BOOKS: by C. Burke (reviewer)News Weekly
SHENANIGANS on the Ovens goldfields: the 1859 election, by Antony O'Brien
, April 15, 2006
Democracy in the Victorian goldfieldsSHENANIGANS on the Ovens goldfields: the 1859 election
by Antony O'Brien
Artillery Publishing, PO Box 1188, Hartwell, Vic 3124
Softcover: 128 pages
Price: $29.95, plus $8 postage
(Order from the publisher)European settlement in what is now the state of Victoria commenced in the 1830s. Less than 20 years later, the discovery of gold transformed Victoria, leading to a huge influx of gold miners, many from overseas. There followed the separation of Victoria from New South Wales, and the establishment of the first Victorian Parliament.
In the 1850s, Victoria boasted the largest goldfields in the world, particularly around Ballarat and Bendigo, and smaller fields scattered around Victoria, including Beechworth, Chiltern and Wangaratta, which collectively comprised the Ovens River field.
It was in this part of north-eastern Victoria that the events described in Shenanigans
took place. The area later acquired national significance as a centre of the operations of the gang led by Ned Kelly, Australia's most famous outlaw.
1859 was the year of the second election in Victoria and, in this pioneer community, the election was fought between embryonic conservative and radical groups, with superimposed differences between land-owners and working-class gold-miners, and religious divisions among Anglicans, Catholics, the Masonic Lodge and Protestants.
In a sense, therefore, this book describes the crude processes from which emerged the democratic tradition which has characterised Australian society since then.
What is most surprising to this reviewer is the extent to which the cultural differences - principally between Irishmen and English settlers - and economic differences between squatters and selectors, were fought as religious battles.Defeat
Antony O'Brien captures all this, and describes how the local squatters formed a close alliance with the Lodge, to defeat what were seen as Catholic and working-class candidates, who were aligned with John O'Shanassy, the Catholic premier of Victoria during 1857-9.
The shenanigans involved in the election included the appointment of returning officers and polling clerks who were overwhelmingly members of the Lodge, and attempts to stack the electoral roll.
While this book describes local events, it is clearly an insight into the broader social and economic conflicts which were being played out in Victoria in the late 1850s, and which continued throughout much of the 19th and 20th century.Shenanigans
is carefully researched, and engagingly told.