IT’S almost 160 years to the day since a band of irritated gold miners made a stand on Ballarat’s Eureka diggings.
The group was angry about the steep licence fees charged to prospect, paying taxes without being allowed to vote, and the fact police were neglecting the rights of miners and making life difficult in a tough place.
Just before dawn on that December morning in 1854 a posse of soldiers and police rode into the Eureka diggings and attacked the rough stockade built around the tent settlement, killing 22 miners and losing eight of their own.
At the time the government said the massacre at the Eureka Stockade would be quickly forgotten, but the 20-minute clash went on to become a defining moment in Australian history and set the young nation – still half a century from Federation – on a course towards democracy.
Ballarat is gearing up to celebrate the significant anniversary with the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (MADE), the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Ballarat City, the old cemetery, and Sovereign Hill joining forces to create a calendar of events to remember the event.
“We believe Australian democracy started at the Eureka Stockade,” MADE director Jane Smith explains.
“The Eureka Stockade only lasted 20 minutes but that resulted in miners getting some of the first democratic rights in the Empire, and things moved very fast after that with the eight-hour day and women’s suffrage coming relatively quickly.’’
While anniversary events kicked off in September – with locals recreating the iconic Eureka flag and the 1891 women’s suffrage petition going on display as part of a special exhibition that will run until January – the real celebrations start on December 3, the 160th anniversary of the clash.
“The events on December 3 will be sombre because we know at least 30 people died on the site,” Smith says of the plans MADE has to mark the occasion.
“We will start with a welcome-to-country ceremony, then put the newly stitched flag up the flag pole before conducting a memorial service and unveiling the monument to the Pikeman’s dog to remember the men that made a last stand that morning which let a lot of other people get away.
“But the following Saturday, December 6, there will be more of a celebration at MADE with a family funfair and lots of children’s activities in the morning – live music, mazes, jumping castles – moving into a more adult space later in the day.
“There will be speeches in the theatre, explaining things done by the miners to get the results they wanted before the battle as well as presentations on the ways contemporary democracy can be linked back to the Stockade, and screenings of programs made about the event.
“We will also be unveiling new digital content for the anniversary and the filmmakers will be around to talk about the stories they discovered working on that project.’’
While the 160th Stockade anniversary will be special, those keen to discover Ballarat’s Gold Rush history can plan a Stockade-themed visit any time of the year with a swag of attractions in the central Victorian city providing a link to the golden days of the 1850s.
The Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka, which opened in 2013 on what many believe was the site of Eureka’s stockade, tells the story of Ballarat’s miners in the lead up to the 1854 battle while drawing links with the milestones that came after the struggle and the democracy we enjoy today.
MADE is a digital museum, with a bank of interactive touch screens presenting documents and photos as well as traditional displays of artefacts in glass cabinets, and visitors can listen to speeches made by icons of democracy before seeing the original Eureka flag stitched by the miners’ wives in 1854.
Sovereign Hill – one of Victoria’s favourite tourist destinations for four decades – recreates the boom days on the Ballarat diggings with a main street of period buildings, volunteers dressed in costume, a tent camp where visitors can pan for gold, and mine shafts that host underground tours.
While daytime is dedicated to the Gold Rush the evening is given to the Eureka Stockade with a sound-and-light show called Blood on the Southern Cross, which is bigger than a Broadway production, starting on the dark diggings before moving to a corner of the property where the 1854 clash is recreated.
Ballarat Heritage Tours
Andrew Sharpe, who was born and raised in Ballarat and even played Stockade hero Peter Lalor at Sovereign Hill for a time, launched Ballarat Heritage Tours 18 months ago to take visitors on a guided wander around central Ballarat in the footsteps of the miners that turned it into a boom town.
Much of the walking tour is done along Lydiard St, with a side visit to the hill that was home to the government camp during the Gold Rush, and on to the city’s magnificent Victorian train station with the host telling colourful stories about the elegant structures and the characters that built the settlement.
The Gold Museum
The Gold Museum, which is across the road from Sovereign Hill, documents Ballarat history from the days before European settlement to the present and while a large chunk of space is dedicated to telling the story of the Gold Rush other rooms host topical temporary exhibitions.
A selection of Samuel Thomas Gill’s canvases are displayed – he was called “the artist of the goldfields” and painted lively scenes from the diggings – and cabinets are packed with mining licences, miner’s tools, replica nuggets, and other artefacts from the era.
Ballarat is 120km from Melbourne, an easy 80-minute drive via the Western Freeway, with V/Line running a regular train service to the central Victorian city for those who prefer public transport.
The Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka is open from 10am to 5pm seven days a week with the institution’s website an ideal place to find information about Ballarat’s calendar of events marking the Eureka Stockade’s 160th anniversary.
More: visitballarat.com.au or visitvictoria.com
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2015