Soapbox Speakers

3. The heyday of Adelaide’s Speakers’ Corner

In 1922 the Adelaide “REGISTERreported: I strolled through the Botanic Park on Sunday afternoon. It is quite worthwhile. Several leather –throated orators had much to say when I visited recently. One, who called himself a Rationalist, told the crowd not listen to what other people said, but to think for themselves. He did not seem to object to folk listening to what he said. A little further on a Socialist was holding forth – much of what he said led nowhere.”.

There were several political platforms like the Labor ring, the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor, the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and Lang Labor gathered in one area.

Then there were the religious platforms such as: The Catholic Evidence Guild, Protestant Truth ring and Evangelical hot gospelers. The non-believing Rationalists Association gathered in another area. Other rings like the Single Taxers (Henry George) and Douglass Credit platforms, offering an alternative to capitalism and communism, gathered close to the party political rings. Lastly there were individual speakers and hecklers who gathered where their will took them.

Botanic Park speakers varied from the sublime to the ridiculous. Political platforms like the  South-Australian Labor Party had every Labor premier who had spoken from the Party’s Botanic Park platform. The last to have done so was Don Dunstan (1926-1999).

The ridiculous included “Percy Brunton”, the clown. He called himself the Peanut King. Attired in a motheaten dilapidated bell topper (a swallow-tailed coat), he would trundle his own platform into one of the park rings on a rather wobbly wheeled pram. His platform was a weird contraption composed of a large wooden box mounted on pram wheels, which contained all that he needed for his nomadic and bohemian existence as well as his supply of peanuts for sale.

Then he would speak on every subject under the sun. Melbourne for him was always “Mel— bain” and Sydney  “Syd-nay”.

He drew huge audiences. It was his habit sometimes to wheel his box through the Labor Party ring. Sometimes the audience rose as one and went across to listen to Percy.

He had a great dislike of the police, an aversion he expressed freely and insultingly, with the result that he was often arrested.

At that time there was considerable hostility towards the police from slum dwellers within the city’s square mile. Many malcontents were of Irish extraction; others were objectors to the early closing of hotels, and patrons of sly grog shops. There was also hostility to the police because of the injustice of the betting laws, which discriminated against the poor and were administered by an over-zealous police authority.

Although Percy was not taken very seriously, he was a rebel against the powers-that-be. Consequently, when he was moved on and sometimes arrested, it touched off demonstrations against the police. Percy was certainly a nuisance to the authorities. He drowned in Sydney Harbour. It was said that he fell overboard from a Manly ferryboat.

Steve Maxwell, Oct 2019

Derek Whitelock (1934-2015) author of “A history of difference and Adelaide amusement 1836-1976”  of  One by of; “Adelaide:
REFLECTIONS OF A VINTAGE RED. (By David Penberthy, industrial reporter, Adelaide ‘Advertiser’ p5 4-12-1995.
“REPRESENTATIVES OF  DISCONTENT ,” History of the Communist Party in South Australia 1921-1981. Jim Moss.

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