History of Melbourne Unions

The Student Precinct Project greatly appreciates and understands the rich history of student unionism both in Union House and dating back to the 1880s when the Melbourne Union was first established.

As such, cultural preservation of the union legacy and footprint in Union House is being thoughtfully considered and integrated into the project scope.

As part of this, the University’s History of the University Union is undertaking research into the history of Union House, with a publication due in late 2020. This history dates back to the emergence of the Student Union to the present day, detailing the significant social, cultural and political stories and chapters in the union’s history, and the legacies left from one generation to the next.

Our alumni community has provided some reflections on Union House, in particular the coffee, conversations and culture that made an impact on their time at university. See below some of the memories that have lived on in the minds of our past students.

  • Lining up to give blood in 'The Buff' and chickening out when one of my friends before me went a horrible grey.
  • Daggy French club lunches.
  • Eating lunch in The Buff (he he).
  • Quirky movies and quirkier plays in the theatre.
  • Good books at the Rowden White Library.
  • Art/design/print/pottery/car repair courses  in the upstairs workshops.
  • Bands and plastic cups of VB in the first floor big room.
  • The Hare Krishna¹s Monday dollar lunches.
  • The Union forecourt full of clubs signing-up students at the start of the year.
  • The health food co-op, and the remarkable chemical transformation which rendered the sugar in dates healthier than sugar from cane.
  • Demonstrations against the introduction of student fees (technically outside The Union building, but close by and organised from within).
  • Student-use computers upstairs in a 'lab' replete with a noisy track-printer and screeching modems in a sound proof booth.
  • Cheap textbooks downstairs from Rocky's or Bullwinkle's? No-one ever knew.
  • Without the many layers of activity in 'The Onion', University would have been a blander place. The University needs a centre where small and strange ventures can sit alongside the big and bold, and student-led initiatives can survive and thrive beside affordable commercial services. Get this development wrong and university life will be considerably poorer.
  • The Union coffee lounge, early 1960's.  Staffed by local Italian ladies pulling (usually) good espresso coffee with lever action machines. You needed real skill, because the pressure of the machine depended on how hard you pulled. It was hard work as well as skilled work. Nobody had heard of a barista, but probably one in a hundred modern baristas would be able to make a good coffee with an old lever action espresso machine. They are prized antiques today and I haven¹t put milk in coffee since school days.
  • The Rowden White library early 1960's. Sitting next to an open window with the June afternoon sun streaming onto me, ensconced in a high back leather armchair, with feet up on the radiator under the window. Sheer bliss.
  • I won't mention the piano smashing (ugh, not me).
  • It was probably 1956 and I'm in final year Ag. I stood for election to the SRC (as a Men's General candidate, (couldn't do as an Ag candidate as a good friend had already claimed that spot), lost of course, but surely not because of my main campaign pledge ­the installation of one of those new-fangled Espresso Machines in the Union. Why?  Because of the dire necessity and strident student demand for better coffee  the previous President of the SRC had sent a sample to the Government Analyst for examination and the reply had just come back, 'Dear Sir, your horse suffers from diabetes'.
  • My fondest places were the Rowden White library - what a haven! Recreational books from all sorts of genres, and titles that a private school education in the 80s/90s did not expose. I loved it. And always cool music playing, plus the earphones and a spot of record listening for a relax.
  • Union square with sunny day markets and awesome and not-so-awesome bands - a great place to meet friends.
  • In the days when a cappuccino was an unaffordable $1.20 (the milk bar sold 30c cappuccinos) and Chuppa  Chups were our affordable afternoon snack substitute. #ohtopayonlyadollartwenty!
  • That time when Germaine Greer could not be missed when she arrived in the caf'!