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    Eureka Flag, 1854, courtesy of Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

The History of the Eureka Flag as a Cultural Heritage Icon

After the battle at the Stockade, the captured rebel flag was taken back to the Government Camp. A report in the Geelong Advertiser told how ‘the diggers’ standard was carried by in triumph to the Camp, waved about in the air, then pitched from one to another, thrown down and trampled on’. The soldiers were seen dancing around the flag on a pole, ‘now a sadly tattered flag from which souvenir hunters had cut and torn pieces’. On 4 December 1854 Ballarat Camp clerk S.D.S. Huyghye wrote to his friend in Bendigo describing the dramatic events in Ballarat and enclosing a tiny blue fragment of the rebels’ flag: ‘… the policeman who captured the flag exhibited it to the curious and allowed such as so desired to tear off small portions of its ragged end to preserve as souvenirs’.

The flag next appeared in Melbourne as Crown evidence at the Eureka trials in early 1855, when thirteen stockaders were tried for treason and acquitted. It appears that nobody claimed the flag after the trials. Two days after the last defendants were found not guilty, trooper John King resigned from the Victoria Police and apparently took the flag as his personal souvenir.

The flag largely disappeared from public memory and those old diggers who had seen it flying over Bakery Hill had notoriously unreliable memories of it. This is not surprising because Raffaello Carboni’s book, Eureka Stockade, published only one year after the event, described the flag as made of silk, and the cover carried a vividly imagined representation of the Southern Cross flag. This image set a hare running that diverted historians for the next century, who would not accept the validity of the flag in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery because it was not the same as the illustration in Carboni’s book.

After the publication of W.B. Withers’ History of Ballarat, John King wrote to the Melbourne Public Library, offering to sell the flag to that institution. The Librarian, Marcus Clarke, asked Peter Lalor for his opinion on the genuineness of the flag, but Lalor could not be certain, so the Library decided not to purchase.

After several unsuccessful attempts by King’s family to sell the flag, James Oddie, President of the Ballarat Gallery, took an interest. The Secretary of the Gallery, James Powell, wrote to Mrs King in 1895, in a new attempt to secure the flag for public display, either as a gift or on loan. Mrs King obliged and posted the flag to the Ballarat Gallery, wrapped in a brown paper parcel, on a loan basis.

The display of the flag at the Ballarat Gallery prompted much discussion, and prompted Withers to conduct an inquiry into the flag and its authenticity. Withers had interviewed many of the diggers of 1854 for his history of Ballarat, and commented on the ‘chaos of contradictory descriptions’ they gave him. He carefully assessed the evidence of the 1854-5 accounts, and in his quest, tracked down a piece of cloth which had been taken as a souvenir at the Camp immediately after the Stockade. Withers borrowed the fragment, which was in the possession of Mrs Clendinning and her son-in-law Colonel Rede, and took it to the Ballarat Gallery so that the fragment could be tested against the King flag. Withers pronounced them identical, a telling point in establishing the authenticity of the flag.

Souveniring of pieces of the flag continued even beyond its acquisition by the Ballarat Gallery. Fred Riley, a visitor to Ballarat in 1912, describes how the flag was displayed at the Gallery:

I went to the Art Gallery to see the flag the men fought under and strange to say no-one there seems to value it in the least. It is hung over a trestle affair exposed to the public. Well I got into conversation with the keeper, and persuaded him to give me a bit of the flag, and much to my surprise and astonishment he gave me a bit. I was with him when he tore it off.

The kindly but misguided custodian at the Gallery continued this habit of giving small samples of the flag to interested visitors, almost as holy relics were distributed to pilgrims in Medieval times.

William Keith was the custodian for the Eureka flag from 1933 until his retirement thirty years later. Keith was happy to help any people who demonstrated an interest in the flag, including members of the Communist Party of Australia. In the turbulent years of the 1930s, when economic depression and the rise of Fascism dominated the public arena, the small Communist Party adopted the Eureka Stockade as part of the history of workers’ struggle against oppression.

A small rectangle from the flag, given to a member of the Communist Party’s Melbourne Artists’ Branch in 1938 wishing to make an accurate reproduction, again sparked investigations into the authenticity of the flag. A man called Len Fox, a journalist who was friendly with members of the art group set out on a personal quest to establish the authenticity of the flag in the Ballarat Gallery. Fox studied contemporary accounts such as Carboni’s, and consulted with the King family, the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, and Nathan Spielvogel, historian and curator of the Ballarat Historical Museum.

Fox wrote an article headed ‘Eureka Flag Mystery Solved?’ for the Tribune on 17 July 1945, putting forward his arguments for the authenticity of the flag held by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Fox’s writings about the flag culminated in a self-published booklet in 1963 that set out his arguments as to why the flag in the Ballarat Gallery was indeed the genuine article.

From 1963, probably resulting from Len Fox’s interest, the Secretary of the Gallery, Austin McCallum, locked the flag away in a safe at the Public Library. On one occasion McCallum was horrified to discover that the safe had been broken into, but was mightily relieved to find the flag, in its brown paper wrapping, had been ignored by the robber. After this, he placed the flag in the vault of the National Bank.

The appointment of the first professional director of the Ballarat Gallery in 1967 revolutionised conservation and exhibition procedures. The condition of the Eureka flag became a concern, and in 1971 Gallery President and Ballarat Mayor Jack Chisholm, a keen local historian, spearheaded a move to bring the flag out of its hiding place, conserve it and put it back on exhibition. Under the watchful supervision of the director Margaret McKean it was carefully washed, then stitched to backing material by accomplished Ballarat seamstress Van D’Angri, then mounted behind glass.

It was unveiled by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on Eureka Day 1973, with no possibility of any further excisions by misguided custodians.

When the Ballarat Gallery was extended in the 1980s, a special Eureka Gallery was constructed to display the flag. Its position was now quite certain, reflecting a change in public thinking about the flag. It received further special conservation and remounting in an improved display case in 1995, thanks to a grant from the Victorian government, and was once again ‘unveiled’, but this time by Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett. Thus the left and the right of the political spectrum had both contributed to its conservation.

When the Gallery underwent further extensions in 2001, the flag moved again, this time to its own gallery in the heart of the building, with improved lighting and a truly reverential place of honour.

Who made the Eureka flag?

One of the great mysteries of the Eureka story is the question of who designed the Southern Cross flag. One of the many controversies concerns the question of who made the flag.

Contemporary accounts such as Carboni’s suggest that the designer may have been the Canadian digger Henry Charles Ross, who died at the Stockade defending the flag. Unfortunately Ross left no records, and as a young, unmarried man had no family to speak for him. The Ballarat Times reportedly carried a story shortly after the Stockade referring to two women making the flag from an original drawing by a digger named Ross. Unfortunately no complete set of the Ballarat Times exists, and it is impossible to locate this intriguing reference.

The story is echoed in the 1893 book From Tent to Parliament, which stated that ‘the flag was made by a couple of ladies, and the order to make it was conveyed by Ross, who was one of the first to die under it’. Father Tom Linane, a respected local historian of the 1970s, subscribed to the idea that it was women from St Alipius who might have made the Eureka flag.

A number of descendants who are members of Eureka’s Children claim their ancestors were involved in the sewing of the flag. In Eric Lambert’s novel, Ballarat (1962), a character called Jenny Light gives up her blue silk dress for the making of the flag. The blue woollen material certainly bears a marked resemblance to the standard dressmaker’s length of material for making up one of the voluminous dresses of the 1850s.

However there is also a men’s flag story, that a group of men made the flag out of tent materials. A reliable eyewitness was A.W. Crowe who recounted in 1893 that ‘it was Ross who gave the order for the insurgents’ flag at Darton and Walker’s’. Crowe’s story is supported by advertisements in the Ballarat Times for Darton and Walker, tent, tarpaulin and flag makers, at the Gravel Pits. As is the way of oral history, many have claimed a part in making the flag.

This is an edited version of an article which appeared in the exhibition catalogue for 'Eureka revisited: the contest of memories', an exhibition at Ballarat Fine Art Gallery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion.

Anne Beggs-Sunter