Col. Robert Rede, who died on July 13, was one of the last surviving officials who played a prominent part in the troubles at Ballarat in the early fifties. He was born in 1815, at Ashman's, Suffolk, and belonged to a very old county family. Most of his early years were spent in France, but there were few places in Europe with which he was not familiar. He had even travelled through the Balkan States—a part of the world at that time little known to Englishmen. He came to Australia about 1852, and went to Bendigo. There he soon became a great favourite. He had a fair knowledge of medicine, and anybody who was ill used to come to his tent, and get "the little doctor," as he was affectionately termed, to prescribe for him. After a short time spent in this good Samaritan fashion, he was appointed to the staff of Mr. J. A. Panton, the Resident Commissioner on Bendigo, as assistant commissioner. He fulfilled his duties so creditably, both at Bendigo and afterwards as commissioner for the Mount Korong field, under the late Col. Bull, that when a resident commissioner was wanted for Ballarat, Mr. Rede was appointed. He found that there was a vast difference between the temper of the men on Bendigo, and that of the Ballarat diggers. The licensing fee of 30/- per month, which all diggers were required to pay, was undoubtedly a grave source of discontent in all the mining camps, but at Ballarat there was something more than an inclination on the part of the diggers to forcibly resent the collection of the impost. This feeling was intensified by what were satirically known as "digger hunts," undertaken periodically by the authorities. The whole available police force would beat the field, and compel all the diggers they could catch to produce their licences. Any man who failed to do so was dragged away to the "logs" brought before the Court, and punished. It was patent to all unbiased observers that there would be serious trouble at Ballarat if some change were not made in the law, and the chief commissioner of the day advised the Executive to abolish the licence fee, and impose an export duty on gold; but his advice was ignored, though later on this course was actually recommended by a commission appointed to enquire into the whole matter.
The diggers were an adventurous class, mixed with a wild, lawless element, composed partly of foreigners from Europe, "forty-niners" from California, with a leavening of "Vandemonian" convicts. Nearly every man carried arms, and every evening, just to show evil doers that to molest him was dangerous, the digger went to the front of his tent and discharged his pistol in the air. For hours, owing to this practice, there would be a rattle of shots around the camp, as though a battle were being fought. Commissioner Rede, in Ballarat, found that the hatred against the authorities was so keen among a section of the diggers that this nightly fusillade was taken advantage of to "snipe" the Commissioner's camp. The camp was on a plateau, and on the flats beneath there stretched, like a sea of canvas, the tents of the diggers. The big mess tent on the plateau was lit up every night, and formed a convenient target for any particularly discontented digger. When Commissioner Panton paid the camp a visit he found the mess tent fortified with a wall of sandbags. against which bullets would occasionally come with vicious thuds. When retiring to their tents at night the occupants of the camp dared not carry lights, for a light would certainly attract a stray bullet. It needed very little to bring about a conflict between the diggers and the authorities. Sir Charles Hotham, a Yorkshire sailor, accustomed to the methods of the quarterdeck, was a man but ill fitted to deal with the situation. Orders were sent to Ballarat in October, 1854, that twice a week the police should go out hunting for unlicensed diggers. On one occasion Sir Charles visited Ballarat, and insisted upon stricter enforcement of the licensing law. Commissioner Rede endeavoured respectfully to dissuade his Excellency, and pointed out that serious trouble would probably arise if the diggers were harried as proposed. Sir Charles, who had been misled by the heartiness of the welcome given him, imagined that the discontented diggers were in a very small minority, and insisted that the officials must not relax their efforts. The orders were obeyed, and the discontent increased. Arms were collected and leagues formed.
Then came the spark that was to cause the conflagration. A young Scotchman, James Scobie, was killed outside the Eureka Hotel. Bentley, the keeper of the hotel, and others were charged with the crime; but the Bench, consisting of Mr. Dewes, P.M., Commissioner Rede, and Assistant Commissioner Johnstone, found that the prisoners were free from blame. Assistant Commissioner Johnstone differed from the other two Magistrates, and forwarded a copy of the depositions to the Attorney-General in Melbourne, with an assurance of his belief in the guilt of the prisoners. The diggers were enraged at what they regarded as a grave miscarriage of justice. An indignation meeting was held on October 17, 1854, on the spot where Scobie fell, outside the hotel. The camp authorities, fearing lest the mob should attack the hotel, sent police to protect it. But the indignation of the assemblage was not to be controlled, and though Commissioner Rede bravely faced them from a window, and begged them to be peaceable and respect the law, the house was broken into, wrecked, and then burned to the ground. Bentley was sent on a swift horse to the camp, with orders to the officer in charge to send down the soldiers. Three men—McIntyre, Fletcher, and Westerby—all asserted to be innocent—were arrested. At their trial, held in Melbourne the jury, while returning a verdict of guilty, declared their belief, that the outrage had been provoked by the Ballarat officials. When this conviction was made known in Ballarat the Reform League sent a deputation to Melbourne with a "demand" for the release of the prisoners. They saw the Governor on November 27, and he refused the "demand." On November 28 Commissioner Rede was at a dinner given by the Americans at Ballarat in honour of Mr. Tarleton, the American Consul. He had to propose the toast of "The Queen,' but before it was reached a message came to say that some soldiers on their way from Melbourne had been attacked by the diggers. Commissioner Rede left the banquet, and hurried down to the Eureka Lead, where the attack had taken place. Several soldiers had been wounded, and the diggers had overturned some of the baggage wagons and vainly rifled them for firearms. A sortie made by the police resulted in the driving off of the crowd and the wounding of several men.
On November 29 a great meeting was held on Bakery Hill, and the "Southern Cross'' flag was hoisted. It was estimated that 12,000 men were present. A number of wildly revolutionary speeches were made. The feeling of the meeting may be judged from the fact that the following resolution among others was carried unanimously:— "That this meeting views with the hottest indignation the daring calumny of the Acting Chief Justice while on the Bench of the brave and struggling sufferers of Clare, Tipperary, Bristol, and other districts on their endeavours to assert their legitimate rights; and do hereby give the most unmitigated and the most emphatic denial to the assertions of His Honor in stigmatizing as riots the persevering and indomitable struggles for freedom of the brave people of England and Ireland for the last 80 years."
As though the atmosphere of the camp were not yet sufficiently electrical, the authorities next day conducted an unusually carefully planned "digger hunt." Assistant-Commissioner Johnstone began the proceedings by surrounding the "Gravel Pits" as the Bakery Hill diggings were called. Generally the diggers set up cries of "Joe! Joe!" and all who had not licences fled down the deeper holes and into hiding. The Gravel Pits, however, were occupied by the most determined and most revolutionary of the diggers, and they resolved to stand. The police were received with showers of stones and occasional pistol shots. Assistant-Commissioner Johnstone sent for assistance, and Commissioner Rede, with the few police and military left behind, came to his aid. The mob shouted that they would take out no more licences. Commissioner Rede told them that he would uphold the law while it remained in force, and reminded them that a commission of enquiry had been appointed. He appealed to the well-disposed to have nothing to do with the rioting. He then read the Riot Act. The police and military beat off the diggers, and took some prisoners. But the ''hunt' had proved the last straw. The ''Southern Cross" was at once raised on Bakery Hill. Peter Lalor was chosen commander-in-chief, and, mounting a stump, gun in hand, he swore in his followers.
Commissioner Rede afterwards said of the affair that had there been more resistance "there would have been great slaughter. Our object was gained. We maintained the law. The whole affair is a strong democratic agitation by an armed mob. The abolition of the licencing law is a mere watchword, and all meetings, public or private, ought to be forbidden." After the swearing-in ceremony the diggers fell in two abreast and marched in procession to Eureka, where the famous "stockade" was thrown up. All day on December 1 and December 2 the diggers drilled behind their stockade. Then early in the morning of December 3 came the attack on the stockade, led by Capt. John Wellesley Thomas (now major-general). The result was the complete defeat of the diggers. Commissioner Rede, when the troubles were over, asked to be relieved. He was made Deputy Sheriff at Geelong, where he took a great interest in the first volunteer movement, becoming major of the Geelong Rifles. He retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Afterwards he was appointed Sheriff of Victoria, and he held that position until almost 13 years ago, when he retired. Col. Rede was twice married. His first wife, who died in 1802, was a daughter of Mr. J. F. Strachan, M.L.C. The present Mrs. Rede is a daughter of Dr. Clendinning, of Ballarat. He leaves two sons and three daughters.
— Melbourne Argus.
'Rede, Robert William (1815–1904)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/rede-robert-william-4457/text26393, accessed 7 March 2015.