Tag Archives: Robert Burns

Halloween in Australia

The common denial that Halloween is not Australian is incorrect. Although there clearly was a time in the late 20th century when Halloween festivities didn’t happen for a couple of decades in some parts of Australia. However, the reality is that Halloween has been celebrated in Australia since the colonial era.

In 1858 the Mount Alexander Mail advertised a “Select Scottish Ball on the Anniversary of Halloween” at the Red Hill Hotel, Forest Creek (p.8). Colonial Australian newspapers also reported on Queen Victoria celebrating Halloween at Balmoral. Few people now remember Robert Burn poem “Halloween”, but it was often quoted in Australian newspapers in October and on Burn’s birthday in January. For about a decade in the 1860s a ballet based on Burn’s poem touring Australia. And echoing Burns in a manner that not even William McGonagall could muster, a poem titled, “An Australian Halloween” by an ‘Ossian MacPhearson’ was published in the Hamilton Spectator and Grange District Advertiser, Saturday 12 November 1864, (p. 3). So the idea that Halloween is alien to Australia is absurd.

Halloween celebrations continued to be enjoyed in Australia after federation often organised by the local Caledonian Society. But by the 1970s Halloween was not just a Scottish event. In 1970, the Australian Jewish Times wrote about plans for a “halloween party” in “Briefly on youth” p.17. Halloween in Australia was changing from parties for adults to a day for children to dress up. And in 1974, the Canberra Times reported on children in the suburb of Hughes playing trick or treat.

Australia has borrowed most of its holidays from the northern hemisphere and most of its culture that isn’t British, from America. So neither explanations of climate nor anti-Americanism feel satisfactory; otherwise, Easter, Christmas, along with Mother’s Day would also be failing in Australia. Holidays come and go; Guy Fawkes night is no longer celebrated in Australia primarily due to safety restrictions on the sale of fireworks but also because Australian culture is no longer that closely tied to England.

According to market research, Halloween is currently Australia’s least favourite festival. I can’t believe it is less popular than St. Patrick’s Day and the horse racing holiday. One contributing factor for this might be the decline in people identifying as Scottish Australian as there was a corresponding decline in membership of Caledonian Societies, and the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne ceased to operate on 21 April 2016. 

Culture is not static but constantly evolving, so claims that Halloween is not Australian are not definitive. Indeed claims that Halloween is not Australian are a recent development in the history of Halloween in Australia.

I proudly bear some responsibility for the introduction of Halloween trick or treating in Coburg. As a bit of a goth with fond memories of a Canadian childhood, Halloween is a celebration I enjoy. It has been enthusiastically taken up by a multi-cultural neighbourhood for unlike any other annual event because it is not religious and is not about the family. I am interested in Halloween because it encourages children to explore memes and their physical neighbourhood. There are problems with Halloween that I would like to change, the amount of plastic, the sugar and the commercialism.

Halloween decorations in a garden in Coburg

The Burns Memorial

“Notices paint the way to the “Banks of Coon” and to the Auld Brig, upon which a man in a bowler-hat stood with his camera ready. He offered to take my photograph with the Burns memorial as background. I said the honour was too great for a normal man, and begged to be excused.”

j b morton (beachcomber), “a lowland jaunt”
George Anderson Lawson, Robert Burns Memorial, Treasury Gardens

There are probably more memorials to Robert Burns in the Anglophone world than any other person except for maybe Queen Victoria. You can find a Burns memorial almost everywhere some Scots have lived; so if you live in Scotland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland or the USA there is likely to be one nearby. (For an incomplete list of the Burns Memorial nearest you see Wikipedia.)

Melbourne’s own Burn’s Memorial was erected on 23 January 1904. The memorial’s original location on the west side of St Kilda Road and it was moved to its current site in the Treasury gardens in 1970.

It is an edition of the Robert Burns Memorial in Ayr in Scotland by the Scottish-born, Liverpool-based, sculptor George Anderson Lawson in 1892. It is the same sculpture as in Montreal, Halifax (Canada), Vancouver, Winnipeg and Detroit, only the plinths which were manufactured by local stonemasons are different.

These statues were purchased with funds raised by the local Caledonian society. Every Caledonian society in the world appears to have been raising money for a Burns memorial at some stage in their existence. Melbourne’s cost £1000 (the equivalent of about $158,000 worth today x 60+ for all the Burns Memorials in the world).

On the frontside of Melbourne’s Burns memorial, “BURNS” is spelt out in bronze letter. (This summer as bushfires raged some Melbourne half-wit sprayed “Australia” above “Burns”.) On the other sides there are bronze panels depict scenes from his poems: Tam O’Shanter (1790), To a mountain daisy (1786), and The cotter’s Friday night (1785). This follows the traditional form of a memorial statue where moments in the life of the hero are depicted.

For me the memorials raises many questions. What is the point of a literary memorial and why do people believe that there was a need to represent heroes in sculptural form? Did the Caledonian societies get value for money buying all those Burns memorials? And, surely a writer’s best memorial is their words and not their physiognomy? But then who now remembers any of Burns words apart from a few lines of Auld Lang Syne?

I wasn’t able to photograph all sides of the plinth because there was a tradesman was eating his lunch. I have often seen people sitting at the base of the Melbourne Burns memorial, it is mostly used as a bench now. I asked the man if I could take his photograph with the Burns memorial as the background and but he politely refused.

Heroes of Every Nation

Melbourne has never been a united city; it has always been divided between the European and the Aboriginal (not to forget the Chinese, the Afghans and Indians). Melbourne is still divided along lines of ethnicity, politics, class and religion. And sometimes the social divisions are translated into metal and stone with memorial statues to heroes.

Melbourne has statues to heroes of every nation: Robert Burns for the Scots, Daniel O’Connell for the Irish, General Gordon for the English, Dante Alighieri for the Italians, King Leonidas for the Spartans in Brunswick and General Sun Yat Sen in Chinatown. The existence and location of the statues demonstrates and reflects the political power of that particular community.

Daniel O' Connell, 1891, Thomas Brock

Daniel O’ Connell, 1891, Thomas Brock

Daniel O’ Connell, 1891, by Thomas Brock A.R.A. is located on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Thomas Brock (the A.R.A. on the plaque indicates the Brock was still an association member of the Royal Academy, he became a full member later that year) was an English sculptor who sculpted the British Royalty making him an odd choice to sculpture the Irish nationalist hero.

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Melbourne 

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Montreal

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Montreal

The Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, by G.A. Lawson is located in the Treasury Gardens. There are many other copies of this memorial in Dublin, Melbourne, Montreal, Winnipeg, Halifax and elsewhere, including Burns home town of Ayr. The sculptor G. A. Lawson (1832-1904) was born in Edinburgh most noted for the statue of Wellington on top of Wellington’s Column. The Melbourne’s memorial was commissioned by the Caledonian Society, presumably the united societies, as there were no fewer than fourteen Caledonian Societies in Victoria at the time.

The General Gordon Memorial, 1887 by William Hamo Thorneycroft is located in the eponymously named Gordon Reserve near Parliament. William Hamo Thorneycroft (9 March 1850–18 December 1925) was a British sculptor and like G.A. Lawson a member of the New Sculpture movement in the 19th Century. The statue in Melbourne is the same as the one in London except that the granite plinth is significantly higher and includes four bas relief panels depicting historical periods of General Gordon’s life: China 1863-4; Gravesend 1865-71; Sudan 1874-80; Khartoum 1885.

The marble bust of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri came into the possession of the City of Melbourne as a gift from the Dante Alighieri Society for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Originally it stood in Treasury Gardens with a bust of the radio pioneer Marconi but both were removed in 1968 due to vandalism. In the 1990s both busts were briefly displayed in Argyle Square before Dante was again defaced. Both busts are now at the Museo Italiano in Carlton.

Now all Melbourne needs (if it needs any of these statues) is statues of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and who else?

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