Yarra Bend

Rabble, Rebels and Rivalry

Imagine standing amongst a jostling crowd on the edge of the Yarra River on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the 1890s. It’s May Day, and you’re gathered to hear politician and humanitarian William Maloney speak about the need for a maximum eight-hour work day.

Maloney takes the stage and a chant can be heard:

“Workers of the world unite!”

Video: Bale, John. 1966. Yarra Bank. Hive Television

A place to gather

Yarra Bank, or Speakers' Corner as it is now known, is located off Batman Avenue on the outskirts of Melbourne’s CBD.

In the late 1880s, the area was set aside as a place for the public to gather and discuss the issues of the day.

Image: Pratt, Charles Daniel. 1945. City Melbourne. State Library of Victoria

The “Stumps”

Over time, Speakers' Corner became a significant part of the social life of many Melbournians, particularly during times of unrest such as the World Wars and the Great Depression.

Crowds would gather on Sundays to listen to speakers who would stand atop the bluestone mounds. These mounds were called the “stumps” after the tree-stumps that shearers would stand on during meetings in the bush.

Anyone could get up and speak, but certain groups would be regulars at the stumps, including The Communist Party and the Catholic Evidence Guild. The atmosphere was generally jovial, with jeers, heckling and hollering heard from the crowd.

But watch out for the police, as they were often there in plain-cloths, taking note of who was speaking.

A radical stage

The topics at Speakers' Corner were often seen as radical in nature: from anti-conscription to women’s suffrage, socialism, anarchism, revolution, religion, and much more.

These divisive topics meant that the Speakers' Corner was sometimes embroiled in scandal.

A notable incident occurred in 1890 on the night before a planned peaceful demonstration of around 30,000 people supporting a maritime worker’s strike. Reportedly, Colonel Tom Price told his men, that if ordered to fire on the protesters, it was there duty to do so. The incident caused a sensation and was widely reported as “fire low and lay them out".

Another notorious incident occurred in 1919 when two notable suffragette activists, Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst, were attached by a group of soldiers while speaking against conscription. The soldiers even tried to throw the women into the Yarra. The whole incident occurred in front of the police, who seemed to have turned a blind eye.

Image: Tucker, Albert. 1940. Catholic Evidence Guild speaker. Albert Tucker Photographic Collection, Heide Museum of Modern Art and State Library of Victoria

Dr Maloney

The significance of Speakers' Corner is closely connected to the life and work of Dr William Maloney.

Maloney spent his early career as a physician, often treating the poor, and went on to serve as a Labor parliamentarian.

He was a republican and an advocate for a range of progressive issues including worker’s rights, anti-militarisation, pensions for the elderly and woman’s suffrage.

Image: Fairfax Corporation. ca 1930. Dr William Robert Maloney, New South Wales. National Library of Australia

It was Maloney who first requested the need for an area of land be put aside for public gatherings.

Alfred Deakin, who would later become Prime Minister, responded that “Flinders Park near Prince’s bridge, would be a suitable place for open-air meetings, conducted, of course in an orderly manner.”

Maloney was a regular at the Speakers' Corner, attending meetings and often speaking passionately on the importance of free speech and the right to assemble.

Image: Tucker, Albert. 1940. Yarra bank 1940 about March. Albert Tucker Photographic Collection, Heide Museum of Modern Art and State Library of Victoria

A lasting legacy

Today, Speakers' Corner is generally quiet, with the odd family having a picnic, or people seeking to avoid the hustle and bustle of the city.

This decline in popularity has been associated to the changing role of electronic media and a shift in the approach to public gatherings and demonstrations.

Despite this, we still celebrate the significant role Speakers' Corner played in shaping the political landscape of Victoria, and its role in providing a platform for free speech — much like social media does today.

Produced by
Digital Heritage Australia