Historic Trades Hall

Historic Trades Hall
Jeff Atkinson

Trades Hall on Lygon St, Carlton, is one of Melbourne’s most historically important sites. It is Australia’s oldest and largest Trades Hall and a symbol of the importance of organised labour within Australian society in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Major campaigns and struggles that have had important ramifications for Australian society, such as the Anti Conscription Campaigns of 1916 and 1917, were run from there. Activities leading to the birth of the Australian Labor Party took place there, as did the first meeting of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in May 1927. Until 1968 Trades Hall was the headquarters of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party.

In the 1850s a group of worker organisers decided that they needed a venue for meetings, and somewhere that could provide opportunities for working class people to study and improve their quality of life. As the establishment was intended to educate workers and their families, a sympathetic state government granted them a block of land on the corner of Lygon and Victoria streets for a “Trades Hall and Literary Institute”. However, the unions had to provide their own building. By 1859 they had raised enough money to build, with their own labour, a modest hall of timber with galvanised iron roofing.

As early as 1869, Trades Hall established an “Artisans School of Design” that among other things ran classes in “ornamental drawing” for painters and plasterers. This was a radical art school for its time that among other things encouraged artisans to use Australian motifs. Well-known Australian artists Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts both attended this school of design.

In the early 1870s, plans were developed for a more substantial building to replace the wooden hall, and over the decades that followed, the building that we see today was constructed in stages. The design was by noted architects Joseph Reed and Frederick Barnes, who also designed the State Library, the Melbourne Town Hall, and the Royal Exhibition Building. These were very grand buildings, and Reed and Barnes’ design was way beyond what the workers could afford. But it is a tribute to their strong aspirations towards social respectability that funds were gradually raised, and the building was constructed to Reed and Barnes’ design stage by stage over a period of 50 years. Despite being built piece-meal over many decades, the whole building today appears as one consistent design, true to the original concept of Reed and Barnes.

The original Trades Hall Council chamber within the building (see photo) was opened in 1884. The room was designed to resemble a parliamentary chamber, part of the quest by the union movement in the 19th century for respectability. Its walls were covered with light green wallpaper, and the furniture and drapery were in green velvet, as in a parliamentary lower house. However, with the rapid growth in the number of trade unions, the room soon became too small. It could only seat 127 union representatives when there were 151 members of the Trades Hall Council. It was only in use as a council chamber for seven years, until a new and larger council chamber was built and opened in 1891. The room is still there in Trades Hall, and has recently been refurbished.

Over the years the building has been used for many purposes. Numerous trade unions have had their headquarters there, but as they grew in number and size, the building became too small to accommodate them and they moved on to larger premises elsewhere. Today the building is the home of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, and is occupied by an eclectic group of organisations, including a bookshop downstairs that sells political texts. Trades Hall is still used as a venue for political events, but has also taken on a more cultural focus and is now a regular venue for theatre productions, art exhibitions and is the headquarters for the Melbourne Comedy Festival •

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