During World War One the New Zealand soldiers preparing to go overseas were mostly stationed in Trentham Military Camp in Lower Hutt. They had nights off, so a lot of them went into Wellington for some fun. In 1915 a group of ladies decided to form a Soldiers Club in the Sydney Street Hall, which was the St Paul’s parish hall and schoolroom. The hall was close to the Railway Station (Sydney St East is now Kate Sheppard Place, which is a block from the station), so the soldiers could come up to the club instead of going into town.
Trentham Camp, c1914-1918.
The building was first used to entertain the first wave of soldiers waiting for three weeks in Wellington to leave New Zealand in October 1914. These were the men that went on to fight at Gallipoli. The club closed on their departure, but ‘it was soon realised by many women that soldiers who were strangers in town were having a miserable experience – no friends, no places to go except those open to the general public and no possibilities of social life’, so in July 1915 Mrs Coleridge convened a meeting to put together support for a Soldier’s Club. It was ‘unanimously decided that, although some of the Defence authorities were unsympathetic, the Sydney-street Schoolroom should be rented and a club established’. The wife of the Prime Minister, Christina Massey, became chair of the club’s organisational committee. The room was decorated with a billiard table, piano, easy chairs, writing tables and the tea rooms equipped from donations from around the country. It was a huge effort to run, with different women’s organisations allocated to be ‘hostesses’ on a different day each month.
The club was a huge success. The Evening Post estimated that more than 20,000 soldiers passed through the club in a year, using the coat and parcel tickets as an indicator. A typical night sounded like a lot of fun. It started at 5pm when ‘the boys’ would pour in, sometimes in their hundreds, for the sandwiches and cake served free of charge by the hostesses. Music would be played on a piano ‘where a girl pianist was lost to view, being surrounded by dozens of singers, who thoroughly enjoyed the choruses and songs.’ There were billiards, a writing room and a gymnasium. There was another supper at 10pm before the men were off to catch the last troop train back to Trentham at 11pm, and then the women would have to hurry to clean up and catch their last tram home.
Soldiers at Lambton Station, 1914
There are some lovely stories in the newspaper about events at the Club. One member of the public won a cake in a raffle but did not want it, so the ticket-seller suggested he give it to the Soldiers’ Club. Apparently ‘it was enjoyed as only camp-men and school-boys know how to enjoy cake.’ You can only imagine the scene!
There was also a monthly dance held that was by all accounts a great social event. The dances were described as ‘although jolly …delightfully decorous, the soldiers proving themselves very gallant gentlemen’. Not only were the soldiers on their best behaviour, but it was remarked that visitors ‘never fail to marvel at the high spirits of these soldier lads.’
Soldiers at Sydney St Hall
Christmas was also a large affair for the Soldiers’ Club. Hostesses worked shifts all day to provide constant food and entertainment for the soldiers. You can read more about the first Christmas in 1915 here. It was clearly appreciated – the club received many letters from men on the front in Europe and the Middle East saying that the club had been the only place where they had received such hospitality free of charge.
It was unique in that it was entirely run by women for men. A reporter remarked ‘the fact that women only could ‘run’ a club for men entirely according to their own ideas with conspicuous success is a credit to all concerned.’ The early 1900s were a different time…
Spanish Flu Epidemic, 1919
The Spanish Flu hit New Zealand just after the end of the war, reaching its peak at the end of 1918. This terrible epidemic killed about half as many New Zealanders as had died during in the entire First World War – and did so in just two months. The epidemic meant that the Sydney Street Hall was needed as an emergency hospital, so urgently that there was no chance to have a closing ceremony for the club. The Evening Post described it as one of the ‘many minor disappointments caused by the recent epidemic’. The impromptu hospital was also run by women; Dr Elizabeth Gunn and Nurse Luke. There were also women contributing by way of hot meals. Mrs. McParlane, proprietress of the Hotel Cecil was sending hot meals down every day, ‘for which the staff are more than grateful’.
Dr Elizabeth Gunn, 1917.
War was a difficult time for everyone, but the Sydney St Hall held some good memories and an important place in the community during war time, and was a credit to the strength of women.
The building was moved from its former position in Sydney Street, and is now part of Thorndon School, down the road at Turnbull Street.
Sources: Evening Post, 17 January 1919, Free Lance, 20 April 1917, 10 November 1916, 21 November 1918; http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/influenza-pandemic-1918. Images: Featured image, Chontelle Syme; Trentham, call no. D538 T795, Auckland War Memorial Museum; Soldiers, Ref: PA6-773, Alexander Turnbull Library; Soldiers at Sydney St Hall, Call of the Camps, pg 29, call no. P 940.483 CAL 1916, National Library; Elizabeth Gunn, Ref: 1/1-014009-G, Alexander Turnbull Library; last image, Chontelle Syme