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Lalor, Peter (1827–1889)

by John Stanley James

Thirty-seven years ago a young Irishman landed in Melbourne. The cry of 'Gold!' brought hither all sorts and conditions of men, but few who have been more notable than Peter Lalor, scion of a notable family. The old mansion house of Tennikill in Queen's County was the home of a race, the chiefs of which maintained at home the traditions of their family and Irish hospitality, whilst the younger branches went forth into the world to fight their way therein with nothing but their courage and their talents to aid them. Charles Lever has given us the type of many such a family as that of the Lalors of Tennikill. They were, of course, sportsmen. Mr. Patrick Lalor, father of our Peter Lalor, was a Mastor of Hounds, as well as being the first representative of Queen's County, after Catholic Emancipation, in the House of Commons. "Tom Lalor of Creagh," is well known as the Master of the Ossory Hounds. The cadets of the family, developed a military strain. One of the cousins of Mr. Peter Lalor became a Field Marshal and Grandee of Spain. Three of his brothers fought in the American war, one being killed in the cause of the South, and another whilst fighting for the Stars and Stripes. Another cousin was the celebrated Frank Power, the war correspondent of the Times, who died with Gordon at Khartoum. The present head of the house and owner of Tennikill is Mr. Patrick Lalor, and his brother, Mr. Richard Lalor, like his father, is member for Queen's County. A younger brother is Dr. Joseph Lalor, a physician who has held the highest appointments in Ireland, including that of head of the Lunacy department. The mantle of medicine has likewise descended upon Mr. Peter Lalor's only son, Dr. Joseph Lalor, a young physician worthily esteemed by all who know him, in whose house the old hero of the Eureka Stockade and many a Parliamentary battle in the cause of the freedom of the people, and as is generally admitted the best Speaker who over filled the chair in Victoria, peacefully ended his days.

A week back when I visited Church-street, Richmond, Mr. Peter Lalor lay sick unto death, he had been long suffering from an incurable disease. He had received the last rites of his church, and was calmly awaiting his end. I consider it one of the greatest compliments paid to me as a journalist in Australia when I was told that the ex-Speaker would be glad to see me, although he or his medical attendants, Doctors Williams and Robertson, forbade any other visitors. Sitting in an arm chair at the study window looking out from the height of Richmond Hill over pleasant South Yarra and Toorak, Mr. Peter Lalor, courtly and gracious in his greeting, did not look like one of those who are morituri. Yet science had given the fiat; it was only a question of a few days, it might be of a few hours. After we shook hands Mr. Lalor's first thought was hospitality, and his attendant, an ex valet of Sir Henry Loch's, was ordered to ring the bell for refreshments before we commenced our afternoon's conversation, in which, if I did not obtain the complete "story of his life from year to year," I was enlightened on many points of which the history of the day has been silent. Of the Eureka Stockade affair my previous authority had been Withers's admirable History of Ballarat, given to me during my stay in that city six years ago by Mr. James Oddie, who also told me much of interest in regard to the early days of the gold diggings, with which Mr. Peter Lalor's name will be ever connected. This interview, which I first sought, was by the wish not only of the ex Speaker but of his devoted son, Dr. Joseph Lalor. Father —— had done his duty and the church had said "post hominem vermis; post vermem faetor et horror sic in non hominem vertitur omnis homo." I, as a journalist, surely may be allowed to testify that "the good may not be interred with his bones."

Mr. Peter Lalor was 62 years of age, having been born in 1827. He was a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and civil engineer when he emigrated to Melbourne to try his luck on the gold diggings. His first essay was on the Ovens goldfield, but in February, 1853, he migrated to Ballarat. Here Mr. Peter Lalor and his 'mates' took up some valuable claims, from which they hoped to be soon able to realise sufficient to permit them to return with a competence to their native homes. Mr. Duncan Gillies was also working in an adjoining claim. But the oppression of the central authorities, and the petty insolence and tyranny and corruption of the camp officials exasperated the miners until they wore driven into open revolt, and the flag of the Southern Cross was raised, Peter Lalor being appointed commander in chief of the insurgent diggers. The verdict of posterity is that the malcontents were justified in their endeavors to obtain redress for their grievances, if not in the manner by which they fought it. I remember when one of her Majesty's pro-consuls from a neighboring colony was shown the site of the Eureka Stockade he paralysed some of the attendant officials by saying, 'That was altogether the most infamous piece of business ever done in the name of the Queen,' Peter Lalor and his followers suffered, but their blood was not shed in vain. Redress for their grievances quickly followed the abortive attempt at insurrection. As the old hero said: 'Tis better as it is now. We not only got all we fought for, but a little more. It is sweet and pleasant to die for one's country or in defence of one's liberty, but it is sweeter to live and see the principles for which you have risked your life triumphant. I can look back calmly on those days. We were driven to do what we did by petty malice and spite. But the officials were not all alike. We recognised Mr. Panton as a man.' In his closing days Mr. Peter Lalor saw the reign of a peaceful democracy here in Victoria. With the full knowledge that his end was near, he passed calmly and quietly away, as became a true gentleman, regretting nothing in his career in the country of his adoption. Mr. Peter Lalor had been fortified by the last rites of the Catholic Church, of which he was a member. But, as he told me, during his career in this colony he was never identified, like other prominent politicians, as a supporter of the policy of that church, and he will be remembered here after as a thorough democrat and protectionist, and advocate of the rights of the people.

English contemporaneous history gives little record of the rising at Ballarat. Mr. Justin McCarthy does not even mention it. Yet its consequences might have been fatal to the continuance of Imperial rule in this country. It seemed a tornado in a teapot at first when a Scotch miner was murdered in a quarrel at an ill famed public house kept by one Bentley, and his mates burned down the place in revenge. This was on the 17th of October, 1854, and this was the first breath of the approaching storm, which fanned the smouldering discontent of the miners into open rebellion. A deputation of diggers waited on Sir Charles Hotham, the Governor, and 'demanded' the release of the men imprisoned for burning the hotel. His Excellency would not accept any communication in which the word 'demand' was used. It was in vain that the deputation informed him that they were under a strict agreement to substitute no other word, and that if they returned without the prisoners a riot would ensue. Sir Charles Hotham determined to 'act firmly,' and the Executive gathered all the forces, military and police, which were at its disposal, at Ballarat. At a meeting at Eureka of armed diggers, on the 30th November, resolutions were passed declaring that they would no longer pay the exorbitant and unjust licence fee. The diggers burnt their licences and prepared to resist by force the oppression of the Government. Meanwhile bodies of military and police continued to arrive at the camp of Ballarat. The diggers had before this been much incensed by the soldiers marching about the diggings and even firing upon the people without the reading of the Riot Act. They now determined to organise themselves to resist the approach of more soldiers. It was then that Mr. Peter Lalor was chosen by the diggers as their 'commander-in-chief.' A strong and powerful man of firm will, he was a born leader of the people. A large number of the insurgents were drilled and equipped; those who could not be provided with better arms were bid to fix iron spikes on poles. The Government spies soon informed the authorities of these preparations, and on the 1st December it was reported at Ballarat that the diggers had occupied an entrenched camp at Eureka. Captain Thomas, the officer in command of the Government forces, determined to attack the miners at once. This step was not expected, and the insurgents were taken by surprise.

The alarm was not sounded inside the stockade until the soldiers were within 150 yards, and although a tolerably heavy fire was kept up by them from this distance the diggers stood bravely to their posts. The whole of the forces under the command of Captain Thomas were then brought up. They must have considerably outnumbered the occupants of the stockade, although it is not possible to ascertain the exact number on either side. The engagement lasted barely 25 minutes, for the ammunition of the insurgents ran out, and the stockade was carried at the point of the bayonet. The miners fought well and manfully, especially the leaders. Mr. Peter Lalor was severely wounded in the arm, and was at first supposed to be killed. In the very agonies of death he was concealed beneath a heap of slabs, from under which the blood streamed down the hill. When the soldiers had retreated with their prisoners he managed to escape, though faint and very weak through loss of blood. He was hidden for three days in a hut on the ranges, after which he was secretly conveyed to the house of a worthy Catholic priest, Father Smyth, where his arm was amputated by Dr. Doyle. A reward of £200 was offered for his apprehension, but his friends remained true and he was not taken.

When the news of the attempted insurrection reached Melbourne, 'society' was agitated, and, in response to a requisition, the Mayor called a meeting at the Mechanics' Institute, at which resolutions were attempted to be passed, upholding the action of the Government and its officials in their treatment of the diggers. But these resolutions were received with so much dissatisfaction that the Mayor was obliged to vacate the chair, and a number of resolutions were passed altogether opposed to the action of the Executive, and calling upon the Government to immediately settle the differences with the miners. Mr. Frencham, one of the discovers of gold in Victoria, spoke strongly in favor of the diggers, and bid the people 'go forth with their brother diggers to conquer or to die.' The resolutions in favor of the miners were received and carried with the greatest enthusiasm. The Government again endeavoured on the following day to secure the declared support of the public, and with this end a meeting was held on a large piece of ground near St. Paul's Church, at the corner of Flinders-lane. The chair was occupied by Mr. Henry Langlands and nearly 7000 people were present. But in this case also the resolutions passed condemned the policy of the Government, and showed sympathy with the miners. Finding they were not supported by the people, the Executive revoked the martial law which had been proclaimed at Ballarat, and abandoned several coercive measures which they had proposed to introduce. Petitions were adopted both in Melbourne and Ballarat, setting forth that "the recent unhappy outbreak at Ballarat was induced by no feeling of disaffection to the person of her Majesty, and by no traitorous designs against the institutions of the monarchy, but purely by a sense of political wrong, a loss of confidence in the local administration of law, and an irritation engendered by the injudicious and offensive enforcement of an obnoxious and invidious tax which, though legal, has since been condemned by the goldfields commission.'' Thousands of people signed this petition, and at last the Chief Secretary, Mr. Foster, gave way and resigned office.

The diggers tried for high treason were released by a verdict of 'not guilty' of their countrymen. The repeal of obnoxious measures followed, and, according to the historian, responsible government commenced in reality after the insurrection at the Eureka Stockade. The diggers were granted political privileges, previously denied them, co-equal with the other classes of the community. Not only were they benefited, but the whole colony likewise. The insurrection brought about social and political progress, and the Government was made to recognise more fully the power and rights of the people. During the time that Mr. Peter Lalor remained in seclusion he told me he had many narrow escapes, being hidden by his friends at first in one place and then another until the storm had blown over, and the authorities appeared to have given up any attempt at prosecution. Nine months afterwards, after the constitution was proclaimed in 1855, Mr. Peter Lalor was elected as a member for Ballarat. His address was brief and plain, as became a man whose career up to then had been one of action and not of words. Almost his whole political creed was summed up in the following: — 'I am in favor of such a system of law reform as will enable the poor man to obtain equal justice with the rich one, which at present I believe to be impossible.' Mr. Lalor was returned without opposition and soon after appointed inspector of railways, which post he held until the passing of the Officials in Parliament Act prevented him from doing so. In 1855, under the new constitution, he was elected for South Grant. In 1871 he was unsuccessful in contesting his old seat, but in 1875 was again returned for South Grant, which seat he retained until the last session of Parliament. He held the position of Chairman of Committees for many years in the Assembly, and filled the office with remarkable ability. In August, 1875, he was appointed Minister of Customs in Sir. (then Mr.) Graham, Berry's Ministry, and in 1877 Postmaster General under the same chief. On the retirement of Sir. C. Gavan Duffy in 1880, Mr. Peter Lalor was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, which office he held till October 1887, when his health gave way and he found himself unable to bear the strain of his duties in connection therewith. A sum of £4-000 was voted to him by Parliament as a retiring allowance. He had previously refused a knighthood.

Mr. Peter Lalor was known in connection with what is commonly called Black Wednesday. Here his impartiality in striking at the root as well as the branch of officialdom, was displayed. On one of the heads of a department bringing him a list of 19 officials who could be dispensed with the Minister said, 'Yes, this list is very complete with one exception, and then he wrote the name of the head of the department at the top. As Commissioner of Customs Mr. Lalor will be long remembered, but it was as Speaker that he made his great repute. Mr. Lalor was noted for his impartiality. It could never be alleged against him that he in any way favored those of his own race, or religion. He ruled the House through three Parliaments as it has never yet, and perhaps never again will be ruled. 'The first duty of a Speaker,' said Mr. Lalor, 'is to be a tyrant. Remove him if you like, but whilst he is in the chair obey him. The Speaker is the embodiment, of the corporate honor of the House. He is above party. He is the greatest representative of the people. In England he is called 'the First Commoner.' In the Australian colonies I hold that he is the first official in the land. One thing I would never allow when Speaker and that was any 'scenes,' any bickerings between two members. If any noisy member wanted to come into collision with another I interfered. He had it out with the Speaker, and I do not think got the best of it." And there was a twinkle in Mr. Lalor's eye as he no doubt recalled to mind some instances where he had put down unruly members. The same magnificent presence and voice, physical qualification which made him sway the people when at the Eureka Stockade he administered the oath to 500 diggers, 'We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties,'' gave Mr. Lalor, as Speaker, a wonderful command over the House. His knowledge of the law of Parliament was phenomenal, and added to this he possessed the readiest wit. He was ever prompt with a cultivated humorous retort, which turned the tables upon many, recalcitrant members in a manner which left no soreness at the rebuff. During his last year in the chair Mr. Lalor suffered severely from his present disease, and it is certain that his application to his duties shortened his life.

After relinquishing the office of Speaker Mr. Peter Lalor took a voyage to San Francisco for the benefit of his health, but since his return he gradually declined, and his medical advisors for some time imagined that the end was close at hand. Mr. Peter Lalor was married in 1854 to Miss Alicia Dunn, of Geelong, 'the best of wives,' he said, who died within the last two years, They had only one son and one daughter. The latter married to Mr. Lempriere jun., died a few years back. In chronicalling the demise of one of the truest men I have been privileged to meet and know during a long career in many lands, it seems to me that he well fulfilled the words of Shakspeare,

To thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou can'st not then be false to any man.
After life's fitful fever may he sleep well!

Original publication

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Citation details

John Stanley James, 'Lalor, Peter (1827–1889)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lalor-peter-3980/text26398, accessed 25 November 2017.

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