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The behaviour of Gold Commissioner Frederick Cooper at the Kiandra and Crack-em-back gold fields was the subject of numerous complaints, almost from the time he took up duty as a Sub-Commisioner in Kiandra in 1860. This included a claim that while at the Thredbo (Crack-em-back) diggings:

Mr Sub-Commissioner Cooper on or in January, 1861, walked through the diggings in a state of drunken nudity, speeching to a drunken mob, after having shouted for some thirty to five and thirty pounds worth of champagne, which he subsequently refused paying for, threatening to fine Rawson for sly-grog selling in case he was requested to pay, and instructing the police so to do.

Cooper, from a wealthy Sydney family, was only 26 at the time he took up his Kiandra post, having unexpectedly resigned his seat in the New South Wales Parliament. It was suggested he left to avoid a scandal, as a result of his drinking and allegedly outrageous behaviour. Previously, while at Sydney University, he had been the first undergraduate to be expelled.

A letter, published in the Alpine Pioneer (Kiandra’s Goldfields Newspaper) on 12 October 1860, made the following points.

Another crying evil connected with the gold fields is the appointment, by the Government, of Commissioners whose incapacity is the subject of general remark among the miners … 

Experience seems to be regarded by the Government as of no weight or authority in selecting Commissioners, while in all other pursuits followed by man knowledge is regarded as the principle qualification. Perhaps, in no portion of Australia is greater ignorance shown by officials than in Kiandra. They appear to have been selected by the Government without any test of ability for this situation…

If ex-members, or men of influence with those in authority, must have their sons and relations in sinecures of the state, let them by all means choose situations in which at least they can do no harm.  

(Note: A link to the full text of this letter is at the end of this entry)

More serious claims of bias against Cooper were raised by Samuel Hawkins in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald published in 17 August 1861, headed “JUSTICE ON THE GOLD FIELDS.” It began as follows.

Sir - The manner in which Justice is administered on some of the gold fields, and the arbitrary and overbearing conduct of some of our J.P.Commissioners, would, if it were generally known, somewhat astonish the public, and doubtless exercise a beneficial control over their conduct. Here upon Kiandra, for instance, are some three hundred miners, hemmed in by snow, out of reach of legal assistance, at the absolute mercy of one individual utterly ignorant of mining affairs; his decisions once given are final and irrevocable no matter how glaringly unjust they may be afterwards proved to have been. An admitted wrong is inflicted, and because an official has caused it to be perpetrated, all redress is denied to the injured party. I am a simple Englishman, and have been taught that the Crown can do no wrong, its pygmy representative in these Alpine regions has however inflicted a wrong and, knowing it to be so now, still refuses to redress it.

Hawkins then documented a series of allegations of bias and mistreatment meted out to him and his partners in the Homeward Bound Claim at New Chum Hill. This included the following instance:

Another party, of whom this same banker is also the chief, complained to the Commissioner of a deficiency of water, and demanded that, as our right was of a later date than theirs, we should supply them. Mr Cooper instantly gave us an order to turn our water out of the head of our race, and let it run into the head of the banker’s. Now, neither the banker or the Commissioner knows anything about the natural features of the country at the heads of these races, or they never would have made such a demand upon us, compliance with it being, in point of fact, physically impossible, inasmuch as it would be necessary to make the water run up hill, a feat in hydraulics which has yet to be accomplished.

(Note: A link to the full text of this letter is at the end of this entry)

Hawkins’ letter writing did his cause no good, as he was immediately summonsed by Cooper, and summarily fined. During the hearing of this case, which was heard at a local hotel, Hawkins claimed he was given no opportunity to call witnesses for his case, and that he was assaulted by “ruffians” sympathetic to the Commissioner.

Following this incident Hawkins continued to pursue his grievances against Cooper. Eventually, on 12 November 1861, Commissioner Cloete recommended that Mr James Harrop Griffin, his replacement as Commissioner in Charge of the Southern Goldfields, visit Kiandra to investigate Hawkins’ claims. By this time a number of other grievances against Cooper had been raised by miners.

In January 1862 Commissioner Griffin visited Kiandra to conduct an Inquiry into the charges against Cooper. He refused a request by Mr G B Barton, the barrister representing Hawkins, to make attendance by witnesses compulsory. Not surprisingly, many witnesses were not available. Numbers of those who attended swore that Kiandra was an orderly place and that they were unaware of anything untoward in Mr Cooper’s behaviour. In particular Michael Bourke denied being the leader of the “Irish Mob” and denied saying he would swear to anything for Cooper, although he did accept he was known in the street as “the Commissioner’s tool.”

During the Inquiry a police witness (Constable Newman) gave evidence that Cooper had told the police to turn a blind eye while Hawkins was given a hiding (A link to the full text of Newman’s charges follows at the end of this entry). Other evidence was heard that Cooper had given orders for Mr Cohen (a Kiandra jeweller) and Mr Dixon, the Editor of the Monaro Mercury, to be beaten.

Despite all this evidence, and statements from three other complainants in addition to Hawkins, Griffin dismissed most of the charges against Cooper’s actions as “mere assertions, without proof.” In only one case did he censure Cooper, that involving the arrest of W A MacDonogh and his subsequent imprisonment as a vagrant for not being able to produce his Miner’s Right. Griffin said this action was, “if not entirely illegal – improper, harsh and uncalled for.”

He presented the results of his Inquiry in a memorandum.

Memorandum of Commissioner Griffin

After carefully considering the evidence taken during the Inquiry held at Kiandra, for the purpose of investigating charges preferred against Mr Cooper, I am of the opinion that Mr Cooper has not been actuated in his proceedings by malicious and corrupt motives, but has erred from inexperience and want of judgement; and this being the first time that his official conduct has been called into question, I would recommend that he be permitted to exchange, and proceed to some other field, with the understanding, that in the event of such an exchange not being effected within a given period, his removal from Kiandra will result.

31 January 1862

J. H. Griffin

Commissioner in Charge, Southern Gold Fields

Hawkins was not satisfied with the outcome of the Inquiry and continued to press his grievances. In May 1862 he petitioned the New South Wales Government with a list of charges against Cooper drawn up by Mr Barton, seeking 800 pounds in compensation.

After the Griffin Inquiry Cooper was moved to a government post at Eden. No further charges were laid against him. In 1864 he was called to the bar in Sydney and Queensland. After practising in Queensland and New Zealand he was elected to the Queensland Parliament from 1879 until 1883. Hawkins was never paid any compensation.

The correspondence relating to Cooper, including the Inquiry papers, can be found in Volume 4 of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly Votes and Proceedings and Papers Ordered to be Printed During the Session of 1862



   * The Charges Against Cooper by Constable Newman

   * Letter by J.E.G to the Alpine Pioneer

   * Letter by Samuel Hawkins to the Sydney Morning Herald


Note: Material on these pages prepared by Hugh Capel: hughcapel@boake.net

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