From its beginnings and early relationship with the Caulfield Military Hospital, to its heyday as an influential and powerful club, to its present day services to the community, this video charts the history and the people of the Caulfield RSL, including interviews with President, Bob Larkin, Military Historian, Carl Johnson, and members of the club.
Thanks to Australian Broadcasting Corporation Library Sales for footage of the interior of the club in the 1960s.
TRANSCRIPT OF CAULFIELD RSL
(Last Post music plays)
Bob Larkin: Caulfield RSL essentially was started because of patients at Caulfield Hospital.
Carl Johnson: After the Gallipoli campaign, each state formulated its own Military Hospital, purely because Australia had never been engaged in a war like this; it wasn’t prepared for the thousands of people coming back with various illnesses and wounds and psychological injuries etc.
So, here in Caulfield, the Manor house was turned into the 11th Australian General Hospital, administered by the Army. And its whole purpose was to look after convalescing cases, where they’d been hospitalised overseas – they’d been stabilised – and then brought back here for their long convalescing period.
In the case of people with missing limbs they might have to do 10, 20 different operations before their stump was completed. Those with nerve damage might take months and years to be able to be settled down. And the only people who could really look after those people were the ones that had come back in better shape than their counterparts, their contemporaries. And hence, the formation of Caulfield RSL.
Bob Larkin: So I think it was that movement, and it was happening all across Australia, where men formed themselves up to make sure that their rights were covered.
There were instances where mates had died and the Government had asked for a refund of wages that had been paid after they’d died, from the widows. And they could see their rights – they went away to war being assured that their jobs would be there when they came back – and they came back and their jobs weren’t there. So they essentially formed lots of these little services clubs as a means of protecting their rights.
Carl Johnson: At the same time, there too, it allowed for a much more recreational time for those people that had come back, and take their minds off their ongoing hospitalisation. It allowed an escape from the hospital wards. Many was the case that men would have their day leave and they’d have their civilian uniform with the convalescent armband and they’d make their way down from Kooyong Road, stop at the Elsternwick Hotel on the Nepean Highway for a couple of quick drinks and then down to the club.
An example of hospital cases escaping the confines of the hospital environment included a double amputee, who had lost both his legs above the knee. He was wheelchair bound or cot-bound. And his driver was a blind soldier, who’d lost his eyesight.
So one day these two men decided to go out for a few ales, encouraged by their other ward mates, and it was OK on the way out. The legless man was the eyes for the blind man driving. They made their way to the Elsternwick and then they came down to the club, and it was good and they caught up with friends they hadn’t seen for ages etc, and even some of the hospital staff were down here, so it was certainly encouraged.
But it was getting home which was the problem.
It got dark and they had a number of beers in them and they found themselves going off the road and into a gutter. The wheelchair and the man topples out and the blind man wasn’t able to find the wheelchair and they were scrambling about etc, they also lost a couple of beers they were carrying with them, and it was only because a couple of other patients on the way back through an hour or so later, found both of them, arguing over where the bottles of beer was, and who caused this accident, they actually managed to get back home.
But it shows, on some level, some would say it shows the desperation for these people to get out and about. Others would say it shows the tenacity, the spirit of these guys, being determined to feel normal.
Bob Larkin: Every night of the week was pandemonium, because in the members bar as you see it now, all along the wall, it was all bar. It’s what they called the long bar, and there was up to 7 or 8 bar staff there working.
The dining room, as it is now, was, so called, the officers club: and other ranks congregated in the bar, and officers congregated in the dining room. It was always crowded, and it was open slather, because in those days everyone in authority was also a returned serviceman.
So the police were part of it, the council - at one stage all the members of council including the mayor were part of Caulfield RSL - and all the police were members of Caulfield RSL, because they were all returned servicemen . So that the club could do no wrong.
Back in those days, it was a men’s club because it was the one place – there was no social services for returned soldiers – so if someone had post-traumatic stress as we know it today, there was no, it was just a war problem and men didn’t talk about the problems they’d seen, people they’d killed, the drama they’d had in their lives in the war.
And they thought that no-one could understand it. So this was the place they could come, they could talk to their mates openly, they could get drunk, they could cry and no-one said anything because it was what happened in an RSL, so they were just very moralistic, they didn’t want women to see that, that was something that you didn’t want women to see.
Carl Johnson: It’s very clear that, yes, it’s a drinking bar, but it’s a drinking bar with a purpose. It’s not like the Elsternwick Hotel up the road, with pool tables and whatnot, they had their pool tables here but the pool tables, the bar area, had constant reminders of the Western Front, of Gallipoli, of Palestine, of the naval actions.
And that constant reminder, of having the imagery around, the souvenirs of war, meant that as much as the good conversation, the good humour that might take place, the war and the reason this club existed, was never too far from the fore.
The Bernie Bragg windows are very important to the club.
Firstly, we’ve established that they were placed in 1938 to mark the 20th Anniversary of the end of World War One. There’s quite a number of paintings around the club here from Bernie. And the Furfs Magazine, from the 20s and 30s, show his caricature work. But the windows are a bit different. The second window showing the lighthorseman charging out of Constantinople, that’s a throwback to the Crusades. And the fact that a lot of men serving in World War One saw themselves fighting a godly war.
So, yes, the windows are there to perpetuate the 20th anniversary of the end of World War One but in other ways it’s also there to canonise the Digger spirit, as such. It’s god, king and country that these people were joining up to fight and they still believed that, right up till the day they passed.
Bob Larkin: Most of the collection we’ve got here is personal stuff, that people have brought in. So it meant something to them: they brought it back from the Middle East, they brought it back from Palestine, they brought it back from Gallipoli.
If you look around the club, some of things like the large propeller; we know the history of that. Colonel Cobby brought it in off a plane that he flew. The cannon, above reception, was fired, reputedly, by members of this club. They were personal photos, they were mementoes, they were uniforms that they got off someone, they were guns that they smuggled in, in their kit bags , it was their medals that they wanted the club to have: because they didn’t think their family would value them.
And, again, for a lot of soldiers, the RSL was their family.
Stewart Hawkes: It means everything, the RSL. Because wherever I’ve gone, I’ve always joined an RSL club.
Geoff Patience: I have a lot of wartime friends and its very good, because you’re able to keep in contact.
Whitt Tuskin: It’s been a very good club really.
Ralph Edward Hall: I do find that it’s just been wonderful, all the years that I’ve been here.
Stewart Hawkes: I just sit, have a read. I don’t smoke. I read, and have a beer. And I enjoy that. And, oh, have a chat with all the different people.
Jeff Blore: There’s very good friends around.
Geoff Patience: You become almost brothers. I had one chappy who came from the bush- had a huge lamb property there - and we called ourselves blood brothers.
Whitt Tuskin: Just about every day I come down and have a bottle of soda water and take a couple of oldies home.
Stewart Hawkes: We get here nearly every day.
Jeff Blore: Well I spend a fair bit of my life here now.
Bert Bishop: Meals are good.
Ralph Edward Hall: And the company, the talk. It’s been very colourful. Very colourful indeed.
Bob Larkin: Caulfield RSL is a lot different today from what it was, 30, 40 ,50 years ago. With our second world war member dying off, a much, more contingent of Vietnam and post-Vietnam war veterans . A lot of our work now is to reach out to the widows of those men, and more general community work.
Mary Newton: My name is Mary Newton and I’m the President of the Caulfield-St Kilda widows Legacy Club. For 28 years, the RSL has allowed us to use their facilities for our general meetings and committee meetings.
Margaret Spence: My association with the RSL has been through 3 brothers who were in the Second World War, and my husband, who was in New Guinea during the Second World War. And because of my husband I’m a member of Legacy. And we’re finding the RSL to be very kind and very helpful to us.
Mary Newton: For the past few years they’ve had a veterans lunch and invited us as members to the lunch and if you look in that room, you’ll see, there’s more of us than anyone else!
Joy Langley: It’s a beautiful old building and I love going to the dining room and having meals there. It’s just sort of got a family atmosphere. You feel comfortable and at home there.
Marion Scammel: Oh, it means a lot to me. I always think of my husband when I come here, not that I don’t think of him all the time.
Von Walters: Without the RSL, I think my husband would have given up a lot sooner. It was a lifesaver for him, especially when he came back when the war finished. They had all the camaraderie that they needed. And there were things, I guess, about the war, that they never ever wanted to discuss. Certainly not with their wives or their children. So, the RSL clubs got the brunt of it. And I think it was wonderful for them. Because there were so many, sort of, heartbreaking incidents, like their mates going out on some sort of a thingo and never coming back again..
Bob Larkin: If we’re not looking after our members, we’re not really an RSL anymore. So that’s really what it’s all about.
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