A place where workmen may their minds engage
To useful purpose o'er the printed page
- One which the tints of age may haply show
Or one which caught the ink an hour ago: -
A hall where wife and children may be found
To listen to a concert of sweet sound,
Or hear the lecturer and quickly learn
What years of study teach him to discern
- Charles Bright
The poet Charles Bright’s description of the future Trades Hall encompasses all the grandest ambitions for a “people’s palace”. This was to be a place advancing not just the material conditions of the working class, but its spiritual and artistic needs too.
At the Artisans school of design, formed in 1859 in the timber Trades Hall, working-class men had the opportunity to learn aspects of the fine arts. With courses led by famous artists such as Louis Buvolet, the artisans school would provide the first taste of high art painting to some of Australia’s most famous painters like Tom Roberts, and Frederick McCubbin.
Frederick McCubbin recalled his Trades Hall experience in his notes:
… the following Friday evening saw me off to the Trades Hall School of Design, Lygon Street, Carlton, sitting on the stairs of the old wooden building waiting for eight o'clock when the school opened… Well I was in seventh heaven, I had really got into the palace of Art. It was a joy all day while trying to knock out rusty bolts and help tire wheels and paint and putty the same to let my mind wander over the charms of painting."
Meanwhile, other workers accessed radical ideas and philosophies through Trades Hall’s library and literary institute. At a time when literacy levels were low and books were scarce, the library served as an important resource for working class philosophers and budding politicians.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Trades Hall sought new ways to bring art and music to the working class. High in the South tower at Trades Hall, the Industrial Printing and Publicity Group burst onto the airwaves as 3KZ "Brighter Broadcasting Service" in 1930. Radio stars and trade unionists took turns entertaining and educating Melbourne listeners hungry for diversion, even as bread lines snaked from the Trades Hall steps around Victoria street. 3KZ would eventually become Gold 104.3 FM, but the South tower remains dedicated to the use of connecting art with working life: visual artists have worked from studios in the Trades Hall towers from the early eightees to present day.
During the construction of the Arts Centre's famous spire in 1984, the Builders Labourers Federation workers took action to demand better wages and conditions. Amongst their demands - a "golden ticket" for building workers and their families to attend any future productions at the arts centre, indefinitely. The letter in this case sets out the terms of a compromise - the union movement would instead be allowed to hold a production at the Arts Centre facilities on labour day each year. "Strike a light" Labour Day concerts were staged until at least 1990, but the practice mysteriously ended.
Today Trades Hall is still a meeting point for radical artists and a venue for community arts programs like The Fringe and Comedy Festival. Even the carpet you’re walking on now references Trades Hall’s artistic and spiritual ambition: “Bread for all, but roses too”.