- NB. I began writing this in mid-January, put it aside, and am only now returning to it. In the interim, the NSW Humanist Society/Humanist Society of NSW held a meeting on February 14, 2010, to elect a new Committee of Management, but I’m unaware of the results of this meeting (see below), and who now constitutes the Committee. The latest edition of the Society newsletter, however, states that the person previously responsible for letting the Hall (David Duffy) has been replaced, and those wishing to hire it will be more stringently vetted in future.
As noted, John August, the President of the NSW Humanist Society/Humanist Society of NSW, has recently released a statement regarding the Society, Humanist House, and the ‘Public Information Forum’ (PIF), a fascist grouping whose meetings at the House in October and November 2009 were accompanied by protest. After detailing some recent history involving the Society’s relationship to and with the PIF (aka ‘Klub Nation’/’Klub Naziya’/’Mark Pavic Group’), as well as an attempt to introduce a statement in opposition to racism and xenophobia into the group’s Constitution, August notes that the Society’s last AGM:
…resulted in a committee which included many PIF members who had not previously attended social gatherings or committee meetings, contributed to the Humanist Viewpoints or otherwise taken an interest in the NSW Humanists. The election was itself problematic, with no scrutiny of candidates before the election, and confusion about preferential voting.
The Society zine (Humanist Viewpoints, Vol.48, No.4, October/November/December 2009) states that the:
2009 AGM was well attended and the new committee consists of John August (President), David Duffy and Waratah Rosemarie Gillespie (Vice Presidents), Victor Bien (Treasurer), Affie Adagio (Hon Sec/Editor) and Angela Drury (Assist. Sec). Ordinary committee members: Dylon Anderson, Ken Cratchley, Tony D’Angiolillo, Hugh Drewitz, Gillian Ellis, Fred Flatow, Robin Hall, Mark Pavic, Andrew Wilson, and John Wright.
The same number also welcomes the (‘White nationalist’) Australian Protectionist Party’s NSW spokesperson Darrin Hodges into the Humanist fold.
In relation to public protest at Humanist House, August has little new to add. There were two such protests — in October and November — timed to coincide with the meeting of the neo-Nazis. August reiterates the fact that he considered the protests violent (a Society member who witnessed one of the protests asserts that the protesters struck the building, and “a glass panel inside Humanist House was damaged around this time”) and therefore unwelcome, and that he remains at a loss as to the identities of those participating. August also complains that participants failed to contact the Society prior to the protests in order to communicate their concerns, and have not done so since. For their part, the neo-Nazis apparently accused August and the committee of collaborating with the protesters and, inter alia, “claimed that the police would be investigating the damage which resulted to Humanist House”. In summary: “The protester’s careless and ill-thought out actions exacerbated an already difficult and stressful situation. Great work, guys.”
Again, not a great deal of new information. August spoke to Redfern police about the protests, who expressed knowledge of the involvement of participants in other political activity (“The protesters knew that the group went by the name “Klub Nation”… and it seems had been protesting elsewhere”).
In news just to hand:
I was intrigued to note that the Humanist Society of NSW was not an exhibitor at the Global Atheist Convention, an event at which one of its Patrons, Robyn Williams, was a guest speaker.
Pam Walker has authored an article — Anti-fascist protests at Humanist House, City Hub, March 17, 2010 — which states that Mark Pavic was elected Vice President of the Society at its February 14 meeting. If correct, then the fascists have not only not been removed from the Society but, seemingly, further cemented their place within it. Which is, of course, unfortunate: moaron that subject — and August’s understanding of the political issues raised by neo-Nazi infiltration of a Humanist association — later.
In the meantime, however, readers should note other events from Australian history — from 100 or more years ago. Humanists in particular should discuss the relevance of this history with other groups in civil society.
NB. The Melbourne Anarchist Club was formed on May 1, 1886 by members of the Australasian Secular Association. Anarchists played a key role in challenging Christian domination of the colonies, and in particular bourgeois opposition to participation by the working class in public life. In 1889, and the years following, anarchist and socialist agitators such as Chummy Fleming, Sam Rosa and John White participated in regular public protests demanding the opening of libraries and other civic institutions on Sundays.
[Source : Radical Melbourne, Jill and Jeff Sparrow, Vulgar Press, 2001, pp.161–164.]
In 1883, The Argus published an article condemning the presence of the poor in the Public Library on Swanston Street:
A visitor to the library may test the matter first by his nose. He can smell vagrancy the moment he crosses the threshold. Using his eyes, he can see it right up and down the long hall; peering curiously about, he can find it in any of the alcoves, nicely sheltered and walled about with books. If he chooses to particularise, he may see an unmistakable specimen enter, shuffle up to a bookcase, select a volume of light literature, choose a seat, set up his elbows as supports to his head, and bend his eyes on the print. In a little while he spits. In an hour he will sleep; if he snores an attendant may disturb him; then he will read and spit again.
The Argus proposed two solutions – regulations forcing potential entrants to show a letter of introduction from a ‘respectable’ household or, failing that, the division of the building into distinct areas for different classes. By name, the library might have been ‘Public’ (or ‘Free’), but there was more than a suggestion from Melbourne’s elite that the building and its collection remained rather too good for the populace, since ‘the books . . . are handled, and soiled, and spoiled, and frequently mutilated, by creatures who would be better bestowed within Her Majesty’s gaols’.
In reality, The Argus needn’t have worried. After all, the Library remained closed on Sundays – the only day most people had free – thus effectively limiting its use to those with leisure enough to visit during the working week.
Indeed, the strict enforcement of the Presbyterian Sabbath rendered most of Melbourne notorious for wowserism during the 1880s and 1890s. On the seventh day, official regulations closed theatres, barred newspapers and allowed trains to run only on the condition that they carried worshippers to church – thus ensuring that working people could find almost no entertainment on their single free day.
And, as a speaker at a public meeting on the topic declared:
all these irritating and annoying restrictions [are] solely due to an outside lot of self-elected, impertinent, meddlesome busybodies, who being in themselves a combination of meanness and misery, [are] endeavouring to render other people as miserable as themselves on Sundays, and [have] succeeded, to a great extent, in doing so.
But the ban on the library particularly galled Melbourne’s left-wing activists. The Melbourne radical tradition had largely developed from the secular and free-thought organisations, where activists took books and their contents very seriously. The anarchist Chummy Fleming, for instance, described his own discovery of the delights of reading as coming ‘like a flash of light one Summer’s morning’. So the idea of a religious superstition barring the mass of working people from the knowledge contained in a library paid for with public taxes seemed utterly outrageous.
Almost as soon as the Library began operations in 1853, the issue of Sunday closing caused controversy. In 1883, the Museum and Gallery relented for two months, opening their doors on the Sabbath – and the turnstiles recorded nearly six thousand Sunday visits.
The conservatives struck back by forming the Sunday Observance League, an organisation dedicated to maintaining the ban on any public activity during the Sabbath. Though progressives countered with the Sunday Liberation Society, and a series of public meetings defending the Library (one of which culminated in a riot), the forces of reaction temporarily triumphed – Parliament bowed to pressure and legislated to force the Library’s closure.
In 1889, a large mass meeting convened at Queens Wharf, with different organisations and individuals merging their separate ‘stumps’ to allow for a joint discussion of the Public Library issue. Before long, Chummy Fleming took to the platform, and declared:
After the meeting is over, I shall be going up to that Library to look at it from the outside, and think about how much I should like to be inside reading, instead of loafing about in the street.
Several other speeches followed, but at the close of the meeting:
It seemed that the whole crowd as one man was seized with an impulse to go and do what Fleming had said he was going to do; instead of as usual scattering in all directions, the whole mass went surging up solidly to view the Library and devoutly wish to be inside.
A pattern for the next months had been established. Each Sunday, people assembled at the Wharf to listen to speeches, before a crowd (sometimes numbering as many as four or five thousand people) strolled through the streets cheering:
For a Free Sunday, for a Social Revolution, the opening of the library etc. on Sundays . . . When they reached Swanston Street, the throng gave ‘three hearty cheers for the opening of it’.
Meetings concluded at the Working Men’s College (today’s RMIT), where each week they resolved to continue the agitation.
When Parliament met to consider the matter, the assembly outside the Working Men’s College elected a delegation to present its views to the legislators. The chosen five promptly set out to Bourke Street, with the rest of the meeting following. However:
When they arrived at Bourke Street the crowd there, seeing a small crowd come along with well-known agitators in it, became excited and rushed to see what was going on. In a few moments some six thousand people, at a moderate estimate, were surging towards Parliament House.
The unexpected arrival of such a throng – with troublemakers like Chummy at the head – naturally alarmed the police, who prepared for battle. Just when a riot seemed imminent, ‘a sudden downpour of rain occasioned a precipitate retreat to the shelter of the Bourke Street verandahs, while the deputation went quietly in’.
After a month or so of the Sunday processions, police arrested Fleming and two other prominent agitators, Sam Rosa and John White. Chummy and Rosa faced charges of ‘insulting behaviour’ and ‘loitering’; White, ‘insulting behaviour’ and ‘taking part in a procession’. Rosa’s account in The Liberator (the newspaper of the Australian Secular Association) details their court appearance the next day:
The policemen retailed certain interesting little fictions of their own invention, to the effect that we said the Prince of Wales was no good, and that the queen ought to take in washing (the magistrates were struck with horror at the idea of the queen turning laundry-woman) and that the poor were plundered by the rich. ‘They don’t confine themselves to the Public Library at all, your worship,’ said one sapient bobby, ‘but they denounce capitalists and even magistrates, your worship.’
Despite their obvious outrage, the police lost the ‘insulting behaviour’ charges. The activists, however, copped a guilty verdict on the other charges and were duly sentenced to pay a fine of three pounds or face gaol for one month. Declaring that they had done nothing wrong, the three chose gaol.
In gaol, they continued to do what they could to keep the campaign alive. White reminded readers of The Liberator:
I have been a constant agitator for Reform for 40 years, and am the same now as when I stood along side of my dear father in the old country during the Chartist troubles in ’48, in the cause of Freedom. I do all I do calmly and deliberately, and regret nothing I do. Though I am ill in body, I am strong in mind.
For his part, Chummy bemoaned that the ‘reading matter supplied me [in prison] consisted of the bible, Sunday at Home, and a hymn book, which disappointed me, as I thought I should have a month’s enjoyment, rest and reading’. But he found scope for political work by campaigning to improve conditions for prisoners. He also continued to express his commitment to the Sunday campaign, waxing philosophical on the issue:
What is life? – tomorrow it may have passed. So, after all, to do courageous and noble deeds – helping the dawning of the universal Brotherhood of Humanity, is worthy of us all.
His letter ended, however, on a somewhat plaintive note. ‘If any of my friends could visit me,’ he wrote, ‘I should be delighted to see them . . .’
After the three were released, other issues moved to the fore, and the campaign gradually died away. Public opinion, however, continued to swing against Sunday closing.
On 22 September 1904, Parliament relented – making Melbourne the last city throughout the length and breadth of the British Empire to throw open the doors of its public institutions on Sundays.