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Investigator – Gentlemen’s Clubs June 2022

In June 2022 the Investigator published this article by member, archivist and author, Norm Houghton. Norm had surveyed the history of a number of gentlemen’s clubs in his talk to the Society in 2019 and this article is an edited version of that address.

Geelong has its Geelong Club, founded in 1859 as a Gentlemen’s Club. It was originally based largely on Western District wool and Geelong business connections to wool. The Club maintained this axis until the 1970s when change came about and the Club switched its constituency to survive.

At different times there have been gentlemen’s social and sports clubs in the towns to the west of Geelong, often having interaction with the Geelong Club. Some of these remain active but most are defunct. The failed bodies are worth an historical look to see how they operated, what they did and why they closed.

This Club was formed in 1932, as the Colac Men’s Club, largely at the instigation of solicitor Augustin Cunningham who had surplus space at his practice. His chambers were on the ground floor of the former National Bank premises at 24 Murray Street, a building he had rented from 1919 when bank mergers rendered this handsome property surplus and it was bought by a Melbourne investor. The Colac Club, as it was known, leased the first floor, the former living quarters for the bank manager, with its six rooms. The largest room here was seven by six metres, sufficient space for a billiards table.

The membership comprised Colac business and trade proprietors and professionals like doctors, lawyers and accountants.

The timing of the Club’s establishment is unusual, seeming to be rather late to start a gentlemens’ Club. It is the writer’s surmise that the Depression rendered Colac businessmen and professionals under-employed so they had more freedom than usual and could frequent a Club to while away a few hours at little or no expense.

The Club’s aim was to provide social and sporting opportunities for its members. These activities comprised billiards, cards, table tennis, indoor bowls and a library. Membership seems to have been about 120 mark and annual subs were three guineas ($6.60). Geelong Club subs at the same time were 10 guineas ($21).

The Club held no liquor licence and would have had great difficulty obtaining one in a town that was staunchly anti-drink as shown where there was only one new liquor licence granted in the entire Shire (covering the area from Cressy to Apollo Bay over the period 1911 to 1954. It is supposed that hard refreshments at the Colac Club operated on the BYO system.

The Club was run on very economical lines. It employed no staff and was managed by Committee. The Club purchased the freehold in 1937 for 4,000 Pounds and leased the ground floor back to the legal practice of what was then Cunningham & Larkins.

At war’s end in 1945 some ex-service members quit the Club and gravitated to the RSL Club around the corner in Hesse Street. The RSL held no liquor licence but it had superior amenity in its billiards and card rooms and much more space.

The Colac Club was discreet and private and about the only time it advertised itself was once a year when its members conducted a collection for Colac Legacy.

The Club remained popular into the 1950s, so in 1955 the Club devised an expansion plan that envisaged forming a bowling green in the rear yard and building a squash court. It was proposed to obtain a liquor licence and employ a steward to manage the place on a day to day basis. However the licence application was denied. This was a blow to the Club as it wrecked its forward financial plan. Worse was to come when quite a few of the younger members who wanted to play active sports quit in favour of the Golf Club and the two existing Bowls Clubs. The Golf Club secured a liquor licence in 1955 and subsequently became the favoured after-work and Saturday socialising place for Colac professionals and business owners.

Membership at the Colac Club hovered around 100 for a period after these setbacks but then started to slide. The major activity into the 1960s was card playing with drinks. By the late 1960s the Club membership was an ageing cohort with very few young men present and poor prospects of boosting numbers. In 1971 it was decided to recess the Club and sell the building. There was talk of re-starting the Club in smaller premises using the sale monies to put this into effect but the drive was lacking and nothing happened in this regard. It is not known to the writer what happened to the Club’s residual funds.

The Club house survives to this day in Murray Street, rebadged as Norfolk Chambers, where it hosts various professional suites.

The Beech Forest Club had its genesis via the accommodation and refreshment establishment known as Lucas’s Commercial House and Wine Café. This business was established in 1907 in a single storey building in the main street opposite the railway station. The premises burnt down in 1913 and a replacement erected almost immediately. The new premises was a two storey building with 32 rooms, the ground floor having a wine bar, billiards room, dining room, parlour etc, and 14 bedrooms upstairs.

In October 1915 a group of local identities thought it desirable to establish a private club and thus was formed the Beech Forest Club. The Club leased Commercial House from Emily Lucas and obtained a liquor licence as a Club under section 251 of the Liquor Act. The Club amenity comprised a bar, billiards room, card room, smoking room, reading and writing room, meeting room, Secretary office/store, telephone room, baggage room, stabling and access to the bedrooms. The service arrangement was that Lucas ran the upstairs accommodation side of the business, plus the kitchen for meals, and the Club managed the rest.

Only fragmentary evidence survives about this Club but an extant roll of the office bearers and Patrons in the early 1920s shows a who’s who of the town. Membership comprised Beech Forest white collars such as the two town JPs (the largest land owners), the Otway Shire Councillors who lived in and close to the township, the Anglican and Catholic priests, Train Station Master, the town doctor, Forest Officer, Post Master, shop proprietors plus farmers and timber and railway workers.

Club Patrons included John Gardner, owner of the Ditchley Park Hotel, which was a competitor to the Club for drinks and accommodation, but apparently Gardner did not see the Club as a threat. Membership was around 150. For a period successive town doctors, as members, rented three rooms at the Club for their lodgings, waiting room and consulting room.

Ditchley Park Hotel Beech Forest Courtesy SLV

Out-of-town members appreciated the Club amenities because they could ride to Beech Forest in the rain, stable their horse under cover and repair to the bar to dry themselves and their rain coat in front of a fire. They could not do that at the hotel where they would be under obligation to buy a drink. Besides, the Club had two billiards tables and the hotel only one so one could not always get a game at the hotel. One other advantage of the Club over the hotel was that a member could remain on the premises after 6 pm, theoretically not drinking a beer while doing so.

The Club was an important part of the town and the ‘place to be’. It did the catering for official events and Otway Shire Council meetings, put together a football team to play social matches against district sawmills, permitted sports clubs and other bodies to hold their meetings at the Club and so on. The meeting room was particularly well used by community groups as there was no other place in Beech Forest where a group could gather on a wet night in front of a fire to conduct its business. The hotel did not offer such an amenity.

In 1921 there was a change in the operations of the hotel when Gardner left town in retirement and a new publican took charge as Licensed Victualler. At the same time the Club bought the freehold to the Club premises from Lucas. Possibly this change of ownership snapped old loyalties (Lucas’s being a respected part of the Beech Forest commercial scene since 1903) and the new publican felt unrestrained in reporting breaches of the Club’s licence terms.

It would be fair to say that the Beech Forest Club was not managed strictly according to the rules. It admitted non-members to the premises, sold them liquor, traded after-hours to both members and non-members and also sold take-away for consumption off the premises to members and non-members. The Reading and Writing Room was a fiction in as much as there was a room set aside for this purpose but its library comprised a few volumes of the Victorian Government Gazette, probably purloined from the nearby Shire offices, and the room was hardly frequented. It was also alleged that the Club’s membership list was an inflated fraud because only one third of members ever paid their subs, which were set at the ridiculous fee of half a guinea ($1.05).

The local constable was not too concerned, probably he had a drink or two at the Club, but licensing police from Melbourne raided the Club as well as setting up entrapments in cahoots with the hotelier to secure evidence of wrong doing. For example, using hotel staff to buy after-hours take-away alcohol with marked coins while under the observation of the police on the other side of the street. For a while the Club managed to escape penalty on legal technicalities.

The Club eventually became unstuck and lost its licence from August 1923. The Bench declared that the Club was not a true club under the Act because of its behaviours and modus operandi. The liquor licence was cancelled but the Club activities (dry this time) spluttered along for a few months until the Club changed to a new body called the Otway Social Club. This was an attempt to get its licence back. However the Bench was not swayed by the novel and ingenious arguments advanced at a licence hearing in February 1925 and that was the end of the Club.

Was it ever a gentlemen’s Club? Well, all the graziers, gentlemen and white collars of the town and district did belong to it and were keen to enrol as members so it must have been.
The Club sold the premises outright and it reverted to a boarding house which operated until 1930 when it was burnt to the ground. The Depression period 1929 to 1931 was a time of many fires in the main street, darkly hinted through local gossip as insurance jobs by struggling business proprietors, so it was suggested that the former Club building was one of these.

In the early years of the third Geelong Club, from 1881 to 1913, a number of Geelong Club members were active in Polo. Club visitor books of the day show members of polo clubs from the Western District frequenting the Geelong Club. These clubs represented Caramut, Camperdown, Lismore and Colac. The Caramut squad, one of the best teams going at the time, seems to be the most frequent visitor. The Colac Polo Club would have been a visitor but it is not shown in the books because most of the team were already Geelong Club members.

The Colac Polo Club was founded in 1880 and its permanent ground was established on the Robertson squatting spread known as ‘The Hill’ run at Cororooke situated a few kms west of Colac. William Robertson was the first president of the third Geelong Club and he and his brothers and in-law relatives in the Calverts, Stodarts, Chirnsides, Murrays and Winter-Irving families were either members or frequenters of the Geelong Club.

1896 Caramut (Hexham) Team.
R. A. Affleck; E. R. De Little; R. A. D. Hood; W. J. T. Armstrong.

They came to Geelong to play polo on occasions, hence the Caramut team being guests at the Club at the same time. The visits were jolly events but there were grumbles around the Committee table that the polo players would leave a jumble of polo sticks in the Stranger’s Room instead of parking them properly elsewhere. There were away matches where Geelong Polo would play Colac at Colac.

The Colac Polo Club was an all gentlemen affair, not because of snobbery, but because a polo team needed at least six ponies and only the landed gentry had the economic capability to maintain a polo stable. The Colac gentry had an easy relationship with Government House and from the mid-1890s the State Governor would visit Colac from time to time and stay at one of the Robertsons’ mansions at Cororooke. When the Commonwealth Government was based in Melbourne the Governor General became a Cororooke visitor. On these occasions in the Polo season a match would be arranged between Colac and the GG’s side. The GG probably having an advantage as his aide-de-camps were all strapping young military types with excellent horse skills.

All of this rubbed off on the Geelong Club when its Colac members attended, giving a certain cachet to the Club atmosphere.

The polo match season for 1913-1914 ended in April 1914 and all seemed well for next year but war broke out in August. Polo was unsustainable under wartime conditions so that was the end of the Colac Polo Club and its visits to the Geelong Club.

The Camperdown Club was similar to the Geelong Club in that it was founded by gentleman graziers of the district along with their professional associates.

The Club was formed in March 1884 with about 60 members. The press said at the time that a club is ‘greatly required in the township’. The Club took up rooms in the Commercial Hotel. The hotel was being extended and rebuilt with a brick two storey addition, some parts of which were funded by the Club. The Club had an arrangement with publican Neylon (a Club member) to occupy the front portion of the new wing, including thestreet balcony, a billiards room, reading and smoking room, card room and toilets. The hotel provided the furniture and fittings for all the rooms except the billiards room where the members funded the purchase of two tables.

The Club operated here for four years and then relocated to the Leura Hotel, then under a new ownership of a syndicate, possibly some of whom were Club members, where it negotiated for similar spaces to the previous occupancy. These leased spaces included a billiards room, two ‘other’ rooms, presumably card and smoking rooms, and four bedrooms. The Club controlled the bedrooms and attempted to secure a liquor licence in its own rights, rather than have the hotel supply liquor to members but the Licensing Bench refused the application. Apparently, the Bench thought it odd that a private club located entirely within a licensed hotel should hold a licence.

The Club functioned at the hotel for several years until forced to find alternative premises when the hotel was slated for renovation and rebuilding in 1902. The Club decided that it needed its own separate premises so reconstituted itself in order to do so. On 29 October, 1903 the Club called a meeting at which it adopted a new constitution, agreed to the purchase of land, organised the issue of debentures to fund the plan and formalised the appointment of an architect and building specifications. The new Club House was designed by Geelong architects Tombs & Durran as a single storey ornate wooden building situated at 19 Pike Street and ready for occupancy in 1904.

The Club house had all the requisite appointments, including a billiards room, reading
room, bar, card room and Steward’s bedroom.

The Club epitomized the western district landed establishment, probably more so than the Geelong Club, as its membership included giants of the land as well as turf and political heavyweights. The Manifold, McArthur, Ware, Street, Smith, Mackinnon, Austin, Cumming and Bolte names appear in the membership register. Several of these names also appear in the Geelong Club membership registers over the years, a couple from as early as 1881, so there were interlocking connections between the two clubs.

By the late 1950s the Club house was showing its age and its appointments were somewhat dated and cramped for the then membership level so the Club decided on a rebuild. The original structure was removed in its entirety, being carted to a builder’s yard elsewhere in Camperdown, eventually finding its way to the Wurrong property in the 1970s, where it was incorporated into the homestead and much modified in the process.

A stunningly modern masonry and glass edifice was put in its place. The new Club House was officially opened by Sir Dallas Brookes, Governor of Victoria, in March 1960.

The Club then had 15 very good years until social change and demographics brought about a slide. Bar nights took a hammering when 10 o’clock closing was introduced in 1967, causing one reason to be a member of the Club (getting a drink after 6 pm) dissipating. The resignation and passing of senior members, who were regulars at the bar, also had an effect. Changing forms of evening entertainment such as dining, cabarets and shows (offered in Warrnambool for instance), favoured by the younger generation, made the Club less appealing as it provided none of this. Plus the Club’s nomination procedures were torturous and convoluted and a barrier to smooth entry for new members.

Younger members who wished to bring their wives to the Club as guests were denied this privilege apart from very occasional mixed dinners. Another contributing blow was the introduction of “drink drive” laws, meaning that many country members, who used to call by the Club when in town, now ignored the place. These drawbacks saw membership decline by 58% between 1975 and 1981. At the same time wage costs rose 32%.

Something had to be done if the Club were to survive. The Committee made various changes in the years 1981 to 1983. A call was made on members to balance the books and a resolution passed that the annual member subscriptions be advanced each year by CPI. The full time Steward position was abolished and replaced with a part-timer, a situation quaintly put as being ‘to offset the many hours spent behind the bar with few or no customers to serve’. Walls were knocked out between the bar and lounge to create bigger spaces, enabling a dance floor to be prepared so that dinner dances with live bands could be hosted. Nomination of new members was greatly simplified and this aided recruitment. Women were now welcomed as valued guests of their husband members. Members were encouraged to hold their private functions at the Club. All of these moves had positive results and by 1983 membership stood at 170.

The membership level seemed to be adequate but member support was variable at times so the Club was amenable to an approach in 1988 by the Camperdown Football Club Social Club (CFCSC) which had lost its home when its dilapidated club rooms were condemned by Council. The CFCSC requested a partnership with the Camperdown Club on a temporary basis until the CFCSC could rebuild its headquarters. The CFCSC entered the Club in 1989 with the holding of a function and next year bought equity in the Club as a Junior Partner. The joint arrangement worked satisfactorily but it soon became evident that the CFCSC was the dominant partner. The CFCSC completely took over management of the facility in 1991, more or less marking the de facto end of the Camperdown Club, which was now a minor guest in its own home. The Club lingered on in name until 1995 when the Camperdown Club was rebadged as the Camperdown Sports and Social Club (CSSC).

In 2001 the CSSC purchased the balance of the partnership – so this transaction can be regarded as marking the legal end of the Camperdown Club. The CSSC continued to use the building until it opened a new club rooms at the local sports ground in 2010. The former Camperdown Club building was sold next year to an accounting firm and remains in use for this purpose at the time of writing.

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