This summer, as you enjoy Christmas carols or the symphony in the Domain, see if you can also spot an old time orator on their soap box in Speaker’s Corner.
The tradition of Speaker’s Corner comes to us from London’s Hyde Park, where open-air debate and discussion are allowed as long as the constabulary consider that speeches don’t break the law. Here in Sydney, between the two world wars last century, the Domain had become such a hotbed for political debate that some wanted free speech banned from the area. Instead, the Government reduced the hours when you could climb onto your soap box to 2 pm – 5 pm in winter and 2 pm – 5:30 pm in summer. This restriction apparently continues to this day so be wary if you’re tempted to speak out.
In 1932 Speaker’s Corner was the scene of one of the largest rallies ever held protesting Governor Game’s dismissal of Premier Jack Lang. Similarly people came together in the Domain after the dismissal of Prime Minister Whitlam by Governor General Kerr on 11 November 1975.
One memorable soap box orator, amongst many, was John Webster. Deliberately provocative he delighted crowds from the 1950’s through to the 80’s with his unique pronunciations on every ideology along the political spectrum. After his death his family wanted his ashes spread in the Domain but the Sydney Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust requested a $10 000 donation from The Exodus Foundation, a charity that feeds homeless people, and that had assisted the family with their request. Reverend Bill Crews declined to give the donation and instead chose a rainy wet night to return John Webster to Speaker’s Corner.
Earlier in the 20th century, on 18 November 1934 crowds gathered to hear another famous speaker, Czech writer and journalist Egon Kisch. Despite having held a valid visa he’d been refused entry to Australia on the grounds that he was a communist. He’d been detained on the ship that had brought him here while his case was taken to the High Court. Meanwhile the ship was ordered to leave the country, the determined Kisch attempted to disembark by jumping off, landing on the dock in Port Melbourne. Unfortunately this resulted in a broken leg and his return to detention on the ship. The press went wild. When his case was presented to the High Court, Judge H.V. Evatt ruled in Kisch’s favour concluding that the ban could not be justified by the Immigration Act.
However the saga was not yet over. On his arrival in Sydney the authorities awaited to give him the Dictation Test; a small hurdle embedded in the Immigration Act. The test was in Gaelic. Kisch knew at least eleven European languages but Gaelic wasn’t one of them. He failed the test and was once again imprisoned. His case was taken up by the International Labour Defence who specialised in helping political prisoners around the world. For four months Australians were regaled by the press with stories from this battle between the illegal immigrant and the Attorney-General, Mr Menzies.
Finally Kisch was released and was able to tell his story to thousands of supporters in the Domain. He told of being taken prisoner by the NAZI’s in Berlin in 1933 on the night of the Reichstag fire; a critical event that led to the the NAZIs taking over Germany. He told of being lucky to be expelled from Germany, compared to friends who had been beaten to death in jail. He warned of the threat that Hitler posed to the world.
So this summer, as the musicians take a break, you might want to wander with your glass of bubbly over to the ‘Viva Voce’ Soap-Box sculpture by Debra Phillips that commemorates ‘Speaker’s Corner’ and contemplate the lives of the radical souls who have stood on their soap boxes in the Domain. Maybe even have a crack at it yourself – but only if it’s in the prescribed hours.
Books and websites: The history of soapbox oratory by Steve Maxwell, Chiswick, (1994); Discovering the Domain edited by Edwin Wilson, Hale & Iremonger, (1986); Kisch in Australia Exhibition,Catalogue, NSW State Library, (2005); https://speakerscorner.org.au/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urd4IE0TqXY (Bill Crews scatters John Webster’s ashes in Domain – ABC Report)
Images and attributions: Tropfest in the domain By John Polson via Wikimedia Commons; John Webster by Raymond De Berquelle, Courtesy of National Library of Australia; Egon Kisch by Sam Hood via Wikimedia Commons