Autonomy Day: One for the Ages

When I found out the date of this year’s Autonomy Day, I got right to clearing my schedule for that day. I asked my boss, a University of Newcastle alumni and ex-International House resident, if I could have the day of work for “Auto Day”. I was met with a funny look before explaining that I meant the full-day party on the final day of the uni’s Festival of Autonomy. “Ooooh,” my boss replied, “we always called it Autonomy Day, not Auto Day.” A simple miscommunication, but it got me to thinking, what else has changed in the 50+ years since Autonomy Day began?

The very first Autonomy Day celebrated the University of Newcastle’s recently independent status – having moved away from their original position as “Newcastle University College of the New South Wales University of Technology”. On January 1, 1965, Professor Godfrey Tanner poured wine over, and lit a bonfire on, the site we now know as the Great Hall. The fire symbolised the joy of becoming independent, and the university’s confidence moving forward. Wine-fueled flames, during a total fire ban, meant that police arrived on the scene long after midnight. 54 years on, a date-change to move the celebration to later in the year, and a whole lot of partying – there’s no doubt that same culture is present among today’s University of Newcastle students. But with damage to property, student hospitalizations, and an overall negative image of the university perpetuated by the parties, is it time we call it quits on Autonomy Day celebrations?

The next time Autonomy Day made headlines, students had desecrated a war memorial. In 1966, three long benches in the university’s hall were smashed, seven other seats damaged, six windows smashed, all before students packed themselves into the Colliery Inn, where those refused service responded by smashing glasses against the walls and floors. By 1967, students clutching signs saying “Superman is a junkie” and “let’s get naked and smoke” paraded down the streets of Newcastle. 

By 1970, a band were brought in to perform live entertainment on Autonomy Day. In ‘71, the Hunter Street procession was followed by a regatta on the harbour – with zero arrests on the day, police said they were generally pleased with the students’ attitude. In 1975, this very publication had a piece exclaiming the “beut time” had on Autonomy Day, boasting that “some even managed to stay pissed and stoned for three days solid”. 

In 1985, the Billy Cart Derby tradition began, with student-made vehicles racing one another for the fastest times. Later, another Opus article, published in 1986, claimed that the wild culture that comes with Autonomy Day seemed to be settling down; “last year saw the best Autonomy Day for perhaps a decade. It was decided that something needed to be done to restore the spirit of Autonomy Day and to further the following objectives: a) Celebrate the battle of Newcastle to win a University. b) Create bonds between town and gown. c) Raise money for worthy charities. d) Help create a unified and cohesive student body.” However, it seems that all went backwards in 1988, when a student-run committee revived the once-popular scavenger hunts. This encouraged students “to 'borrow' items and 'kidnap' prominent persons to receive points in the contest” – but the all-for-a-good-cause attitude remained as the kidnapped were later ransomed to raise money for charities. The 80’s also consisted of university-wide games of Murder, a tradition only some of today’s colleges are still allowed to follow due to safety concerns, and Iron Man, in which competitors would consume a variety of odd meals (like warm flat stout, cold meat pies, curdled milk, blocks of butter, raw potatoes and more) before jogging around campus and taking a dip in the fountain, a past-time the colleges of today wouldn’t dream of due to Student Living’s fears of perpetuating a hazing culture. 

By 1991, the Billy Cart Derby had grown into the Billy Cart Grand Prix – students zoomed down steep hills, trying their best to maneuver dangerous hair-pin turns. In 1994, Opus featured a spread titled “Autonomy Day as the camera recalls it” – a page filled with photos of students partying, some keenly staring at their beers, others passed out in the middle of the day. As the 90’s progressed, boat races became part of the celebration – the drinking game replaced the once-popular regatta races in which students would take to the water with makeshift, often unsafe, rafts. 

Once the festival reached the 2000’s, it began adding extra elements to the Bar on the Hill celebration. 2001 marked the boxing-ring jumping castle, in which students would wear comically-oversized, padded gloves to take on one another. By 2007, the early wake-ups of Autonomy Day were deeply engrained in the culture of the celebration, with weary-eyed students claiming it felt like Christmas morning. Even now, students are rising well before the sun, some at 2am others at 4am, ready for the big day ahead. More than a day of drinking, artists like Just A Gent are commissioned to entertain the crowds. A carnival-type zone outside of Bar on the Hill and a silent disco on the green have become part of the norm nowadays. 

Things have certainly changed in the way we celebrate Autonomy Day, and it’s clear the once dangerous, vandalization-heavy culture is long gone. Students may still stumble around campus once a year, but it’s certainly in a much safer way than ever before. Pre-drinking has become a way for students to bond, pass-outs allow partygoers the rest they often require, Red Froggers are there to offer a helping hand, and the celebration gives us an opportunity to embrace the establishment’s history, while showing how proud we are to be part of the University of Newcastle. Although our parties are often labelled as loud, chaotic, alcohol-fueled and sometimes even alarming, one thing’s for sure; the culture we’ve built to celebrate Auto Day isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

To check out the retro images that go with this piece and more stories from the September issue pick up a copy of OPUS from the NUSA building!

Gemma Ferguson