State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 34 October 1984

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The Victorian Centenary Celebrations in Retrospect

The advent of the Victoria's 150th anniversary celebrations is, perhaps, an appropriate time to consider the manner in which the State's centenary was celebrated in 1934–35. This is not an historical survey; it comprises the recollections of one who was 23 years old at the time, together with some background material relating to Melbourne in those days.
There was considerable discussion as to whether Victoria should celebrate the event on a large scale or not. It was eventually decided to do so because of the importance of the occasion; the fact that visitors would circulate money and create jobs was also considered. A decision was made to spread the celebrations over a six-month period, starting with the Henty celebration at Portland in October 1934 and culminating in the anniversary of the Batman and Fawkner settlements at Port Phillip in 1935. Heated arguments over the primacy of Batman or Fawkner and of Henty or Mills then followed. The correct pronunciation of the word “centenary” was debated; there were three different schools of thought over this matter. Etymologists opted for “cent'n-aree”, while the people largely pleased themselves.
In 1934 Australia was slowly recovering from the world-wide depression which had started in the United States in 1929. Although unemployment was falling, it was still at a serious level. The basic wage for adult males was only $6.40 per week. Men stood on the kerb, playing a cornet or trombone, looking hopefully for a coin. Unemployed folk queued for meals at soup kitchens which had been improvised by charitable organizations. The food, given by hotels and cafes, largely consisted of “left-overs” heated up in the form of soup or stew. The charge for this was usually five or ten cents. Occasionally a poofly dressed man might plead for the price of a meal. Mortgagees foreclosed and homes were sold. Genteel folk sold off their books and antiques. By contrast, the City had eight theatres and 12 cinemas. Most suburbs had one or more cinemas while a few had a dance palais as well. The most ambitious suburban picture palaces were the Palais and the Victory, both at St Kilda. The dynamic Frank Thring, former chief of Hoyts', produced films for the Home and overseas markets at his Efftee Studios. Luna Park was popular with the young folk. Huge crowds witnessed the running of the Melbourne Cup. An occasional lunch at the excellent Wattle Cafe of Mrs. Ham, in Little Collins Street, was a treat for those who could manage it.
During the worst years of the Depression, for reasons of economy, Victoria had no Governor. The Chief Justice, Sir William Irvine, who doubled as Lieutenant-Governor, acted as Administrator from June 1931 to May 1934. In the latter year Lord Huntingfield, who was born in Queensland, arrived to assume the office of Governor. As Government House was being used by the Melbourne Girls’ High School, Sir Macpherson Robertson, the confectioner, had funded the building of a new school for the girls and Government House reverted to its original purpose. Prince George, Duke of Kent had accepted an invitation to open the Centenary celebrations; however, when his betrothal to Princess Marina was announced, the arrangements were altered. Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester came in his stead. The management of the Homoeopathic Hospital took the opportunity to change the institution's outmoded name to Prince Henry's Hospital. The old Paramount cinema in Middle Brighton was reconstructed as the Prince George Theatre. Because the owners had spent so much on re-vamping it, they decided to retain the by then inapt name, “Prince George”.
The Melbourne of the 1930s had a number of “characters” in its streets. They were eccentric, picturesque and in some cases, tragic figures. One such was “Bible Joe”, a short elderly man with a beard down to his waist, who shuffled along in unlaced boots, without socks. He carried a billy-can containing a Bible which he would read to himself as he walked, his lips moving the while. He had suffered a stroke early in life and his speech was hesitant. One day in the 1930s, very agitated, he came into Robertson and Mullens and asked me for the books prescribed for the B.A. 1881. I spoke with him for some time and he calmed down and went on his way.
John Pomeroy, who kept a pie stall outside St. Paul's, possessed an inventive mind. An explosive bullet that he had invented was bought by the British War Office for 25,000 pounds and was used successfully against the Zeppelins. Pomeroy wasted most of his money on other inventions that Were not viable. There was another man who had a “hot dog” engine outside Hosie's Hotel in Elizabeth Street. A boiler, painted in fire-brigade red and having big brass bands round it, was
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mounted on a cart. The owner threw wood into the furnace while his pony fed from its nose-bag. Sausages were cooked while you waited.
Then there were two little old ladies. One sold matches from the steps of the old Royal Bank, on the south-east corner of Collins and Elizabeth streets; the other sold violets outside the Victoria Palace in Little Collins Street. Another pathetic figure was Killarney Kate, who frequently travelled on trams when inebriated: she would then sing “Killarney” — the only song in her repertoire — in an Irish brogue. Once I saw Vance Palmer with a heavy spiral-shaped walking-stick, similar to that affected by the Scottish comedian, Sir Harry Lauder. The bearded artist Max Meldrum might be sighted in the vicinity of his Queen Street studio. An elderly lady of means and possessing much dignity had a striking resemblance to Queen Mary. Her clothes, including a toque hat, were closely modelled on those worn by the imperious queen consort. Stephanie Deste, dark and vivacious, was a talented actress. She had played leading roles in J. C. Williamson shows, before settling down in her beauty parlour. On the site of the demolished Bijou Theatre in Bourke Street, two young political aspirants spoke to lunch-time crowds from a soap-box. One, Harold Holt became Prime Minister and the other, Frank Nelson, became a County Court Judge.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon at St. Kilda, a dignified elderly man clad in cream flannel trousers, navy blazer and a strawdecker might be seen walking down the pier, winding a cord round a top. This he would spin as he advanced, deftly catching it on the back of his hand. With a flick he would then throw it on to the brim of his hat, where it would spin as it moved round the brim. He kept repeating this trick as he walked, all the time keeping a dead-pan expression on his face. Around 9 p.m. the tubby, elderly Jimmy Richardson, the hotelier, case in hand, would visit his eight City hotels to collect the day's takings. He always took this to Richardson's Hotel in Bourke Street, where he lived, and where he counted it. He was always followed by a powerfully built henchman.
J. A. Smith, a clever engineer, lived in Collins Place (between Collins and Flinders streets and now part of Exhibition Street). He was the first to suggest roofing over the Jolimont railway yards and building thereon. He stood at his front gate at about 12.30 p.m. daily, wistfully gazing at the yards, no doubt wondering if his dream would ever come to fruition. George G. Turri, the picturesque and friendly patent attorney, was often around. He claimed to be the senior patent attorney in Australia and he acted for Rolls-Royce and MacRobertson. In those days, if one stood for long looking in the Bourke Street shop windows, a constable on the beat might ask you to move along. People carried cash on their person and there were plenty of pickpockets looking for the opportunity to relieve the owners of it. I once saw a forlorn-looking Aborigine playing tunes on a gum leaf outside the Hotel Australia, hat at his feet. A policeman curtly told him to move on. A day or two later he was booked for begging alms when playing elsewhere.
The Centenary Celebrations Council was appointed to plan the functions. Many of its leaders were military men of distinction or senior public servants. Although they possessed administrative ability, they were not entrepreneurs. It was an occasion for people with showmanship and imagination. The official visitors from abroad were distinguished, but many were colourless. There should have been more folk with charisma, closer to the people. Stage and sporting stars would have had more appeal. John Masefield was one who was well received. Sponsored by the Melbourne Shakespeare Society, he lectured on Shakespeare to a big and enthralled audience in the Town Hall. Later he spent a pleasant week-end with C. J. Dennis at Toolangi. Masefield frequently called at Mullen's Library where, like Kipling in 1891, he was made an honorary member for the duration of his stay. When organizing was still in the planning stage, Professor Ernest Scott, writing in the Press, suggested that a pageant would prove popular. He, no doubt, had an appropriate historical theme in mind. In due course an excellent pageant was presented on the Exhibition oval, but without any Australian content. This was Hiawatha, produced by Tom Fairbairn, with music by Clive Carey, who later headed the Albert Street Conservatorium. The ubiquitous R. H. Croll organized an impressive exhibition of Australian art at the Commonwealth Bank in Collins Street.
Sir Russell Grimwade's action in buying the home of Captain Cook's parents at Great Ayton in Yorkshire started a heated discussion. People attacked him because it was not Captain Cook's own home; they also criticized him for having it dismantled and shipped out here. It was re-erected in the Fitzroy Gardens. The cottage now attracts thousands of visitors yearly and Grimwade was naturally upset at all the hostile criticism. Commander George Hermon Gill, the Naval historian, wrote an excellent little book on the cottage; it
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was illustrated by his wife, Esther Paterson. The Argus commissioned Lieutenant Geoffrey Ingleton of the Flinders Naval Depot to design a model of the Endeavour for a competition they were projecting. In the Junior Argus each week he gave instructions and plans to his youthful readers. The winning models were then displayed in the Town Hall, where John Masefield presented the prizes to the successful modellers.
The Centenary inspired the publication of some important historical works. It also caused an upsurge of interest in early Australiana and some significant material came to light. The poet-bookseller “Furnley Maurice” (Frank Wilmot) was awarded the Melbourne Centenary Prize for Poetry, worth fifty pounds, for his “Melbourne and Memory”. The newspapers published excellent supplements for the occasion, while the Commonwealth Government issued a Centenary stamp in three states.
The Shrine of Rememberance, then just completed, was dedicated on October 11, 1934, by the Duke of Gloucester, before a gathering of 300,000 people and with possibly an ever larger audience following the proceedings on radio. The Premier (Sir Stanley Argyle) read a poem written for the occasion by Rudyard Kipling. Under pressure from the Government, the Council of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria reluctantly put the Show back from September to October. The result was disastrous, as the rain poured down every day, making October one of the wettest months on record. Major W. T. Conder, in turn soldier, governor of Pentridge, general manager of J. C. Williamson's and of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, brought Ivan Brothers’ Circus from America. The October deluge wrecked the big tent, washing out the show and causing Conder serious loss. Lady Huntingfield officially opened a garden commemorating the pioneer women of Victoria. Situated in the King's Domain near the Botanic Gardens and Alexandra Avenue, it had waterfalls, rockeries and secluded corners. The Centenary gift book, edited by Frances Fraser and Nettie Palmer, was entirely written and illustrated by women. Sponsored by the Centenary Council, it contained much excellent material. During the celebrations, City buildings and shops were decorated in a colourful manner. Some of the displays were outstanding.
The highlight of the Centenary was the MacRobertson Centenary Air Race. Sponsored by Sir Macpherson Robertson, the race was from Mildenhall in England to Melbourne. It aroused world-wide interest and was won by C. W. A. Scott and T. Campbell Black of England, who flew their D. H. Comet in 71 hours 18 seconds. A Dutch competitor, K. D. Parmentier, lost his way in the dark of night and was running short of fuel. Albury radio station promptly broadcast an appeal for motorists to drive to the showground and draw up round the arena, with headlights blazing. This was done, enabling Parmentier to make a perfect landing. This incident aroused enormous interest, specially in the Netherlands, whose Prime Minister cabled his thanks to the “Burgomaster” of Albury. As further Centenary gestures, Sir Macpherson Robertson gave the money for a new National Herbarium and for building the Grange Road bridge. In those times MacRobertson might have been seen in the suburbs driving his Packard at a steady 12 miles per hour. He had taken up motoring late in life and was very cautious. He had been brought up with horses, which he loved to ride or drive in competions.
There were some high spots in the celebrations and the story of Victoria's remarkable development in 100 years received international coverage. At the same time, I feel that the celebrations lasted for too long and they might have had a little more colour.
JOHN HOLROYD