In May 1881 a group of volunteer officers of the colonial defence force met at the Earl of Zetland Hotel in Swanston Street, near Bourke Street to initiate the ‘Pipeclay Club’. The founding members were Captains Alfred Blannin of the Collingwood Rifles, Benjamin Wardill of the Harbour Trust Battery, John W Halker of the St Kilda Battery and Henry J King of the East Melbourne Battery. The founders invited Colonel Robert Rede to become the first president and Major J W Parnell of the Victorian Volunteer Engineers to be vice-president. Colonel Robert Rede had achieved fame as the Resident Commissioner of the Ballarat goldfields when he commanded the government troops at Eureka in 1854.
The club was an immediate success with quarterly dinners and lectures on issues and anxieties relating to colonial defence. Within six months the membership had reached 100 and had moved to Clement’s Royal Arcade Hotel in Little Collins Street. By 1882 similar clubs were planned for Adelaide and Brisbane.
The membership reflected the direct relationship between military affairs and the development of industrial technology and expansion at this period of the late nineteenth century. Major Ellery had established the first Victorian observatory at the request of Governor La Trobe and was appointed Government astronomer in 1863. His hobby was military affairs. He organised the Victorian Corps of Torpedos and Signals and was commanding officer of the Submarine Mining Engineers. Officers of the medical services were also prominent in the club and the navy were represented by Captain Fullarton commanding the Naval Reserve and Captain William Henry Panter commander of HMS Nelson, flagship of the Victorian Navy.
In 1882 the first annual report acknowledged 149 Members, including officers commanding the forces of all the Australian colonies and New Zealand. The first membership certificates (140 in all) were issued and the motto ‘Uniter Agamus’ (Acting Co-jointly, Together in Action or United Service) was decided. In 1885 the name was changed to the ‘Victorian Naval and Military Club’.
In 1887 a young Lieutenant John Monash with a commission in the garrison artillery, joined the Club. In the early years Monash organised, in conjunction with his involvement in the United Services Institute, conversation on naval and military matters; Kriegspiel (war game); formal debates on technical subjects and special evenings for the demonstration of new weapons, to which the public were invited. Monash was later to command the Australian Imperial Force in World War I in France where he was knighted in the field by King George V.
After his return to Australia and civilian life, General Sir John Monash was President of the Club for nine years from 1921.
As the Club grew, there were several changes of premises and it became one of the centres for elite entertainment in the Melbourne social calendar of the day. The Derby Eve ball, initiated in the year ‘Carbine’ won the Cup, was the opportunity for Members to air the colourful mess uniforms of the colonial forces. An innovation, ‘The Long Gallop’ formed the tenth dance. The tradition of formal occasions enhanced by the wearing of mess dress and decorations has continued until the present.
The introduction of the militia system of military training in the colony encouraged public acceptance and acknowledgement of the Club.
Every contingent that left Melbourne for South Africa (Boer War), 1899-1902, was commanded by a member of The Naval and Military Club.
Membership increased also with the expansion of the Citizen Forces following Federation. Melbourne had been centre for Imperial military headquarters throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and the establishment of services central to the Commonwealth at Victoria Barracks also had a significant influence on the Club’s development and expansion at this time.
Until 1914 the Club never exceeded 300 members. The outbreak of World War I meant that many Members were overseas on active service, which resulted in some financial problems. In July 1918 though, the Hon. Treasurer Captain Fred Walker, announced that the Club had purchased the property at 7 Alfred Place, known as the German Club (‘Deutscher Verein’ was etched in the glass fanlight above the front door) for the sum of £8,600. Much of the money raised for the purchase of the property was from debentures by Members.
With peace and the returning officers, the membership rose to 525 and the consolidation of the Club was presided over by General Sir John Monash. The Club ethos though was always democratic – the Member with the lowest service seniority was equal in social status in the Club to the most senior Member.
In 1923 several significant events occurred. The institution of Legacy, the suggestion of Major General Sir Stanley Savage, was founded at a dinner hosted by Major Cohen at the Club. Since that time many thousands of wives and children of deceased servicemen have been assisted through the organisation. On Derby Day that year another event, the Police Strike, resulted in many Members being sworn in as special constables to assist the state authorities with controlling the violence and looting in the city. Motor patrols were organised with Members and friends with cars.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Victoria Barracks became the centre for command. The War Cabinet Rooms were the venue for the meetings between the senior members of the Commonwealth Government whose portfolios were directly related to the war effort and the Chiefs of Staff of the Navy, Army and Air Force. The Advisory War Council included members of Government and the Opposition.
As the theatres of war changed, and the United States entered into the hostilities, Victoria Barracks became the centre of command for Australia, Pacific and South-East Asian regions.
During this period the Club’s hospitality was open to visiting officers of the British Army and Royal Navy, the Dominions, the United States of America and other allies. The capacity of the Club’s facilities at 7 Alfred Place was sorely taxed. Officers arriving back in Melbourne on leave were offered beds in the squash courts and it became very difficult to obtain basic food such as butter, meat and sugar which were rationed, as was alcohol for the Bar.
Post-war with the huge increase in returned men, the applications for membership soared. By 1961 membership had risen to 3,228 and there were 790 officers on the waiting list. It was only too clear that the Club premises at 7 Alfred Place were too small to accommodate this large increase in membership and in 1965 the decision was made to sell the property. A new Club was built at 27 Little Collins St and was officially opened on 16 May 1967.
Many factors though affected the long term future of the Club at this time. Defence headquarters was moved progressively to Canberra from the late 1960s which meant that the real membership base moved out of town. Social changes such as alteration to the licensing laws and the changing role of women entering the workforce suggested that the ‘male only’ club facilities should be and were changed.
Membership was opened to civilian members in the early 1990s and was subsequently extended to include women. An Associates group which included the wives and widows of members was also established. In late 1990s the process of re-development began. Since then the Board has tried various ways to encourage an increase in membership but sadly the economic realities forced the Club to close its doors forever in January 2009.
The Naval and Military Club has provided a very special environment. Alone of the other Melbourne clubs it has provided a unity of association drawn from the common experiences of war and the venue for returned officers where they could meet and work through their memories. Australia has only ever had a small permanent defence force and in times of crisis has relied on its citizens to volunteer to enlist in defence of their country. The Club began as a Reserve officers’ club and from its membership has provided much of Australia’s most significant military leadership. In 2004 Memories of War: Members of The Naval and Military Club Recall World War II, an oral history collection, was launched by General Peter Cosgrove MC, Chief of Defence. As one interviewee, Major Ian Kennison said, “We didn’t talk much about the War but we knew that everyone understood”. One hundred and twenty-eight years of proud military association and support has now gone but many memories remain.
The Committee of the Club, 1962-3, The Naval and Military Club, Melbourne 1881-1962 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press 1962).
Major Warren Perry MBE ED MA(Melb.) BEc.(Syd.) FRHSV RL., The Naval and Military Club, Melbourne: A History of its First Hundred Years, 1881-1981. (Melbourne: The Naval and Military Club, Melbourne in conjunction with Lothian Publishing Company Pty Ltd 1981).
Janet Roberts Billett, Memories of War: Members of The Naval and Military Club Recall World War II. Fifty Interviews. (Melbourne: The Naval and Military Club)