Boxing, ballroom dancing, and the Bishop of Coventry

July 15 / 162

Interior of Festival Hall, undated, photographer unknown, University of Melbourne Archives, Stadiums Pty Ltd Collection, 1984.0094.0006
Interior of Festival Hall, undated, photographer unknown, University of Melbourne Archives, Stadiums Pty Ltd Collection, 1984.0094.0006


An open access collection now available at University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) reveals a wonderful collection of photographs, memorabilia and booking diaries relating to Melbourne’s legendary Festival Hall.


Throughout most of the 20th century, Festival Hall in Dudley Street, West Melbourne was the focal point for the city’s entertainment business. 


The booking diaries for Stadiums Pty Ltd reveal an endless round of sporting, cultural and political events. Inside Festival Hall’s dark walls, a sermon from the Bishop of Coventry was followed the next night by a boxing tournament, and Billy Graham vied for booking space with the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the youthful, hedonistic festivals of early rock and roll. 


Stadiums Pty Ltd was established in 1899 by notorious Melbourne entrepreneur John Wren and his associate Dick Lean in order to enter the lucrative sport of boxing. They purchased Festival Hall (originally named West Melbourne Stadium), originally built for boxing promoter ‘Snowy’ Baker, in 1915.


The collection holds a large amount of boxing memorabilia dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. There are photographs of Indigenous boxers who broke through the prejudices of the industry and society at large to become champions. Among these one can see the likes of Lionel Rose in full swing, autographed portraits of George Sands of the famous Sands family, and a cartoon poster advertising a fight with George Bracken.


In addition to weekly boxing tournaments, Festival Hall hosted the tours of international stars such as Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry and Cliff Richard in the 1950s and 60s. Devo, The Kinks, and Queen in the 1980s played to sell out crowds.  


The booking diaries provide a fascinating glimpse into the vibrant Melbourne entertainment scene. The Australian Dancing Championships in 1956 were as at home in Festival Hall as was The Price is Right, shot live in the 1980s. Music concerts which pitted big band sounds from America and Australia against each other in a ‘dance-off’ style show would be followed the next day by Lady Baden Powell greeting girl guides.


The Stadiums Pty Ltd Collection material is open access, although some photographs are not currently available due to their fragility. It has been listed at box level and the finding aid is available online


By Jane Beattie and Katie Wood


This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the UMA blog

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