The Bushmen’s Club That Never Was

On 26 January 1876, The Inquirer and Commercial News reported that “Measures are being taken for establishing a Bushmen’s Home at Champion Bay…” According to one writer (perhaps with a biased view), labouring bushmen often lived without the good influence of society. Alienated in the bush for so long, they eventually left their employment and headed straight to the “nearest public house to spend every penny of their wages in drink.” They stated that bushmen, “fiercely excited or helplessly prostrated by drink,” could be seen in country taverns at all times of the year. They drank until they had no money left and then went back to the bush to seek more work.

A Bushmen’s Club was thought to help solve this problem. The purpose of it was to provide a place in town for bushmen to sleep and eat. They would also provide various forms of entertainment. With their existence stemming from the temperance movement, alcohol would not be available on the premises.

By March, subscriptions were being canvassed, with an estimate that £1,000 would be required. A month later, the prospectus was issued, and in September, the Commissioner of Crown Lands announced that His Excellency the Governor granted one rood and 24 perches (under half an acre) of land at Geraldton for use as a public reserve specifically for the Bushmen’s Club.

On 5 December 1876, a meeting was held, and the preliminary committee reported that there was sufficient money to begin construction of the building. The subscribers elected Messrs. Eliot, Crowther, and Burges as Trustees, and the members passed the rules, including their fundamental one: “the exclusion of all intoxicating drinks from the premises.” A formal committee of management comprising of seven men was then elected to hold office until October 1877.

While the money they had was enough to pay for the stone needed to construct the building, more funds were required. It was proposed to hold various fundraising endeavours to raise the necessary money to complete the project. Further helping, several gentlemen had promised to contribute £70 pa for a period of 10 years.

Mr Trigg provided a plan and specifications of the building. It was to comprise of accommodation for twelve people, a dining room, reading room, office, and sleeping apartments for the Superintendent. Stables were noted to be “absolutely necessary,” and it was expected that more rooms would be added in the future.

By March 1877, Reverend Henry Laurence was appointed the Secretary of the Bushmen’s Club. He reiterated in the newspaper that contributions to the club could be made directly to him or credited to the club’s account at the National Bank. It was noted that the club was making “satisfactory progress.

On 21 November, Reverend Laurence wrote to the editor of The Inquirer and Commercial News and enclosed a copy of the Annual Report for the Bushmen’s Club. Indicating that progress was not going well, he ended the letter by saying, “Any contributions to our fund, which is very low, will be thankfully acknowledged by me.

The Annual Report detailed that over the past eleven months, there had been several resignations, with most of the positions refilled by other men. The committee held ten meetings. They purchased 340 yards of stone for the walls of the building, which they left stacked on the land. They needed more stone, but they had not yet accepted any of the offered tenders. Their funds were low, and they sent a circular to other parts of the colony asking for help. All they received in response was a few shillings. Hope was not completely gone. The committee borrowed £100 and used it to purchase goods for a fancy bazaar at the Masonic Hall to raise some of the funds needed.

The bazaar went ahead at the end of November. Many of the women in town prepared the goods and sold them at the stalls. They raised £85, enough to request tenders for the masonry of the building. Construction had also finally started. On 14 December, Governor Ord laid the foundation stone and performed the ceremony. Still, there was more to go. The writer noted, “It is to be hoped the people of the district will come forward more readily and liberally than they have yet done to further the undertaking.

At the end of May 1878, it was reported that the walls of the building up to the flooring of the upper story were complete. After payment was made for the completed work, there were no funds left. Fundraising efforts continued in the form of a concert.

The committee held the annual meeting on 9 October 1878. Despite advertising via placard and in various newspapers, only four people turned up. The report was not “of an encouraging nature.” They had not obtained many new subscribers, and some old subscribers refused to renew their payments. The treasurer’s balance sheet was also described as “not a very cheering one.” Calculating receipts and expenditure, the club was left with £1 15s 9d. The committee warned that if more subscriptions were not forthcoming, they would have to abandon the club.

The meeting resumed on 24 October. Without enough members present, business still could not be transacted. They decided that the next meeting would only occur if someone wanted to organise one. Unfairly, the Victorian Express suggested that the cause of the failure of the Bushmen’s Club was due to the indifference of the bushmen themselves.

Several letters (including one by Reverend Laurence) written to the editor of the Victorian Express at the start and end of 1879 tried to reignite interest in the Bushmen’s Club without success. Again, interest was roused in 1883. It was no use. The building remained unfinished and abandoned, a white elephant in Geraldton.

In the early 1890s, as the Geraldton Council looked for land to build a new Town Hall, a suggestion was made that they use the Bushmen’s Club block on the corner of Durlacher Street and Eleanor Street (today’s Chapman Road). While they initially contemplated using the building as offices for councillors, in the end, they decided to demolish it. In November 1896, demolition began and workers uncovered the foundation stone. In the hollow of the stone was a bottle containing a faded manuscript written by Reverend Laurence; a final token indicating that the Bushmen’s Club that he had tried to create was no more.

Plan of Geraldton showing Lot 233A, the site of the Bushmen’s Club. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S2168- cons5698 0663).

Sources:

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