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Soldiers' Hall: Cheltenham

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Soldiers’ Hall, c1945.

With the conclusion of the First World War, and the return of Australian troops from Europe and other fields of battle, there was a widely held view that the camaraderie experienced in the trenches and mud of France and Flanders, and on the beach and in the gullies of Gallipoli, should be preserved. To achieve this goal it was believed the returned soldiers should have a place to meet their mates, where they could talk about old times, discuss current projects and explore options for the future. In addition people wanted to create memorials which recognized the contributions of those who gave their lives and others who responded to the call of the Australian government to participate in the conflict. As a consequence of this, many communities built memorial halls and club facilities for the returning soldiers. In the Moorabbin district a decision was made to purchase the existing Protestant Hall in Cheltenham rather than obtaining land and building a new hall.

The old Protestant Alliance Friendly Society Hall was built in what was the centre of the small Cheltenham community near the junction of Charman and Schnapper Point roads (Nepean Highway today). In 1886 this old hall was moved to straddle the back of the property making room for a new hall financed through the issuing of shares in the Cheltenham Protestant Hall Company. The building of a new hall, costing approximately £900, was described as a bold undertaking for such a small community. Many individuals believed it would never be filled but this prediction did not eventuate because there were occasions when it proved to be too small despite being seventy feet long, thirty seven feet wide with a height of twenty seven feet. In 1888 additional supper, dressing and general-purpose rooms, designed by the architects Ellerker and Kilburn and built by Quigley Bros, were added to the rear. [1]

A decision to form a Returned Soldiers Branch, named the United Moorabbin branch, was made at a meeting of thirty seven soldiers held in May 1919 at Cheltenham. [2] Subsequently, it was decided to officially open the branch on July 2, 1919 at a function held in the skating rink at Mentone. [3] Brigadier General Brand who was a popular and distinguished soldier, although not an orator of any note, was the main guest and the person who officially declared the branch ‘open’. [4]

Almost immediately the elected officers of the club began the task of establishing club rooms. Should they build or should they take over an existing facility were questions they had to address, and where were they to get the money for the project? They already knew that the public frowned on linking club rooms and memorial projects together so they had resolved to have a memorial quite distinct from the club rooms. [5] The proposal was to have clubrooms in the central part of Cheltenham with a memorial gateway made of Harcourt marble. The soldiers preferred to secure a piece of land on which to erect the hall rather than build it under permissive occupancy terms on public land. It was this proposal, estimated to cost £3000, that Mr Greenwood, president of the branch, took to the Moorabbin Shire Council where he asked for their ‘whole hearted approval to the scheme and also some evidence of concrete help.” He did not believe there would be any difficulty in raising the money if every resident in the Shire would accept liability for five shillings each. Cr Jackson had no doubt that a good scheme could be devised through discussion with the Council, but he pointing out Cheltenham already had two halls. He favoured clubrooms rather than a hall and thought the best position for a memorial would be in Cheltenham Park. [6]

Six weeks later it was announced in the local press that the Returned Soldiers Branch was contemplating the purchase of the Cheltenham Hall. [7] Cr McKittrick took the proposal to Council suggesting they could contribute £200 to the total cost of £1750. The owners of the building, the Protestant Alliance, originally wanted £2050 but after negotiation had agreed to the lesser price. Other councillors were more cautious than McKittirck in their response to the soldiers’ request for financial assistance. Cr Rogers wanted information as to what Council could legitimately do to assist, pointing out that there were people who would make a fuss whatever they decided. The President queried the price recalling the fact the Council some years previously had explored the option of buying the property to establish a town hall and on that occasion the asking price was about £700. The current price was a significant jump. Cr Scudds interjected to explain that since that time a considerable amount of money had been expended on the place. [8]

By February the next year, the soldiers were becoming impatient with what they saw as inaction by the council on their plans for clubrooms at Cheltenham. A meeting of the Moorabbin District Returned Soldiers’ Association was called for and held at the Mechanics’ Institute on February 18, 1920 to review the situation and plan action. Mr Greenwood spoke of events leading up to the meeting. The Council had formed a sub-committee to meet with the soldiers’ committee to reach finality on financing the purchase of the hall but nothing, with one exception, had been heard from them. The exception related to information received from the Municipal Association on the Local Government Act stating that councils had no power to allocate municipal funds towards the construction or purchase of soldiers’ memorial halls. Greenwood said he had contrary legal advice, but that issue did not relate to their situation because they wanted club rooms as a meeting place. There was no suggestion of building a memorial hall. Five hundred pounds had to be found by March if their commitment to the current owners of the hall was to be honoured; “they had pledged their word and they would adhere to it!” said Greenwood. He went on to explain his annoyance at the apathy or indifference shown by individuals whom he thought should be interested. He reminded the audience that many of the men present had fought for those who had remained at home, and if it had not been for them they would not have any property at all – they would have become vassals of the Germans, whom the Australians went to fight. The returned men, as a rule, had no money. Many of them had made huge sacrifices in going to the war, and had not yet been able to recover the position they were in prior to hostilities commencing. They had associations, and these were to be used not only for maintaining their rights as men but for obtaining that preference in all things which was promised them when they left the country. He believed the council was to blame in allowing the matter to lie for so long without doing something. [9]

Two Moorabbin Shire councillors were present and attempted to answer the challenge of Mr Greenwood. Cr Brownfield, the president of the shire, expressed his sympathy with their cause and acknowledged the accuracy of Mr Greenwood’s comments but pointed to the financial difficulties faced by the council. They currently had an overdraft of £9000 which was capped at £10,000 by the bank. Personally he was prepared “to pawn his boots for the returned soldiers if the necessity arose.” After all one of his sons had spent three years and eight months in active service. He had no time for the men who did not go to the war, and the greatest respect for those who did. He promised to explain their position to the councillors when they next met and hoped he would get the support needed to gain the grant the men required. [10]

Cr Fairbank was surprised at the misunderstanding that had arisen between the Council and the Returned Soldiers’ Association. He had been under the impression that the Cheltenham and Mordialloc sections of the association had not reached a conclusion on what should happen; for him the whole scheme lacked initiative and organisation. As far as Council financial assistance was concerned he indicated he would oppose it, as for him it was a matter of principle and he could not support any proposition to contribute ratepayers money for such a purpose. The whole of the revenue of Moorabbin Council was raised for special purposes and it was bad finance to use it for other objects. However, he was prepared to donate £10 towards a public appeal. [11]

Negotiations for the purchase of the Cheltenham Hall were completed with the Protestant Alliance Society on April 30, 1920 and the preliminary deposit paid. The total price was £1750 with the society making a donation of £50. A public meeting was convened the following week to consider ways and means of raising the money required to complete the purchase. During the previous week almost ninety pounds was collected at the Anzac Memorial Service, including donation of ten pounds each from Crs Brownfield and Fairbank. [12]

Cr Brownfield, chairing the public meeting, reminded those present that they could not do too much for the returned men and to secure a lasting memorial for those whose remains were on the fields of battle. Mr Harry Stooke offered a block of land which if properly handled could mean a donation of £300, and the returned men agreed to tax themselves for an indefinite period at sixpence per week, but other ways of raising money had to be found. [Moorabbin News, May 8, 1920] The first step in this process was the election of a committee to manage the appeal. There was a little difficulty experienced in finding a secretary for the committee but finally Michael J Gleeson, the headmaster of Cheltenham State School, agreed to accept the role. He was supported by C Mewett of Mentone as assistant secretary, H B Erwin as treasurer and T Johnson of Cheltenham and E Thomas of Moorabbin as members. [13]

Brigadier General Brand on July 3, 1920 returned to the district to officially open the new Soldiers’ Hall. Before a large crowd and a hall beautifully decorated with gum leaves, wattle blossom and bunting, General Brand was welcomed by F T Moorhouse the president of the soldiers’ association. Brand recognized the honour he was being paid in undertaking the task and spoke of the important role the facility would play in perpetuating the memory of the men who had paid the supreme sacrifice. It would also help to renew the bright associations and comradeship of the trenches. Acknowledging that some people were opposed to soldiers’ clubrooms believing they developed into gambling and drinking dens, he assured the audience that regulations prohibited the use of alcoholic drink or gambling devices on such premises. He advised that if soldiers steered clear of political and industrial questions they could not go far wrong. [14]

During the course of the celebration Brigadier General Sir Grantville Ryrie, representing the Minister of Defence, presented 1914 -1915 Stars to the next of kin of H Booker, A Tause, C Jensen, and to J A Adams, H V Bignall, J W Bignall, H L Fluck, W T Drummond, B F McSwain, T G Johnson, H Trussier, W Tomilinson, G F White and H Hogg. The occasion closed with Mr Greenwood mounting the platform to hold an impromptu auction among the audience for subscriptions towards the hall fund. Fifty one pounds was raised in a few minutes and to that total was added £20 from Frank Jones, who had promised that should £50 be raised amongst the gathering present that afternoon he would make the donation of £20. Mr Jones had already been generous in giving the appeal committee an open cheque which they had completed to the value of £120. The Moorabbin Shire Council contributed £75. [15]

Although the Protestant Alliance gave the Returned Soldiers’ Association excellent terms regarding the timing of the final payments for the Cheltenham Hall, the committee was keen to discharge the debt as soon as possible. By September 1920 well over £1000 had been raised but the committee was looking for new ways of raising funds. [16] It was decided to conduct a Queen competition, where groups of the community were each encouraged to nominate a candidate and.make her the focus of raising money. The nominee of the group that raised the most money would be crowned Queen of the Moorabbin District.

Six Queens were nominated; Queen of the Diggers, Good Queen Bess, Queen of Peace, Queen of Scots, Queen of Moorabbin and Queen of Roses. [17] Then with their supporters they assiduously set about raising as much money as they could through flower days, novelty evenings, dances and a variety of ingenious activities all designed to forward the cause of removing the debt on the Cheltenham property..

The ceremony for crowning the Queen of the Moorabbin District was set to take place in the Soldiers’ Hall on August 31, 1920. The event, the local newspaper claimed, created considerable excitement with women seeing it as an opportunity to display wonderful fancy dresses and gorgeous costumes “dear to the heart of every woman”. For the men, however, the reporter suggested, the interest was focussed more on financial matters. [18] The collection of donations continued during the evening by an army of young men and women vigorously placing their collecting bags, which were attached to long poles, into every corner of the building. The hall, with a stage lit with electric lights, was considerably over-crowded when Mr Greenwood, suitably dressed as Lord High Chancellor, and attended by a bugler and sword bearer, processed in followed by the six queens to hear the announcement of results.

Miss Bessie Harvey was announced the winner and duly crowned Queen of the Moorabbin District, having collected £208-15-10 with the assistance of her supporters. She graciously thanked them and read a “beautifully worded address to her loyal subjects, more to her contestants for the honor who had not been successful”. [19] The Lord High Chancellor also received a reward when he was raised to a degree of knighthood amongst a great deal of laughter from the audience. [20] The whole event was considered a great success with £545-4-7 being raised by the Queens and £30.from door takings.

A few years after gaining title to the property the returned soldiers embarked on a program to improve the building. The Moorabbin News reported that the extensions to the building were carried out in brick and faced with cement to give the appearance of free stone, while the internal decorations were in soft shades with a light brown dado round the walls, the whole giving a pleasing effect. The hall was enlarged to provide additional accommodation for 150 people, and the stage was extended by 4 ft into the auditorium to make it more suitable for theatrical performances and concerts. Lighting was improved, a ramp constructed at the entrance of the hall, and a ticket box on one side of the lobby porch with a motor room for generating power for picture shows on the other. Raised platforms were built on either side of the entrance on which were placed tip up chairs to provide a better view of the silver screen. Burgoyne and Casey, who leased the building, installed two projection machines to provide for a continuous display of films without the previous delay caused when spools were changed. They also provided a generating plant so that should the general electricity supply fail there would be no disorganization in shows. [21]

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Caretaker’s Residence, c1940. Courtesy Mary Donovan.

With the completion of the extensions and improvements to the building the intention was to have an official opening. However the plan was abandoned. The Governor General , Lord Forster, was invited to be the main guest at the ceremony, but was unable to attend on a Saturday because of prior engagements. Consequently, the members of the returned soldiers branch dispensed with an official opening believing it was not possible to organise a function on an alternative day which would draw the same level of public patronage and support. [22]

The Soldiers Hall continued under the ownership of the Returned Soldiers Association, serving the Cheltenham community as a venue for dances, balls, school functions and for a time movies, until 1972 when it was sold. The following year the new premises of the Cheltenham – Moorabbin sub branch of the RSL were opened at 289 Centre Dandenong Road, Cheltenham. There the plan was to build a new facility where a licensed club could operate and to construct a bowling club on the two and a half acres of land behind the building. [23] The bowling club did not eventuate but a memorial park was created where the memorials to those who fought in various campaigns as members of Australian military forces were re-erected.

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Inside a derelict and vandalised hall, 1999.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. The Leader, September 13, 1888.
  2. Brighton Southern Cross, May 17, 1919.
  3. Brighton Southern Cross, May 24, 1919.
  4. Moorabbin News, July 5, 1919.
  5. Brighton Southern Cross, May 17, 1919.
  6. Brighton Southern Cross, September 20, 1919.
  7. Moorabbin News, November 8, 1919.
  8. Brighton Southern Cross, November 22, 1919.
  9. Moorabbin News, February 21, 1920.
  10. Moorabbin News, February 21, 1920.
  11. Moorabbin News, February 21, 1920.
  12. Moorabbin News, May 1, 1920.
  13. Moorabbin News, May 8, 1920.
  14. Moorabbin News, July 10, 1920.
  15. Moorabbin News, July 10, 1920.
  16. Moorabbin News, September 18, 1920.
  17. Moorabbin News, August 28, 1920 The Queens were Queen of Diggers – Miss Hilda Rippon Good Queen Bess – Miss Bessie Harvey, Queen of Peace – Miss Trixie Rose, Queen of Scots Miss Edie Ferguson; Queen of Roses – Miss Lily Rose; and Queen of Moorabbin – Miss Elsie Black.
  18. Moorabbin News, August 28, 1920.
  19. Moorabbin News, September 4, 1920, Good Queen Bess £208-15-20; Queen of Diggers £146-2-6; Queen of Peace £105-0-0; Queen of Roses £60-16-2; Queen of Scots £24-10-0.
  20. Moorabbin News, September 4, 1920.
  21. Moorabbin News, March 22, 1923.
  22. Moorabbin News, April 24. 1924.
  23. Moorabbin News, January 1973.

Article Cat. Historical Features
Article Ref. 211

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