Maypoles and electric fences: centenary celebrations in 1950s Victoria

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Author: Jessie Mitchell
Date: June 2010
Publisher: Royal Australian Historical Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,505 words
Lexile Measure: 1590L

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During the 1950s, a number of Melbourne municipalities celebrated the past century of local government by publishing modest booklets recounting their own histories. I was perusing one of these, released by the Collingwood City Council in 1955, when my gaze was caught by what seemed to me a startling ending. After a conventional account of the suburb's progress and bright prospects, the author went on to express the hope that the achievements of the first pioneers would always be remembered, even if the industries of the future came to depend on atomic power. With an arresting mixture of confidence and terror, (s)he then concluded:

Collingwood is a city--a proud city--that, even were it to be devastated by some future catastrophe, would rise phoenix-like from the ashes, to once more serve the people and the state. (1)

The suggestion of nuclear war in Collingwood seemed disconcerting, especially alongside tales of sturdy settlers and efficient local infrastructure. In fact, it pointed to a greater complexity that characterised the anniversaries of government celebrated in Victoria during the 1950s. This was a decade of political anniversaries: 1951 marked the 50-year jubilee of Federation and the 100-year anniversary of Victoria's separation from New South Wales, while 1956 saw the centenary of responsible government for the Australian colonies (except Western Australia). There were also various 100-year anniversaries for local administrations, which had developed following the 1855 Act for the Establishment of Municipal Institutions in Victoria.

At first glance, many of these festivities seemed placid, low-key and stubbornly pleasant. The organisers could not hope for the passionate public engagement which accompanied the 1954 visit of Queen Elizabeth II and the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. (2) However, it was not always simple to commemorate localised, unified and responsible government. At these events, Victorians considered the place of politics and history in their post-war society, and raised questions of identity, heritage, democracy, hope and fear. In this paper, I will consider the conflicted roles of government and historical narrative in these commemorations. I will also address the strange shadow of violence that hung over these festivities: the presence -sometimes subtle, sometimes unmistakable--of both the Cold War and the destruction and survival of Indigenous Victorians.

'A virile and unified nation': loyalty and festivities

The 1951 anniversary of separation and Federation seemed to attract the strongest public interest. The subsequent anniversary of responsible government, in 1956, was no doubt overshadowed by the excitement of the Olympics. It is also possible that the anniversary of separation was more appealing because of its clearer links to local settler achievements. At first glance, the events of 1951 presented a predictable image of Victoria: cheerful, loyalist and rather bland. There were barbeques, sporting matches, shearing displays, folk dancing, marching bands and bonfires. (3) Plans were made to raise the flag at more than 1400 ceremonies, and citizens were encouraged to fly flags and bunting on Australia Day. (4)

The government sponsored a Centenary and Jubilee Train, which travelled around the state exhibiting famous manuscripts and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A228508620