He Found and Raised Eureka’s Trampled Flag: a Tribute to Len Fox

This tribute was delivered at the funeral in Sydney of Len Fox (1905–2004) on 9 January, 2004. Len Fox was a foundation member of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. His first Labour History contribution appeared in issue 2 (1962) and his last in issue 67 (1994). Two of his many books were reviewed in issue 46 (1984), and his work as the secretary of the Movement Against War and Fascism in the 1930s was dealt with in issues 32 (1977) and 38 (1980). Many more articles remain to be written about his role in labour history, especially his long editorship of the miners’ paper, Common Cause, and his championship of working-class writing, Aboriginal rights, and friendship with the people of Viet Nam.

Len Fox, who has died aged 98, quipped at his 91st birthday party that if you’re fortunate enough to get to your nineties ‘some of your dreams come true’ — in fact, his most often recurring dream had just come dazzlingly true, as I’ll explain.

Among the achievements of Len’s fruitful life was the winning of his 60-year battle to have the flag of the Eureka Stockade, first, authenticated and, second, recognised as the symbol that most dramatically captures the spirit of Australian struggle for an independent republic.

Len’s interest in the flag was aroused in the Depression years of the late 1930s when a group of artists told him they had discovered a flag locked away in the Ballarat Art gallery that might be the one flown by the diggers over the stockade they erected on the Eureka digging. He began inquiring; but his calls for expert tests got nowhere.

In 1963, the very year when the 10-volume Australian Encyclopedia pronounced as ‘unlikely’ that the crumpled, torn, and dusty flag in the Gallery’s vault was the authentic Eureka flag, Len self-published a typed 26-page booklet titled The Strange Story of the Eureka Flag in which he asserted that it certainly was authentic. He had the cheek to contradict high authority because by then he’d carried out some impressive historical detection.

Len had concluded this was indeed the flag reported in the goldfields newspaper, Ballarat Times, of 3 December 1854, as being mounted on
a very splendid pole of about eighty feet … There is no flag in Europe, or in the civilised world half so beautiful, and Bakery Hill, as being the place where the Australian ensign was first hoisted, will be recorded in the deathless and indelible pages of history.
Because of Len’s persistence, today we are able to celebrate the accuracy of the bold Ballarat Times prediction.

That was 1963. Len returned to the flag controversy in 1973, with a 42-page booklet Eureka and Its Flag, tightening his flag arguments with more evidence, but also promoting the importance of the Stockade and the diggers’ movement in the goldrush decade of the 1850s. And a further 20 years on came his The Eureka Flag (1992), at which point he was now speaking with assurance that his efforts to achieve authentication of the flag had gained wide acceptance, and he gave prominence to the role of two or three diggers’ wives in swiftly, skilfully and enthusiastically handstitching the flag together perhaps from a big blue dress and a couple of petticoats.

There the matter might have been left, with enough evidence advanced to satisfy the fair-minded, despite rankling objections from the political Right. But four years later to Len’s surprise — to everyone’s surprise — an entirely unpredictable development surfaced.

In August 1996 a Christies auction in Melbourne offered the sketchbook of a Charles Doudiet: watercolours painted on the Australian goldfields in the mid-1850s. By a strange coincidence, this 22-year old Doudiet, a French Canadian artist-digger, had been prospecting at Ballarat in 1854: strange, equally, that there he befriended another digger, ‘Charlie’ Ross, who was not only one of the half-dozen leaders elected by the diggers but is generally credited with having created the unique design of this Southern Cross flag and given it to the women to turn into the flag that he hoisted above Bakery Hill. And when ‘Captain’ Ross, as the diggers called him, was severely wounded when the soldiers attacked the Stockade before dawn on Sunday morning of the 3 December 1854, it was Doudiet who took Ross to a hotel to nurse him, but Ross dies, one of about 30 diggers who were killed.

So Doudiet, eye-witness participant in these events and friend of the designer of the flag, then recorded meticulously in his sketchbook the two major events of the Eureka story: first, the diggers taking the famous oath of allegiance beneath the flag (‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties’); second, the storming of the Stockade, which he labelled: ‘Eureka Slaughter 3rd December’.

Remember the title of Len’s 1963 booklet, The Strange Story of the Eureka Flag. So many strangenesses. Though many southern cross flags fluttered on diggers’ tents, it was this entirely special design, with its inspired addition of the white cross, that was raised above the Stockade. Though it was torn down, trampled, hacked with sabres and peppered with bullets it was preserved in obscurity by a policeman’s family for 40 years, then as a tattered heap of faded fabric it found its way into the Ballarat Art Gallery in 1895, where it suffered continued obscurity under a cloud of scepticism and conservative disapproval — until Len’s research and promotion from 1963 brought a large measure of recognition.

Charles Doudiet had returned to Canada in the years after the Stockade, taking his sketchbook with him … It was found by descendants in an attic a 140 years later. Both of his paintings show the flag flying proudly, its design exactly as described by Len Fox’s patient research and illustrated in his 1963, 1973 and 1992 booklets. Here was Len’s dream come true: irrefutable validation.

Fortunately, Doudiet’s sketchbook was bought at that 1996 Christies auction by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery with the help of a hastily convened group of donors, for $245,000. A strange and wonderful story. Len was delighted, as well he might be: his long advocacy had found complete justification in his lifetime. No other historian can have enjoyed a more complete vindication. And here for 2004 is a tangible token of that vindication in this dollar coin released on 1 January by the Royal Australian Mint, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade and displaying a scene from the Doudiet painting with the authentic Eureka flag flying resplendently above the scene.

Strange, indeed, to the very end: here we have the Australian Federal Government — this most conservative of governments — writing, you might say, the dramatic conclusion to Len’s ‘strange story of the Eureka flag’ by issuing in the week of Len Fox’s death this coin which now makes official the Australia-wide recognition at last of the historic flag.

Let no one doubt that it was Len’s 60 years of thought and work that made this possible: he established the flag’s authenticity, he revealed its significance in the diggers’ struggle against oppressive authority, he upheld its relevance to the democratic republican movement. Without all that, the Doudiet sketchbook would have lacked context and meaning.

Some achievement! Let’s remember gratefully that Len lived long enough to enjoy the validation of his advocacy — and remember it especially today, as we regret that Len didn’t make the 99th year of life in which he would have participated wholeheartedly in the 150th celebration of the significance of the Eureka Stockade.

By: R.D. Walshe