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Lalor, Peter (1827–1889)

by Ian Turner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Peter Lalor (1827-1889), Eureka stockade leader and politician, was born on 5 February 1827 in the parish of Raheen, Queen's County, Ireland, son of Patrick Lalor (pronounced Lawler) and his wife Ann, née Dillon. The family was descended from the O'Lalours, one of the Seven Septs of Leix who had fought against the English invasion of Ireland in the sixteenth century. The Lalors had leased the 700 acres (283 ha) of Tenakill since 1767 and remained fairly prosperous until the great famine of 1845. They were supporters of Ireland's freedom from British rule and of the rights of the Irish peasantry. In 1831 Patrick Lalor had led the resistance of the Leix peasants against the forcible collection of tithes for the established church and in 1832-35 represented Queen's County in the House of Commons where he was an ardent advocate for the repeal of the Act of Union. In 1853 he wrote: 'I have been for upwards of forty years struggling without ceasing in the cause of the people'.

The eldest of Patrick's eleven sons, James Fintan, became a leader of the Irish Confederation and the 'Young Ireland' movement of 1848. According to (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy, he was 'the most original and intense … of all the men who have preached revolutionary politics in Ireland'. In the Nation he expounded his belief in 'Ireland her own, from the sod to the sky'. He became co-editor of the Irish Felon in 1848 but was in Newgate prison during the uprising. On his release, he plunged into a new unsuccessful revolutionary conspiracy. He died in December 1849. Fintan had urged his brother Richard in 1848 to form Confederate clubs and engage a blacksmith to make pikes for the peasants. Fintan's letters record only the suggestion that Peter should join the Felon club and that Richard should bring him to Dublin to take part in the rising.

Peter's early years were overshadowed by these dramatic events and by the famine but no evidence shows that he was actively involved. Later he commented that 'from what he had seen of the mode of conducting politics in [Ireland] he had … no inclination to mix himself up with them'. Educated at Carlow College and in Dublin, he became a civil engineer. The years after the famine saw a great emigration from Ireland. Three of the Lalor brothers went to America while Peter and Richard migrated to Victoria attracted by the gold discoveries. They arrived at Melbourne in October 1852 and Peter found work on the construction of the Melbourne-Geelong railway; he and Richard also became partners with another Irishman as wine, spirits and provision merchants in Melbourne. In 1853 Peter left for the Ovens diggings. Early in 1854 he moved to Ballarat. Richard did not accompany him to the diggings and soon returned to Ireland where he became a member of parliament for Leix in 1880-92 and was an ardent Home Ruler and supporter of Parnell. Peter apparently saw himself as much merchant as digger, since he bought from the partnership over £800 worth of tobacco, spirits and other supplies; however, his departure for the goldfields ended his career as a city merchant.

At Ballarat Lalor staked a claim on the Eureka lead, where many Irish diggers were concentrated, although his own 'mate' was Duncan Gillies, a Scot. He was reported to be among the shrinking minority of Ballarat diggers who were having 'fair luck' on their claims; he was involved, although not prominently, in the agitations over the miners' licence and 'digger-hunting'. Later Lalor wrote, perhaps thinking of the wrongs of Ireland, 'the people were dissatisfied with the laws, because they excluded them from the possession of the land, from being represented in the Legislative Council, and imposed on them an odious poll-tax' (licence fee) which an arbitrary officialdom sought to collect from diggers.

The Ballarat Reform League arose from the agitation against the imprisonment of three diggers charged with the burning of Bentley's Hotel. The league's programme reflected the radical beliefs of its leaders: it was overtly Chartist in its demands and, some said, covertly republican. Lalor was a member of the committee, although he must have had reservations about parts of its programme. On 29 November 1854 the league called its first mass meeting to hear the report of its deputation to the governor. Sir Charles Hotham had promised an inquiry into the diggers' grievances but refused to accede to the diggers' 'demand' for the release of their mates. The mood of the 12,000 diggers who gathered on Bakery Hill for the first time under their Southern Cross flag was for physical resistance. Resolutions were carried calling on the diggers to burn their licences and pledging the protection of the 'united people' for any digger arrested for non-possession of a licence. Lalor's first public appearance was at this meeting: he moved for a further league meeting on 3 December in order to elect a central committee.

On 30 November the troops had undertaken a 'digger hunt' on Bakery Hill. The news of the resulting clash spread rapidly through the diggings to the Eureka, where Lalor was working in his shaft, 140 ft (43 m) below ground, with Timothy Hayes, chairman of the league, at the windlass above. Diggers rushed to the scene and, as the troops withdrew with their prisoners, occupied the hill where the flag was again raised. The diggers dispersed to gather strength and resolved to reassemble at 4 p.m. None of the regular spokesmen was then present and Lalor 'mounted the stump and proclaimed “Liberty”.' He called on the men to arm themselves and to organize for self-defence. Some hundreds were enrolled and Lalor, according to Raffaello Carboni, 'knelt down, the head uncovered, and with the right hand pointing to the standard, exclaimed in a firm measured tone: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other to defend our rights and liberties”. A universal well-rounded Amen, was the determined reply'. That night Lalor wrote to his fiancée, Alicia Dunne, a school-teacher in Geelong: 'the diggers … in self-defence, have taken up arms and are resolved to use them … I am one amongst them. You must not be unhappy on this account. I would be unworthy of being called a man, I would be unworthy of myself, and, above all, I would be unworthy of you and of your love, were I base enough to desert my companions in danger'.

Next morning some 1500 diggers assembled on Bakery Hill and marched behind their flag to the Eureka. The leaders met and appointed Lalor commander. In response he said: 'I expected someone who is really well known to come forward and direct our movement. However, if you appoint me your commander-in-chief, I shall not shrink. I tell you, gentlemen, if once I pledge my hand to the diggers, I will neither defile it with treachery, nor render it contemptible with cowardice'.

In the next two days both sides continued their preparations. The diggers threw up a barricade of which Lalor wrote, 'it was nothing more than an enclosure to keep our own men together, and was never erected with an eye to military defence'; yet it closely resembled the fortified circular encampments planned by Fintan Lalor in 1848. Behind it, the men drilled and blacksmiths manufactured pikes. Lalor claimed no military expertise; he appointed a young American to look after the military side while he organized picketing and the procurement of arms, ammunition and other supplies. The government camp organized for action and infiltrated the stockade with spies.

Lalor did not expect an immediate attack and did not plan to confine defence to the stockade. By midnight on Saturday only about 120 men were left in the stockade, most of them Irish. Some hundreds had left to spend the night in their tents. At about 3 a.m., Sunday, 3 December, the troops and police attacked. They quickly stormed the flimsy stockade and its defences, killing thirty or more diggers and taking over a hundred prisoners. True to his pledge Lalor had stood his ground but was hit in the left arm and collapsed. He was hidden under logs and escaped the bayonets of the attackers. He was smuggled from the battlefield and eventually reached the home of Father Smyth, where his arm was amputated at the shoulder by a party of doctors. Legend has Lalor recovering consciousness during the operation and, seeing one doctor with signs of faintness, saying 'Courage! Courage! Take it off!'

Hotham offered a reward of £200 for information leading to the apprehension of a 'person of the name of Lawlor … height 5 ft 11 ins [180 cm], age 35, hair dark brown, whiskers dark brown and shaved under the chin, no moustache, long face, rather good looking and … a well made man' who at Ballarat 'did … use certain TREASONABLE AND SEDITIOUS LANGUAGE, and incite Men to take up Arms, with a view to make war against Our Sovereign Lady the QUEEN'. There were no takers: public sympathy was overwhelmingly with the diggers. Lalor remained concealed in Ballarat for several weeks; from there he was taken by dray to Geelong, where he was cared for by Alicia Dunne and married her on 10 July 1855 at St Mary's Church.

Public subscriptions for the disabled Lalor raised enough money for him to buy '160 acres [65 ha] of very good land within 10 miles [16 km] of Ballaarat'; he emerged from hiding to bid for the land and was not arrested. In March the reward had been revoked, and in April the thirteen diggers charged with treason were acquitted. The colonists generally shared Lalor's judgment of the stockade: 'neither anarchy, bloodshed, nor plunder, were the objects of those engaged … Stern necessity alone forced us to do it'. One eye-witness reports Lalor as saying that his object as leader was 'independence'; if this were so, it would seem that the independence he wanted was from arbitrary rule, from encroachments by the Crown on 'British Liberty', and that granted by access to the land, rather than the 'independence' of a republican democracy.

With the adoption of the recommendation of the commissioners appointed by Hotham to inquire into the condition of the goldfields that the Legislative Council be enlarged to include elected representatives of the goldfields, Lalor was one of two diggers' leaders returned unopposed in November 1855 to represent Ballarat. He told his electors: 'I am in favour of such a system of law reform as will enable the poor man to obtain equal justice with the rich'. When the first parliament was elected under the new Constitution in 1856 Lalor was returned unopposed to the Legislative Assembly for North Grenville, a Ballarat seat. He was appointed an inspector of railways at a salary of £600, but was soon debarred from this post when legislation was passed prohibiting civil servants from sitting in parliament.

In the assembly Lalor spoke out for the interests of the diggers: he successfully advocated compensation for the victims of Eureka, and unsuccessfully the right of miners to enter private property in search of gold; in vain he opposed the appropriation of funds for a memorial to Hotham, saying, 'There was sufficient monument already existing in the graves of the thirty individuals slain at Ballarat'. Yet he aroused hostility among his digger constituents by supporting plural voting on a property franchise and a six-months' residency qualification for the franchise, and land legislation which radicals held to favour the squatters. In defence he said that he would never consent to deprive a freeholder of his right to vote in virtue of his freehold, and that the danger inherent in conferring the franchise on 'an unsettled population' should be balanced 'by infusing into the people a conservative element by attaching them to the land'. He denied that he was a democrat if that meant 'Chartism, Communism, or Republicanism', but asserted that 'if democracy means opposition to a tyrannical press, a tyrannical people or a tyrannical government, then I have ever been, I am still, and will ever remain, a democrat'. The diggers were not convinced, and Lalor wisely stood for South Grant in 1859. He was elected and became chairman of committees at a salary of £800.

Lalor's stance in parliament appeared puzzlingly inconsistent. He was an early advocate of protection of local industry, believing that it would provide work for men no longer able to make a living on the goldfields, but he also supported assisted immigration. Although a devout Roman Catholic, he opposed state aid to religion and supported a national education system provided that provision was made for religious teaching. He supported the 1860 and 1862 Land Acts providing for selection from the squatters' runs, but urged sale by auction of both freehold agricultural land and grazing leases, declaring that the creation of 'a middle class of landed proprietors' able to employ labourers at reasonable wages, was preferable to opening the land in small lots to men without capital. He supported reform of the Legislative Council but opposed payment to members. When the McCulloch government came into conflict with the council over the protectionist tariff and later the 'Darling grant', Lalor urged caution and abstained from voting on several of the government's vital measures, holding them to be unconstitutional.

Lalor's pursuit of his own judgment won him no friends in parliament, yet as a good local member with a strong personal following he topped the poll for South Grant in 1868. The ministry repaid his 'unsoundness' by refusing to reappoint him as chairman of committees. In the next three years Lalor virtually abandoned parliament for private business, attending only 31 of 174 divisions. He operated as a land and mining agent and was director of several mining companies, the most important being the New North Clunes. He was also chairman at a substantial salary of the Clunes Water Commission. On his initiative legislation was passed enabling the commission to borrow money for the construction of a water supply system for Clunes. The money was raised by the New North Clunes Mining Co. In 1873 the government bought the commission for £65,000, thus enabling New North Clunes to declare what the Ballarat Star described as the largest dividend ever paid by a mining company—£30 a share. It was also alleged that Lalor employed blacklegs to enforce a wage cut in one of his mines. Lalor was narrowly squeezed out of third place in the 1871 election by Jonas Levien whom he angrily described as 'a little jew boy' and against whom he pursued a vendetta.

The 1874 election was fought on the reform of the Legislative Council. Lalor was by now convinced that domination of the council by squatters made reform necessary, and that its powers should be limited to those enjoyed by the House of Lords. He was elected third member for South Grant. When (Sir) Graham Berry formed his first government in 1875, Lalor became commissioner for customs. The government was defeated after a few months but Berry was refused a dissolution by the governor and led his followers in a stonewalling campaign to disrupt the conduct of business. Lalor supported Berry's tactics wholeheartedly.

In the 1877 election Lalor again backed all Berry's policies, including payment of members. He won a landslide victory, and Lalor became postmaster-general and as commissioner for customs negotiated in vain with Sir Henry Parkes to remove the border duties between Victoria and New South Wales. When the council refused to accept the payment of members, Berry retaliated by sacking the colony's senior public servants. Melbourne Punch laid this 'Black Wednesday' at the door of Lalor who had been outspoken in denouncing the 'arrogant power' of the council. However, Lalor twice embarrassed the government and asserted his independence by voting against measures which Berry believed significant.

The Berry government was defeated in 1880 but Lalor topped the poll for South Grant as a Berryite. In a later election that year Berry won again and moved for the appointment of Lalor as Speaker. Although denounced by Thomas Bent as a 'rebel against the British crown' and as having been 'drunk on the floor of this House', Lalor was appointed unopposed. 'The first duty of a Speaker', he said, 'is to be a tyrant. Remove him if you like, but while he is in the chair obey him. The Speaker is the embodiment of the corporate honour of the House. He is above party. He is the greatest representative of the people'. Despite conservative fears that Lalor would lean towards his political friends he maintained the strength, dignity and impartiality of the chair, and was reappointed by successive parliaments until diabetes weakened his physique and impaired his judgment. The death of his only daughter and in May 1887 of his wife greatly affected him, and he resigned as Speaker in September.

The premier, Duncan Gillies, introduced a bill to grant Lalor £4000 to free him of financial worries in his last months. Despite party opposition in the assembly the bill was passed and later carried unanimously in the council. Earlier Lalor had refused the offer of a knighthood. In a bid to regain his health he took leave from parliament, but remained a member at the express wish of his constituents, and went by sea to San Francisco. On his return he became bedridden in the home of his only son, Joseph, where he died on 9 February 1889. Besides the requiem in Melbourne, flags were flown at half-mast and a special memorial service was held at Ballarat.

On entry into parliament Lalor had been described by the Argus as 'a bluff, straight forward gentleman who blurts out plain truths in a homely matter-of-fact style'. Certainly as diggers' leader and as parliamentarian he fought with courage, determination and often passion for the truth as he saw it. His loyalties were to principles rather than to individuals. The inconsistencies of his political stance can perhaps best be explained by the principles he consistently upheld: a well-ordered society based on a broad and prosperous land-holding class, governed by free men in the liberal institutions embodied in British constitutional procedures. Only when a class claimed exclusive and overbearing power and sought to impose its will arbitrarily was Lalor's anger aroused and turned him, however reluctantly, to action. Once committed to a course he did not waver from it. Neither a profound thinker nor a skilful politician, Lalor was a good fighter and a man of rectitude who came finally to earn the respect even of those whom he had most vehemently opposed on grounds of principle.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat (Ballarat, 1887)
  • L. Fogarty (ed), James Fintan Lalor (Dublin, 1947)
  • T. J. Kiernan, The Irish Exiles in Australia (Melb, 1954)
  • Historical Studies, Eureka Supplement (Melb, 1965)
  • C. Turnbull, 'Eureka', in C. Turnbull, Australian Lives: Charles Whitehead, James Stephens, Peter Lalor, George Francis Train, Francis Adams, Paddy Hannan (Melb, 1965), pp 42-71
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria) 1856-87
  • Australasian, 19, 26 June 1880, 17, 24 Sept 1887, 16 Feb 1889
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 16 Feb 1889
  • J. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • G. Robinson, The Political Activities of Peter Lalor (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • Lalor family papers (National Library of Ireland).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ian Turner, 'Lalor, Peter (1827–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lalor-peter-3980/text6289, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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