Eureka Flag

The Ballaarat Reform League and the Eureka flag

The flag of the Ballaarat Reform League, the Southern Cross, now more commonly known as the Eureka flag, was first flown at a Monster Meeting of around 12,000 men held on 29th November 1854 at Bakery Hill. The meeting was called to hear the results of the Ballaarat Reform League’s deputation to Governor Hotham. The anger of the meeting when they heard of Governor Hotham’s dismissal of their Charter led to a call to burn mining licences.

Through the generosity of the descendants of John King, the Eureka flag was given to the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 2001. The flag had been on loan to the Gallery since 1895 when John King’s widow was approached by the Gallery Association at the instigation of Gallery President, James Oddie.

Original flags are a rarity – they seldom survive the battles where they have been flown or, as in the case of the Eureka flag, the many years before their significance is recognised.

John King had been a police trooper at the storming of the Stockade. He had volunteered to ‘capture’ the flag, climbing the flagpole and tearing the flag from its mast to do so. The flag was then used as evidence in the treason trials in early 1855. It is believed that when no-one claimed the flag after the trials it was returned to John King, who was by now a farmer having left the police force soon after Eureka. The King family treasured the flag for over 40 years before James Oddie learnt of its survival.

Isabella King, widow of John King, agreed to loan the flag to the Gallery and wrapped it and sent it by parcel post to Ballarat along with a letter:

Kingsley, Minyip,
1st October, 1895
Dear Sir, In connection with the wish of the president of the Ballarat Fine Arts and Public Gallery for the gift or loan of the flag that floated above the Eureka Stockade, I have much pleasure in offering loan of flag to the above association on condition that I may get it at any time I specify, or on demand of myself or my son, Arthur King. The main portion of the flag was torn along the rope that attached it to the staff, but there is still part of it around the rope so that I suppose it would be best to send the whole of it as it now is. You will find several holes, that were caused by bullets that were fired at my late husband in his endeavours to seize the flag at that memorable event:- Yours, &c.,
Mrs J. King (per Arthur King)

The loan continued until 2001 when the descendants were approached by the Gallery Director to formally and legally gift the flag to the Gallery. Interest in Eureka and the flag had increased to a point where there were at that time a number of individuals and institutions showing interest in claiming the flag. The flag had survived 147 years due to the care of the King family and the Art Gallery of Ballarat. It was time to formalise the ownership.

by Anne Beggs Sunter

Paper for Eureka Seminar, University of Melbourne History Department, 1 December 2004
(Published in Eureka: reappraising an Australian legend, edited by Alan Mayne, Perth, Network Books, 2007)

This paper will examine the meanings of the Eureka Flag, which was first raised at a huge public protest meeting at Bakery Hill on the Ballarat goldfields on 29 November 1854. Throughout history flags have been markers of the ritual of revolution, and the Eureka flag was interpreted in this way when it was presented as Crown evidence at the trials in Melbourne where diggers captured at the Eureka Stockade were tried for the capital offence of treason against Queen Victoria. But from its very first appearance, observers made different interpretations of its symbolism. It was subsequently used by right and left wing political groups as a banner of dissent. That contest continues to the present day, with controversy over the proposal to raise the flag over the Australian Federal Parliament, and register it as a national flag. The intensity of these debates reveals much about our conception of nation, and our confused sense of national identity.


diggers flag

Flags were very important visual markers on the goldfields, used to identify the location of key buildings such as stores and public offices. From the beginning of the gold rush, and the first protests against the licence fee, flags would fly at public meetings. The artist David Tulloch sketched the scene at Mount Alexander in December 1851 where a diggers’ flag was raised. In one corner was a pick and shovel, representing labour; in another was a bundle of Roman sticks, representing unity, in a third a set of scales, and in the forth the kangaroo and emu, representing an emerging Australian identity.

This was a precursor to another diggers’ flag, the Eureka flag, the banner of the Ballarat Reform League that emerged in Ballarat in early November 1854, seeking democratic reform of government and an end to the iniquitous and corrupt administration of the goldfields. In 1895 the President of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, James Oddie, obtained custodianship of the tattered Eureka flag, which had flown over the Eureka Stockade on the morning of 3 December 1854, when the diggers were attacked by Her Majesty’s forces. Since 1894 it has been looked after by the Gallery, sometimes neglected, in recent times a treasured artefact of great importance. The treatment it has received at different times reflects the way people have valued it. For many years it was totally ignored, with very few people taking an interest in it. Today it is seen as a national icon and it is the centre of a number of disputes that I want to untangle.

What did the Eureka flag stand for?
Who designed the flag?
Who made the flag?
What happened to it?
What groups have used the flag?
Should the flag become a national flag?

The first reference to the flag came in the Ballarat Times of Friday 24 November 1854, when an article alerted readers to the monster meeting of the Ballarat Reform League on the following Wednesday. It announced that at the meeting ‘the Australian flag shall triumphantly wave, a symbol of Liberty’. With much colourful language, the report ends by urging the readers ‘Forward! People! Forward!’ It was very revolutionary, very emotive language, and the writer Henry Seekamp was obviously privy to the making of the flag.

Charles Doudiet, 'Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross' 1854
Doudiet, ‘Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross’ 1854
Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat.
Purchased with the assistance of many donors, 1966

The Eureka flag was first hoisted at the Bakery Hill meeting on 29 November 1854. The Ballarat Times recorded that ‘there is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful as the Southern Cross of the Ballarat miners’.1 What the flag symbolised has been debated since that day. Contemporaries saw it as a flag of insurrection, ‘the national flag of Australia for all future time’.2 After Peter Lalor made his men swear an oath to ‘stand truly by each other’ under the flag, and ‘to fight to defend our rights and liberties’, it acquired special meaning for the men of many nations who were prepared to die for the Southern Cross, which united them as citizens of a new republic.3

At the Eureka treason trials in 1855, the flag was the most important piece of Crown evidence for the charge that the diggers ‘maliciously and traitorously did raise upon a pole a certain flag as a standard and collect round the said standard and did then solemnly swear to defend each other with the intention of levying war against our said Lady the Queen’.4

The flag had been seen only briefly in public – first raised on Bakery Hill on 29 November 1854; last seen flying over the Eureka Stockade on the morning of 3 December 1854.

One of the great mysteries of the Eureka story is the question of who designed the Southern Cross flag. Contemporary accounts such as Carboni’s suggest that the designer may have been the Canadian Henry Charles Ross, who died at the Stockade defending the flag.5 Ross came from Toronto, and certainly there are some similarities to the flag of Quebec that has a white cross on a blue ensign. 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.6

One fascinating piece of evidence is a sketch in the Ballarat Historical Society collection, which is inscribed ‘found in a tent after the affair at Eureka’. With it was a piece of the Eureka flag. It appears to be the design sketch for the flag, but gives no clue of authorship.7

The flag of the Ballarat Reform League was a huge one, measuring some 4 metres by 2.6 metres, and must have entailed many hours of careful sewing. Oral tradition pointed to the ‘romantic story’ of women making the stars of the flag out of their petticoats.8 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.9 The stars are made of delicate material which is consistent with petticoat material. Father Tom Linane, a respected local historian of the 1970s, subscribed to the idea that it was women from St. Alipius Catholic congregation who might have made the Eureka flag.10 This theory is supported by the fact that the priest at St. Alipius would fly an ecclesiastical flag – blue cross on a white background – to signify when services were about to begin.11

A number of women who are members of Eureka’s Children claim their ancestors were involved, including Anne Duke, Anastasia Withers and Anastasia Hayes.12

However there is also a men’s flag story, related by J.W. Wilson, that a group of men made the flag out of tent materials.13 A reliable eye-witness 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’.14 Crowe’s story is supported by advertisements in the Ballarat Times in October-November 1854 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.

After the battle, 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’. 15 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‘.16

On 4 December 1854 Ballarat Camp clerk S.D.S. Huyghue wrote to his friend Reynell Eveleigh Johns in Bendigo describing the dramatic events in Ballarat and enclosing a tiny blue fragment of the rebels’ flag:

The foot police behaved most gallantly and were the first to cross the barricade. One of them distinguished himself by climbing the flagstaff under a shower of balls and possessing himself of the rebel flag – a white cross – star pointed on a blue ground – representing the “Crux Australia” the symbol of the Reform League. Next morning 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.17

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. At the trial of John Manning, Trooper John King appeared as a Crown witness and he said ‘I took a flag down. This (flag produced) is the flag.18 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 took his flag as a trophy. John King became a farmer, eventually settling in the late 1870s near Minyip in the Victorian Wimmera district. Here the flag made occasional appearances at country bazaars.

It 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 Rafaello Carboni’s book, published only one year after the event, described the flag as made of silk, and the cover illustration was not an accurate representation. Carboni gave a description of the flag to an engraver working for his printer, who came up with this approximate design. It set a hare running that diverted historians for the next century, who would not accept the validity of the flag in the Gallery because it was not the same as the illustration in Carboni’s book. But Carboni was prone to poetic language, and the basis of his design accords with the basis of the design on the first edition of the History of Ballarat by W.B. Withers published in 1870 – vis both designs represent the stars of the Southern Cross and an ecclesiastical cross on a blue background.19

Withers commented in 1870 that he had not been able to find out what had happened to the flag. 20 It is likely that King read Withers’s book, because he 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, and asked ‘Can you find someone whose memory is more accurate than mine‘?21 The Library decided not to purchase the flag, on the grounds that there was some uncertainty as to its authenticity.

In 1895 James Oddie, President of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, heard from a Methodist minister that the widow of John King had the original Eureka flag He wrote to Mrs King and asked her to donate it or loan it to the Gallery. Mrs King sent it to the Ballarat Gallery by post, wrapped in a brown paper parcel, on a loan basis.

The new exhibit in the Gallery prompted much discussion. It prompted local historian W.B. Withers to conduct an enquiry into the authenticity of the flag. Withers wrote that he had not been particularly interested in the flag in 1870 when he wrote his history, but that now, more than forty years after the event ‘we are now on the fringe of the time when legend and poetry, and a certain blending of patriotism and veneration in some quarters are, it would seem, beginning to gather around the Stockade’. Withers had interviewed many of the diggers of 1854, and commented on the ‘chaos of contradictory descriptions’ they gave him.22

He discovered in his quest that a piece of cloth which Dr Alfred Carr received as a souvenir at the Camp immediately after the Stockade was in the possession of a local lady. Withers borrowed the fragment and took it to the Gallery so that the local manager of the woollen mill could test the two fabrics. He pronounced them identical, a telling point in establishing the authenticity of the King flag.

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. It seem wanton sacrilege, vandalism or something worse to tear it still he did and I am in possession of that piece.23

This piece is now in the National Library of Australia.

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. Without realising it or articulating the sentiment, William Keith promoted the spirit of the flag and its symbolism.

Keith was happy to help any people who demonstrated an interest in it, including members of the Communist Party. In the turbulent years of the 1930s, when economic depression and the rise of fascism dominated the public arena, the small Communist Party adopted Eureka as part of the history of workers’ struggle against oppression. This policy led the Melbourne Artists’ Branch of the CPA to want to make Eureka flags for the May Day March in 1938. One of the young artists, Evelyn Shaw, had grown up in Ballarat, and told the group that she had seen the original flag in the art gallery. She wrote to her mother to find out if the flag still existed, so that her friends could make an accurate reproduction of it for the May Day March. Mrs Shaw visited the gallery and talked to the custodian, who brought the flag out from the drawer where it was stored. He carefully tore off a small rectangle of blue cloth and gave it to the visitor. She then sent it to her daughter, enclosed in a letter describing the visit and containing a sketch of the design. Evelyn gave her mother’s letter and the piece of fabric to Rem McClintock, the senior member of the art group.24 He was intrigued by the letter, and told his friend Len Fox about the flag.

The Sydney journalist Fox, who worked for the Communist Party press, wrote an article about the flag in December 1944 and began his serious investigation, much as Withers had done in 1896. He wrote to the King family, the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and Ballarat historian Nathan Spielvogel. The Gallery custodian sent him a piece of the flag in March 1945, together with a careful drawing, and although Spielvogel gave his reasons for doubting the authenticity of the flag, he promised his assistance. Fox came to Ballarat in 1945 to see the flag at the Gallery, and was given two more fragments by the custodian.25 Fox’s passionate interest in the flag led him to self-publish a booklet in 1963 which set out his arguments as to why the flag in the Ballarat Gallery was indeed the genuine article.26

From 1963, probably resulting from Len Fox’s interest, the Ballarat Gallery locked the flag away in a safe at the Public Library. On one occasion the librarian 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, the flag was placed 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, it was carefully washed, then stitched to backing material by accomplished Ballarat seamstress Val D’Angri. It was unveiled by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on Eureka Day, 1973, with no possibility of any further excisions by misguided custodians.27

When the Gallery underwent extensions in 2001, assisted by a Commonwealth Centenary of Federation grant, 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. In September 2001, a legal process finally saw the flag given to the Gallery by the King family.

In terms of conservation and display, the Eureka Flag leads the world. During the conservation process, Gallery Director Margaret Rich had discussions with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, where the Stars and Stripes is housed. There are some interesting parallels between the Eureka flag and the Stars and Stripes. This huge flag, measuring nine by thirteen metres, was made by a mother and daughter for the commandant of Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1812, and flown as a symbol of independence in a war against the British. It was kept by the Armstead family until 1907, when it was loaned to the Smithsonian, the loan later converted to a gift. Apparently many pieces had been cut from it as mementoes in the nineteenth century. Since 1999 it has been undergoing an $18(US) million conservation program.28

One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of the flag is the way that pieces periodically return to the Gallery. The first piece to return was the Billings fragment in 1993, sent from Kyabram, in northern Victoria, where it was found in a secret compartment of a family sea chest that had originally belonged to Dr J.D. Williams, camp surgeon in Ballarat in December 1854. He had been given the piece as a souvenir at the Ballarat Camp when he was attending the wounded after the Stockade, and his descendants kindly returned it to the Gallery.29

The St. Patrick’s piece was one of those fragments cut off on the early years of the twentieth century, and it ended up in the safe of St. Patrick’s Christian Brothers College in Ballarat. It returned to the Gallery on 21 June 1996. 30 In June 2004, when the new naval warship HMAS Ballarat was commissioned, the Gallery lent this piece for the maiden voyage of the ship.31

In 1996 I was researching and writing a script for a video production on the flag, which led me to Sydney to meet and interview Evelyn Healy and Len Fox. When I asked Fox what had happened to the pieces given to him by Mr. Keith back in 1945, he admitted that he had been carefully looking after five tiny pieces, which he asked me to return to the Gallery. I did this with great pleasure in January 1997.

The most amazing story concerns Evelyn Healy. She had brought the fact of the flag’s existence to the attention of the Communist Party in 1938. She moved to Sydney in 1940 and lost touch with her friends, especially with the leader Rem McClintock, who had never returned her piece of Eureka flag. She had asked McClintock a number of times to return the fragment and her mother’s letter, but to no avail. In July 1997 a piece of the Eureka flag came up for auction at Christies in Melbourne, with a reserve price of $10,000. It came from the collection of Alex McClintock, the son of Rem, whom Evelyn remembered seeing as a child at musical evenings held at McClintock’s home in 1938. The blue fragment was in a frame with an accompanying pencil sketch of the flag and the design on the cover of Raffaello Carboni’s 1855 book, The Eureka Stockade. Also in the frame was a double sided piece of plain paper, written in ink, as follows:

I inquired from Mr Spielvogel, who has charge of, is responsible for, the Historical Museum here. He showed me a book by a man Raffaello written in 1855, 6 months after the Eureka riots. On the cover was a reproduction of the first flag I have drawn, which Mr S. feels certain is similar to the original. However, there has been quite a bit of controversy over the whole thing, as another flag, claimed by many to be the real one, is at the Art Gallery… I went to Mr Keith who produced it for me. It is a huge flag, hand-made (he said it was supposed to be made from the petticoats of the women, which it easily could be, as this material, which he tore off for me, is similar to what was used then. It is tattered, and also smothered with small holes, lots of which have a slight burnt edge. I would almost certainly say bullets had made them. Mr K. thinks it is the real flag.

Mr S. said the original flag was silk, the Gallery one, bunting. However Mr K. says it is not bunting: I don’t think I’d call it bunting. It has a silk texture and sheen.

This is the letter from Mrs Myrtle Shaw in Ballarat to her daughter Evelyn in Melbourne, circa March, 1938. This is the letter and piece Evelyn gave to Rem McClintock, and never saw again, until, to her amazement, she saw it reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 July 1997, with the announcement that it would be auctioned. This was the piece that Len Fox wrote about in his 1986 article on ‘Women and the Eureka Flag‘ published in Overland in December 1986. Evelyn expressed ‘deep emotion‘ on picking up her newspaper and being confronted with her mother’s handwriting after nearly 60 years. She felt ‘the need to rescue it from the mercenary and ironic role of helping sell a piece of the Eureka flag‘.32

This set off a train of events, with the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery determined that the piece should not be auctioned, for the Eureka flag was too significant an artefact to be bartered over in the auction mart. Healy took out an injunction against the sale, on the grounds that the letter rightfully belonged to her. She had carefully kept copies of her mother’s letters and was able to produce these as evidence that the handwriting in the 1938 letter was indeed her mother’s. After lengthy legal proceedings, her claim was recognised. She presented the piece of the flag and her mother’s letter to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in March 1998.

In the Gallery’s new Eureka Gallery, these pieces are displayed near the flag, with their stories.

The Eureka flag and derivatives of it have been used by radical groups since the time of the Stockade, intriguingly by members of the Left and the Right side of politics. The cause of the Ballarat diggers was taken up by the Victoria Land League, in 1857 with its emblem the Southern Cross, and its motto ‘Advance Australia‘. 33 This movement really began the tradition of radical working class use of the flag in the fight for improved working and living conditions, rather than for more esoteric nationalist uses. In this context the use of a flag derived from the Eureka flag at Lambing Flat, New South Wales, in 1861 can be understood. The Miners’ Protection League was formed to protest against the Chinese infringing their working conditions. They may have proclaimed the values of ‘equality, fraternity and glorious liberty’, but their motives were to remove the Chinese from the goldfield so that they had less competition in their gold seeking. 34 This evocation seems far removed from the principles of democracy that had been proclaimed at Bakery Hill. But a tradition had been born, and in 1878 Eureka flags were apparently carried at a Seamen’s Union strike against the use of cheap Asian labour – again the race card was being played.35

The early years of the 1890s saw the rise of the labour movement, with a number of trade union-led strikes, and derivatives of the Eureka flag appeared as a banner of trade union solidarity and protest against capitalists who would not negotiate a fair deal. At the trysting ground of political protest in Melbourne, the Yarra Bank, 30,000 people gathered in August 1890 under a platform decorated with the Eureka flag to demonstrate union solidarity with maritime workers.36 The protesting shearers at Barcaldine, Queensland in April 1891 were reported to have flown a Eureka flag over their camp. Henry Lawson wrote his famous poem Blood on the Wattle about the incident. 37 This poem, more than anything else, has, I believe, been responsible for the trade union movement’s love affair with the flag.

During the 1890s a Federation flag, white stars on a blue cross against a white ground, with the Union Jack in the top left hand corner, became a de facto Australian flag. 38 It bore strong similarities to the Eureka flag, symbolising the move of the six British colonies in Australia to form a new nation. With the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, a competition was held by the Commonwealth Government to design a national flag, and the winner incorporated the Southern Cross, but also the Union Jack, an ambiguous symbol of national identity.39

Coloured by the events of World War One and the Great Depression, the Eureka flag made a reappearance in the public domain during the 1930s. The right-wing nationalist New Guard adopted it,40 and it was also adopted by the radical left wing of the Australian Labor Party and the Communist Party. I have earlier described the CPA’s use of the flag at May Day marches from the 1940s.41 The most notable Communist group to use the flag as its symbol was the Eureka Youth League, formed in Melbourne in 1941.

The Eureka Youth League was formed out of the rump of the banned League of Young Democrats following the Menzies government’s banning the Communist Party in June 1940.42 The League of Young Democrats, formed in 1938 in Melbourne, in turn grew out of the Young Communist League, which had started in the late 1920s, with Sydney as headquarters, but Melbourne an active centre of activities.43 Harry Stein suggests that the Eureka Youth League was formed in the middle of 1941, the idea of Malcolm Goode.44 The former leaders of the League of Young Democrats supplied the leadership for a new broad left coalition of young people, representing trade unionists, high school students and service personnel. Bob Walshe suggests that the name was linked to a direction from Moscow, that the CPA should form popular fronts, which linked in to national sentiments within particular countries.45

At the end of 1942 the Eureka Youth League opened its headquarters at North Melbourne, with a camp at Warburton in the Dandenong Ranges.46 By 1943 the League was established in every state, and in 1944 the Labor Club at Melbourne University affiliated with it. At its peak during the war and into the fifties, it was, according to Audrey Blake, the most influential and effective youth organisation in Australia. Blake was the driving force behind the League. She had been greatly impressed as a young woman by a discussion with Kuusinon, member in charge of youth affairs in the Communist International, while she was in Moscow attending the Sixth Congress of the Young Communist International in 1937-8. He suggested to her that rather than forming a Communists-only organisation, it would be better to develop a broad youth organisation that would include non-Communists. Blake took this advice to heart, and also the words of George Dimitrov, in building the Eureka Youth League.47 She was concerned with abstracting Eureka from time and place, making it part of an international ideological argument. Because of the League’s range of sporting and cultural activities, it had wide appeal, and it also gave excellent opportunities for young women to become organisers. It was the only socialist youth organisation that became truly national. During the war the League was tireless in supporting the war effort, running campaigns to reduce absenteeism from work, helping bring in the harvests and support Victory loans. It circulated a newspaper Eureka amongst members in the armed services. For this patriotic work the League was praised by members of the Curtin government.48

may day march
May Day march, Melbourne, 1945. EYL members carry their Eureka Flag.
(University of Melbourne Archives.)

In 1948 3,000 members of the Eureka Youth League and fellow unionists marched through the city of Melbourne to mark the 94th anniversary of Eureka. The League brought the flag to popular notice, with a replica of the Eureka flag being carried at the head of the procession.49 The flag was now strongly associated with Left wing political protest. But more than that, the story of Eureka and the symbolism of the flag was used in the campaign leading up to the 1951 referendum when Menzies wanted to ban the Communist Party. The flag was now strongly associated with Left wing political protest.50

From the 1960s the flag became strongly associated with the Builders’ Labourers Federation, used by Jack Munday in Sydney and Norm Gallagher in Melbourne, with Eureka flags being carried at militant trade union demonstrations. Union members also wore the flag on their hard hats and tee-shirts, making it a popular item of personal clothing. While people knew little about the historical origins of the flag, it was readily identified as the symbol of the militant wing of the trade union movement. Following the demise of the Builders’ Labourers Union, it was taken up by the Electrical Trades’ Union and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

Ken Mansell, a member of the Eureka Youth League from 1967, believed that the League was swamped by a new radical Maoist student organisation, the Australian Independence Movement, which also used the flag as its emblem. For this movement, the Eureka flag symbolised ‘the struggle for Australian independence, raised to stop racism, Nazism and super-power dominance‘.51 Ann Newmarch’s screenprint captures the ‘Long March’, when several hundred students travelled to the USA base at North-West Cape in Western Australia in May 1974 to stage a demonstration against the American communications base.52 When the Whitlam government was dismissed by the Governor-General in November 1975, Eureka flags were prominent at mass rallies protesting not just at the actions of the imperialist Governor-General, but also demanding a republic of Australia.53

Extreme Right-wing groups have also adopted the Eureka flag as their standard, causing some to comment that the flag had been devalued by extremist groups. Organisations such as the neo-Nazist Australian National Socialist Party, National Action, National Front (Australia) and the National Alliance have used the flag. These shadowy groups draw on a (white) Australian historical tradition to link the Eureka Stockade to white-Australian trade union movements of the late nineteenth century, and thence to the anti-immigration movement of the late twentieth century.54 In 1998 Pauline Hanson used the symbol of Eureka as part of her ‘One Nation’ publicity.55

Many other groups have also used the flag, their motivations sometimes difficult to understand. For many years the Minerals Council of Australia used to celebrate the Eureka anniversary at its headquarters in Canberra, draping the foyer of their building with Eureka flags. This provided a spectacular foil to the trade unions, but the Council venerated Eureka because the miners objected to an unfair gold licence which they saw as an unwarranted intrusion upon free enterprise. In a similar way the Small Business Association staged a rally of 6000 people at the Stockade monument in 1990, waving Eureka flags as a protest against Federal taxes.56 It is more difficult to understand the interest of bikies in the flag, but the Eureka Centre gift shop in Ballarat reported that bikies were the best customers, buying flags to fly from their motor bikes, and especially silver belt buckles which incorporate the Eureka flag.

It was the spectacle of these very different groups using the flag for such conflicting purposes that led Ballarat’s Peter Tobin to re-claim the flag for its original symbolism and for Ballarat when he engineered its re-appearance on Bakery Hill in 1979.57 A similar sentiment was expressed by a full page advertisement taken out in the National Times on 30 March 1980, when a widely representative group of citizens called for the flag, ‘symbolising the aspirations of Australians for a just and humane society‘, to be used as a national symbol instead of being appropriated by racist and fascist groups.58 By the 1990s, the design of the flag had gained wide acceptance, incorporated into the emblems of the City of Ballarat and the University of Ballarat. The historian John Molony made an impassioned plea in 1994 for the flag to be freed from political connotations, because it was not a republican symbol, but rather a symbol of hope and liberty, of the quest for human rights.59

Since the Whitlam government canvassed the need for a new national flag in the early 1970s, the Eureka flag has often been mentioned in these discussions. The Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust made an approach to the Federal Government in 1997 to have the Eureka flag accorded official status under the Flags Act. Ballarat Labor parliamentarian Catherine King raised the issue again in November 2003, introducing a private members’ bill seeking the registration of the flag under the official Flags Act, so that it could be flown at Parliament House in Canberra on special occasions.60 The attempt failed, with the government raising the argument that the flag had been tainted by its use by left-wing unions.61 Whilst Liberal-National Party politicians frowned on the flag, it is fascinating that it has been adopted as the emblem of the new Australian navy frigate, HMAS Ballarat, which will fly the Eureka flag on special occasions and be an ambassador for the flag.62

That these questions have been raised with such passion again testifies to the enduring resonance of the Eureka story in our culture. The controversy about the proper home for the flag has been broadly canvassed in Ballarat, and to a lesser extent in Melbourne and in the national press. The opening of the Eureka Centre in March 1998 really focussed the discussion when Premier Jeff Kennett suggested that the original flag should be in the Eureka Centre. Gough Whitlam has also supported this call when he came to Ballarat to receive an honour from the Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust in June 2001.63

The Ballarat Fine Art Gallery has looked after the flag for over 100 years, on behalf of the Australian people. The Gallery is able to give the best possible conservation to this precious and beautiful national icon, close to the site where it first flew at Bakery Hill as a symbol of protest. Whether that protest represented the spirit of democracy, or republicanism, or free enterprise has been disputed. Who was responsible for the design of the symbol, for making it, and whether the flag in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery is the genuine article are questions that have generated heated arguments. At the end of the twentieth century, a lively contest has arisen about the appropriate location of the flag, and about whether it should become the Australian national flag.

Meanwhile the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery cherishes the flag in its special shrine, where it has displaced the Union Jack that once marked the locality as a British colony. The beautiful, stark and simple design of the flag had been the basis of its enduring appeal, endearing it to the diverse array of organisations who have adopted it as their symbol of unity, passion and Australia’s heritage. There is still much work to be done in clarifying our national identity, but in looking back over 150 years, there is no doubt that the Eureka flag has become the most important symbol of that identity.