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The Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne
Chapter III


Reconstruction in 1884 - Hon. James Munro's Explanation - "Caledonian Society of Melbourne" - Hon. James MacBain as first President - "Brilliant success" of first social - Governor attends St Andrew's Dinner - Twelve toasts in one night - 394 members in first year - First sports meeting, rent free  - Protest against "anglicizing".

HAVING shown what they could do when they put their minds to it-even to the extent of routing English cricketers!-the Caledonians of Melbourne seem to have gone along more or less quietly after 1861. All semi-public bodies fluctuate considerably in strength over a lengthy period; and so it was, no doubt, with the Caledonian Society during the late 1860's and the 1870's.

Eventually, on 12th June 1884 (and here is where Minute Books take up the story), a meeting was held in the Equitable Co-operative Society's Hall, Melbourne, for the purpose of putting new life into Caledonian affairs; or, to be more definite, for the purpose of reconstructing "the present Melbourne Caledonian Society" on "a more workable basis".

The phrases in quotation-marks (which make it clear that the movement aimed at reconstruction, and not the forming of a new body), were used by the Chairman of the meeting, the Hon. James MacBain, a distinguished Scot who had held Ministerial office; and he was supported by the President of the old Society, another Scottish statesman, the Hon. James Munro, an eminent financier who had been Minister for Education and was later to become Victoria's Premier.

Mr Munro said that various causes had united to bring the Caledonian Society to the verge of extinction; therefore he, as President, and his fellow-officers had resigned in order to permit a thorough reconstruction to be carried out.

One of the chief causes of the Society's decline, Mr Munro added, was the smallness of the entrance-fee and subscription-a statement which seems to suggest that the Scots of the day imperilled the existence of their Society by under-charging themselves!

Mr Munro moved:

That it is desirable to have a Caledonian Society in Melbourne, and this meeting resolves to form a society as nearly as possible on the principles of the London Caledonian Society.

Mr John McGregor seconded the motion, which was supported by Dr. McMillan and several others present and carried unanimously.

Thus in June of 1884 Melbourne's Caledonian Society took on a new lease of life.

It was agreed that the membership be unlimited (an amendment aiming at a limit of 200 being defeated) and the entrance-fee was fixed at 1/1/-, with an annual subscription of the same amount. Life-membership was fixed at 10/10/-.

At the next meeting of the Society, held a fortnight later, Mr MacBain (again Chairman) announced a membership of 120, including the Premier of the day, James Service (who had been a foundation member of the Society of 1858) and several other members of both Houses of Parliament.

The most important business transacted at the meeting was the "christening" of the Society-as the Caledonian Society of Melbourne-and the adopting of rules which had been framed by a committee consisting of Messrs J. MacBain, J. Munro, John Macdonald, Murdoch McLeod, and Captain R. Robertson.

Most of the time of the next two meetings was occupied with the election of officers. Mr MacBain was chosen President; Mr Munro as Vice-President; Mr John Macdonald as Hon. Secretary, and Mr Colin Longmuir as Hon. Treasurer. For nine places on the Committee there were no fewer than 28 candidates, of whom the successful ones were: Thomas Baillie, L. C. Mackinnon, Murdoch McLeod, Kenneth Gunn, Dr. T. L. McMillan, James Fergusson, W. K. Thomson, John Blyth, and James Richmond.

A few weeks later (5th September) the reconstructed Society indulged in its first social gathering, Mr MacBain entertaining at his own expense approximately 1000 guests in Melbourne's Town Hall. Newspapers of the day describe that function as having been "a brilliant success". The attendance, it is stated, included many leading citizens, and the beautiful decorations, plus the "magnificent costumes" of the ladies, created a very picturesque scene.

Obviously, the Society had got away to a good start. That fact was emphasized at the first quarterly meeting (7th November) when President MacBain was able to announce that 18 life members and 270 ordinary members had been enrolled and that funds already totalled 774.

A printed list of the names of those early members styled "List of Founders" - is still extant. It reveals the presence of more than 60 assorted Macs among the goodly company. More important, it reveals that the members included a considerable number of personalities (such as the pastoralist-philanthropist Francis Ormond and the newspapermen David Syme and Lachlan Mackinnon), who had already done, or were to do, a great deal towards building up the nation.

In point of fact, if the life-stories of a cross-section of those "founders" could be written some thoroughly absorbing material would undoubtedly be presented. For, in addition to men having romantic records of success, the company included some very picturesque "characters". There was, for example, Theodore Napier (of whom more anon), a sturdy Jacobite who was regarded by many people as a public benefactor and by a few others as a public nuisance. There was also J. S. Butters, sometime Mayor of Melbourne, who customarily wore a vest with three openings, through each of which glittered a large diamond against a background of stiff shirt. Rumour had it that when things were bad on the diggings the glitter was maintained by paste facsimiles, while the originals reposed in the drawer of a pawn-shop.

What were the chief subjects discussed by members at that first general meeting in 1884?

They were: (a) the assisting of charities, and (b) the strengthening of the Society through sports meetings and other gatherings. As to the first object, it was recommended by the Committee that temporary relief be made available at once to (1) widows of Scots who had been left in straitened circumstances; (2) Scots who had lost employment through accident or ill-health, and (3) new arrivals in the colony who, through no fault of their own, were in destitute circumstances.

Thus was established the principle of practical goodwill towards worthy objects that has animated Melbourne's Caledonian Society all along the years.

A few weeks later again (29th November 1884 ) the Society treated itself, in celebration of St. Andrew's Day, to its first annual dinner, the site being the supper-room of the Town Hall. Like the President's conversazione of September, the dinner passed off very effectively. Mr MacBain was now President of the Legislative Council, and the Governor of the day, Sir Henry Loch, directed the assembly's attention to the fact-he said it emphasized his belief that "Scots generally succeed in any path of life they may enter".

What a spate of speeches the guests encountered that night! Here, in all its majesty, is the Toast List:

The Queen
The Prince and Princess of Wales
His Excellency the Governor
The Caledonian Society of Melbourne
The Charitable Objects of the Society
The Mayor of Melbourne
Kindred Societies
Our Visitors
The Land o' Cakes
The Land of our Adoption
The Clergy
The Members of Council

Not the least interesting of the speeches was that made by Mr W. K. Thomson, who proposed the toast dealing with charitable objects. Firstly, he said that the Society was very favoured in having as Patron a Scottish Governor and as President the first Scottish President of the Legislative Council. Secondly, he revealed that donations subscribed in the room, in conjunction with this toast, amounted to 303.

Three hundred pounds (drawn from an audience numbering 148) was a stout achievement in 1884. It is clear that our predecessors put their hands in their "pooches" to some purpose. What is more, levies of the kind did not scare off other Scots, for at the next meeting of the Society, held a couple of weeks later, 56 new members were enrolled.

Activities for 1884 ended with a flourish-a Scottish concert was held in the Athenaeum Hall and it drew an attendance of approximately 800. A programme of that concert, pasted in the old Minute Book, survives in good order to this day.

Incidentally, it was announced during the evening that the Society was sponsoring competitions for original poems and essays, prizes for the purpose having been donated by the Hon. Francis Ormond, M.L.C. (Mr Ormond, an Aberdonian who had made a good deal of money on the land in Victoria, was the public-spirited citizen who later gave 100,000 to endow Ormond College within the University of Melbourne, 20,000 to endow a Chair of Music, 11,000 to the Working Men's College, and other large sums to hospitals. He died in 1889, aged 69 years. His memory is honoured by a statue in Latrobe Street, Melbourne).

So ended the first six months' operations activities of the reconstructed Society. What a fruitful period it was!

Progress continued during 1885. At the first quarterly meeting (6th March) the Hon. Secretary revealed that membership had risen in four months from 288 to 394. Funds were healthy, he said, and various cases of distress had been relieved.

In the following month the Society broke out in a new direction by conducting a sports meeting; and-believe it or not!-the Melbourne Cricket Ground was obtained for the purpose free of charge. Piping, dancing, racing, tossing the caber, putting the stone, and other events were on the programme, and everything passed off satisfactorily.

In view of the Society's healthy body of achievement, it is not surprising that all the officers were re-elected at the first annual meeting, held on 14th August (1885).

Other happenings of interest at that meeting included a decision to form a Scottish Choral Association under the auspices of the Society. In addition, the meeting occupied itself for some time in debating a motion on a subject that is still discussed at intervals. Sponsored by Mr Theodore Napier, the motion read as follows:

That in view of the anglicising tendency at present at work in the Colony and throughout the whole of the British Dominions, whereby the terms "England" and "English" are constantly and incorrectly used by officials and other public men, both in Parliament and in the Press, to denote what is essentially Imperial in character, in lieu of the proper names "Britain" and "British", the Society records its energetic protest against their use in this sense, as being contrary to the terms agreed on in the Act of Union of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland which came into force in the year 1707.

That Scotsmen be called upon to rally in defence of their name, and that a memorial be drawn up urging the Government to remove by all means in its power the evil complained of.

That pungent protest of 1885, it will be seen, is in line with the sentiments expressed by a speaker at the first meeting of the original Society in 1858. Also, it is in general agreement with a resolution adopted at the annual congress of the Victorian Scottish Union as recently as 1948. Actually, though, nothing came of Mr Napier's motion, for after spirited discussion it was withdrawn.

Within a few weeks of the Annual Meeting the newly formed Choral Society-known as the Caledonian Society's Choir - was in active practice, and at the same time the enterprising Committee (whose title had been changed to Council) was considering the formation of a Rifle Club, was arranging for another St. Andrew's dinner, and was examining a proposal to hold a Caledonian Ball.

Both the dinner and the ball were brought off success fully, and they were followed soon afterwards by another sports gathering and by the first concert of the Caledonian Society's Choir.

In general, then, the reconstructed Society had made healthy progress during its first eighteen months of activity.


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