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  • Writer's pictureKinglake Historical Society

Great Debates - Our Heritage November 2020

Updated: May 29, 2022

By 1900, a large number of selectors had established farms across the Kinglake district plateau from east to west. In 1897, the first public hall was built to provide an adequate space for community meetings and entertainments, an improvement on Owen Finegan's barn and the small school classrooms which had been the only possible venues until then.

Located on the highest point of the ridge, near what is now Frank Thomson Reserve, the hall was actually a Mechanics Institute built with the assistance of government funding to provide a free library and the opportunity for 'educational' programs for local residents.

James Lawrey

The hall was soon used for various meetings and for social evenings, dances and concerts but, in a more serious approach to the 'educational' requirement, a Literary and Debating Club was formed in March 1905. At the formation meeting, Mr James Kerr was elected president with vice-presidents Messrs Anthony Beale and James Lawrey. Mr William McAuliffe, Head Teacher at the Kinglake West State School, was elected secretary, and the treasurer was Mr Hugh Kerr. The three other members of the organising committee were Messrs W. Sutherland, Alex Campbell and John Beale Jnr.

Alex Campbell

It's interesting to note that William McAuliffe and Alex Campbell, the Pheasant Creek postmaster, were willing to travel many miles by horse and buggy to be part of this venture. It's even more interesting to note that, as time went on, the weekly meetings on Saturday evenings were often attended by up to 60 local residents, even when the weather was less than clement.

The first meeting was held on Saturday 6 May 1905 as 'A Night with the Humorous Poets'. James Kerr and Anthony Beale each read some favourite verses and William McAuliffe presented the work of several Australian poets. Everyone enjoyed this first session and the Society meetings continued to attract good attendances.

In August 1905, two teams of nine members competed in a formal debate on the topic 'Votes for Women'. James Kerr led the negative team and William McAuliffe led the affirmative which was judged victorious by the adjudicator, Rev J. Francis. Debate topics at later meetings included 'Compulsory Military Training', 'Town Life v Country Life', 'Should Parliament Be Abolished?', 'Is Kinglake Suitable for Wheat-Growing?' and 'Should Corporal Punishment Be Abolished?', and the debates sometimes became quite lively.

In 1906, the Kinglake West Mechanics Institute was built, officially opened on 23 April, and very soon the Kinglake West Literary and Debating Club was formed. Local residents were able to join the group nearest to home. Women took part in the program along with the men and in November 1906, Miss Mason led a team debating 'Should Bachelors Be Taxed?"

Sometimes the program for the evening was 'Impromptu Speeches' with members called on to give a short talk on such topics as 'Smoking', 'Best Manures for Potatoes', 'A Railway for Kinglake' or 'Should Australia Have a Navy?' At other times, lectures were given by members - William McAuliffe did a series on 'First Aid for the Injured' using other members as the patients, and Alex Campbell spoke on 'Land Settlement Policies'.

On a lighter note, the evening was sometimes organised as a Progressive Euchre Party with prizes, euchre being a popular card game at the time, and at the end of the year, a group picnic would be held at a local beauty spot.

In 1909, the two Societies were 'still going strong' according to a report in the Evelyn Observer newspaper. We have not yet found any further reports but the efforts of the early families to provide both entertainment and instruction for their families and friends and neighbours in these early days are certainly to be admired.

Deidre Hawkins


Kinglake Historical Society

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