Soapbox Speakers

Parramatta’s Speakers’ Corner.

Parramatta City is located 23 km from Sydney. It was founded by the British in 1788, the same year as Sydney. Parramatta was the furthest navigable point inland, where a freshwater river flowed into a tidal bay. It was ideal for farming and a township grew up. Parramatta Park is the site of the Old Government House (Australia’s oldest surviving public building) and Domain. Parramatta was the capital of NSW until 1846. In 1870, the Parramatta Domain’s remaining 246 acres was proclaimed a municipal park and a management trust established. It was at this point that a speakers corner developed.

Parramatta Park was a popular recreation ground where picnics, carnivals, exhibitions, cricket games and military parades were held. One popular activity was Speakers’ Corner. Soapbox orators addressed crowds in the Park on Sunday at the pavilion near the Rose Hill bowling greens, and also in front of Old Government house.

In 1871, an incident occurred that was unique in Australian history and received world wide news coverage at the time. William Lorando Jones (1819-1893), a freethinker, was charged for the crime of blasphemy. From his platform in Parramatta Park, Mr. Jones said that the Old Testament Bible was not fit to be read by young ladies. He quoted the Bible in a solemn and earnest manner, chapter and verse to prove his point. Waiting in the audience was an aspiring young politician, Ninian Melville, Junior (1846-1897). Mr. Melville, an Orangeman and leader of a sabbatarian* and temperance movement, took Mr. Jones to court. After a sensational court case, Mr. Jones was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Darlinghurst goal, and was fined 100 pounds. He was the only person in Australia to be successfully prosecuted for blasphemy.

The Jones incident began a long feud on Parramatta’s Speakers’ Corner between freethinkers and Christians. Their public debates attracted bemused crowds of around 1400 to 1500 people. On one particularly fraught Sunday afternoon the debate turned into a melee. While it was acknowledged that the behavior of the opponents of free speech was disgraceful, it was freethinkers who were charged with assault. The Park Trust addressed the situation by forbidding all orations in the Park on Sunday Afternoon.

Two years later, in 1888, Sunday afternoon oratory in the Park had been re-established, but without the free thinkers. A temperance advocate, a Protectionist and the Blue Ribbon Gospel Army preached and the Salvation Army held a revival dance. Six months later the Park Trust approved a new by-law outlawing ‘unseemly scenes’ of crowds around the orators and restricting any assemblage in the park. Exemption was granted to religious events and groups.**

There ended the regular Speakers’ Corner. It was not until World War I that political movements appeared in the Park. Military conscription referendum campaign meetings were held in October 1916.

The Free Trade and Land Values League was also given permission in 1921 to hold meetings on Sunday, so long as they did not interfere with the Salvation Army’s band. In Parramatta, unlike the Sydney Domain, a regular Speakers’ Corner did not survive into the late 20th century.

* Sabbatarians said there should be no activities on Sunday, other than church.
** Government House Parramatta 1788-2000 By Sue Rosen. Parramatta Park. Trust Minutes Book 8-December 1894.

Steve Maxwell.

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