Soapbox Speakers

Frank Barnes

Frank Barnes was a runaway child from the country. His father, a religious man, proved to have a hypocritical nature. When Frank’s father burnt down his own property for the insurance money, Frank ran away to Sydney, supporting himself by doing odd jobs for the prostitutes of the inner city who took him in.

He later worked on the waterfront. Unlike many street kids he did not turn to crime but educated himself through the Workers’ Education Association, libraries, and by listening to the speakers in the Domain.

Frank married and lived in Balmain, which was then a working class suburb of Sydney.

He spoke at the Domain regularly to raise money for the first Police Boys’ Club in Balmain. Every Sunday he lectured from his platform at Speakers Corner. His cause soon became a Rationalist one, against superstition. He would have a bag of bones (relics) and a baptismal basin of holy water (“ordinary water with hell boiled out of it”). There were times when he would dress up as a Bishop, with a string of frankfurters around his neck to represent rosary beads. He was often arrested for blasphemy.

Frank quickly became a legend on the Domain. He was described as “short in stature, with an impish face and mischievous look ”. He was known to be the best speaker at Speakers’ Corner; speaking forcefully and with eloquence.

Frank was a strong supporter of the New York magazine “Truth Seeker” which he sold on the Domain. His political ideas reflected a left-wing world view. He looked forward to a world without the humbug of religious sentimentality hanging around the necks of the people.

His platform was situated towards St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, at the end of the Domain. He had a clear view of St. Mary’s many lighting conductors. He would point to the TNG building across the road where there were no lighting conductors and say in a loud voice that there was proof the Catholics where indeed the target of Gods wrath!

Running jokes about Noah’s Ark and St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, prompted the ‘Catholic Action’ group to lobby the police to stop his blasphemy. In spite of numerous arrests and warnings by police, he continued and never gave up.

He made fun of all churches, including the Salvation Army. The Salvos in revenge would play a brass band late into Sunday night in front of his flat in Balmain. Frank, who had a hard day’s work waiting for him the next day, was at his wits end. Until he hit upon a solution! Using a pair of pliers, he heated a few pennies on the gas stove, and threw the pennies out the window to the Salvos in the street. The Salvation Army band stopped playing in front of his flat.

He continued speaking for nearly forty years until his health gave way in the 1960’s. His battle with diabetes got the better of him and he was hospitalised. He died in 1967.

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