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Victorian Unions welcome National Heritage Listing for Victorian Trades Hall
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Victorian Unions welcome National Heritage Listing for Victorian Trades Hall

The Victorian union movement has lauded the independent Australian Heritage Council for the National Heritage listing of the Victorian Trades Hall building in Carlton. It is a watershed moment for the recognition of working peoples’ history, and we are pleased that it is being celebrated today by the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, Minister for the Environment and Water and Sonya Kilkenny MP, Victorian Minister for Planning. 

The National Heritage List is Australia’s list of natural, historic and Indigenous places of outstanding significance to the nation.  

In addition to national heritage listing, Victorian Trades Hall is part of an international bid for World Heritage recognition, which is expected to be submitted to UNESCO later this year. 

The partnership between the Albanese Government and the Allan Government has been crucial in driving the UNESCO bid as part of a transnational serial nomination, which for the first time will recognise the global significance of workers assembly halls across the world.  

Victorian Trades Hall was built in stages between 1874-1925 by the architectural firm Reed & Barnes, who also designed the Exhibition Building, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne Town Hall and Rippon Lea. 

Victorian Trades Hall Council thanks Minister Plibersek and Minister Kilkenny for their support and demonstrated commitment to heritage. We also acknowledge Heritage Victoria for their outstanding work as well as the Australian Heritage Council, both ably supporting by federal and state departments.   

Quotes attributable to Luke Hilakari, Secretary Victorian Trades Hall Council 

“We are enormously proud that this building is receiving recognition for its place in Australian history and its contribution to improving workers’ rights globally. Victorian Trades Hall is the oldest still functioning union building in the world. It is the finest example of the power of working people, contributing whatever little money they could to build a lasting institution to organise for a better, fairer future.” 

“Victorian workers have led the world to win better working conditions. We were the first place to achieve and keep the eight-hour day, ushering in the middle class. We were the first place to elect a working person to a parliament. The building was a place where green bans were organised preserving our city's heritage and where referendum campaigns were won from opposing conscription to campaigning for marriage equality.  

It is a building that symbolises progress like no other. The cultural, social and economic impact this democratic institution has had on the lives of Australians cannot be overstated and is worthy of recognition.” 

“The building itself is architecturally significant, designed by Reed and Barnes, like many of the grand buildings of Melbourne. When opened the Old Council Chamber was regarded as the finest room in the colony. Here you can find murals dating from 1870, acknowledging our involvement to building the social fabric of Victoria, from teaching some of Australia’s great artists to establishing institutions like the Royal Childrens Hospital.  

The generations of builders and artisans who contributed to this place demonstrated the finest examples of their craftmanship, it’s an extraordinary building only matched by its stories”. 

Media Contact: Edwina Byrne 0409 017 140 

History of Trades Hall 

Victorian Trades Hall is the world’s oldest still functioning workers’ hall. After Melbourne stonemasons won the world’s first eight-hour day without loss of pay in 1856, the campaigning workers determined to build a ‘People’s Palace’ as a monument to the victory and as a forum for all union concerns.  

The first Trades Hall building, a modest timber structure that once stood just north of the current Lygon Street entrance, opened in 1859. It was financed by workers and built by their own labour, using local materials where possible. At Trades Hall, working-class men had the opportunity to learn aspects of the fine arts.  The Artisans School of Design at Trades Hall would provide the first taste of high art painting to some of Australia’s most famous painters like Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. 

In the early 1870s, plans were developed for a more substantial building. The foundation stone of the present building, designed by prominent architect Joseph Reed, was laid on 26 January 1874. Trades Hall became the headquarters for Victorian unions and was substantially extended during the 1880s as unions continued to grow. 

A 200-seat “Female Operatives Hall” was built behind Trades Hall in 1884 to accommodate the explosion in women’s organizing, but this building was torn down in 1960. 

In 1891, a new double-height council chamber opened, in a new wing constructed over a rear courtyard. However, a fire in 1963 destroyed the interior, bringing down its elegant lanterned roof. The orientation of the room was changed in the rebuilding, and the interior was fully clad, hiding what remained of the 19th century decorative scheme. The New Council Chamber, now known as Solidarity Hall, has been returned to its original orientation and refurbished. 

Throughout its history Trades Hall has been a focal point of political organising and campaign activity. The Victorian Labor Party was formed here, celebrated its first Labor Government here, and occupied offices on the first floor until 1972. The 1916 & 1917 conscription referenda “No” campaigns were coordinated from the hall by the then VTHC Secretary, John Curtin, while more recently Trades Hall served as a base for the “Yes” campaigns on Marriage Equality and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.  

Trades Hall has also been a place for nurturing the artistic needs of the working class. The South tower at Trades Hall was the broadcasting studio for 3KZ from 1930. 3KZ eventually became Gold 104.3. The Hall supported radical publications including Frank Hardy’s “Power Without Glory” (1950) and hosted fledgling arts productions in its two ballrooms. Today, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Fringe Festival (on now) both use Trades Hall as a festival hub.