Gold had made Melbourne a flourishing and wealthy city. Finch-Hatton was able, with some difficulty, to form a company to take control of his gold interests. Melbourne, cricket, train brakes, Mt. Britton, gold, squatters, parliament.
Melbourne is one of the cleanest, best laid-out, and most pleasantly-situated towns in the world. It lies on a succession of gently undulating rises, about three miles from the sea, and, with the suburbs, some of which extend down to the sea itself, has a population of 290,000. The town itself is all laid out in rectangular blocks, and the streets are very broad and well paved.
Everywhere there is a look of permanent solidity and accumulated wealth most extraordinary in so young a town. It would be difficult to pick out a street in London where, in the same space, there are as many fine buildings as there are in Collins Street, one of the main streets in Melbourne. The banks especially are most of them very handsome buildings, both inside and out, and an enormous amount of money has been spent on the construction.
The interior of the Bank of Victoria is modelled from that of the hall of one of the palaces at Venice, and is most elaborately laid out with marble floors and pillars and cedar fittings. Evidently the banks have more money than they know what to do with, for the amount of dead capital that they have sunk in building is astonishing. There are two very good hotels, Menzies and the Oriental, one at each end of the town, which is more than can be said of any other town in Australia, except, perhaps, Townsville, the northernmost port of any importance in Queensland, which, strange to say, possesses the next best hotel to Melbourne of any town in the island.
The busy life in the town of Melbourne is a striking contrast to sleepy Sydney, whose streets are thronged with crowds of loafing idlers. An experienced eye can always pick out a Sydney man in a Melbourne crowd as easily as it would detect a weevil in a beehive; and though in point of wealth there is not much to choose between the two places, it is easy to see that in Melbourne money is made, while in Sydney it grows.
The extraordinary proficiency of Australians in cricket, which enables the representative eleven of a population of 3,000,000 to hold its own against a country with 30,000,000, is less wonderful when one sees how universally popular the game is in the colony. There is not a spare piece of ground fit for a pitch anywhere round Melbourne that is not covered with "larrikins" from six years old upwards, every evening for nine months in the year. Their soul is in the game, and one and all of them display a precocious talent for round-hand bowling, very different to the sneaking underhand affected by the uneducated youth of Great Britain. There are two or three excellent cricket-grounds in Melbourne and the suburbs, the principal one in North Melbourne being as good a ground as anyone could wish to play on, and the pavilions and arrangements connected with it first-rate.
Much as I admire the indomitable pluck of the Australian cricketers who have met the English teams both at home and in their own country, beyond their skill in handling the weapons of their trade, there is little to be said in praise of their conduct. While arrogating to themselves the title of amateurs, they make it perfectly plain that they follow cricket as a lucrative profession, and do not care to play except for sufficient plunder, and they seldom lose an opportunity of taking an unfair advantage of their opponents.
All round the suburbs of Melbourne there are local railways worked by the Government. They run a frequent service of trains, and occasionally have a smash. The inhabitants of Melbourne must be exceedingly nervous upon wheels, for whenever there is an accident every single soul in the train at the time goes straight for the public exchequer, and collects heavy damages for a "shock to the nervous system". An accident which occurred recently on one of the suburban lines cost the Government, or rather the colony, £140,000 in damages to the survivors.
The chances of an accident are infinitely increased by the Government having insisted upon adopting an utterly worthless description of brake for all the railways. Of course, like every other contract of the kind, it was made a rank political job. While I was in Melbourne the papers were full of it, and a furious discussion was raging in Parliament as to the rival merits of the Westinghouse and Wood's brake, and some of the scenes in the House were most amusing.
A Commission was appointed to inquire into the practical working of the two brakes, and their relative advantages, and an overwhelming weight of evidence was brought to show that the Westinghouse brake was infinitely the superior one of the two. But Mr. Straight, the Commissioner of Railways at the time, whose legitimate business was keeping a market-garden, inclined to the adoption of Wood's brake, and, entirely unassisted either by evidence or by common sense, succeeded in carrying his point.
Seeing that the experiments of the Commission proved conclusively that whereas the Westinghouse brake was one of the most perfect ever invented, Wood's brake was only automatic in the sense of its being frequently impossible either to put it on or to take it off when it was wanted, cynical critics were ill-natured enough to attribute Mr. Straight's support of the latter contrivance to a personal intimacy with the inventor. Indeed, in the heat of a discussion on the subject in the House, one of his opponents went so far as to challenge Mr. Straight to finish the controversy by personal combat, and in delicate allusion to his professional calling, wound up by shouting out, "Come outside! come outside! and I'll put a head on you like one of your own
In spite of such heroic attempts to block Mr. Straight's Bill, jobbery finally triumphed over justice, and the inferior and more costly brake was adopted on the local lines.
With some difficulty, Finch-Hatton succeeded in floating a company to take over control of the Mount Britton mines and mill, and was paid enough to cover previous expenses, but not enough to come out with a profit:
I soon found that as far as floating a company on the Mount Britten mines was concerned, I had come to Melbourne at a very bad time. In the first place, money was getting rapidly very tight, and the banks instead of being anxious to cram money down people's throats at 6 per cent, suddenly refused to advance any more, and ran the rate of interest on deposit up to 9 per cent.
Between them the banks of Australia at that time had lent £83,000,000, and speculation was getting so furious that they determined to put a stop to it. In the second place the Melbourne mining men had just dropped £80,000 in a fearful swindle in New South Wales, and this, coupled with the tightness of the money market, had for the time pretty well stopped all speculation. The mining market was as flat as a postage-stamp in the dust; and here is where the luck of gold-mining comes in, for the men to whom I subsequently disposed of the mines told me themselves that had I offered them for sale six months earlier they would willingly have given me the same money for them that they dropped in the New South Wales venture, for that mine was by far the best show of the two.
With some trouble I succeeded in getting together a Syndicate to consider my proposals as to the Mount Britten mines, and they sent up an expert from Sandhurst to inspect the property. I had always heard that the mining men of Melbourne were as great a lot of scoundrels as there are in existence, but I was surprised to find that in addition to this they were most of them perfectly ignorant of anything connected with the practical or theoretical working of a mine. Most of them would not know a gold-mine from a blue gum-tree, and the object of everyone of them seemed to be to puff up the shares of the companies whose scrip they held by lying reports, and to sell out at a profit.
So low had the morality of mining in Victoria sunk, that it was almost impossible to float a company involving the shareholders in any liability, and the industry suffered severely in consequence. To remedy the evil, the Legislature has legalised an anomalous form of swindle called a No-Liability Company, the shareholders in which can at any moment abandon their interest in the concern.
The very title of a No-Liability Company is a contradiction in terms, for I cannot conceive how there can be a company formed without liability, nor how any body of men working without liability can obtain credit for so much as a box of lucifer matches. Yet in the whole colony of Victoria there is not a single gold-mining company that is not registered as a No-Liability one.
But, as I told the votaries of the scheme, who pointed out triumphantly that this system had revived the mining industry of Victoria, it only shows that mining in Victoria is more mining in people's pockets than in the ground, and my subsequent acquaintance with the Melbourne mining market tended most materially to strengthen my opinion. I at once informed the Syndicate that if they did not choose to float a Limited Liability Company on Mount Britten they could leave it alone, as I had no idea of being connected with such a non-nation piece of rascality as a company without any liability.
A fierce discussion ensued, for nothing terrifies a Melbourne mining man so much as the prospect of having to pay calls. As long as a mine pays dividends he is all there; but a call of threepence is generally suficient to make him sling up every share he holds. It is impossible to conceive mining enterprise at a lower ebb than is represented by a community whose mutual faith is so severely shaken as to make it impossible to induce them to incur a joint liability for the purpose of prospecting a mine.
In Queensland mining is conducted on very different principles, and the dogged persistence with which comparatively poor men will go on paying call after call into a mine that never returns them anything for years, in the hope of striking gold, is as remarkable as is the impulse of Victorians to throw up really valuable property the moment it ceases to pay dividends, and, of course, does infinitely more to develop the gold-bearing resources of the country.
The Syndicate, however, having received an excellent report of the Mount Britten mines from the expert who went up to inspect them, and from one of their own number who accompanied him, finally agreed to my conditions, and a Limited Liability Company was formed to work the properties. The price paid to my brother and myself was £11,000, and a fourth share of the company in fully paid-up shares. After paying the remaining original shareholders for their shares, and deducting the cost of the mill, this did not leave a farthing of profit, and our only chance of making any lay in the shares we still held in the new company.
The gold-mines of Victoria, both alluvial and quartz, are of great extent, and some of them of extraordinary richness. The reefs as a rule are larger, and carry their gold more regularly throughout than do the reefs in Queensland. Many of them are worked on a gigantic scale, and will pay a dividend with a yield of 4 dwt. to the ton. The chief alluvial diggings is Ballarat, and Sandhurst is the head mining centre. They are both distant about 100 miles from Melbourne, and connected with it by rail. But the whole colony is full of both alluvial and reefing districts, and while the old fields continue to develop, fresh ones are still being discovered. The total yield of gold in 1883 was 808,521 oz., valued at £3,234,124, showing an increase of £133,036 over the yield of 1878; but there is little doubt that if a healthier tone of speculation pervaded the mining market of Victoria, her gold-fields would be developed very much more quickly. The gold-mines of Victoria, however, are an important factor in the money market of the world; and since the discovery of gold in 1851, to the end of the year 1882, the quantity of gold raised amounted to £205,600,216.
The existence of immense freeholds in Victoria has aroused the fiercest class-hatreds in that democratic community, and has provoked legislation which can only be described as free plunder. It is not long since The Times drew the attention of England to the astonishing fact that one tenth of the revenue from taxation is paid by a few individuals.
Now, as the population of a country increases, the continued existence of large tracts of land, whether freehold or leasehold, held for pastoral purposes, is to a certain extent a barrier to the advance of civilisation. But we must remember that, had these lands never been taken up and improved by their owners and holders, civilisation could never have advanced at all.
Throughout the whole of Australia rages an internecine war between the two great rival classes competing for the possession of the land, the squatters and the selectors. The squatter is the pioneer of civilisation. His profits are often great, but they are no greater than his risks deserve, and it is his capital and enterprise alone that open up the country. At his heels follow the selectors, an impecunious tribe of jackals armed with manhood suffrage, who rob him of his hard-earned gains.
Now it would be utterly unreasonable that the squatter should expect to remain unmolested in possession of vast tracts of country, requiring a very few hands to work.
When the proper time comes, he must give way to the advancing tide of population, and move on farther away from civilisation. But when we consider that at great risk to himself he has made life possible in a country where it was impossible before, it is evident that every consideration is due to the squatter, and, at anyrate, that he is entitled to some compensation for being forcibly ejected. Had it not been for the squatter's water-tanks, some of the railways in Victoria and New South Wales could never have been made, and, as has been already said, it is his capital and enterprise along that have developed the country.
But in Victoria the possession of a large estate is considered as a crime, and the holder a fair mark for reprisals. The recent land legislation in the colony is perfectly indefensible.
A few years ago a land-tax was passed, which, until it was surpassed by a still worse measure, stood alone for a piece of villainous legislation. It was directed entirely against one class, the holders of large freeholds, for all town-lands and anything under the value of £2500 were exempt. The value of the whole tax is about £200,000, and it is paid by a little over 800 individuals.
If anything could be worse than the Land Bill itself, it is the way in which the provisions of it are carried out. The assessment of the land was entrusted to the hands of publicans, newspaper editors, and schoolmasters; and the way in which it has been carried out is a perfect scandal. I have seen a large open plain, divided merely by a wire fence, the land on one side of which was taxed at threepence per acre, and on the other side at a shilling. Extensive bribery prevails, of course, the assessors being generally amenable to the influence of a ten-pound note; but where this inducement is not forthcoming, the assessment is regulated by purely political considerations.
In Victoria there is manhood suffrage, and the members of the Lower House of Parliament receive a salary of £300. The Upper House has recently been Liberalised to a very considerable extent by reducing the qualifications both of its members and of those by whom they are elected. While this had the effect, if indeed that were possible, of lowering the tone of the Upper House, it has materially strengthened its position. To any attempt to raise an outcry against the Upper House as being representatives of merely a class, the answer is obvious that the Upper House now represents the people, and is elected by them just as much as the Lower House. The language used in the latter assembly is disgraceful; some of its members are not unfrequently intoxicated, and occasionally there is a fight on the floor.
In Victoria, as in New South Wales and in Queensland, Members of Parliament are principally collected from the scum of the community, and politics are looked down on as being unfit either for the occupation of a gentleman or the profession of an honest man.
It is pleasant to turn from the spectacle of a mob of selfish ruffians struggling to fill their own pockets by ruining a colony, to the society of Melbourne, which is one of the cheeriest and pleasantest in the world.
Jim Foley || Email me