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The Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne
Chapter XIV


Days of depression - Russell Street premises sold - Move to Manchester Unity Building - Fiftieth birthday celebrated - Victoria's Centenary honoured - John Stewart retires from secretaryship - E. W. James appointed, 1939 - Scottish Union affairs - Numerous gifts and trophies.

THE early 1930's were a dark period for many people and many organizations. Financial stringency prevailed widely. It was this, with subsidiary causes, that forced the Council of the Royal Caledonian Society to take serious stock of its position in 1932-33.

Curiously, the members' subscription had been reduced, from 2 2s. 0d. to 1 1s. 0d., soon after the new premises in Russell Street were taken over in 1923. Within a few years the Society went back to its old rate, but even then it could not keep its funds thoroughly healthy. Rates and taxes pressed heavily. Satisfactory rents were difficult to obtain. And, with many men finding economies necessary, plus the fact that the premises were regarded as being slightly off the beaten track, membership figures began to fall considerably.

Eventually, after discussion at many meetings, the Council decided that the best course would be to sell out. It entered then into negotiations with the Young Women's Christian Association, and in May of 1933 agreement was reached for the sale of the building at 13,500.

So, after being exactly 10 years in its "ain hoose" - the home of which members had been so proud when it was officially opened by Prime Minister Bruce-the Society abdicated in favour of the Y.W.C.A. That organization is still in occupation of what is now a valuable city property, and, no doubt, its members have by this time ceased to be disturbed by ghostly music from long-departed pipers!

There was no particular difficulty about obtaining new Caledonian headquarters on a rental basis. After considering various offers, the Council chose rooms on the seventh floor of the new and stately Manchester Unity Building, immediately opposite the Town Hall and so fairly in the heart of the City. Here the Society has remained ever since.

The first meeting in the new premises was held on 20th July 1933. Surrounded by special fittings from the old premises (including a replica of the Ballarat statue of William Wallace ) members soon began to feel at home, and, as the financial rigours of the time gradually eased, the Society's affairs took on new life.

Even today there remain in the ranks quite a number of those "old campaigners" who shared in the house-warming of 1933. They include, in addition to the officers already mentioned, veterans such as Neil McPhee, Peter Wallace, and George Bunting (former Councillors), J. T. Picken, junr., James Rutherford, Jim Martin, J. McKiggan, and James Rose.

Midway in 1934 the Society celebrated its jubilee birthday: it was 50 years since the Hon. James MacBain, with the Hon. James Munro and other eminent citizens, had met to establish the old "Melbourne Caledonian Society" on a more workable basis.

Two functions were held in honour of the occasion, the first a jubilee Dinner at Scott's Hotel on 12th June (the actual date of the foundation meeting of 1884) and the other a jubilee Social in the Society's rooms four days later.

Representatives of the Commonwealth Parliament present at the dinner included Sir Harry Lawson (Minister for External Territories) and Senator Elliott. The State Parliament was represented by Mr (later Sir George) Knox, M.L.A., and the presidents of kindred societies also attended. All joined in congratulating the Royal Caledonian Society on its jubilee and on the proud record that had been built up over the years.

Incidentally, although the toast-list at the jubilee Dinner was fairly comprehensive, it fell far short of the imposing list that was put through at the first dinner in 1884, when the orations ranged through twelve toasts from "The Queen" to "The Clergy".

In the same year (1934) the Society joined with the Scottish Union in assisting to celebrate the centenary of Victoria. Organized by David L. Lemon (then Secretary of the Union), a big gathering was held on Melbourne's Exhibition Oval on 20th October. Piping and dancing, with cycling added, were enjoyed by a large crowd.

Developments of a personal nature during the period under notice included the bestowal of life-membership on Mr D. S. Ritchie, honorary solicitor to the Society, who had given much valuable service during the sale of the Russell Street premises. They included, too, a double change in the secretaryship.

After nearly eight years of service, John Stewart retired from the Secretary's position early in 1938. Applications were called, and of 12 candidates A. V. Stott was selected. He, however, remained only eighteen months, being replaced in June of 1939 by Edgar William James.

Mr James, a Brunswick accountant with a special interest in Scottish dancing (at which his two daughters and son had won many prizes), continued the link between the Society and the Scottish Union. He had been Secretary of the Union since early 1935, and he was to remain in the office until 1948-nearly 14 years. Also, he was to continue as Secretary of the Society up to the present time.

No special development occurred in the affairs of the Scottish Union when that body followed its "godfather" to the Manchester Unity Building. Most of its activities were of a domestic nature. Perhaps the most interesting of the movements were three that came to nothing: one was for the removal of the Burns Statue away from encircling trees in St Kilda Road; another aimed at forming a society of Chiefs and Ex-Chiefs of the Union, and the third was a revival of an earlier attempt to form an Australian Federation of Scottish Societies.

Here, too, it may be noted that in 1931 the Ballarat Caledonian Society elevated John Keith to the position of President after he had been Secretary for nearly 20 years. Congratulations he received came from Scots as far away as South America.

Gifts received by the Society in this period included an expanse of tartan carpet for the Council chamber, presented by members as a whole, and an imposing Presidential gong (taken from one of the first cable tramcars to run in Melbourne on 11th November 1885), presented by Mr W. K. Park, a member of the Society and of the Tramways Board.

In addition, several handsome trophies were acquired through the activities of the Pipe Band, led by Pipe-major Hugh Fraser. The band scored at Adelaide on Boxing Day of 1936 (during the Centenary celebrations of South Australia) and at Maryborough on New Year's Day of 1937, and, to round off those performances, it gained at Sydney in 1938 a "leg in" for the Dewar Cup, a valuable trophy presented by the Scottish firm of John Dewar and Sons for the Pipe Band Championship of the Commonwealth. Later the band was to honour itself, as well as the Royal Caledonian Society, by winning that Cup outright.

In all its activities, of course, the band of the Society had worked in close co-operation with the Pipe Bands Association, for in fact the two bodies shared the one Secretary, George Downie, a sound organizer who until his death by accident in 1948 was still a leading member of the Society.

So matters went on until 1939. Then, in common with all other organizations within the Empire, the Royal Caledonian Society was caught in the maelstrom of World War II. That shattering development was to affect all activities during the next five years.


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