The Domain is the name for tract of land that surrounded Sydney’s First Government House, which was originally on the shores of Sydney Cove, on the present site of the Museum of Sydney. By the late 19th century, a spot within The Domain had become a place of free speech, as the home of ‘Speakers Corner’.
A Speakers Corner had first been established in the mid 19th century in South Hyde Park, where people gathered under the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ to philosophise and exchange ideas.
It was also a way of defusing sectarian tensions between the Protestants and Catholics. This particular Speakers Corner was closed down in 1874 following a riot.
There were a number of other public speaking places throughout the city in the 19th century, which tended to be on actual street corners. These included the Newtown Bridge (near the railway station) and Queen’s Square, opposite Hyde Park Barracks. These were public sites where people could congregate to hear someone talk, usually about politics or religion, either from street level or from an elevated position such as on the balcony of a nearby hotel or shop. This type of spruiking was especially popular during election times.
In the 19th century, much of the population was illiterate, so they were unable to read the broadsheets or tabloids to get their news first-hand. Aside from the printed and spoken word, there were no other ways to receive information: there was no radio, TV or internet. Moreover, the speakers corners provided the potential for an alternative take on the mainstream.
Sydney’s official Speakers Corner was established in The Domain in 1878. It always took place on a Sunday, and was limited to the hours of 2 and 5pm (5.30pm in the summer months). At this time, the working week was six days so Sunday was the only day of rest. Shops, hotels and most forms of public entertainment were closed, apart from the church, so Speakers Corner soon became a popular day out for those who were either less than pious, or enjoyed the cut and thrust of free thinking and expression.
Speakers stood on boxes, ladders and tree stumps across the road from the Art Gallery of NSW. Here they spoke to the gathering crowds about their pet topic, which could range from politics, feminism and Aboriginal rights to anti-war rants, religious evangelism and treatises on health and diet. It was said that they were able to ‘touch the heads and the hearts of people who dislike churches, chapels or lecture halls’.
There was an art to public speaking in this type of climate. As the crowds were large – there were reputedly up to 100,000 people gathered there at various times in the early 20th century – the ‘soapbox orator’ had to be able to project their voice; to capture the attention of the audience with both performance and argument and to keep them engaged; and to have storehouse of wit and sarcasm to deal with the taunts and jibes of the hecklers.
Speakers Corner is still there, enshrined in the legislation that governs The Domain. But the speakers are few. However, it is worth a visit on a Sunday between 2 and 5pm, if only to revive a dying tradition! There is an art work by Debra Phillips, Viva Voce, that commemorates the history of Speakers Corner, and a steel platform and a plaque honouring past speakers has been recently unveiled.
For further reading about the many different characters who’ve spoken there over the past century and a half, check out Steve Maxwell’s website Soapbox Oratory.