I am sure many readers will have heard of people “reading the riot act” or indeed have announced that they would do so themselves. Less, I imagine, would be aware that the phrase is some 300 years old dating from the public reading of the 1714 Riot Act – an Act of the British Parliament also applicable in Australia.
The Riot Act was read aloud by authorities to demand the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together”. If the group failed to disperse within one hour, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.
The Riot Act was read in Young on 14 July 1861.
Gold was discovered in Young, then called Lambing Flat, in early 1860 by ‘Alexander the Yankee’ at what is now the southern end of Main St. Within months around 20,000 miners had descended on the town, of which around 2000 were thought to have been Chinese.
The town quickly developed into a “wild west” where violence, theft, armed robbery and general lawlessness was the norm.
On 13 November, 1860, a group of European miners, resentful of the well organised and successful Chinese miners, banded together and drove five hundred Chinese prospectors out of town destroying their tents and other property. Similar expulsions continued over the next six months with authorities unable or unwilling to do anything about what became known as the Lambing Flat Riots. It is recorded that Chinese men were occasionally scalped or their ears cut off though actual deaths appear to have been rare or went unrecorded. Assaults on the Chinese miners, removal of their pigtails and destruction of their property became routine.
In May 1861 a rumour spread that 1500 Chinese had landed at Sydney, bound for the Lambing Flat area. Three thousands Europeans, armed with pick-handles, bludgeons and whips quickly assembled and marched to the strains of Rule Britannia, played by a brass band, to the Chinese encampments. They marched under the now famous Roll-up banner which is on display in the Lambing Flat Folk Museum across the road from this notice. The banner read ‘Roll-up Roll-up No Chinese’. The by now routine destruction of property and cutting of pigtails followed but this time one European man was killed and a number injured. There is no record of Chinese deaths.
The authorities, though limited in number, acted and several men were later arrested for rioting. On 14 July about one thousand European miners laid siege to the gaol in a rescue attempt. The Riot Act was read (where this sign now stands) and shots were exchanged. One miner was killed.
The reading of the Riot Act – the one and only time it was read in New South Wales – had little impact. That night the local police and magistrates released the prisoners, packed up their possessions and fled town. The courthouse and police camp were immediately burned down.
While order was subsequently restored it was largely at the expense of the Chinese miners’ rights. The major outcome of the riots was the November 1861 passage of the Chinese Immigration Act which restricted the number of Chinese that could be brought into the state on any ship and imposed a tax per head on entry. Australia’s infamous White Australia Policy was thus initiated. That’s another story!
Address: Carrington Park, Olympic Highway/ Campbell Street
Directions: The sign is on the fence of Young High School on the main road just outside Carrington Park.