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Public Meetings

An important part of social and political life in Melbourne in the 19th century, public meetings were usually advertised in the newspapers and held in halls, theatres, churches, hotels or out of doors. They were often billed as meetings of the 'people', and on significant occasions the mayor would be requisitioned to take the chair. Public meetings would hear debate, with speakers taking different sides of an important public question of the day.

Two large and dramatic outdoor public meetings were held in Melbourne in the days after the Eureka rebellion. The movement to open up the lands of the colony to small-farming settlement provoked large and passionate meetings in Melbourne in the 1850s and 1860s, often at the Eastern Market, which became the site of a people's forum. Later in the century, meetings were more often called by an organisation with a particular position, in support of a set of resolutions propounded in advance, and they tended to attract only those already committed to the cause. People were more likely to come together as Germans, cricketers, the unemployed, socialists or free traders than as 'the people'.

In the 1880s and 1890s there were many public meetings in support of free trade and protection, for shorter working hours and against sweating. Unemployment in the 1890s and 1930s, and conscription during World War I, generated many meetings. The Yarra River's south bank was the site of regular Sunday-afternoon speakers and meetings from the 1890s. Election-time public meetings in town halls were a feature of 19th- and 20th-century political life until radio and television lessened the demand. By the late 20th century, public meetings as such were less common in Melbourne, although the City Square continued to be a site for public rallies and demonstrations. But although such gatherings heard speakers, they were less likely to be understood as sites of debate or as places where 'the citizens' might attempt to resolve a pressing public issue by discussion.

David Goodman

Tucker, Graeme, 'The Melbourne Town Hall: the city's meeting place?', in Graeme Davison and Andrew May (eds), Melbourne centre stage: the Corporation of Melbourne 1842-1992, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 63, October 1992, pp. 37-49. Details