Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2008

Radical Melbourne, a Secret History (2021), by Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow

radical-melbourneThis is one of the books I’m reading for the State Library Summer Read Shortlist, and it’s fascinating.  I bought it ages ago at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and browsed it then, but now I’m reading it properly.  It’s a great book to end the year on!  The brother-and-sister Sparrows are well known for their Left-wing activism in Melbourne amd they have written a really interesting history of our city’s less well-known past.

Radical Melbourne is ostensibly designed to accompany a ‘city walk’ of the type that tourists do, but the book is too big to carry about and there’s too much information to absorb standing about on a busy city pavement.  No, this is a book to read and enjoy at home, and if you know Melbourne reasonably well, most of the sites are well known anyway and there are helpful photos.  However I would like to see some of what I learned from this book incorporated into the series of’ city walk’  brochures that are available at the Federation Square Tourism centre – for although there is some stuff of interest mainly to political enthusiasts, there is much in Radical Melbourne that deserves to be better known.

As Lefties so often do, the  Sparrows  provoke a reassessment of some ideas.  Why is it, I now wonder, that there’s a memorial commemorating pioneer deaths in the Flagtaff Gardens but not those of Aboriginals who died at the same place and time?   In Melbourne’s earliest days, Flagstaff Hill was a cemetery, and the first adult interments were Charles Franks and Flinders, his shepherd, killed by Aborigines at a pioneering sheep station at Mt Cottrell on the Werribee River.  The memorial makes no mention of the retaliatory massacre, led by John Batman, which resulted in the deaths of at least ten Aborigines.  It’s a bit confronting, even when we know that Batman was a rogue, to see him described as a ‘war criminal’ – but the Sparrows are right… If Aboriginal Resistance to the invasion of their land is awarded the same respect as, say, the French Resistance against the Nazis, then Batman’s self-confessed actions in shooting Aboriginal prisoners-of-war in Tasmania have to be acknowledged as war crimes.  John Fawkner, too, knew full well that the punitive expedition was not to dispense British justice but rather summary justice, of the type deployed all over Australia in the Frontier Wars.   It doesn’t surprise me that those who raised the memorial thought only of the pioneers (half a dozen of whom are still buried beneath the gardens) but it’s odd that nothing has been done to redress the injustice in more enlightened times.

There are still bodies below our famous Victoria Market too.   When in 1920 the original Old Cemetery was moved to its current site, identifiable bodies were exhumed, and the rest (presumably people to poor to have headstones) were left in situ, under our feet as we shop at the market.  This is an interesting thing to think about, in an age when elaborate burial ceremonies are held for stillborns and expensive exhumations of soldiers’ remains take place as far afield as France and Vietnam.

I was most interested to read that amongst the few to recognise the evils of the Nazi regime in its early days were some of Melbourne’s activists.  (It was actually only ever Melbourne’s Aborigines who made a formal protest with a delegation to the German Consul-General in Melbourne, in 1938.)   Elsewhere, it was thought important not to offend a ‘friendly power’ and it was Robert Menzies, Attorney-General in the Federal Government, who took steps to censor a play called Till the Day I Die.  This play was about the brutality of the Nazis and it was because of the difficulty in finding a venue to stage it in Melbourne that the New Theatre, at 293 LaTrobe St was born.  There, unemployed people built theatre and props (and sometimes got a much-needed feed as well) so that plays of social criticism could be performed.

The Orange Riots of 1846 are another revelation.  Everybody knows how much violence has been triggered in Ireland during the Marching Season, most provocatively by Protestant marches commemorating the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 when mostly Catholic Jacobites were slaughtered.  In July 1845 Melbourne Protestants announced their intention to hold a commemorative march and it was only the determined efforts of Superintendant LaTrobe and hastily sworn-in ‘special constables’ that prevented this type of confrontational marching from taking place and becoming entrenched as a tradition.  There was a riot, however, in the following year when the Protestants held a commemorative dinner at the Pastoral Hotel in St John’s Lane, and shots were fired.  Sectarianism has been an ugly feature of Australian life since its earliest days and perhaps the Manly riots in 2006 are its modern form…

There are many more interesting snippets in Radical Melbourne, but I’ll close with my favourite.  Few booklovers will not know about Coles’ Book Arcade which ran from Bourke St to Collins St and boasted over two million books.  Coles was a  businessman, author and publisher, and he also provided many of the seeds for Melbourne’s fledgling Botanic Gardens – but he was also a Darwinist and a prominent activist against the White Australia Policy.  Today there is little to commemorate his store except the roof above Howey Lane, and I wonder: why are there statues of those old reprobates Fawkner and Batman – and none of a man who loved books and promoted reading?

radical-melbourne2The Sparrows have also published Radical Melbourne 2, covering the period after 1939.  It’s on my TBR, but will soon be joining other great books about Melbourne on my history shelves: The Birth of Melbourne by Tim Flannery;  and two books by Robyn Annear – A City Lost and Found, Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne , and (my favourite for scandalous gossip and idiosyncratic tales), Bearbrass, Imagining Early Melbourne.

Authors: Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow
Title: Radical Melbourne, a secret history
Foreword by Stuart Macintyre
Publisher: The Vulgar Press, 2004, first published 2021
ISBN: 9780957735248, pbk., 220 pages plus index
Source: Personal library, purchased at the Melbourne Writers Festival



  1. […] The Rainy Season, and although I haven’t read Killing yet, I’ve read Sparrow’s Radical Melbourne series and thought they were terrific.  I’ve also read The Boat, but don’t quite see […]


  2. Oh no, another book for my TBR! I wrote an essay a few years back about the contested nature of urban space and one of the examples I drew on was central Melbourne and the uproar when an attempt was made to rectify the lack of acknowledgement of our Aboriginal history in Melbourne.

    Another to add to my long list of blogposts that I must write!


    • *chuckle*
      Is that essay online?


      • No, that’s why I have to write it up as a post.


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