Victorian Trades Hall rises grandly from the northern edge of the Melbourne CBD. Trades Hall was added to the National Heritage List by the independent Australian Heritage Council in 2023, and together with Broken Hill Trades Hall is part of a trans-national bid for UNESCO World Heritage Listing.
The First Trades Hall building
The 8 Hours Movement couldn’t keep meeting in local pubs indefinitely, and so, just weeks after winning the 8 hour day in 1856, a committee of stonemasons presented a report recommending:
that a Trades Hall or Institute be formed, in which each society shall have its own committee room, but only one general lecture room open to all the trades; also separate for classes, open to all; and a reading room or coffee room, free to all the members of the various trades, Sundays and weekdays, which unite in this object.
As the institute was intended to educate workers and their families, the state government granted the 8 hours committee a plot of "crown land" on the corner of Lygon and Victoria streets for a “Trades Hall and Literary Institute”. This land was never the crown's to bestow. Trades Hall sits on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations. We acknowledge that the construction of Trades Hall was a colonial project that dispossessed traditional owners.
Raising funds from union members at the annual 8 hour commemoration marches, the 8 hours committee was able to build - with their own labour - a timber hall with galvanised iron roof by 1859.
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.
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
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. Trades Hall became the headquarters for Victorian unions and was substantially extended during the 1880s as unions continued to grow. The original architects were Joseph Reed (1822-1890) and Frederick Barnes (c.1823-1883), of Reed and Barnes, designers of much of Melbourne’s grand 19th century architectural heritage, including the Royal Exhibition Building.
The earliest section (1874) is at the southern end of the site, directly behind the present Victoria Street entry building (1925). It includes the large meeting room "Balit Mil", and the main hallway featuring honour roll murals. These pay tribute to the union movement's involvement in building the social fabric of Victoria; establishing institutions like the Royal Childrens Hospital and the Working Men's College (now RMIT).
The bluestone steps in the Victoria Street wing date from 1882 - you’ll note the stone is warped by the tread of thousands of workers in hobnail and steel capped boots. Steps of a similar age in the Victorian parliament show no sign of the wear apparent here - because politicians wear soft leather shoes. The wear in these stone steps is a beautiful symbol of how the many can achieve what the few - with all their wealth and power - cannot. Our movement bends stone!
A series of the steps are chipped, legacy of a wild party at Trades Hall to celebrate Gough Whitlam's election in 1972.
The Old Council Chamber dates from 1884. When it opened the Argus called it the finest room in the colony. This room was built with the finest materials and artisans applied their best craftsmanship, seeking to advance the idea that working people were entitled to the best - not just the scraps from the elites. As Minister Tanya Plibersek noted in 2023:
"When this building was going up, working class people in the city were living in crowded slum housing, often with five, six, seven people to a room. Trades Hall must have seemed like a palace to those people. And not a palace built for the vanity of royals or the glory of elites. But a palace built for the education, the growth, and the power of ordinary people."
The pipes in each corner of this room are known as Tobin Tube vents. An early form of geothermal heating, they were designed to carry warm air from underneath the building to provide natural ventilation to the space.
Above the main entrance are two carved "Wyverns" - symbols of protection associated with working class market halls in Leeds and Halifax.
The Old Council Chamber was designed to look like a parliamentary chamber - "the people's parliament" - and indeed delegates seated themselves according to their political leanings. Murals above the northern doors depict the arts and sciences, respectively. According to a description in John Norton’s History of Labour and Capital, published in 1888, the walls were decorated with "hand painted friezes, relieved in the centre of each wall by a portrait of men who have made their mark in the history, and whom the working class delight to honour".
Two of these friezes were only uncovered again in 2019, thanks to painstaking restoration work. They depict George Stephenson - a working-class inventor of the "Geordie lamp" and "father of the railways", and George Higginbotham - a progressive politician who championed state funded, non-denominational education, democratic reforms to enfranchise the working class, and in 1873 women's suffrage! Their lost matching portraits depicted Samuel Plimsoll an English advocate for safe conditions for ship workers (and an early campaigner against live cattle exports!) and Charles Darling,a Progressive Governor of Victoria sacked for being openly partisan in favour of Higginbotham and progressives.
When the chamber opened, 59 unions were already renting space at Trades Hall. Just six years later the union movement was already outgrowing the Old Council Chamber. By 1890 the hall was accomodating unions totalling 50,000 members.
In 1891, a new double-height council chamber opened, in a new wing constructed over a rear courtyard.
The Female Operatives Hall
In February 1883, the Trades Hall committee became involved with the wide-scale Tailoresses’ Strike. Between 200 and 300 women stopped work to protest an attempt by the clothing manufacturing firm Beath, Schiess and Co to reduce rates to a level ‘below starvation level'. The strike by female workers was considered ‘extraordinary’, as reported by the Argus, it was ‘not often we hear of women and girls turning out on strike.’ Women were prohibited from occupying the committee rooms of the Trades Hall, although they were permitted use of a room of the ground floor of the building, with a separate entrance from Lygon Street.6Following the 1882 Tailoresses Strike, Trades Hall leaders also requested 14 acres of land in Lygon Street for what became the Female Operatives Hall. At the time, women were organising in huge numbers, and in their own separate unions.
A 200-seat “Female Operatives Hall” was built behind Trades Hall in 1884 to accommodate this explosion in women’s organising.
"For some time past considerable difficulty has been experienced at the Trades Hall to find a suitable place in which the female unions— such as the Tailoresses Society and similar societies - could meet … demands upon the accommodation of the hall have been so great that it was deemed advisable by the trustees of the Trades Hall to erect a separate building for the use of females.”
The Age, 26 April 1887.
You can’t visit this building today – shamefully, it was torn down in the 1960s to accommodate car parking.
You can learn about the fascinating history of women's organising at Trades Hall at a feminist hall tour.
Decay, Fire & JV Stout
The same period that saw the destruction of the Female Operatives Hall, under Secretary JV Stout, saw the magnificent murals in the Victoria Street and Lygon Street entryways covered over with surplus WWII paint. Painstaking restoration work has uncovered some of these historic honour boards and murals. The painting was likely a cheap and misguided effort to address union members’ concerns with the deteriorating state of the hall.
In 1951, the President of the Australian Workers Union complained that the 250 employees at Trades Hall suffered worse working conditions than his members in outback wool sheds. Unionists used gas heaters to keep the chill away – with devastating consequences. The New Council Chamber was gutted by fire in 1963.
It was fixed up on the cheap – a mess of green vinyl and aluminium cladding – and stayed that way until the chamber was restored in 2019. The murals above the stage date from 1911 - but the rest of Solidarity Hall has been designed as a worthy organising space for today's workers in union.
The multi-storey extension at the rear of Trades Hall dates from 1961.
Works included refurbishment to the New Council Chamber and building services upgrades. The refurbishment also included the specialist restoration of several of the main interiors, including the Old council Chamber and the new and Old Ballrooms.
Works to the New Council Chamber included the recreation of the original footprint resulting in 300 seat auditorium with restored honour boards and murals that had been covered during previous renovations.
It also included construction of modern amenities facilities and a new lift to improve access throughout the building and deliver access to all new areas.
Other works carried out to the chamber — and to the spaces known as the Bella Union and the New Ballroom (ETU Ballroom) — include: repairs to walls, floors and ceilings; the installation of heating and cooling services; and the installation of exterior balustrades to the windows with low sills (building code compliance).
The transformation has to be seen to be believed - so come visit us.