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Imagine a world without TV and mobile phones. A time when access to radio and newspapers was limited. The spread of news must have been very slow, and even major changes in the world would take some time to percolate to the population.
Life in Adelaide until the 1950's was pretty much like this. Much of the news about happenings in Australia and overseas would have come from newsreels at the movies, or from the radio, as not everyone was able to read newspapers.
A Large Crowd at Speakers' Corner in Adelaide ca 1918 (Courtesy SLSA PRG 280/1/18/70)
Local news must have come by word of mouth while socialising, shopping or working. But there were many political and religious groups who wanted to spread their message to the wider population, and one of the few places in Adelaide to spread the word was at Speakers' Corner in Botanic Park.
Speakers' corners have traditionally offered a place for open air debate and entertainment. By far the most famous is at Hyde Park in London, but in Australia the Speakers' Corner in Sydney was established in 1878.
A Monument Commemorates the Site of the First Salvation Army Meeting in Adelaide
From 1880 people gathered at rings under Moreton Bay Fig trees in the centre of Adelaide's Botanic Park to hear speakers, and today a stone in the centre of the park marks the place where the first Salvation Army meeting was held in Adelaide.
This leafy spot soon became popular also for those with political views to espouse, as the nineteenth century was a period of great social change. While many of the speakers were from political groups that were forerunners of the Labor Party, others promoted temperance or debated other important issues of the day such as conscription and our involvement in wars. One debate in 1915 grew very heated when a speaker from the Australian Peace Alliance was attacked by a group of soldiers and had to be escorted from the park to the police barracks for his own safety.
Not long after that incident the Botanic Gardens by-laws were altered to make it an offence to speak in the park without first obtaining a permit from the Board.
Benches Mark the Location of Speakers' Corner Today
You can read a pictorial story from 1918 about Speakers' Corner here, and another story from a 1938 newspaper here.
While there was considerable freedom of speech in the park, a speaker in 1939 promoting fitness took things too far when he called a police sergeant in the crowd big and fat, and was fined 2 pounds ($4).
The location became known as Speakers' Corner, and many diverse groups came to spread their views to a wider audience on a Sunday afternoon. In 1951 Speakers' Corner was relocated west (close to Frome Road) in Botanic Park to a spot near the bridge over First Creek.
The Australian Labor Party continued to hold meetings at Speakers' Corner, such as this one to protest budget changes. Even the young Don Dunstan took part in this outdoor oratory in 1953 when he was still a candidate for the seat of Norwood, as did many other prominent Labor Party members.
When the television became more common in homes, the use of Speakers' Corner slowly declined. I believe it was still in use during the 1960's, but recently it has mainly been used during Womadelaide and by a colony of grey headed flying foxes which live nearby. But a ring of nine seats still clusters around a bend in the creek, awaiting the arrival of an orator.
To learn more about Speakers' Corner and any other aspects of Adelaide's history, see the new Adelaidia website from History SA. The Adelaide City Council also has some fascinating insights available in this document. If you visit the location, be aware that flying foxes may carry disease injurious to humans, so avoid any contact with them.
While researching this article I discovered that Adelaide author Russell Smith has recounted the history of Botanic Park and Speakers' Corner in Curious Tales of South Australia. It's the latest book in his entertaining Curiosities of South Australia series. I highly recommend these well researched stories about life in South Australia which can be purchased here.
If you enjoy my stories about Adelaide's heritage then take a look at Russell's books.