Horsemen of the camp

James Lerk | Bendigo Weekly | 17-Jun-2016

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Last week I wrote about the men of the Government Camp, they were literally camping in their tents on what was referred to and still is known today as Camp Hill. 

A log lock up was to be constructed on Camp Hill as well as a log store for keeping government issued and supplied materials and goods safe.

A tent which was a class above the others was for the goldfields commissioner in the person of the very tall and rather youthful Joseph Anderson Panton. 

Alongside the commissioner’s tent was a sentry’s tent where a British army pensioner earned a little by standing guard and challenging any person who wished to see the Gold Commissioner. 

These pensioners had found ready employment in the Victorian colonial government service. So many able bodied men had left their permanent positions in order to become gold diggers themselves, hence the utilisation of the pensioners.

People were hoping to make their fortunes on the goldfields, being driven on and motivated by the success of the minority who had struck it lucky. 

One never knew if the next few metres depth of the hole that they were sinking would reveal a host of attractive nuggets, ready to transform the financial position of their lives.

Some of the chief men of the government camp back in 1853 included commissioner Panton, Mr Winch, Mr Kabat, Mr Wilkinson and Mr Barnard. These last four mentioned names were also goldfields commissioners. 

Not only did these men help to administer the goldfield according to the regulations which existed at that time but they also involved themselves in the important community issues of the day, one of these was the availability of water.

Mr Kabat had an interesting background, having fought for the independence of Poland and Hungary from the Austro Hungarian Empire in the late 1840s. 

The Hungarian military revolted against their Austrian overlords, their efforts were defeated and these men included Mr Kabat, he eventually found sanctuary in Britain. 

He joined the gold rush but because of his military experience he found employment in the police force of the Colonial Government.

Mr Kabat was particularly useful in his role at the camp, as he was fluent in a number of languages. At times he dressed like the diggers and mingled among them to gain intelligence for commissioner Panton. 

Panton was very conscious of the potentially precarious position that the administrators of the camp could be in, thus the need for spying and intelligence.

Some of the gold commissioners also lent their active support to the establishment of the first Bendigo hospital in the area which later was referred to as “Belgravia”. 

The men were nearly always mounted on their horses when leaving the government camp. These officials were moving about the goldfields among the thousands of holes that had been sunk into the ground. 

Their horses had to be sure footed as they negotiated the heaps of dirt and gravel that abounded between the holes. Everything about the digging landscape had become completely chaotic.

There was a “horse paddock” within the government camp, situated in the area where the Bendigo Senior High has its hall and beyond extending a little further to the west towards the Camp Hill Primary School. 

These horses were well fed, groomed and watered, all at public expense. Saddles and other riding gear was kept under cover in what today would be regarded as the most primitive of conditions.

These public officers were without exception very capable in the saddle and they prided themselves in the way that they could handle their beast at any speed, walking, trotting or, if needed, racing. 

Speed and maneuverability were essential qualities particularly when the hunt for diggers and their licenses was on in earnest.

Our illustration by Ludwig Becker, shows commissioner Panton speaking at the camp with some diggers, image State Library of NSW.

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