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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Paine, Arnold Gerald Stewart (1897–1979)

by Peter Love

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Arnold Gerald Stewart Paine (1897-1979), soapbox orator, was born on 24 June 1897 in Adelaide, youngest of four children of Henry William James Paine, insurance agent, and his wife Rebecca Louisa, née Worley (d.1899). Little is known about Arnold's childhood or youth, except that he may have had a brief flirtation with socialism. When he first came to public notice he was living in lodgings in the Carlton-Fitzroy area of Melbourne, whence he conducted a horse-and-van carrier business, delivering goods such as footwear from Collingwood factories to shops in the inner-northern suburbs. About 1945 Paine became a newspaper-seller, eventually occupying a kiosk in the city near the corner of Russell and Bourke streets. On Friday nights he often addressed passers-by from that corner, usually gathering a modest but interested audience. His natural habitat, however, was the Yarra Bank (adjacent to Batman Avenue) on Sunday afternoons. There, from the late 1930s, he ranged widely over issues of the day, concentrating particularly on the evils of communism.

When Paine stepped onto the mound under the trees on the Yarra Bank, he looked an unprepossessing figure, gaunt and birdlike in a well-worn suit, with a disconcerting in-turned left eye accentuated by thick, horn-rimmed glasses. His usual texts were week-old newspaper articles reporting some recent Soviet infamy, which he denounced in his strident, nasal voice for all to hear. Hecklers or nearby speakers were sprayed with a blast of vitriolic wit, such as, 'Yeww wouldn't have enough brains to be able to lead a willing heifer to the business end of an enterprising bull', and, 'Madam, you've been crook on me ever since I refused to sleep with you'.

In July 1951 Daniel Cody, a regular interlocutor, brought a charge of insulting language against him: it was dismissed, partly because of Cody's behaviour in the witness-box. Paine claimed, on another occasion, that a group of communists threatened to throw him in the river, but he escaped by jumping on a passing tram, promising to return on the following Sunday. He frequently attended May Day marches and other left-wing demonstrations where his taunts and droll humour provoked irritation and good-natured banter.

By the early 1950s Paine was such a well-known eccentric that students at the University of Melbourne invited him to deliver an annual lecture. Only nominally addressing the set topic, his lectures were more theatrical than pedagogical, with Paine seeming to enjoy the heckling and other student pranks: 'I like my listeners to be demonstrative. There's nothing worse than talking to rows of dead cabbages'. His emphasis later shifted from Cold War rhetoric to 'rough-house' repartee. In the early 1970s, when public speaking gave way to television and other entertainment, he left the Yarra Bank 'to the lunatic fringe'. As his health declined, he lived an increasingly reclusive life in a Carlton rooming-house, though he continued to sell newspapers in the city until stricken by lung cancer. He died on 16 July 1979 at Fitzroy and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $67,174.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne), 10, 21 July 1951
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 July 1951, 25 June 1952, 30 July, 25 Aug 1979
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Love, 'Paine, Arnold Gerald Stewart (1897–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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