Soapbox Speakers

The Yarra Bank

Before 1889, public meetings in Melbourne were held in a number of unsuccessful locations. Then in that year, parliamentarian Dr William Maloney campaigned successfully to have a place set aside for the purpose of “holding public meetings and discussing questions – religious, educational and others.” The place set aside was in the South-Eastern corner of Birrarung Marr (marsh) between the Jolimont Rail Yards and the Yarra River. (A monument to Speaker’s Corner is now there.)

The gold rush made Melbourne the richest city in Australia. Yet, by the 1890’s, working conditions in the city had not improved. The Yarra’s bank became a hotbed of radical unionism and politics, from both communists and fascists.

By the late 1970’s, the “Yarra bankers”, as speakers in Melbourne were called, found dwindling audiences because of television, Sunday sports events and Sunday trading.

In November 1986, prominent Yarra bankers Geoff Forster and David Miller asked the Melbourne City Council for permission to begin a Speakers’ Corner in the City Square on Sunday afternoons. This was granted. Other speakers joined, but never more than four or five.  

In the 1990’s, the City of Melbourne planned a major renovation of City Square. Again, the Speakers’ Corner looked like it would have nowhere to go. The speakers asked if they could carry on the tradition on the State Library lawns. This idea was freely endorsed and the Speakers’ Corner moved to there, where it remains today.

The move came at a cost, because few people since have taken up the tradition of outdoor speaking, even though they can use a megaphone. Both Geoff Forster and David Miller have retired. Only Gospel singer Rosalie Tremaine holds on, and only once a month. 

It looks like it will be the end of era, unless of course someone gets on a soapbox on the State Library lawns, and speaks.

Steve Maxwell

Location: State Library Lawns of Victoria
Corner Swanston St and Latrobe Street,  Melbourne  3001

Speakers Forum | Soapbox Oratory:

Yarra Bank (Speakers’ Forum)

Yarra Bank and Yarra Bankers:

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