Commemorating a key moment in Clunes gold history

An exhibition in Clunes is commemorating a part of Clunes’ gold history which one historian says was the first act of unionism in Australia. 

MINDERS FIGHT: Clunes historian John Sayers tells the story of the 1873 Clunes riot in an exhibition at the Clunes Neighbourhood House. Picture: Dylan Burns

MINDERS FIGHT: Clunes historian John Sayers tells the story of the 1873 Clunes riot in an exhibition at the Clunes Neighbourhood House. Picture: Dylan Burns

A three-month strike in 1873 culminated in the December Clunes riot, where men and women of the town won the fight for improved working conditions. 

Clunes historian John Sayers, creator of the current exhibition at the Clunes Neighbourhood House, has been campaigning for the event to be recognised in the town. 

“It’s one of the major events in the history of Clunes,” Mr Sayers said.

Directors of the Lothair Mine in Clunes attempted to impose new conditions which reduced miners’ rest time and contract payment in 1873. 

The miners objected to the conditions and in one of the first acts of Australian unionism, formed a miner’s association and voted for strike action seeking safer conditions and better pay. After three months, directors attempted to break the strike by importing Chinese miners from Ballarat. 

“The men and women of the town set up a barricade… In the following pitched battle they defeated the armed police and troopers escorting the Chinese and forced them to return,” an information board at the exhibition reads. 

“The miners were joined by their wives and children at the barricade so that’s a very significant part of the goldfields mentality,” Mr Sayers said.

“Life was so hard and difficult there that the wives were gold miners too, because they had to suffer the ramifications of the various uprisings. The conditions in the mines in Clunes resulted in a lot of miners dying either in accidents underground or from lung disease.”

A historic marker now indicates the site of the riot. Mr Sayers said it was important to recognise Clunes’ history. 

“Clunes is famous for quite a number of firsts – not just being the first discovery of gold – but this was the first organised labor movement on the goldfields,” Mr Sayers said. 

“It’s influence spilled over over the next two years to Creswick where there was William Spence, one of the pioneers of unionism. What started off as the miners association here in Clunes has gone through numerous transfigurations and we look at it as the first act which sparked the CFMEU.”

The 1873 Clunes Riot exhibition will run at the Clunes Neighbourhood House throughout December.