A Proud History

A Tradition is born

The inspiration for Vision Australia's Carols by Candlelight® presented by Myer was born one Christmas Eve in 1937, as radio veteran, the late Norman Banks MBE, strolled along historic St Kilda Road in Melbourne after a late night radio shift.

As he walked, he noticed an elderly woman sitting up in bed by her window, her face lit only by a candle. She had a radio beside her and was singing along to the Christmas carol, Away in a Manger. It was at this moment that Banks was inspired to create the first gathering of people to sing carols by candlelight.

His employers, the management of 3KZ, who were sponsoring a new wing of the Austin Hospital, agreed that this dream could become a reality, but the first problem was to get the support of the City Council.

It was not easy to gain general support for the idea, and if it not been for the gracious personal interest of the Lord Mayor at the time, Cr. A.W. Coles, the sceptics would have quashed the project. Having gained the approval of the City Council, Norman Banks set to work and organised the whole program.

And so, in 1938, 10,000 people gathered at midnight in the Alexandra Gardens to sing carols with a 30 strong choir, two soloists and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band. The unusual candlelight setting, and the beauty of the carols, instantly won the affection of the large assembly. A new Christmas tradition was born.

Encouraged by the success of the first presentation, Norman Banks organised the 1939 Carols on a more elaborate scale and had the assistance of the Sandringham Choral Society, Highfield Methodist Choir, and a Hammond Organ, in addition to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band. The program commenced at 11.00pm and ended with a reproduction of the Chimes of London’s Big Ben at midnight. The Victorian Railways and Metropolitan Tramways provided additional transport after midnight and approximately 40,000 attended.

Carols during the war years

The candles lit in 1938 have burned through prosperous and troubled times. Even with Australia in the grip of the Second World War, the candles continued to burn on Christmas Eve. In 1940, Australia had been at war for more than a year, and with the grim reminders of Allied reversals in Europe and the growing casualty list of our own forces, it was resolved that the proceeds of the Carols festival would be divided between the Red Cross Society, the Australian Comforts Fund and the Austin Hospital. On this occasion, the estimated attendance was 60,000.

Then came the Brown Out year when, although the Festival was scheduled to be presented at Alexandra Gardens, war-time restrictions and the threat of a Japanese invasion necessitated a transfer to the Baptist Church, where the augmented Collins St Baptist Choir, under the baton of Mr Lawrence Warner, rendered an excellent program.

Celebrities get on board

Australia’s Queen of Song, Gladys Moncrieff, appeared on the program in 1942, and since that occasion, many famous artists have been associated with Melbourne’s Carols, including Madame Florence Austral, Gilda Grauen and other prominent Victorian artists including Robert Simmons, Mary Miller, Robert Payne, William Laird and John Lanigan. It was in 1942 that an international radio hook-up was arranged, and during the evening, messages were relayed to the audience from the Lord Mayors of London and New York.

A feature of the 1943 Carols was the presentation of the The Melbourne Carol, the words and music, which were written by the founder, Norman Banks. This excellent composition was inspired by the beautiful oboe obligato of Bach’s Chorale, Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring. As a tribute to Norman Banks, organisers arranged for Melbourne Carol to be restored in the 1969 program.

Vision Australia and Carols

3KZ Station Manager Mr S Morgan was so attracted by the work and needs of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (now Vision Australia) he decided that it should share in the profits. From 1949, RVIB became the main beneficiary with the Austin Hospital. In the first year, it received 7,543 pounds earmarked for the new nursery and school on Burwood Road.

In 1958, the venue was changed from Alexandra Gardens to the new Sidney Myer Music Bowl when over 100,000 people attended.

Since 1965 all proceeds have gone to Vision Australia.

Carols goes national

In 1970, Vision Australia's Carols by Candlelight® was televised for the first time on Channel 0. Channel 9 took over in 1979 and has continued to be a partner ever since.

And so, through the years, the festival has grown in Melbourne and captured the imagination of audiences throughout the world. It has been emulated in Australian cities and is now an annual feature in many countries. It has been celebrated right throughout Africa and New Zealand and in several of the South Pacific Islands. Over the years the number of famous guests has also increased with appearances by John Farnham, Debra Byrne, James Morrison and Marina Prior, Guy Sebastian and the Robertson brothers.

The Carols legacy

The founder of Carols, Norman Banks, died on 15 September 1985 but his legacy lives on. This dream of a radio announcer is a tradition the world over and is enjoyed by countless millions from many nations.

(References: 1969 Carols Program, Lighthouse on the Boulevard, RVIB fact sheet)

Help us tell the story of Carols!

We are very keen to record and preserve the history of Vision Australia's Carols by Candlelight®.

We welcome donations of historic objects or photographs including programmes, newspaper clippings or three-dimensional objects such as candle holders. This material helps to tell the fascinating story of the history of Carols and ensures it is preserved for future generations to learn from and appreciate.

Your donation of historical material would be most gratefully appreciated. If you think you may have something of historical value relating to the history of Vision Australia's Carols by Candlelight® that you would like to discuss, register or donate please contact Vision Australia at info@visionaustralia.org or telephone 1300 84 74 66.

Sidney Myer Music Bowl - Vision Australia's Carols by Candlelight®

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl is located in the gardens of King's Domain Park, close to Linlithgow Avenue in the City of Melbourne. Check Melways reference 2F K8.

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