The Drummer Boy: Eureka

by Dorothy Wickham

 

For nearly 150 years it was widely accepted that John Egan, the drummer boy of the 12th Regiment, was fatally wounded at Eureka. There was a gravestone erected in the Ballaarat [sic] Old Cemetery, with an epitaph which read ‘killed in line of duty 28th November 1854’. Egan’s gravestone was situated within the soldiers’ enclosure near the graves of military who died in the line of duty during the battle of Eureka on 3 December 1854.

 

The myth of the ‘Drummer Boy’ persisted until the 1990s. Not only was a gravestone erected, but Sovereign Hill's Blood on the Southern Cross showed ‘the little drummer boy’ draped over a waggon, eyes pointing towards the sky, dying in agony. In other accounts he was even ‘trampled to death’.

 

Despite the popularly held belief that the drummer boy had died, my research revealed that he was still alive after Eureka and spend 21 days in the military hospital with wounds.

 

Eureka was the culmination of many months of hostility between gold diggers, storekeepers and the authorities. Charles Pasley, the government engineer, described the crisis in a letter to his father as ‘a very grave one’. He wrote that the government ‘had given way to popular clamour more than once’. A mob of diggers had threatened to ‘march up to the Government Camp and take an equal number of Commissioners prisoner and keep them as hostages. If any resistance was offered, they would set fire to the Camp and kill everyone’. Pasley thought that if the government gave in to the diggers' demands ‘the consequences would be very serious’. At the same time, if they resisted and were beaten in fight by the insurgents, Pasley had no doubt that a general rebellion would ensue.

 

With this in mind he examined the military camp and found ‘a small force of about 100 men in an exposed and defenceless camp consisting of tents and light wooden buildings by no means musketproof'. The timber slabs of which the buildings were comprised had great holes between them through which daylight could be seen. If the military were attacked in this position Pasley thought that the musket balls would fly straight through the buildings. Injuries to military personnel would be inevitable. There was also civilian housing ‘pressing close upon the Camp’. Pasley approached the townsfolk in tents near the camp and advised them to deposit all their valuables in the gold office as their tents would be fired and destroyed by the military if the government camp was attacked by the angry diggers.

 

Military reinforcements were urgently needed. The 40th Regiment led by Captain Henry Wise came up from Geelong. ’On 27 November in Melbourne two officers and 50 men of the 40th Regiment proceeded by the one o'clock steamer to Geelong, to reinforce the detachment there to 100. Their orders were to proceed to Ballarat at once.’ They marched through the diggings with muskets loaded and bayonets fixed. This was a full show of force by the military. The day after, on 28 November 1854, a detachment of the 12th Regiment of Foot proceeded into Ballarat. They had been requested urgently and had hurriedly departed from Melbourne for their destination, the government camp at Ballarat. Coming into diggings late at night, they marched in a ragged manner through the Eureka Diggings, where they were set upon by the angry and incensed mob.

 

This is undoubtedly when John Egan was shot in the leg, a fact corroborated by Assistant Surgeon George Arden of the 12th Regiment, examined under oath by the board ‘appointed to consider claims for compensation for losses sustained during the Ballarat riots’ and the compensation case of Benden [sic] Sherritt Hassell, a publican who was also shot. Arden wrote that ’on the night of the 28th about 9 or 10 o'clock we got into the diggings. We had drays and it being quite dark and the horses jaded we were marching very slowly’.

 

‘As soon as we got into the diggings a mob of diggers collected and assailed us with cries of Joe! Joe! We were pelted with large stones and bottles. We had not stopped anywhere before we were assailed. The drivers knew the way. One of the carts was capsized, the driver and two men were severely injured, the men were turned out and ordered to load. We found two men missing and a party went back to find them. They were laying [sic] off the road badly wounded. When the soldiers turned out and loaded the crowd dispersed. Lieutenant Paul was ordered on with the carts. We were shortly after joined by the 40th men from the Camp. During the disturbance several shots were fired by the diggers, but the military never returned the fire. I am quite confident that not a shot was fired by the military. Our drummer boy was shot in the leg.’

 

Egan was one of the drummer boys attached to the First Battalion, 12th Regiment of Foot. He was ‘despatched to Ballarat’ during the 2nd Muster in November 1854. On the arrival of the Regiment in Ballarat the Melbourne Argus newspaper reported that ‘information reached us last evening that a portion of the military force despatched from town on Monday had arrived, and that in passing through the diggings the soldiers were pelted with broken glass and other missiles by some diggers. Our informant adds that the military received this manifestation of feeling in the best possible temper’.

Another long article followed that possibly contributed to the legend of the ‘little drummer boy’ at Eureka. It included the statement that ‘a poor drummer was shot through the leg - are these deeds which will enlist the sympathy of an intelligent people? Is the maiming of a drummer boy a worthy triumph for a large mass of a British population who wish to occupy a creditable position in the eyes of the world? Surely not!’

 

The wounding of the drummer boy was cleverly used to incense the general population and promote sympathy for the establishment. Doctor Carr, the Ballarat correspondent for the Argus noted that he had observed the injured drummer boy in the hospital one week after the fight. This correlates with the Muster Lists of the 12th Regiment of Foot, that indicate that John Egan, Regimental Number 3159, drummer, was in the military hospital for 21 days following his injury, during the last quarter of 1854. While the drummer boy was recovering in hospital the culmination of years of bitterness and unrest took place. On 3 December, the military attacked the Eureka Stockade, a flimsy fort built by the miners in the vicinity of the Eureka Lead.

 

The Aftermath

A correspondent from the Geelong Advertiser reported that the first thing he saw ‘was a number of diggers enclosed in a sort of hollow square, many of them were wounded, the blood dripping from them as they walked; some were walking lame, pricked on by the bayonets of the soldiers bringing up the rear. The soldiers were much excited, and troopers madly so, flourishing their swords, and shouting out ... The scene was awful - twos and threes gathered together, and all felt stupefied. I went ... to the barricade, the tents all around were in a blaze; ... the spectacle was so ghastly that I feel a loathing at the remembrance. They all lay in a small space with their faces upwards, looking like lead; several of them were still heaving, and at every rise of their breasts, the blood spouted out of their wounds, or just bubbled out and trickled away. ...

 

A correspondent from the Melbourne Herald, like others of his kind, was appalled by the slaughter and wanton destruction that abounded and wrote he was ‘attracted by the smoke of the tents burnt by the soldiers, and there a most appalling sight presented itself. Many more are said to have been killed and wounded, but I myself saw eleven dead bodies of diggers lying within a very small space of ground, and the earth was besprinkled with blood, and covered with the smoking mass of tents recently occupied. Could the Government but have seen the awful sight presented at Ballarat on this Sabbath morning - the women in tears, mourning over their dead relations, and the blood-bespattered countenances of many men in the diggers' camp - it might have occurred to His Excellency that 'prevention is better than cure’.

 

 

Deaths & Casualties

The following deaths resulted from the Eureka Battle. the following lists were compiled from various records, in particular, Lalor’s List, Father Linane’s Lists, Dorothy Wickham, Deaths at Eureka (lists), and eurekapedia.org

 

Diggers

James Brown, Frederick Coxhead, Alfred Crowe, John Diamond, George Donaghey, William Emmermann, Fenton, William Flower, Edward Flynn, Patrick Gittings, Samuel Green, John Hafele, Happy Jack, John Hynes, Robert Julien, Edward McGlynn, Thaddeus Moore, Thomas Mullins, Thomas O'Neill, Henry Powell, William Quinlan, Edward Quinn, John Robinson, Captain Charles Ross, Tom the Blacksmith, Edward Thonen

 

Military

Felix Boyle, John Hall, George Littlehales, Michael Roney, Henry Wise, William Webb

 

Onlookers

Henry Powell, Rowlands

 

The following casualites resulted from the Eureka Battle, but later recovered.

 

Diggers

Frank Hasleham, Hardie (bro of Robert), Mrs Michael Noonan, Frederick Powlett, James Byrne, Patrick Callinan, Thomas Callinan, Michael Canny, Patrick Canny, Denis Dinan, Michael Hanley, Patrick Hannafin, Peter Lalor, Adolfus Lessman, Michael O'Neill, Luke Sheehan, James Symmons, James Warner

 

Military

Robert Adair, Benden Hassell, William Buttwell, Henry Cottes, William French, Timothy Galvin, Bernard O'Donnell, Lieutenant Paul, Captain Potts, Patrick Sullivan

 

 

Post Script

Further research has shown that Drummer John Egan died in NSW in the 1860s.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Manuscripts

Charles Pasley, Letters of Charles Pasley to his father, written from Australia and New Zealand, describing political affairs in Victoria and his work as Colonial Engineer. There are detailed accounts of the Eureka Stockade and the Maori wars. These copies were made ca. 1959 and the originals are dated 1853-1861, MS 6167, State Library of Victoria.

For more on Charles Pasley, see http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pasley-charles-4370/text7109

 

VPRS 1189, Inwards Correspondence, Public Record Office Victoria.

 

Peter Butters, Report to Heritage Victoria for Ballarat General Cemeteries Trust, Eureka Graves and Gravesites in the Ballarat Old Cemetery.

 

Books

Dorothy Wickham, Deaths at Eureka, Self-Published, 1995.

Dorothy Wickham, Shot in the Dark, Self-Published, 1996.

 

Newspapers

Argus, November 30, 1854

Argus, 15 December 1854.

Herald, 18 December 1854.

 

 

 

 

 

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