (28) There was a considerable population of miners in the surrounding districts: Ravenswood and Cape River had been discovered years previously, and miners were working the Broughton and Seventy mile fields to the near south when the discovery occurred. These provided a large population of miners for the new field within a short time. On 26 January 1872, Gold Commissioner W.S.E.M. Charters, who was temporarily presiding as Gold Commissioner in Ravenswood, granted a protection area to G.E. Clarke for the Ophir claim. On 6 February, Hugh Mosman made the statutory notification that gold had been discovered on the protection area. (29) After Mosman applied for a protection area for his new find, the task of administration of the new gold field devolved to Gold Commissioner W.S.E.M. Charters.

The post was to begin auspiciously for Charters, with a gift of comparative immortality when the new field was given his name. A few days after Mosman had registered his find, Charters rode across the flooded countryside to the Broughton, and thence to his new gold field. A few days after Mosman registered his claim, Charters returned to his frontier post. This was no doubt a correct administrative response as any government would observe progress before committing resources.

During the first year of settlement of Charters Towers there was much unrest. When the news of the discovery broke there was the inevitable ‘rush’, a ‘rush’ that continued as it became evident that an extremely rich field had been found. By the later part of 1872 the population of Charters Towers had swelled to about 4000, and, rich as the field was, the settlement had problems. The field was isolated, food had to be brought from Townsville, water supplies were uncertain, and there were more than enough prospectors for the number of good claims available. However, there were three specific concerns that consumed the miners on the gold field. First, Charters, the senior Gold Commissioner in the district, had adopted “unusual and arbitrary” interpretations of the regulations, and many of the miners were aggrieved.

By June 1872, Jabez Bradford, in a carefully-worded letter, attacked the competence of Gold Commissioners, speaking of some who had boasted of, and publicly exhibited, “the hand fulls [sic]of nuggets obtained as presents from miners.” (30) Charters was also accused of favouring moneyed interests, and retiring ill whenever a brawl or confrontation occurred. As a result the law of the field soon became ‘the survival of the strong’. Second, the settlers were divided on whether the main town should be located at the Millchester township near the water, or Upper Camp near the mines. Although the gold field has been referred to as Charters Towers, in 1872 that entity was only a convenient geographical description.

The reality was four or five thousand miners scattered over several miles of country, with three villages, Upper Camp, Just-In-Time and Millchester, each of which contained some of the amenities to serve them. It was Upper Camp that eventually became the administrative and governmental centre and was tagged Charters Towers. Third, an influx of miners from the south, encouraged by irresponsible newspaper reports of a new alluvial find, apparently fabricated by local business speculators, had found them ves destitute. (31) The rush resulted in hundreds of unluckily prospectors having to return or seek other gold fields.

What was needed on the gold field was firm and steady guidance from an outside authority: “discontent on Charters Towers continues to increase daily, and Mr. Charters continues unable to perform his duties.” (32) Dissatisfaction with the administration of Charters had unsettled the population. The Gold Commissioner administered the field from an hotel room and was assisted by a very small detachment of police. As a result of these growing concerns, members of the Charters Towers Miners’ Protection Association made representations to the colonial government to investigate a number of Charters’ controversial rulings. (33)

Throughout Charters’ career, he appears to have approached his duties most casually. Complaints were rife concerning his unavailability on account of illness. Charters was either a very ill man or a hypochondriac. Indeed, it was his negligence that cost George Clarke and John Fraser, two of the three discoverers of the Charters Towers gold field, their prospecting claims. (34)

Gold Fields Regulations provided that work should cease when a statutory notification had been made that gold had been found on a protection area, but John Fraser, the third of the discoverers, worked G.E. Clarke’s claim until 11 April 1872. Fraser then applied to Charters to have the claim registered for a week because he was too ill to work the claim. In return, Charters informed Fraser that he was too ill to write a Certificate of Registration, instructing Fraser to write to Mosman to post a notice on the claim that such registration had been applied for. That would be sufficient, he assured Fraser, to hold the ground for one week from 13 April 1872. (35) Mosman appears to have paid a Swede named James Monson to represent the claim for a few days, but when John Fraser returned to the claim on the 20 April 1872, he was ordered off by Richard Long, a Gympie miner who had shepherded the claim from 17-20 April 1872, and them jumped it. That is, Long pegged the claim on behalf of himself and Tom Kelly, another Gympie miner.

The jumping case was heard before Charters and Cuthbert J.P., assisted by two assessors, Michael Boyle and Joseph E. Larkin. The plaintiff and his witnesses were not allowed to state their case, but only to answer such questions as the court put to them.(36) Kelly, missing none of the forensic bricks, skilfully exploited the Gold Fields Regulations. One witness, Hugh Gorrie, was called, it would appear, specifically to discredit Mosman. He swore that he had heard Mosman state at the Commercial Hotel in Broughton, that his claim was jumped by some Gympie man. Gorrie stated that Mosman had said he was just down with the Gold Commissioner but it would be all right. This prompted Charters to lead from the Bench:

I suppose that he was to see me and that no matter how the evidence went I’d decide in his favour. (37)

Charters continued to the defendant:

I suppose that is why you wished so much to have assessors appointed. To which Kelly replied, “I assure you, Mr Charters, it was not; before I heard this at all I intended appointing an assessor. (38)

Kelly made a long impassioned summation, and the assessors found that the area in dispute had not been represented in accordance with the Gold Field Regulations. They awarded the stone raised to Clarke, and the claim to Kelly and Long. Clarke applied to the Supreme Court for a wait of prohibition. The order nisi was applied for on the grounds that the area was worked, registered, and had no proper hearing. There was no order on the first and second grounds. In fact, since Gold Commissioner Charters had been notified of the discovery of gold on the Protection Area, Gold Fields Regulations No. 56 required that there be no further sinking between notification and lay off. (39) Later that year, Superintending Gold Commissioner John Jardine, while investigating Charters’ administration, delivered a stinging rebuke to Charters:

In no case should there be any delay in laying off a reef after the intimation has been given to you that gold has been found. (Sec. 54) Had this been done in Clarke’s case at the Ophir … the reward for the discovery would have found its way into the pockets of the rightful owners. (40)

The Discoverer’s jumping case eventually ended up being tabled in the Legislative Assembly in 1873, along with evidence of allegations of “new rulings and interpretations of the Gold Fields Regulations said to have been introduced by the Gold Commissioner at Charters Towers.” (41) This was the least of Charters’ problems.

In October 1872, Superintending Gold Commissioner John Jardine arrived on the Charters Towers gold field to investigate a number of Charters’ controversial rulings as a result of the representations to the colonial government by the Charters Towers Miners’ Protection Association. The result was Charters’ suspension for “manifest disobedience” of Jardine’s orders, and “general misconduct”. An 1873 Board of Inquiry found that the evidence supplied was insufficient to disprove Jardine’s charge. Charters’penance, rather than dismissal, was a severe reprimand. Immediate transfer to the Etheridge gold field was to be the act of contrition. (42)

On the frontier where leadership and command devolved on the sole Government representative, Charters’ defects were never put to the test. It was Charters’ misfortune that the frontier moved on, and the larger and more cosmopolitan society had grown behind it. It was a combination of personal defects and the inchoate and often contradictory regulations which administered gold fields that blighted Charters’ career on the gold field that bore his name. The failings of Gold Commissioner W.S.E.M. Charters were a reflection of the failing of the transplanted English aristocratic ideal on the late nineteenth century colonial bureaucracy.

Glenn A. Davies lectures in history at the Central Queensland University.


1. Northern Advocate, 18 November 1876.
2. A. Atkinson, “The Australian monarchy: imperfect but important”, Australian Journal of Political Science, Special Issue, Vol.28, 1993, p.75.
3. J.B. Hirst, The strange birth of colonial democracy. New South Wales 1848-1884 (Sydney, 1988), p.204.

4. Ibid., p.201.

5. Atkinson, “The Australian monarchy”, p.75.
6. N. Keesing (ed.)., Gold fever (Sydney, 1967), p.4.
7. Hirst, The strange birth of colonial democracy, p.200.
8. C.W. O’Hare, “A history of mining law in Australia”, The Australian Law Journal, Vol.45, June 1971, p.286.
9. G. Mundy, Order inherent in Englishmen, pp.343-4 quoted in G.R. Quaife (ed.)., Gold and colonial society 1851-1870 (North Melbourne, 1975), pp.62-63.
10. J. Humffray, “Complaints against the police, commissioners and magistrates”, 20 December 1854 quoted in Ibid., p.67.
11. J. Nicholson, “Procedures and perceptions of authority: the gold rush camps of Australia, Canada and the United States”, Public Administration, Vol.32, No.4, December 1973, p.394.
12. Queensland. Votes and Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. Second Session 1863, p.64.
13. Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. Third Session 1870, p.20.
14. See Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. Second Session 1871, pp.569-636.
15. Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. Vol.1. 1867, p.467.
16. Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. First Session 1868-1869, p.91.
17. Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. Session of 1869, p.105.
18. Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. Session of 1869, p.316.
19. Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. Session of 1869, p.471.
20. H.G. Gibbney & A.G. Smith (eds.)., “W.S.E.M. Charters” in A Biographical Register 1788-1939 (Canberra, 1987), p.121.
21. Oath of Allegience, Brisbane, 19 August 1861, A/4832, No.114, Queensland State Archives.
22. Ravenswood Miner, 16 December 1871.
23. Ibid., 23 December 1871 & 20 April 1872.
24. Port Denision Times, 12 September & 28 November 1868; Cleveland Bay Express, 12 September 1868.
25. Ravenswood Miner, 23 March, 30 March, 20 April, 1 June, 8 June, 15 June & 29 June 1872.
26. Ibid., 16 December 1871.
27. Estimates of the Probable Ways and Means of Expenditure of the Government of Queensland for the Year 1872, Queensland. Votes & Proceedings. Legislative Assembly , 1871-1872, p.48.
28. For a more detailed description of the discovery see: Northern Mining Register, Christmas Issue, 1891, p.47; The North Queensland Register’s Mining History of Charters Towers 1872-1897 (Charters Towers, 1897), pp.1-2; J.H. Reid, “The Charters Towers goldfields”, Geological Survey of Queensland, No.256, 1917, pp.23-24; E.J. Brady, The land of the sun (London, 1924), pp.194-198; & Bartle Frere, North Queensland Register, 27 April 1946, p.16.
29. Correspondence: Superintending Gold Commissioner John Jardine to Minister for Public Works, 12 November 1872, 4512/72 in file WOR/A62, 1873/999, Queensland State Archives.
30. Ravenswood Miner, 1 & 15 June 1872.
31. Queenslander, 31 August 1872.
32. Ravenswood Miner, 8 June 1872.
33. Queenslander, 7 December 1872; Correspondence: Kenneth Clarke, Secretary, Charters Towers Miners’ Protection Association to Minister of Works & Mines, 18 September 1872, 3772/72 in file WOR/A62, 1873/999, Queensland State Archives.
34. Ravenswood Miner, 21 September 1872.
35. Correspondence: Superintending Gold Commissioner John Jardine to Minister for Public Works, 12 November 1872, 4512/72 in file WOR/A62, 1873/999, Queensland State Archives.
36. Ibid.
37. Depositions: Clarke & Mosman vs. Kelly & Long, 1872 in Ibid.
38. Ibid.
39. See Amended Gold Fields Regulations, Queensland. Votes and Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. First Session 1870, pp.275-284.
40. Letter: J. Jardine to W.S.E.M. Charters, Gold Commissioners Office, Charters Towers, 7 November 1872, 4518/72, in file WOR/A62, 1873/999, Queensland State Archives.
41. Alleged breaches of the Gold Fields Regulations, Queensland. Votes and Proceedings. Legislative Assembly. 1872 Session, pp.1289-1290.
42. For more information see G.A. Davies, “The Grand Pajandrum: The 1872 suspension of Gold Commissioner William Skelton Ewbank Charters”, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Vol.XV, No.3, June 1993, pp.130-144.