Soapbox Speakers

Chummy Fleming on the Yarra Bank

Melbourne’s “Yarra Bank” Speakers’ Corner can be found at the South-Eastern corner of Birrarung Marr (marsh) near the Yarra River.                                         
 
 In the 1890’s, city authorities banished all outdoor free speech forums in Melbourne to the north side of the river. This followed the defeat of a bitterly fought free speech campaign organised by labour activist Tom Mann.

The location of the new Speakers’ Corner was unsuitable. It was away from the heart of the city, next to the old city morgue. It had little effect on the passers-by and all attempts to have the venue changed were rejected by the Melbourne City Council.    It seemed that the authorities had won the day.
 
Chummy Fleming, a union organiser for the boot-makers union, was not the first to speak at the Yarra Bank Speakers’ Corner, but he successfully promoted the location by convincing “The Nights of Labour” (the forerunner of today’s unions) to have May Day celebrations on the Yarra Bank.
 
Today, May Day (Labour Day) celebrates the day the 8-hour day was granted to Australian workers in1947. On May Day in1893 some 5,000 people marched to the Yarra Bank to support the introduction of shorter working hours and better working conditions.
 
Chummy Fleming was the first to give a May Day address on the Yarra Bank. He continued Sunday after Sunday to promote Speakers’ Corner. Other speakers
soon followed his example. It was not long before Speakers’ Corner became a success.
 
Chummy was an anarchist. It was said he had a reputation of being a violent speaker. He advocated the overthrow of the State and the dismantlement of the Church. He always drew the largest crowd and his words incited the wildest response. For example, in World War One, soldiers referred to as ‘Military larrikins’ attacked the Yarra Bank speakers. The soldiers had been fired up on beer, and on King & Country propaganda. But Chummy was not alone. Attacks made on him were fought off by his loyal supporters, and Chummy was capable of defending himself.  
 
Chummy’s anarchist ways also made him unpopular with the May Day organisers and the Labor Party. He would get even with his enemies on the May Day committee by always marching at the head of the march with a large anarchist flag. 

Chummy continued his Yarra Bank activities well into his old age. He was never wealthy, and he eked out a living in his humble cottage by mending boots. He died on the 25th January, 1950 aged 86. The police confiscated his personal papers and had them destroyed. His ashes are scattered on the Yarra Bank.

Steve Maxwell

References:
Chummy, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chummy_Fleming

Tom Mann, Wikipedia:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Mann

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