Why Victoria’s clubs are unique in Australia
They hide in plain sight but still behind closed doors: inside Victoria’s clubs.
Walk down almost any main street of central Melbourne and you’ll pass a building with an imposing frontage or doorway but otherwise no sign of identification.
To those in the know, they don’t need signage, because these people are members of institutions that, behind these anonymous portals, tell a rich tale of Victoria’s history, from just a few years after the colony’s founding to today.
It’s been observed that clubs are in Melbourne’s DNA.
They are the ladies’ and gentlemen’s clubs of Melbourne, and also several provincial cities in Victoria. They have negotiated the twists and turns of fashion and are still an important aspect of our cultural and business life. They remain significant institutions in the city’s society, to a far greater degree than is evident in, say, Sydney, where such clubs have struggled in recent years.
Once demonised as bastions of the rich and powerful, today complaints about some clubs revolve more around their single-gender membership lists. Members, however, see them as voluntary associations of people with shared values. While a number of significant clubs have disappeared, probably due to a decline in interest in the activities that inspired their foundation, many have survived and thrived.
It’s been observed that “clubs are in Melbourne’s DNA” because its people are naturally drawn to group activities, from theatre to races to Australian rules football. It is no coincidence that the Melbourne Football Club is the oldest ongoing club of any football code in the world. Melburnians also love tradition, and there’s probably no better place for that than in a club.
A club based on the co-operative system of throwing together wit and information for the common benefit.
While today’s Melbourne clubs lean towards conservatism, in the 19th century several were anti-establishment. The Yorick Club was set up in 1868 by author Marcus Clarke and other literary types, usually journalists. They wanted something different, somewhere they could “cavort with freedom”. Its rituals were parodies of established British clubs, and philistines, the respectable and the stolid (and it should be noted, women) were expressly refused membership.
Members saw themselves as fulfilling the role of the best kind of club, “based on the co-operative system of throwing together wit and information for the common benefit”.
However, while Melbourne was amply supplied with philistines, true literary men were in short supply. Clarke and other founders became dissatisfied with the way the membership was becoming diluted, so Clarke left the Yorick to found the Cave of Abdullah, named after the cave in the Bible where David hid from the Philistines.
But every club is a reflection of the period in which it was formed, and many met an interest that had not yet found its place. The RACV Club is a good example, formed in 1903 by a group of people keen to share an outlet for their interest in that new-age technology, the motor vehicle. This individual nature of Melbourne’s surviving great clubs has given to each of them a unique strength and place in the life of the city.
Here is the story of some of them:
The first gentlemen’s club in Victoria and still the most prestigious in Australia, the Melbourne Club was established in 1838, only three years after European settlement when the city’s population was less than 2000. The first complaints about its perceived exclusiveness were aired only a year after its foundation.
Many early members were squatters from the Western District and the club was their accommodation in town. It (and all other clubs) were consciously founded on the London Principles of Gentlemen’s Clubs, based on notions of gentlemanly behaviour, shared values and fellowship, with admission of new members determined by the existing membership. But the over-riding principle was discretion.
Its perceived exclusiveness and notable membership sees it regarded as a Melbourne bastion of reaction and power, although there are more senior businessmen at the Australian Club and more politicians at the Savage Club.
If the Melbourne Club has an image problem, it is because it looks so prominent. It is highly visible at the Paris end of Collins Street, whereas other clubs are more discreet in showing their face to the world.
The Savage Club in Bank Place, founded in 1894, is heir to a strong bohemian tradition in Melbourne, even though today it may be seen as the essence of conservatism.
It was named after an obscure English poet. However, the members embraced the idea of “savage” and were soon bringing back shields, spears and other items from their travels in Africa and Melanesia.
Their collecting efforts still adorn the club’s walls. From my first visit, I was captivated by the sheer whimsy of the place, with its 2000-year-old skull and Victorian-era elephant guns.
There are also many cartoons and drawings of events and members, including the club’s most famous member Sir Robert Menzies, who was president for many years. Many artists and journalists are current members.
The Lyceum Club was founded in 1912 for women with university qualifications or those who had distinguished themselves in the arts, drama, literature, journalism, education, business or community services. Members were not allowed to join because of their husband’s position in society, however lofty – they had to have achieved themselves.
Today, the Lyceum Club is in Ridgway Place (overlooking the Melbourne Club), but in a far more modernist building than the others. The former Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce, is a member.
Founded in the same year (1868) as the Yorick Club, the Athenaeum Club’s membership has been more general in its cultural pursuits, emphasising social and kindly intercourse, rather than an overt reaction against society like the Yorick.
Nearby is the Alexandra Club (founded 1903), indicative of the increasing prominence of women in the public life of Melbourne.
Its membership contains many society ladies, some with husbands in the Melbourne Club.
Just down and across Collins Street from the Melbourne Club, the architecture of these clubs is less assertive, and the vast majority of people pass by without a second glance.
The Australian Club was founded in 1878, and one of the reasons for its long-term success was that the other clubs in Melbourne were on the other side of Elizabeth Street, which at the time had a creek running down it that was forever flooding. But the Australian Club, in William Street, could still be easily accessed by the legal and financial fraternities from which it draws its membership.
It has probably the grandest interior of any of the clubs. Its billiards room is particularly impressive, described by that sport’s great exponent Walter Lindrum as the finest in the southern hemisphere.
The provincial gentlemen’s clubs were products of the gold rush. The Sandhurst Club was formed in 1858, its title coming from a transient name for Bendigo.
The Geelong Club was founded in 1881 by wool brokers and other business and professional men. Today, members are welcomed from a wide range of professions, businesses and the military.
Michael van Leeuwen is a Melbourne-based historian.
The RACV Club was formed in 1903 when 56 people came together for the inaugural meeting of the then Automobile Club of Victoria. Today it boasts more than 30,000 members, making RACV Club one of Victoria’s biggest.
The Club, which is separate to roadside membership, has members of all backgrounds. Two locations, the City Club in Melbourne’s Bourke Street and Healesville Country Club & Resort, offer facilities including accommodation, gyms, pools, day spas, bars, restaurants, libraries and a business centre.
Over the years RACV Club has had several headquarters, starting modestly with a couple of rooms leased from the Reform Club at 243 Collins Street. It moved to Elizabeth Street in 1908, and in 1925 to its own headquarters at 94 Queen Street.
The Club opened the Healesville Country Club & Resort in 1953. The RACV City Club moved to 123 Queen Street in 1961. In 2005, RACV City Club opened the doors at its current home, 501 Bourke Street.
For all the concerns expressed about these clubs, they are a true reflection of Melbourne and Victoria. They are not over or above Melbourne society in any sense – they are of it – focused on tradition and fellowship of the like-minded. Should the closed doors of a Victorian club open for you, go and meet the people yourself. While Melbourne may seem like a wilderness of closed doors, as Manning Clarke once remarked, the clubs will be around for many decades yet.
RACV Club in the city has become integral to the lives of Gus and Anna Svenson, who use the Club facilities most days for business or leisure.
Gus originally joined the RACV Club for its gym, but was soon using other Club facilities and quickly became involved with the Club itself. He is now vice president of the Young Members’ Committee.
The RACV City Club facilities include a gym and pool, day spa, a bistro, restaurants, bars, a business centre, library, car park, meeting rooms and event facilities for weddings and conferences.
As vice president of the Young Members’ Committee, Gus helps organise a range of events and activities for younger members from formal to casual: including cocktail parties, whisky tastings, lawn bowls and billiards nights and, most recently, monthly networking lunches.
“Anna and I both love that you come to the club and everything is going to be well done, it’s easy to take a client there or have an event or meeting without worry. The standard is always high.”
Gus has also been to conferences at RACV Healesville Country Club & Resort. Access is included in RACV Club membership.
“Healesville has everything you need to host a business conference or enjoy a relaxing weekend,” he says.
“We’ve also stayed at the RACV/RACT Apartment Hotel in Hobart. Knowing the reputation of customer service that RACV has we trusted it would be lovely there as well.”
Anna and Gus regularly use the RACV Club for business. Both work in the city and Anna booked it for a special event in August.
Anna says: “We use the Club as our go-to place. I booked the Club when I launched a new business, Svenson Barristers, with 200 people attending in the Pavilion for a cocktail party.
“We thought what better way to celebrate than by launching the business at RACV,” she says. “The club is close to our hearts as we stayed there when we got engaged and also got ready there for our wedding. We look forward to starting this new phase of our working life at RACV.”
Interviews: Jessica Hirst