An important step towards reconciliation at Kensington Town Hall

An important step towards reconciliation at Kensington Town Hall

The Kensington Town Hall was first opened on August 14, 1901, the same year the Australian Constitution was enacted.

Australia’s national identity was formed in the years leading up to federation in 1901. This was a time when the ethic of self-improvement and the theory of evolution prevailed, as Richard Broome explains in his history of Aboriginal Victorians (2005).

Churches, friendly societies, lodges, temperance societies, debating societies, mechanics institutes and libraries were places of self-improvement and community engagement for white settlers.

In 1887, RMIT University was established through the philanthropy of pastoralist Francis Ormond as the Working Men’s College.

The upstairs Conference Room in the Kensington Town Hall where the Kensington Association meets monthly, holds the honour boards from three fraternal societies; Manchester Unity Independent Order of Odd Fellows (MUIOOF), the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society (PAFS), and the Australian Natives Association (ANA).

These societies met in dedicated club rooms in the Town Hall. The enduring record of the names of leaders for each society are listed according to their years of service. Two boards are Roll of Honour memorials to members who served in the First World War.

The names of more than the 580 men and less than 22 “sisters” depicted in this room are a small representation of the many other societies, friendship groups, clubs, political organisations, and community members who have met and continue to meet in this building since 1901.

In the lead-up to this year’s proposed referendum to enshrine a voice for First Nations people in the Constitution, groups meeting in the Town Hall conference room have raised questions on the origins of these grand timber edifices hanging on the walls.

Who were the Australian Natives Association, or what was an Independent Odd Fellow?

For example, the ANA was established in Melbourne in 1871 as a non-partisan and non-sectarian friendly society for Australian-born, white men seeking to shape Australia’s nationhood and identity. The ANA was an advocate for Federation and a strong advocate for the White Australia policy.

Richard Broome tells of Aboriginal activist William Cooper being publicly critical of the group for their appropriation of the term “native”.

In recognition of and commitment to Indigenous culture, the Kensington Association requested in a petition to the City of Melbourne in October 2022, that a statement explaining the history of these friendly society honour boards be displayed in the room.

Currently the association along with the Kensington Reconciliation Action Group are consulting with a team from the City of Melbourne to update the room with an explanatory statement on the artifacts displayed and to bring contemporary voices into the room. •

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