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Newcastle’s Obelisk and “the social evil”

Was Newcastle’s famous Obelisk once a site for illicit sexual assignations? It may have been, if I have understood the transcript of an 1866 public meeting correctly. The transcript, created as part of an elaborate joke apparently designed to reflect discredit on Newcastle’s young municipal council, is a record of a meeting at which a reluctant candidate for office, Mr C. W. Williams, was quizzed over many aspects of civic life. Mr Williams was not a highly educated man. At the time the law allowed unwilling candidates to be elected to Newcastle’s municipal council against their wishes, and Mr Williams – having already served a term without much distinction – had been more or less kidnapped to appear before a meeting designed to lampoon him.

A plaque at the Obelisk explains the monument’s origins

Forced to address the meeting of “supporters” at Newcastle’s assembly rooms on March 12, 1866, Mr Williams related how he had been attempting to avoid appearing at the meeting by escaping on a train, but had been caught by members of his committee and forced to attend. The poor fellow seems to have been unsure whether he was being “hoaxed”, as he suggested to the meeting, or whether his captors sincerely believed he was a worthy council member. The Bristol-born small-businessman related a little of his 12-year history in Newcastle and then tried to answer questions that were put to him. The event was punctuated by “mishaps”, including a falling curtain, a billy goat wandering onstage (twice) and it ended with the audience leaving Mr Williams locked in the assembly rooms, obliging him to attempt to escape through the chimney.

It’s a hilarious document, really unique, and also a reflection of a time when Newcastle’s small voting population was intensely disenchanted with the way the city’s affairs were being managed. Between the colonial government in Sydney which controlled the purse-strings, the mighty Australian Agricultural Company (AA Co) which had a stranglehold on vast tracts of land around the area and wielded enormous power, the fledgling municipal council had to battle to achieve anything at all. Members of the council often quit in disgust when they realised their powerlessness and it was in this context that a group of citizens decided to make poor confused Mr Williams the means of a “comic” protest against the situation.

Quite a lot of the background can be read on the Trove website, chiefly in the pages of the incredibly interesting Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News. The articles on this page help fill in the picture. For a little more information about C.W. Williams, this article from the year before is interesting.

A view of the Obelisk circa the 1960s.

But back to the Obelisk. To quote from the document:

The chairman rose to put the 8th question on the list. He considered it was by far the most important of the lot and he had no doubt it had affected Mr Williams at one time or other. He wished to know Mr Williams’ opinion of the Obelisk in connection with the Social Evil?

Mr Williams to the Chairman: Are there any ladies in the room?

The Chairman: No

Mr Williams: Will you pledge me your word as a man that there are no ladies in the room?

The Chairman: I will.

Mr Williams: Then, Sir, as regards that, it is my opinion that you are as fond of the Obelisk as anyone – Roars of laughter.

The Chairman asked if the meeting were satisfied with this explanation, when there were loud cries of “No, No!”

Mr Williams again came forward, and said this was a question which might have affected him some twenty years ago, but it could not now. – A voice: how about Mrs Stilsby? A scene of great confusion ensued but the Chairman having obtained order Mr Williams proceeded – In reply to the last question, and as the chairman assures me there are no ladies in the room I can only say that if persons will visit the Obelisk at unseasonable hours and directly violate the laws of the city, the consequence is I would have them c_______d. (Screams of laughter).

The document contains many other very interesting snippets that give some hints as to issues and events in Newcastle in the 1860s. I’ve made it available for viewing and download.

You can view a photocopy of the speech here:

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