It’s one of the great mysteries of our past: up there with the trying to find Lasseter’s Reef, what happened to Ludwig Leichhardt or indeed discovering the actual location of the Eureka rebellion.
What happened to the diorama that was located in the Eureka Stockade Memorial Park?
Many people in the city fondly remember the coin-operated, sound-and-light accompanied representation of the 1854 uprising which opened in August 1970.
Although it’s long since faded in comparison to other attractions such as Sovereign Hill, it has to be remembered that in the 1960s there was no detailed exhibit to explain what took place during the rebellion in the memorial park.
There was an obelisk (with four completely incongruent naval cannon), a glasshouse and scenic swimming pool Lake Elsworth (a FREE swimming pool!), but no plaque or sign describing the battle in detail.
Following the successful centenary re-enactment of the stockade in 1954 at Sovereign Hill attended by 5000 people, including then Premier John Cain Snr, the commemorations of Eureka dropped away until the only attendees at one year in the 1960s were a few locals, a Labor politician and members of the Ballarat Communist Party.
(Interesting note: in 1954, the troopers marched into town and battle with actual .303 SMLE rifles on their shoulders to battle the diggers.)
Desperate to rejuvenate flagging interest, the various associations involved in the commemoration of Eureka and the maintenance of the memorial park began to cast around for new ideas.
A caravan park had been added in 1950, but swimming in the beautiful Lake Elsworth was prohibited in 1964 due to faecal contamination. It was later filled in and the much more prosaic Eureka Pool built in the 1970s.
In the late 1960s, the combined Rotary Clubs of Ballarat were looking for a project that would be a suitable and striking first job for their members.
Following an earlier suggestion by then Ballarat mayor Cr Webb that a ‘scale model depicting the event, modern restaurant and … Olympic Pool’ would be a ‘wonderful attraction’, the Rotary clubs took up the idea.
The coin-operated diorama suggestion seems to have originated with Mr Trev Negri in 1963. In a Courier article of December of that year, he suggested he had seen a display in Toowoomba where:
“various relics were securely placed behind protective walls and bars and by placing a sixpence in a slot a recorded commentary was given.”
Mr Negri also suggested that Ballarat should proudly fly the Southern Cross flag as many southern states in the US did with Confederate flags, which may have tarnished his proposal somewhat.
Ballarat East Rotary president George Wilmot said many tourists had been disappointed at the lack of historic information at the world famous stockade.
In November 1968 the Rotary Cup Walkathon was held to raise money to build what was proposed as a “life-size diorama” at the Eureka Stockade Memorial Park.
Twenty-two Rotarians had volunteered to walk distances from one mile to 15 miles. It raised $3500, and was matched 2-1 by the Bolte government, giving a total of $10,500 to build the diorama.
The mayor Cr M.J. Brown turned the first sod for the diorama in August 1969, and by August 9, 1970 it was open.
It was not, as promised, life-sized. Instead three half-sized troopers in the foreground, including the fatally wounded Captain Wise, face off against tiny stockaded diggers in the distance.
A 20-cent machine provided a narration and light show, voiced by Eric (later Sir Eric) Pearce.
The new attraction was a hit, although sadly not only with the paying public. Vandals seemed drawn to the building, and a Courier editorial just two months later lamented that the coin mechanism was continually jammed with ring pulls, hair pins and ice-cream sticks.
But it endured, and adults today tell the story of, as children, waiting for visitors to put their money into before rushing forward to see the show. In just a few years the inevitable call for more ‘sophisticated’ entertainment arose, and in 1973 the astonishing call was:
Mr R. Corbett of Wendouree suggested the entire site could be rebuilt as the stockade of the time, and staff made to wear appropriate clothing, such as was being done at he new Sovereign Hill development. A giant diorama depicting all of Ballarat at the time was required, and a monorail linking the site to Sovereign Hill should be built.
He also supported the flying of the Southern Cross Flag daily at the site, the one proposal that seems to have caught on.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, through various local, state and federal pipe-dreams and proposals for the memorial gardens, the diorama persisted, gradually falling into disrepair and gaining a sordid reputation as being a location for drug use and dangerous liaisons.
Finally the glass window of the display was smashed once too often, and it was decided to demolish the building as part of the redevelopment of the Stockade Centre in the late 1990s.
The diorama soldiers were relocated to the interior of the new centre, but they were sadly, massively overwhelmed by the new, five-metre tall displays of troopers and miners created by Mothers Art/Bracegirdle Magee.
Somewhere in the intervening years between the creation of the Stockade Centre and its conversion to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (MADE), they were lost.
Perhaps they went to the tip. Perhaps they are in storage somewhere in a shed at Sovereign Hill, or in a council depot. Perhaps a cunning worker on the site salvaged one or two for his pool room.
Does anyone know the fate of the lost diorama diggers and troopers? Send us your pictures and stories to firstname.lastname@example.org
(Our thanks to Clare Gervasoni at Federation University and Ron Egeberg for historical assistance.)