Australian history Opinion

Ringleaders, riots and ruin: The story of Charters Towers

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Ravenswood goldmine (Image by Rob and Stephanie Levy via Wikimedia Commons)

The year 2022 marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of North Queensland goldfield Charters Towers and the rise and riotous fall of the gold commissioner who inspired its name, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

THE GOLDFIELD of Charters Towers was discovered on a sweltering Christmas eve 1871 by Hugh Mosman, George Clarke, John Fraser and their horse boy Jupiter Mosman.

The group of prospectors rode through a gap in the hills and found by chance gold in a creek at the base of the future Towers Hill. By the end of that day, they knew they had found their goldfield — and it was a major one. They stood, in fact, on the fourth largest goldfield in the continent.

It took Mosman over three weeks struggling to get back to Ravenswood due to a heavy wet season that included traversing a flooded Burdekin River to register their discovery and receive a reward claim which carried a 1,000-pound bonus for the discovery of a payable goldfield.

Finally, on 26 January 1872, Mosman received the first protection ticket for a prospecting area from the acting gold commissioner at Ravenswood, William Skelton Ewbank Melbourne Charters. This triggered an immediate gold rush.

W S E M Charters (Image supplied)

In the first year of discovery in 1872, the goldfield of Charters Towers was only a convenient geographical description. The reality was 4,000 to 5,000 miners drawn from the surrounding goldfields – the Broughton and Seventy Mile fields to the near south and Ravenswood to the east – scattered across several kilometres of country. They covered three villages: Millchester ("Lower Camp") and Charters Towers ("Upper Camp"), with the settlement of Just In Time mid-way between the two. Each of these camps contained some of the amenities to serve them.

These three camps were collectively known as Charters Towers in the first year of the goldfield discovery. However, it was Upper Camp, based around Mosman Street, that eventually became the administrative and governmental centre and retained the name Charters Towers.

 Early map of Charters Towers (Image supplied)

The original gold discovery by Mosman, Fraser and Clarke took place at The Gap in the southwestern part of the map.

The newcomers found gold in abundance. Many of the reefs outcropped for considerable distances and gold showed freely. The earliest crushing figures list many yields of up to eight ounces per ton.

Among them are alluvial loads of 30 or 40 tons that yielded their lucky owners 70 or 80 ounces of gold. The first batteries had begun operation by the middle of 1872 and the first gold escort to Townsville left in August. Recorded production for the first year was over 30,000 ounces.

Early August 1872 saw good alluvial discovered about a mile east of Millchester (Lower Camp). For those miners who were not fortunate enough to own one of the 500-odd reefing claims on the Towers – and there was still a large number of alluvial miners at the lead – the lure was irresistible. In July 1872, the Ravenswood Miner announced the new find, Deep Lead, echoing a similarly named lead from the Cape River field that had been very rich.

By mid-August, there were 500 miners at the lead — the discovery was generating considerable excitement. News of the Deep Lead rush reached the southern colonies late in August 1872 and brought on an alluvial rush on Charters Towers from miners from the south.

Most major Australian goldfields started as alluvial rushes, but Charters Towers was almost exclusively a reefing field. On 24 August 1872, The Queenslander reported an influx of miners from the south, encouraged by irresponsible newspaper reports of a new alluvial find, who had found themselves destitute. As a result, by October, the new field was seething with unrest.

 Charters Towers goldmine circa 1872 (Source: State Library of Queensland)

The largest permanent body of water on the Charters Towers goldfield was down at Millchester on Gladstone Creek. The availability of water was the reason it was selected as the site for the first crushing mills.

The first permanent building to go up was a butcher’s shop at Millchester belonging to Adolphus Trevethan. It was then that some of the stores and public houses shifted to Millchester from Upper Camp. The senior settlement did not take this defection lightly, starting a feud that simmered and occasionally flared for many years.

On Monday 28 October 1872, the miners were allowed to wreak mischief. That morning Trevethan, of the butchers' firm of J D Symes and A Trevethan, raised the price of meat from 4d to 6d (a shilling) per pound. The miners responded on the hot, dry Monday evening by calling a "roll-up". When a bullock bell was rung, the miners – many unemployed, angry and confused – readily obeyed the summons.

The roll-up warned Trevethan that if the price was not at once lowered his shop would most certainly come down the following evening. Trevethan, perhaps relying on his friendship with Charters for protection, refused to back down.

Trevethan appears to have been an obstinate man and on Tuesday evening a crowd of 600-700 gathered before his weatherboard and corrugated iron butchers’ shop. A rope was found, placed around the building and the ends carried across the road. A few hearty pulls and the building crashed to the ground.

The next morning, three men identified as ring leaders were arrested: James Scullen, George Steel and James Foreman. The three prisoners were conveyed to the lockup at the police camp, over near Upper Camp. Throughout Wednesday, rumours began circulating around an increasingly uneasy goldfield that the Millchester push would rescue the prisoners that evening.

A crowd collected and walked the few miles from Millchester to Upper Camp, past the police camp to the Golden Cannon Hotel in Mosman Street where Assistant Gold Commissioner John G MacDonald had his rooms.

The noisy crowd called out to MacDonald, demanding that the accused be released on bail. After a tense stand-off, the assistant commissioner allowed bail to the rioters. Before the jubilant crowd dispersed, they arranged a roll-up for 10 am on 1 November 1872 when the prisoners had to surrender their bail.

On that Friday, miners gathered before the court opened. From 9 am, small groups arrived. By 10 am, when the court was due to open, a large crowd filled Mosman street.

Superintendent Gold Commissioner John Jardine (who had been assessing the competence of Charters) along with Gold Commissioner Charters, had arrived back from their tour of the Broughton and Cape River fields that morning. For Charters, the rigorous ride had proven to be too punishing and he was taken ill. Although his illness appears genuine, it did not save him from Jardine's scorn.

In his official report, Jardine stated, contrary to contemporary newspaper reports, that the riots occurred in daylight: 

'Mr Commissioner Charters was taken unwell the day the riots commenced and removed to his residence at Broughton, and did not return until the Monday following, when everything was quiet.'

Jardine openly accused Charters of not being present during the unusual unrest and of leaving the field at the first hint of disturbance.

Forman, Steel and Scullin surrendered their bail. The court hearing began in an ill-ventilated room, in a shanty, to the roar of 1,500 men whose only known riotous activity was demolishing buildings.

Throughout the trial, there was a continuous and unnerving reminder of the Court’s precarious control of authority via the roar of the men outside who sometimes drowned out Jardine's voice.

At about 11 am, Trevethan had ridden down Mosman Street through the crowd. Opposite the North Star Hotel, the crowd began to hoot and groan at him. He rode defiantly on, dismounted and attempted to tie his horse to a veranda post. The crowd closed in and began to jostle him. Trevethan pulled out a pistol. A bottle flew past him and he fired point-blank into the crowd. The shot took a miner, Joseph King, in the neck.

The crowd then demanded to hang Trevethan.

The miners were only quelled when Bishop James Quinn, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Brisbane, who was visiting the goldfield at the time, promised Trevethan would be kept in the lock-up and tried properly. Later that night the local police released him on the understanding he would ride immediately to Ravenswood and further south.

He never returned — and when the rioters came to trial in Townsville, the Ravenswood Miner reported on 5 April 1873 that they'd been found not guilty.

Superintendent Gold Commissioner John Jardine later remarked with vitriol on Charters’ convenient removal to the Broughton:

'… more will have to be apprehended to show the colonial secretary that something had been done in the matter; a d-n nice thing you having the guts-ache; you that knew every person could have sworn to the lot of them.'

On 7 November 1872, Jardine wrote to Charters detailing the recommendations of his investigation of the goldfield. The majority of the letter had Jardine emphasising the necessity of a commissioner being acquainted with the duties of their position and the need to act in a uniform way.

Jardine's final recommendation was to be the sting in the tail of the letter:

I have recommended to the minister for public works that you should continue in charge of the Broughton and Cape River districts as heretofore and that Mr McDonald should remain at Charters Towers – the Broughton River being the boundary – and I have to request that this division of duties may be observed until the approval or disapproval by the minister of works is received.

Jardine appointed Assistant Gold Commissioner John MacDonald to discharge the duties of his role at Charters Towers, believing him to be "fully competent”. In so doing Jardine effectively exiled Charters to the southern side of the Broughton.

It was at the feet of Charters that Jardine laid the full responsibility for the continued disturbance on the goldfield.

In a letter dated 13 December 1872, the under-secretary for works viewed Charters’ refusal to obey Jardine's instructions as:

'... a manifest disobedience of the orders issued to yourself and other commissioners from this office, and that your conduct generally, as detailed by Mr Jardine, indicates that you are not worthy of the duties entrusted to you.'

He then proceeded to inform Charters that under these circumstances he was suspended from official employment pending a board of inquiry into misconduct and was required to show cause why he should not be dismissed from public service.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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