1856 elections


McCulloch entered the Victorian Parliament an a nominee member of the Legislative Council.

Constitution of 1854

James McCulloch, like so many in 1854, was recently arrived in the colony. Yet he was considered [by whom?] to be sufficiently credentialed to take a seat on the first appointive legislative council.

How did McCulloch come to be appointed to this Council? In the turmoil of the Gold Rushes and in the shadows of the Eureka Stockade uprising, much was at stake. Democracy and order were often perceived as being contradictory values. The future of the colony depended on how these values were to be balanced.

The primary task of the new Council was to draft the Constitution of the Colony of Victoria. Whatever might be the outcome of this process, McCulloch was one of the small coterie of Victoria’s Founding Fathers.

The 1856 Legislative Assembly Election.


What caused McCulloch to be rejected as a preferred candidate for a Melbourne seat?

What was the process of nomination?

When the new Constitution came into operation in 1856 he was elected to sit for Wimmera in the first Legislative Assembly.

How did McCulloch choose to stand for Wimmera?

What was the context of this election? Culmination of democratic demands focused by Chartism.

How did McCulloch view this election in relation to his own life and career?


On 1 Oct 1856 the Age expressed bewilderment at the process adopted (by who?) for the allocation of gubernatorially approved candidates for the scattered electorates sprawling across the brand new political map of the colony:

“What law of nature governs the distribution of candidates over the face of the country we can no more comprehend than we can the laws which govern the weather, the potato disease, or any other seemingly irregular and incalculable phenomena. A swarm of candidates will settle down upon some constituency, and begin squabbling, and placarding, and contending, for the honor of representing it, while within a stone’s throw some other district remains quite neglected, or is left in the hands of candidates whose election is not to be thought of without a shudder.”

The Age likened the process of seat allocation to the feeding of a pack of dogs:

“We have seen three or four dogs, when some bones have been flung among them, begin fightings, for the possession of one, while others just as good have been lying untouched around. Dash believes that the bone Hector has seized upon must be better than the rest, and endeavors to snatch it away accordingly Tiger is evidently persuaded that what Hector and Dash think worth fighting about must be specially excellent, and he immediately leaves the undisputed bone to fight for one no better.”

The Age professed to be mystified by the unedifying and irrational behaviour of prospective parliamentarians in Victoria’s inaugural elective assembly:

“It almost seems as if some of our candidates had been urged by like impulses [to those hungry, greedy hounds], so curiously have they concentrated themselves upon particular places. [And left other seats uncontested.]”

This practice of representative government was so new, so novel. And it’s would-be practitioners were not only new to the game, they were new to the colony, the continent, the hemisphere. What were the rules of this new game on a new arena. Few knew. Could it be that these rules would become whatever the most energetic and imaginative of the new players would declare them to be?

The Age did concede some difficulties were unavoidable:

“This uneconomical use of public men is perhaps to some extent unavoidable, unless they pre-arrange among themselves the places for which they propose standing-a modus operandi rendered particularly difficult by the requisition system which has been so generally adhered to during this election.”

The very process of allocation of seats among the appointive, government-approved nominees served to upset the ambition of a seamless transfer of legislative power from a nominated coterie to the same individuals henceforward to be dignified with the mantle of democratic suffrage.

But, the Age noted, the process was untidy, rushed, inefficient “uneconomical,” and undignified. Mr Blair, for example, offered himself to the electors of suburban Emerald Hill (present day South Melbourne) but was rejected. He quickly renominated in another district. Talbot, in Central Victoria, on the other hand, was offered a broad choice of unsuitable candidates parading under the colours of English, Irish, or Scottish ethnicity.

And so the Age surveyed glumly the list of candidates, finding them all more or less unsuitable. Eventually, the paper’s critical eye fell upon the candidates who had at the time of publication plumped for the remote, barely populated seat of Wimmera. There is no sensible reason why anyone should take a blind bit of notice of that faraway, mostly desert constituency, except for the fact that this electorate, in a fit of overwhelming apathy elect James McCulloch to a Parliament that he would dominate for the next 20 years.

At the time of publication, McCulloch had not yet nominated. As matters stood, “Mr. Hammill and Montgomerie at present, probably, hope to walk over the course.” But the Wimmera electorate, in the estimation of the Argus, offered an opportunity for candidates whose names were consigned to “the list of rejected.” The Age observed that “Wimmera still offer a fair field for five or six candidates. Upon the list of rejected more than five or six men appear whose services it would be a pity that country should lose. We trust that they will at once re-enter the field, taking care if it he possible, by some little pre-arrangement, to avoid jostling at one place and leaving another altogether deserted.”

And indeed, that observation proved to be correct. For [a few days later] James McCulloch, perhaps just the sort of rejected candidate whom the Age might recommend arranged to have his name added to the list of contenders for the seat of Wimmera. In this way, rather than being the venue for a walkover, an electoral contest, of sorts, would take place in Wimmera.

This [later] article outlining the ambitions, talents, accomplishments and character of Victoria’s Founding Fathers was the first time the press of the colony made note of James McCulloch’s qualities. And among those men of diverse means, energy, perspective and talent, the writer assigned McCulloch a small and peripheral role. In the mind of writer of the article, and uncorrected by his editor,

McCulloch merited less than an inch of column.

However, probably, with the benefit of hindsight, the writer may have rued his inattention to McCulloch. By the time that McCulloch finally quit the colony more than 20 years after this article was printed, McCulloch’s motives (always debatable) and actions (frequently dramatic) launched thousands of articles and millions of words as he set about the task of utterly transforming the colony. Would Victorians of 1856 have been surprised to be informed by some visiting time traveller that McCulloch was soon to become the dominating figure in Victoria? Would McCulloch himself have been surprised in 1856 if some Cassandra had stepped out of a crowd and foretold of his life and accomplishments? In the event, those who lamented McCulloch’s rise and ascendancy filled many columns of print with their denunciations and complaints. How could McCulloch have been permitted to do what he did to them, to the suffering colony of Victoria, to the all too indulgent British Empire? How, on earth, and in the name of heaven, could this happen? Conversely, McCulloch’s supporters, in Victoria at least, far more numerous, but perhaps on the whole less articulate, were less voluble and merely accepted with gratitude the advent and long persistence of James McCulloch. And in any case, those allies of McCulloch who could, were inclined to let his actions, and theirs, do the talking. For McCulloch’s part, on the fascinating subject of his own meteoric career, in public utterances, in private correspondence, and in personal introspection, he left no record. McCulloch seldom allowed more than half a sentence of personal detail or disclosure of emotional state escape from his lips or drip through the nib of his dip pen.

But, some clue to the mystery of James McCulloch’s rise and ascendency does persist. By common usage, the world evolved soon enough its rough and ready commentary on the character of his arrival and the nature of his persistence in the front of mind of his supporters, allies, acquaintances, enemies and victims. They all came to know James McCulloch as “The Inevitable.”

“Consolation Stakes”

The Census of 1854 was the basis for establishing the electoral boundaries. The figures are a fast blurring snapshot of an incredibly dynamic polity, subject to numerous incitements and opportunities to roam to and fro across the landscape.

The Wimmera, far from Melbourne and not endowed with gold, contained only 4000 scattered souls and only a small number of nascent settlements.

How did McCulloch campaign?
What resources did McCulloch have?
What opposition did McCulloch face?
Explain how the election process influenced the outcome.

What was the significance of this election for Britain?

What was the significance of this election for Victoria?

What was the significance of this election for McCulloch?