Soapbox Speakers

4. “But Quiet Flows the Yarra” The Herald, 7th January 1947.

(The title of the article is a reference to “And Quiet Flows the Don”; a popular epic novel of 1940’s by Russian author Nikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov (1905-1984).)

The little man in the bowler hat and the butterfly collar waved his umbrella and flickered his way through the crowd. He couldn’t stand it any longer. “It’s a dirty lie,” he shouted. Then he jabbed his umbrella at the speaker. But he had lost his coherence in his age so he just stood there, wavering on the verge of a stroke.

The speaker hardly flinched. He has been treated with umbrellas regularly, every Sunday afternoon for close on 50 years. The little man was an Irishman, you could tell from his brogue. He had obviously never been to the Yarra Bank before, otherwise he would have known that “ Chummy” Fleming has been saying those same old things about Archbishop Mannix and the Pope for decades.

Yes “Chummy” is still dishing it out from the same old rock platform, under the same old elm under the same red banner proclaiming ANARCHY to the four winds. The incident I have just described took place last Sunday. (January 1947)

At 84, he can still draw the crowds at Melbourne’s most famous Sunday institution, but can’t hold them like he could in the days,  when he often paid for his anti-church and anti-government prejudices with a week-day term in gaol.

Yet there is still a flicker of the old “Chummy” left. I found on Sunday that it doesn’t pay to move on too quickly when he takes the hat round at the end of his “address”. Regulars of the Speakers’ Forum say “Chummy” is the master renters. They told me on Sunday that two speakers, the Man in Mortar Board (who stuck it on with sticking plaster on windy days), and Luke the evangelist, have passed on.

Nevertheless, big crowds are still flocking to the Bank of Melbourne’s best free show. New apostles and new ‘isms have place, and the old chemist with the stethoscope dangling around his collar, who dispenses free medical advice and answers questions on the prostate gland, is still going strong.

Luke’s mantle has fallen on Dave, an evangelist who has no teeth and no singing voice. A badge in his lapel announces that “JESUS LOVE ME.” and like Luke, he has to put up with the members of the audience who persist in reciting his sermon in unison with him.

Joe Williams was thundering away at the Communists across the way.

Joe a former boxing teacher, who is a master of invective, is the greatest entertainment draw these days. He can hurl abuse for hours on end, keeping up swithering fire at neighbouring speakers all the while.

Joe seems to devote himself entirely to attacks on communism. He opens with a tirade against the crowd around Communist Party rostrum. On the next pitch he launches into a very home-made dissertation on dialectical materialism and he ends with a venomous attack on Stalin.

One raucous-voiced interjector was getting the better of Joe for a time on Sunday, so Joe stopped and let him go. “You know,” said Joe. leaning forward confidentially when he finished, ‘I think you could learn to love me if only you tried.’

Joe had his audience with him again in a flash. He challenged other interrupters to come up and have it out. They never do.  Joe is an ex-boxing instructor and looks it.

Under the elm tree, on the other side of the Communist platform, also hurling abuse at their speakers and Joe, was A.G, Payne. Payne calls himself a university lecturer, mainly because students invited him up to address them at a lunch-time meeting last year. He always carries the copy of the University newspaper Farrago, which reported his address for the benefit of sceptics.

‘Don’t interrupt a scholar and a gentleman -you’re a low-down monstrosity, you’re a miserable skunk,’ is his favourite method of dealing with persistent hecklers.

Behind Payne’s pitch, strung up on the railway fence, is a banner announcing ‘Socialist Labour Party – Revolutionary political action backed by scientific industrial organisation.’ beneath it, addressing the wind, is a short middle-aged women in a wide brimmed hat stuck in place with an enormous hatpin. She speaks with closed eyes but her high pitched voice rings monotonously on. A regular told me that, only three or four ever meet around her. As he was telling, Casey dropped over to interrupt her. Casey, apparently, is the Yarra Bank’s best-known interjector. He spends a brief period at each pitch Sunday after Sunday. Usually he takes up his stand on the rockery alongside the speaker, asking questions on subjects ranging from the existence of the devil to the A plus B theorem of Douglas Credit. Casey keeps it up until one or the other speakers suggests he tell the crowd why he left the Salvation Army. He likes that. That gives him the floor.

But not all the speakers are eccentrics. The Yarra bank started after the maritime strikes of the 1890’s. Militant unionists chose the Melbourne docks opposite the Yarra Bank to establish an outdoor speaker’s forum from which they attack the Government of Victoria. When the strikes ended trade unionists relocated the Speaker’s Forum on the open ground of Yarra Bank. It soon became the traditional rallying grounds for May Day and a regular Sunday forum.

Tom Man, the English strike leader and politician, spoke there as did Ramsay MacDonald, the future British Prime Minister.

The biggest crowd that assembled there, over 100,000 people, was during the ant-conscription rallies of World War One. Labor leader Mr. Secuillin MHR. Frank Brennan, Maurice Blackburn, E J Holloway John Cain and John Curtin Australian Pre-minister, all developed their oratory skills on the Yarra Bank. Best of the Communism speakers was the veteran D.G. O’Day. He attracted a regular crowed of 500.

Dominican Catholic priest Fr. Vincent Ryan held a large meeting on the Catholic Evidence Guild. He was an impressive sight, dressed in medieval robes. He only paused from time to time from his mission to preach faith and morals to drink lemonade.

A small number of vendors did a steady trade in ice-cream and lemonade. Only one vender who did before WW2 is remembered: The Peanut King was a Melbourne eccentric who dispensed his wares resplendent in top hat and frock coat.

Postscript from Steve Maxwell:

Unlike the 24 hours news and views we are so used to in this time of instant information the orators of Melbourne were governed by the setting sun.

Dave was chanting to one of his own hymns as the sun set. Joes’ and Payne’s audiences had split up into small circles arguing on their own. How can you call our Sunday dull when you had the Yarra Bank, less then five minutes from Flinders St Station, any Sabbath afternoon?

Like the wandering Jew, Yarra Bank soapboxers were cast out of the Speaker’s Corner, not by a sudden attack but due to a slow decline in attendance and the onset of modernity. Black and white television was introduced to Melbourne on the 4th of November 1956, only 18 days before the Melbourne Olympic Games. The Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies gave an opening speech. In 1957 the final quarter of the Australian Rules Football was televised.

By 1960 most people in Melbourne had access to television. It was a game changer. Newspaper, radio and the soapboxers were challenged by the new media much as the internet is a challenge nowadays. The city grew and the population dispersed into suburbia.

The Yarra River’s south bank was the site of regular Sunday-afternoon speakers and meetings. The first May Day celebration Melbourne began on May1st 1892. It was lead by the anarchist Chummy Fleming. May day processions would begin at Trades hall and ended at the Yarra Bank Speakers’ Corner where unionists would set up for public speeches.  He started marching 30 minutes before the official march and waited for the main march to catch up with him. He passed away in the mid 1950’s.

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