Eight Hour Day procession, April 1914, in Bourke Street, near the shop. (Photo, State Library of Victoria)
The dwelling of the Laidlers, above the shop at 201 Bourke Street was a great vantage point for watching processions, as they nearly all passed along Bourke Street. Relations, friends and customers would come in large numbers to watch a march in comfort.
In May 1920, Edward, the Prince of Wales on Empire tour, was on display in a procession. As it passed up Bourke Street, his carriage, preceded by mounted troopers and followed by the Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, met with a peculiar reception. The Bourke Street crowd hooted the police, cheered the Prince and hooted the Prime Minister. To the puzzled Prince it must have appeared from this cacophony, that some of the crowd were hooting him.
The Catholic Church was not very popular in the years following the 1914-18 War. In 1921 the City Council decided that every procession through the city must be headed by the Union Jack, as a demonstration of loyalty. This hit two sections, the working class movement accustomed to march behind the red flag, and the Catholics, accustomed to march behind the Irish Republican Flag. Each section tended to regard the Union Jack as representative of its enemy, British Imperialism.
The Irish and Catholic population was seething as St. Patrick's Day approached, and many wild rumours were around Melbourne on the eve of the march.
The organisers decided that no women or children would participate and that was taken as a sign of preparation for battle.
The astute mind of Dr. Mannix coped superbly.
A tremendous undercurrent of excitement was sweeping the waiting onlookers when the approach of the march was heralded by the sound of the Pipers. As it came into view, to the amazement of all, could be seen far ahead of the body of the procession one man carrying the Union Jack. As he approached, it was obvious the flag carrier was one of the city's hopeless derelicts. Much later, as a separate procession came the main body led by the Irish Republican flag. When Dr. Mannix addressed his people at the Exhibition buildings, after the march, he said, "We paid an Englishman fifteen shillings to carry the Union Jack for we could not find an Irishman prepared to carry it."
Father Phelan, Bishop of Colac, said, "I am proud of the fact that no Irishmen could be got to carry the Union Jack. No Irish-Australian would carry it either." He suggested that next year to carry the Union Jack, they would get a criminal who had served seven years' in gaol, dress him up as a "black and tan", pay him £5 and give him a few drinks. There was a big howl from organisations, letter writers to the press and from journalists, on the disgraceful insult to the flag.
Bourke Street was a packed mass of human beings giving vent to emotion that the war had ended and many thought it was the end of all wars. The crowd was singing, cheering and throwing fire-crackers. Laidler, as a masses' man couldn't keep out of the picture, and hung out of the top window a skull mask, which at that moment, represented "war." The crowd responded and seemed in one huge mass to aim its fire-crackers at the death skull.
Under the window was a timber surround with Andrade's name on it — naturally it caught fire. People watching from the window had to run for buckets of water to put out the fire and save 201 from destruction.
Working-class organisations from the beginning of time picked out good spots for open-air meetings. One of the early ones in Melbourne was known as "The Lawn".
The Lawn was at Studley Park, on a flat further on from the boatshed. Members of the Social Democratic Federation were amongst the speakers who used the Lawn, before the turn of the century. Harry Scott-Bennett is said to have made his first speech there and incredibly, on mounting the box had a black-out. This must be of the greatest encouragement to would-be-speakers because Scott-Bennett went on to make literally thousands of speeches, carried on a speaking tour of the United States and New Zealand, entered Parliament for a term, and taught speakers' classes. He claimed that learning elocution had helped him to overcome his initial lack of confidence.
Meetings were held by socialists in the early days at an open space above the Merri Creek, adjoining St. Georges Road. Henry William Wilmot, father of poet "Furnley Maurice" attended here.
At one time meetings were held outside the Eastern Market (facing Exhibition Street, between Little Collins and Bourke Streets). Speakers were socialists, Liness (Harry) Bueno, Sam Courtnay, Ern Harridence, Chris Vallance, Dwan, G. Trenwith and very young John Curtin. The meetings were held on a Saturday night and the authorities tried to ban them. Speakers were selected for the night by drawing names from a hat, the "lucky" ones were arrested.
Alf Foster, then a law student, was to have spoken but the others decided that his career should not be interrupted with a spell in gaol, and Sam Courtnay spoke in his place. Mrs. Courtnay, with ten children to look after, was not very pleased. (Sam was father of Frank, an official of the Plumbers Union for many years and an MHR). The usual sentence was 14 days. The campaign was won with the permitted speaking period restricted in time.
Arch Bueno, well known wharf militant, was told by his father Harry that one of the group would address himself in these terms to new recruits, "Don't come unless you've got a pocketful of blue-metal"—this was the passport to joining a demonstration, in those days.
Sunday afternoon meetings were once held at the Queen's Statue (Victoria) and were stopped by the authorities because they embarrassed Regal parties.
For fifteen years the Sunday afternoon forum was on the south side of the Yarra, near the boatsheds.
The Lawn, Statue and Boatsheds all had in common that Melburnians with little money, spent a free afternoon strolling around the vicinity of the parks and Yarra River, and often had a free listen to the speakers. The passing throng contributed many a recruit. The authorities banished the people to the north side of the river to what is known as the "Yarra Bank", or simply, the "Bank", where few people strolled and the adjacent building was the old Morgue.
The Bank was described by John Curtin as the University of the working-class. It turned out some knowledgable "professors". An article written by a journalist on the April 20th, 1946 wrote that Tom Mann was one of the most spectacular of its speakers. He named as speakers, Frank Anstey (Cabinet Minister), Jack Cain (Premier), Ramsay MacDonald (English Prime Minister), J. H. Scullin (Prime Minister), Ben Tillett (English union leader), Senators Russell, Rae, Cameron, M. Blackburn MHR, E. J. Holloway (acting Prime Minister), Dr. Maloney MHR and of course, Curtin (Prime Minister); and Percy Laidler, described as "veteran speaker of the left". The biggest crowds were during the anticonscription campaigns—100,000 the top estimate, and next to those meetings, some of the May Day celebrations had the largest crowds.
Originally the Bank was a desolate waste, but in response to requests for a new site, trees and speakers' mounds were put in to slightly improve the Bank.
Efforts were made from time to time to get permission to return to the other side of the river or the Domain. In 1921 the WIIU, Socialist Party and Australian Legion tried the experiment, speaking on the Domain, opposite the Prince Henry Hospital in St. Kilda Road. In 1911-12 the VSP attempted to rename the Bank the "Democratic Campus", but it was dropped after about twelve months.
Port Melbourne Pier was popular for Sunday morning meetings, South Melbourne Market (and other markets) on Friday night. "Red Square," also known as "Moscow Square" (Cnr. Bridport and Montague Streets, South Melbourne) was kept going as a meeting place by Jim Coull from 1928 to 1960, a total of 32 years. From 1928 to 1934 the meetings were held under the auspices of the SP of A, from 1944 to 1960 under the auspices of the CP and the period in between, without the backing of any organisation.
Another unusual meeting place of kindred spirits was the Albert Park Baths. Anyone looking for a discussion or debate could go along there and be sure of finding someone. Many wharfies went there. Most of the attendees swam as well as talked.
The WIIU held meetings in Russell Street, between Little Bourke and Bourke Streets in the vicinity of where the Salvation Army had a stand. By this means a few people would be drawn into the Sunday night lecture. After the Communist Party formed in 1924 it did the same thing, and drew people into its hall at 217 Russell Street. Early in the depression, police broke up the meeting, and the Communists went into their hall, got out of the window onto the iron verandah and addressed the crowd from there.
The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.
This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2012.
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