Dangerous. Rebellious. Controversial. Ballarat’s first newspaper, the Ballarat Times, had a colourful history.
“No more powerful engine can be left free to human control in these days of civilisation than that of the press”Judge Redmond Barry
Sovereign Hill’s recreation of the Ballarat Times Office is based on an 1859 lithograph of Main Street, Ballarat by François Cogné.
Four years before the Ballarat Times moved to this location in 1858, Ballarat’s first newspaper had already secured itself a place in Australia’s history, thanks to Henry Seekamp, editor and owner of Ballarat’s first newspaper the Ballarat Times.
News didn’t travel as fast, or as widely, in the 1850s as it does in the age of the internet. Nevertheless, printed newspapers of that time still had the potential to be powerful weapons. They could influence what people believed and affect how they behaved.
The power of newspapers on the goldfields is revealed in the story of Henry Seekamp.
Henry Seekamp was one of fourteen men who wereput on trial after the Eureka Rebellion. In this bloody battle that took place on 3 December 1854, Henry wasn’t one of the diggers who fought against the authorities. And yet, he was the only one who was found guilty and sentenced to jail.
Words. Dangerous, inflammatory words published in the Ballarat Times were the reason why Seekamp was found guilty. These words did more than just illuminate the mounting dissatisfaction diggers felt towards the gold licence and the authorities, who aggressively hunted them down.
The Ballarat Times moved and motivated the diggers. It put ideas into their heads, ideas that encouraged them to rebel againstthe Victorian Government. The day before the Eureka Rebellion took place, the Ballarat Times printed a strong inclusive call to action, ‘What can they expect from us but mutiny?’
The Ballarat Times was far more than just the diggers’ mouthpiece—a vital instrument for those who struggled to affect change when they didn’t have the right to vote. While the jury found Seekamp guilty of seditious libel (publishing articles that incited people to rebelagainst the established order or monarch), they asked the judge to show him mercy.
It could not be proven that Seekamp wrote the offending articles. In fact, two other men, John Manning and George Lang, claimed to be the authors. This however, was not enough to absolve Seekamp of his involvement in committing the crime.
According to the law, an editor and proprietor of a newspaper was responsiblefor the contenttheypublished. To illustrate the nature of this accountability, the judge who sentenced Seekamp to six months jail used the analogy of a person firing a loaded gun:
“A loaded gun, so long as no one touches it, is harmless, but if wantonly or carelessly fired off in the midst of a crowd, it would be little to the purpose of him who pulled the trigger to assert that he did not make the powder or put it in the ball, or even that he did not know it was loaded”Judge Redmond Barry
In the eyes of the judge, Seekamp had not done enough to prevent the publication of the seditious articles nor had he tried to counteract their impactafter they had been published. He sentenced the editor to six months jail, of which he only served three months.
Written by Anna Kyi, Historian, Sovereign Hill Museums Association