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Yarra Bank and Yarra Bankers

Both the north and south banks of the Yarra River east of Princes Bridge have at different times been the site of a people's forum, often compared to London's Hyde Park and Sydney's Domain.

Prior to the 1890 maritime strike, Queens Wharf had been a casual labour market and gathering place for unionists. In 1889 the Melbourne Harbor Trust prohibited meetings at the wharves, and Dr William Maloney, elected to the Legislative Assembly for West Melbourne on behalf of the Workingmen's Political League, recommended that some piece of land near Princes Bridge be reserved as a site for public meetings. Alfred Deakin suggested Flinders Park as a possible location, but although occasional public gatherings were held there in the 1890s, the river's south bank near the present-day Alexandra Gardens was favoured by 'Yarra Bankers' for regular Sunday afternoon forums and as the destination of processions on May Day.

In 1907 meetings were allowed for the last time on an area to the west of the new Queen Victoria Memorial and on the old Wirth's Circus site. Fearful of damage to the newly landscaped south bank, the Minister of Public Works ordered subsequent gatherings to take place in Flinders Park on the north side. In 1913 Yarra Bank Road was renamed Batman Avenue, and the adjacent parkland near the Melbourne City Council's free baths and the morgue was considered by speakers to be unsightly, out of the way of passers-by, and subject to noise from trams and trains.

The City Council generally discouraged preaching and public haranguing in city parks and gardens, but public speaking continued to be permitted at Yarra Bank. Encroachment from railway expansion by 1915 had diminished the space available for Yarra Bank meetings. From the 1910s to the 1930s representatives of the Socialist Party of Victoria, the Trades Hall Council and the Australian Labor Party petitioned unsuccessfully for a more central and convenient spot for public expression, and suggested alternatives including the Domain opposite the Homeopathic Hospital, Carlton Gardens and Fitzroy Gardens.

While soap-box orators traditionally erected temporary platforms from which to address their audience, by 1915 the Socialist Party was petitioning the City Council to set aside permanent speakers' rings, as was the case in Adelaide's Botanic Park. In 1925 the Council officially recognised the Batman Avenue forum by planting a grove of elm trees and erecting ten rockery mounds.

During World War I tens of thousands had attended anti-conscription meetings in Flinders Park. Prime Minister John Curtin later referred to Yarra Bank as his 'university', and it was generally associated with the politics of trade unions, socialism and the Labor Party. Yarra Bank personalities included Tom Mann, Frank Anstey, Frank Hyett, Sir George Pearce, Maurice Blackburn, Frank Brennan, Percy Laidler, and George Prendergast. James Scullin, later Prime Minister of Australia, introduced Britain's Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald on Yarra Bank in 1906. J.W. 'Chummy' Fleming, well-known anarchist who had been arrested as early as 1885 for speaking at North Wharf, could still be seen at Yarra Bank in the 1940s.

Best known as a central site for left-wing politics, over its history Yarra Bank was favoured by a range of speakers on all manner of political, religious and reformist subjects, from poets, women's rights activists, evangelists, food reformers, clairvoyants, anti-communists and mission choirs. Falling into disuse by the 1970s, the site was sometimes known as Speaker's Corner. Listed on the Victorian Heritage Register in 1997, the triangle of land on Batman Avenue with its elm grove and nine remaining mounds was intruded upon by a new expressway linking Exhibition Street with the Domain Tunnel, and was subsequently reconfigured as part of Birrarung Marr park, opened in 2002.

Andrew May