Ballarat loses a great keeper of its history

It was appropriate that we heard about the passing of Professor Weston Bate at the Old Colonists’ Club on Wednesday.

Over 100 historians and friends of Ballarat had gathered to discuss our heritage, when the news filtered through that our great historian had left us.

It was hard to believe, for only in May this year Weston had enthralled us at his public lecture for the Ballarat Historical Society at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute.

Only three months ago he signed a letter from eminent persons concerned about the loss of heritage foreshadowed by the plans to re-develop the Ballarat Railway Station Precinct.

Weston was ever a passionate historian.

I first encountered him when I was an undergraduate history student at the University of Melbourne in 1969, and he kindled my love of Australian history.

At that time he had been engaged by the City of Ballarat to produce a history of Ballarat. 

This involved much research into newspapers and other primary sources, and finally resulted in  Lucky City, published in 1978.

This social and economic history of Ballarat in the 19th century, with its many illustrations and maps, became a hallmark of local and regional history.

Also in 1978, Weston was appointed foundation Professor of Australian Studies at Deakin University, and presided over an innovative approach to teaching Australian history.

I was lucky enough to be supervised by him while writing my biography of James Oddie, father of Ballarat.

From that time we became close historical comrades, especially in all matters relating to Eureka.

Weston had a genuine passion for the Eureka story, and for wading through the myths and getting the story right.

He provided the script for the Diorama at the Eureka Stockade in 1970, and when the Eureka Interpretative Centre was mooted in the 1990s, Weston was one of the key advisers.

His ideas and advice were widely respected, largely as a consequence of his work as the historical consultant to Sovereign Hill.

Its success as a world-renowned historical theme park can be attributed to the themes which he insisted that Sovereign Hill should follow; including a concentration on Ballarat in the 1850s, and the re-creation of Main Road and Bakery Hill. 

Weston and his wife Janice were always welcome guests at Eureka anniversary celebrations, when they would join us at the Art Gallery, the Old Colonists’ Club, at Bakery Hill and at the Stockade to remember the deeds of 1854.

Weston could be called upon to give a rousing speech from the Stockade, or unveil a plaque for the Ballarat Reform League, write a briefing paper for local government, or speak to a U3A History class.

Always he was gracious and generous in giving his time to visit and support local historical societies.

He produced his second volume of Ballarat’s history in 1993; Life After Gold,  which unpacks the 20th century history of Ballarat. 

This important history focusses on the impact of wars, and the economic development following World War II.

As manufacturing declined, Weston accurately predicted the rise in the importance of heritage, and the way in which celebrating Ballarat’s history could become a new basis for the economy.

His twinkling smile and his passionate engagement with history will be deeply missed.

This story Ballarat loses a great keeper of its history first appeared on The Courier.