1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Processions and Demonstrations

The streets of Melbourne have regularly been claimed as ceremonial and symbolic space by processions and demonstrations. Over the course of the 20th century, however, the range of street processions as regular forms of public display significantly diminished. The social outings, the displays of mutual aid societies, the annual anniversaries of social, civic and religious bodies, the arrival and departure of dignitaries and the evangelical marches of the Salvation Army have been replaced by more infrequent, larger-scale sporting, political and commercial demonstrations, which have less to do with individual or institutional representation. In the 1990s Melbourne's Moomba parade down Swanston Street - part of an annual carnival that replaced the Eight Hours' Day pageant in the mid-1950s - shifted its focus to the Yarra River, resurrecting rites once associated with Henley-on-Yarra. Anzac Day (April 25), the Grand Final parade (September) and the parade of champion horses for the Melbourne Cup (November), along with political rallies, peace or pride marches and the occasional civic reception or State funeral, remain as remnant processional occasions. On a suburban scale, urban ceremony has often centralised into a much more limited calendar of public ceremonies or local festivals, often organised by local businesses or traders' associations as commercial advertisements.

The tradition embodied in the annual processions for St Patrick's Day or the Druids has been transferred to the annual inner-suburban street festivals in Brunswick Street, Johnson Street or Lygon Street, replete with take-away food stalls, buskers, rock bands and street markets. Where once the act and the form of going were as important and as publicly significant as the destination, now air-conditioned twin-deck coaches with tinted windows, luxury seats, videos and toilets transport social and sporting groups to functions or outings. The functions previously served by the procession are fulfilled in other ways. Twenty-first-century public urban culture flickers across the surrogate communities of the television screen and the shopping mall as much as it used to be played out in the streets.

Occupancy of the street, however, remains charged with actual and symbolic power. The political issues of the day have often found expression in popular protest, strike or march: riots over the land question in 1860, unemployed demonstrations in the 1890s, Vietnam anti-war moratoriums in the 1970s, the massive demonstration against the Kennett government in November 1992. The street is the symbolic territory of protest, and in its temporary occupation lies the tension between democracy and anarchy. In the absence of any significant city square, the enduring use of Melbourne's streets for celebration and protest is testimony both to the power and appeal of the procession as a political act and an enjoyable social occasion, and to a demand for a style of civic order that may tolerate, if not embrace, diversity of culture or opinion.

In the past the procession was a key part of the theatre of urban life. From the late 1830s Melbourne streets saw processions ranging from the brief and desultory passage of a couple of drags, proceeding with little apparent ceremony and indistinguishable from the usual street traffic, through to gatherings of great throngs in mass celebration - epic performances attended by all the pomp and panache that could be mustered by a host of brass and pipe bands, embroidered banners and emblems, coloured flags and ribbons, torches, tableaux, horsemen and thousands of pairs of marching feet.

Initially the operation of the Sydney Police Act 1833, controlling general street conduct, was extended to Melbourne. While processions were not specifically regulated, it was left to the police to prevent obstruction or nuisance in the public street. After Separation, the Police Force Regulation Act 1853 empowered the inspector-general of police to keep order and prevent obstructions in the public thoroughfares and, more particularly, to allow traffic to give way to processions. Municipal authorities were also empowered to regulate the conduct of processions. The first Melbourne City Council (MCC) regulation concerning processions ('for keeping order upon and preventing obstruction of the carriage and footways') was made in 1879 under the Act to amend the Police Offences Statute 1865. Aside from funeral marches, no procession was permitted without written consent as to its time and route. Permission for processions was regularly granted at the discretion of the mayor, but processions on Sundays were totally prohibited; marches that posed some danger to the public from excessive obstruction, torchlight or animals were banned, and processions that were purely commercial advertisements (often for plays or circus performances) were disallowed. Despite having been refused a permit under an amended MCC bylaw, the St Patrick's Day Celebration Committee went ahead with its 1922 march. The names of 26 people were taken, with three subsequently prosecuted. Tested in the Full Court, the by-law was quashed on the grounds that it was not a regulation but a prohibition of processions. An MCC appeal to the High Court was dismissed.

Melbourne's processional typology might be divided into 11 categories: civic; royalty and loyalty; public executions (conveying the condemned to the gallows); societies; mourning; proselytising; military; political; calendrical; benefit; celebratory. Occasions for the urban elite to parade and represent itself were regularly afforded through the dedication of new buildings and civic improvements. Processions were one of a range of festive behaviours that included meetings, banquets, illuminations, fireworks and general public revelry. Further civic display was provided by the fire brigade companies, who held their first annual demonstration in 1873. Melbourne's fire brigades appropriated the procession as an annual ritual performance, signifying their civic-mindedness, inspiring public confidence in their expertise and readiness for action, and symbolically empowering their conquest of the flame. A torchlight procession at night was followed by a daytime demonstration of fire engines, hoses, reels, ladders and fire escapes.

From the 1880s through to the first decades of the 20th century, picnic parties travelled in procession, often led by a brass or fife-and-drum band from their headquarters to either a railway station or the wharf for transportation to their destination, or they proceeded directly to their annual outings in the countryside or coast around Melbourne. The Melbourne Deutscher Turn Verein, the employees of various factories or businesses, and unions and trade associations all took the chance not only for convenient travelling but also for public display. Other groups such as the Herald Boys Try-Excelsior Class, City Newsboys' Society, Victorian Navy, St Vincent de Pauls Orphanage, Highland Boys' Brigade, Boys Naval Brigade, Young Australia League and Australian Boy Scouts Association followed this tradition, and every Sunday school had its annual picnic. On the occasion of the 1902 United Methodist Conference, 10 000 children processed through the city.

The annual galas of the Australian Natives' Association or the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society were regularly accompanied by street processions from the 1890s. Processions of local societies could be occasional or periodical. From the 1880s, cycling groups such as the Victorian Cyclists Union and the League of Victorian Wheelmen held sporting meets, often in aid of charity. From the 1890s University of Melbourne students regularly marched by torchlight from Carlton to the city in fancy dress for theatre nights at the People's Palace, the Bijou Theatre, Princess Theatre or Princes Court.

Grief, as much as joy, could be expressed in the public urban realm. In January 1863 a public funeral conveyed the remains of explorers Burke and Wills, 'Victoria's first heroes', along Bourke and Elizabeth streets to the cemetery. As the crowd caught sight of the coffins, hats were reverently removed and minute guns fired by the Royal Artillery battery in Carlton Gardens. With the city's shops closed, verandahs, rooftops and church towers were crammed with spectators. The procession moved very slowly, taking more than an hour simply to travel down Bourke Street. The funeral cort├Ęge, as it passed reverently through the streets to the cemetery, was a tangible reminder of the mortal in the midst of the worldly. Most funerals did not approach the spectacle or elaborateness of the Burke and Wills procession, consisting simply of a hearse followed by a few mourning coaches, carriages and mourners on foot. By the 1880s, etiquette commended the 'foreign custom of removing the hat and standing in a respectful attitude until the melancholy train has passed'.

The pursuit of souls was another cause for street demonstration. The Salvation Army regularly marched the streets, often mustering at the Model School in Spring Street before parading through the slums and lanes off Little Bourke, Little Lonsdale and Exhibition streets. In addition to these forays, the Salvation Army held processions, some over 1000 strong, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and on the anniversary of their mission, on Melbourne Cup Day, and to greet or farewell commissioners. Members pushed decorated costermongers' barrows to railway station entrances, the General Post Office and the Town Hall to collect money on Hospital Saturday and Sunday. In the 1890s preachers on religious or political topics often frequented the wharf area, but Exhibition, Russell and Bourke streets remained favourite pitches. While temperance groups often took their part in larger civic processions, from the 1860s to the 1910s many annually paraded the streets in their own right on the occasions of temperance meetings and annual temperance galas; they included the juvenile processions and singing bands of the Independent Order of Rechabites, the Melbourne Temperance Military Band, the Band of Hope, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the United Temperance Life Boat Military Band.

Drilling and parading were visible signs of defence readiness, with volunteer militia parading in their own right as well as joining other processions. At the prorogation of parliament in June 1858, a troop of the Volunteer Yeomanry Cavalry escorted the governor from Government House to the Legislative Assembly. By the mid-1860s moonlight parades were in vogue, and about 700 volunteers under arms marched back through the city close to midnight in August 1865. Larger military processions (not requiring formal MCC ratification) began to be seen in Melbourne's streets in the 1890s. The Boer War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Rebellion (1900) prompted marches of troops embarking for South Africa and China, and of invalid and returned soldiers, as well as church parades for troops. Returned soldiers from the South African service held occasional processions, while troops paraded on Coronation Day or for military tattoos. Both World War I and World War II occasioned drills and farewell marches of Commonwealth military forces, sometimes over a mile and a half in length (2.5 km), and returned or wounded soldiers were greeted in procession. Other military parades took place in connection with military sports, carnivals and memorial services, to welcome visitors, as aids to recruiting, on Button Day and French Day, and to celebrate peace and victory.

The political machinations of the early town were inevitably bound up in factional allegiances, whether to Freemasonry, the Green or the Orange. The Masons were well represented in civic affairs, as were other social, national and religious groups such as the Independent Order of Oddfellows (1840), St Patrick's Society (1842), Orange Lodge (1843), Ancient Order of Foresters (1850) and Australian Natives' Association (1871). The Oddfellows, Foresters, Freemasons, St Patrick's Society, Cambrians and others were strongly represented in civic processions - indeed were often their predominant constituents. Before 1910 the St Patrick's Society and the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society held their annual procession on 17 March (unless that date was a Sunday), later holding it on the nearest Saturday. The United Ancient Order of Druids held an annual Easter Monday procession from the 1880s through to the first decades of the 20th century, and the Order of St Andrew Friendly Benefit Society usually paraded in regalia on 11 November, with pipes, brass bands and decorated lorries. The procession of associated trades on Eight Hours' Day from Trades Hall to the Exhibition or Friendly Societies gardens, first celebrated in 1856, took place annually - usually on a Monday around 21 April. By 1921, Anzac Day took the place of Eight Hours' Day, which was carried forward to early May. Despite the prohibition on Sunday processions, the Socialist Party periodically celebrated May Day, sometimes with a juvenile parade. Commemorative processions for the explorers Burke and Wills were held by the Imperial Boy Scouts and the Early Pioneer Association in the 1910s.

Annual church processions included an Anglican Diocesan Festival and St James' Old Cathedral Patronal Festival. From 1890 to 1915 Melbourne's Indian Muslims (including many hawkers) marched on the feast of Ramadan in the ninth month of their calendar, bearing the flag of Islam with star and crescent.

Parades of bands or social or sporting groups for fundraising purposes were perhaps the most common type of procession, raising money for individuals injured in accidents, for individuals to whom the paraders wished to demonstrate their esteem or gratitude, for hospital or boys' home bazaars, for new buildings, for accident and disaster relief funds, for patriotic funds, for Red Cross or Ambulance Association appeals, for repatriation funds and recruiting, for Hospital Sunday or for unemployment relief. Such parades also helped to publicise benefit concerts, charity balls, sporting events and organisations, band benefits and competitions, and carnivals. Popular bands included the Rose of Denmark Life Boat Crew Brass Band, Kilties Band, the Victoria Police Brass Band, the Tramways Band, naval and military bands, and various municipal bands. Celebratory occasions included the opening of shows or major exhibitions (International Exhibition in 1880, Centennial Exhibition in 1888), welcoming or farewelling governors or visitors (American Great White Fleet in 1908-09), greeting visiting bands or theatrical companies, and festivities for peace and other celebrations (Relief of Mafeking in 1900, Declaration of Peace in South Africa in 1902, the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1923).

Mustering points, stations, saluting bases, banners, arches and illuminations, as well as the regalia of participants, all reinforced the spectacle of the procession. In the decades following World War I, an increasing number of prescriptive conditions, justified either by concerns for public safety or by national security, had eliminated or at least limited many of the traditional elements of the procession. These conditions gave direction to the marching formation of the procession, regulating the carrying of lighted torches and the discharging of crackers and fireworks, and banning spectators from viewing processions from the top of city verandahs. By 1919 processions had to display the Union Jack and the Australian flag, and bands were required to play patriotic music.

Circus processions were popular in the second half of the 19th century, often in association with charity fundraising. When, in 1881, a Melbourne newspaper criticised the MCC for permitting a circus procession, which it argued would inconvenience the ordinary street traffic, the Australasian considered that this was 'going very far for a grievance', but by 1922 circus animal processions were banned during daylight hours. Press lamentation of the Melbourne public's loss of appetite for processions, when scarcely 1000 marchers took part in the annual Labour Day parade in 1950, signalled the transition from the single-issue parade to the populist carnival. With few exceptions, the former - when an individual social, cultural or political group would, for a moment at least, advertise its corporate identity, mark out its territory and be observed by the populace, who stand aside and stop to watch - has subsided, but as continued political demonstrations reveal, the street remains a potent site of public opinion, debate and protest.

Ritual public performance is seen, above all, as an outof-the-ordinary event, a peak experience of social life, a time when people step outside their daily routines and substitute a transitory state of make-believe for their serious attitudes. Men, women and children will always pour onto the city's streets to celebrate or protest. Standing for a moment in the middle of a city street, they will feel the quickening of their pulses. Walking down the centre of a road or along tram lines that were yesterday not only busy with the city's traffic but also out of bounds will always thrill and empower.

Andrew May

References
Brown-May, Andrew, Melbourne street life, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 1998. Details