Carols by Candlelight’s radio origins

On Christmas Eve, tens of thousands of Melbournians will descend on the Sidney Myer Music Bowl for the 65th Carols By Candlelight, but the origins of this big event go back a long way before television, as Jason Ford reports.

The event that is televised on the nine network has become an institution, with money raised going to the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. But the origin of Carols by Candlelight lies with a radio broadcast which commenced on Christmas Eve in 1938 on 3KZ in Melbourne.

The man many credit for coming up with the idea of Carols By Candlelight was the head announcer at 3KZ, Norman Banks.

Banks abandoned his calling as a priest and car salesman for a calling behind the microphone and soon became a radio legend in Melbourne. Florence Cheers (Aunty June), wife of Smoky Dawson had a children’s session on 3KZ and recalls how Banks got the inspiration for Carols by Candlelight.

“The head announcer Norman Banks came to me one day and said: ‘I’ll like to talk to you about something I noticed last night going home. A lady was sitting by an open window, with a candle alight on the windowsill, and she was listening to carols which came from a radio station in the background’. He came to me and said: ‘that is a wonderful idea, Carols by Candlelight.’ ”

The first Carols by Candlelight was held on Christmas Eve in 1938 in the Treasury Gardens’ in Melbourne. The program was mounted on a truck tray and was officially opened by Victoria’s Premier, Sir Dallas Brooks.

The event attracted 10,000 people and money raised from the sale of programs and candlesticks went to the Austin Hospital to help build a children’s wing.

At that time there was a polio epidemic. The need for a children’s wing was desperate, with many children being housed on the verandah. Years later a commercial federation yearbook made the comment that this was the only hospital in the world to be erected and equipped as the result of the interest and effort of a radio station.

Most of the funds that were raised for the Austin Hospital came via the Christmas Day appeal, which commenced at 8am as an outside broadcast from the Austin Hospital. Helping Aunty June out was her sidekick Norman Swain, known to audiences on 3KZ as Billy Bouncer, and Smoky Dawson who Florence would eventually marry in 1943.

“ We had trained the children and produced a program of songs, mostly hymns and stories, and we had Father Christmas and a cowboy. Guess who he was? Father Christmas came, and toys were given out to the children in the hospital and that went on till midday,” says Cheers.

The war failed to dampen the public spirits during Carols by Candlelight, if anything the message that many of the songs bring lifted spirits. In 1943 the Lord Mayor of London gave a morale boosting speech to the citizens of Victoria as Australian soldiers stood side by side with the mother country. During the war part of the proceeds from Carols by Candlelight and the Christmas Day appeal went to the Australian Comforts Fund, the Red Cross and the Austin Hospital.

A number of years later once the children’s section of the Austin Hospital was constructed; fundraising efforts turned to the blind babies, hence the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind is now the major benefactor from the appeals.

The legacy of Carols by Candlelight can be seen right across Australia, as communities gather in the local park holding candles and joining in singing carols.

The legacy lives on thanks to its radio origins.

Merry Christmas!