These days, if people don’t like something the government proposes, they take to social media to voice their objections. But in the 19th century, they would hold an ‘indignation meeting.’
I first came across this strange phrase while reading newspapers from the early 1890s. The engineer building the port at Fremantle, C. Y. O’Connor, advised the government that he needed the land occupied by the railway workshops in Fremantle for the new wharves. He suggested that it would be more efficient to have the workshops in Midland, where there would also be room for much-needed expansion.
The residents and businessmen of Fremantle were not happy with this idea. They held an ‘indignation meeting’ in the crowded town hall on 19 September 1892. After much discussion, all agreed that they ‘would ask the Government to pause before committing an act which would paralyse the commercial interests of the port of the colony, and prove a lasting misfortune and injustice to its inhabitants.’ A group of representatives conveyed this resolution to the Premier, Sir John Forrest. As a result of ongoing protests, the workshops would not be fully relocated until 1901.
The phrase ‘indignation meeting’ seems to have originated in the United States in the 1840s. It had spread to Britain by the 1850’s. In August 1855, passengers travelling from Australia to Liverpool in England held ‘what the Americans would term an indignation meeting’ on their arrival. They wanted to protest against their treatment onboard ship. Reports describing local protests as ‘indignation meetings’ began to appear in the Australian press about that time.
The first advertisement I’ve found which calls specifically for an Indignation Meeting is the one pictured above, which appeared in the Ballarat Star in December 1857. After that, advertisements for indignation meetings increased in frequency, and remained common until the 1930s. Even in the 1950s a few still appeared.
Another phrase that began appearing in the 1850s was ‘monster meeting’. Organisers seem to have used Monster Meetings mainly to disseminate information to as many people as possible. While some involved the airing of grievances, others were part of political campaigns or social movements. For instance, on 8 April 1856, the Melbourne Age carried this advertisement for a ‘Monster Meeting’.
The two terms could be combined. In March 1895, the Daily News described yet another protest against the removal of the Fremantle railway workshops as ‘a monster indignation meeting’. But again, the phrase had almost died out by the 1950s. Which is rather a pity, don’t you think?