In the early 1950s, a group of returned servicemen had the idea of forming a social club. They met in the sub-branch rooms – the Digger’s Hall, a wooden building which used to be located on the site where the post office currently is on the corner of Moon and Tamar streets in Ballina – to talk about their idea. All of them were members of the RSL Sub-Branch. Anzac Cummings was one of those men. “A few of us just got together and said we should have a club,” he said. And, late in 1954, the inaugural meeting of the Ballina RSL Club was held.
The first members were 80 members of the sub-branch, as well as selected associate members, boosting the initial membership of the Ballina RSL Club to 110. Ron Flanagan was elected as the foundation president of the club. The newly-formed Ballina RSL Club obtained a lease of the Diggers’ Hall from the sub-branch.
This was a social club, and the blokes met weekly to play darts, billiards and cards. “But there were no women in those days – they were forbidden,” Anzac said. The blokes would chip in and buy a ‘jondi’ – a small keg – of beer. Sometimes, one of the fellas would be called on to go down to the Commercial Hotel, which is now the Henry Rous Tavern in River Street, and fill up the ‘jondi’.
Membership of the Ballina RSL Club grew quickly, and club members could see a problem in the future. Extensions to the Diggers’ Hall could no longer be made because of the restricted land, so the search began for a new site for the Ballina RSL Club.
‘The Diggers Hall’ Moon Street, Ballina
(original club 1954).
The Ballina RSL Club, River Street Ballina (original club 1964)
There are not too many people who would want to build on land that was 180cm under water. But that’s exactly what the board of the Ballina RSL Club decided to do in the late 1950s as they searched for a site for the club’s new building – the club’s current location.
As it turns out, the decision, considering the Ballina RSL Club’s prime riverfront position, showed incredible vision – a foresight which Anzac Cummings said the members could not visualise.
“We came along and looked at this big basin of water – Ballina Shire Council owned about a foot or so of the frontage rights to another half of the block, the rest was six feet under water,” he said. “We just thought it would be good to be by the river.”
By 1958, transfer of the land from Ballina Shire Council was completed and an application was made to the Department of Lands for the land which was under water. Mr Cummings admitted any application of this sort today would be difficult. “There would be a lot of drama – you could never do it,” he said.
But the application to the Department of Lands by the Ballina RSL Club in 1959 was not so easy either. At the time the State Member for Parliament for Ballina and Lismore was Mr LG Compton. So the club’s board lobbied him to get the application for the land approved. “Within a short period of time, we got the land,” Mr Cummings said.
Mr Cummings said it took about four years before all the land was formally owned by the Ballina RSL Club. Now it was time for construction.
Les Schreiber was the first full-time secretary-manager employed by the Ballina RSL Club. He was appointed in 1963, having come from Narrabri, and worked in the club’s Moon Street premises. On his arrival, the board of the club had already decided on a new site for the club, which is the current site on the corner of River and Grant streets.
Anzac Cummings, who was president of the Ballina RSL Club at the time, said one of Mr Schreiber’s first questions was about the new site. Having seen the ‘basin of water’ the club was going to be built on, Mr Cummings said Mr Schreiber’s initial reaction was simply: “How are you going to do that?” But it was done.
The landscape of Ballina’s CBD could have looked a lot different today but for a very bold decision made in the late 1950s. Do you know what properties are located on the corner of River and Cherry streets, and at The Boulevard in River Street? Both of these sites could have been the location of the Ballina RSL Club.
The club was offered the site where the Australian Hotel currently is in River Street and the site where the River Street Woolworths is located.
According to Anzac Cummings, the president of the Ballina RSL Club from 1960 to 1964, the club was gazumped on the Woolworths site and simply passed on the other site, so the board had to look elsewhere. The club also looked at land across the road from the current site of the post office in Moon Street. History will show that through the incredible vision by the Ballina RSL Club board, the club chose to build on the present site on the corner of Grant and River streets, Ballina.
To get ideas on what the new Ballina RSL Club building would look like, and what facilities it would have, the board members in the early 1960s toured clubs up and down the coast.
It was the design of the South Grafton RSL Club that caught the eye of the board members, and they tracked down the architects of that building. Anzac Cummings said the architects from Grafton were brought in to look at the Ballina RSL Club’s new site before it was filled. “We showed them the site and they said they couldn’t imagine it,” he said.
The site chosen by the board for the club’s new building was a basin of water before being filled in 1959. Rough drafts of the new building were received by the club’s board in 1962, and the final plans were drawn up later that year.
How was the site filled so that the club could be built?
“When we decided to fill the land, we had to work out how to do it,” Mr Cummings said. In 1959, a stone retaining wall was built upon the reclamation line on the site – the line of that wall, which has since been strengthened, is roughly underneath the bar in the Riverside Lounge.
The wall was built in about six months and the plan was to pump sand from the Richmond River into the area behind the wall. “The original idea was to float pipes across the river and pump the sand from the bar on the southern side of the river,” Mr Cummings said. “There were gates in the pipes that were opened to let the boats through. But it didn’t work.”
The plan was modified and the pipes were then sunk and sand was pumped to fill an area of about 90 by 70 metres to a depth of about two metres. The work was completed in about six months, and the site was left so the land had time to consolidate before building began.
There was one thing the Ballina RSL Club’s new building was going to need to stay up: Piles, and lots of them.
When the board decided on the site for the new building, relocating the club from its original Moon Street premises, it was partially covered in water. Sand from the river was used to fill the site, held in place by a retaining wall.
But testing of the sub-soil revealed that heavy piles would be needed to support the building. Tenders were called for this work, and KF Barlow Pty Ltd was the successful company. In August 1963, 83 piles were sunk to depths of up to about 20 metres to provide the foundations for the new Ballina RSL Club.
The Ballina RSL Club started its life as a social club for veterans.
In that theme, the members decided that when the Ballina RSL Club was built on its current site on the corner of River and Grant streets, a bowling green should be included.
And it was.
The bowling green was located on the northern side of the current building, where the two-storey car park is, fronting River Street. Anzac Cummings, president of the club during construction of the building in 1963 to 1964, said that in hindsight, the location was not ideal for a bowling green.
In the late 1980s, during an overhaul of the club, the two-storey car park was built on the bowling green site. But the bowlers weren’t forgotten. A bowling club was built, the Ballina RSL Bowling Club in Canal Road.
Help us Compile a Living Club History
The Club History section on our website now contains some interesting interviews and photos that detail our beginnings and progress. We would like to keep adding material to this special club history feature on an ongoing basis as it is a living resource.
If any club or community member has some interesting tales or memories to tell … or if you’ve been hording some of the club’s original newspapers containing articles and photos that capture performers, visitors, members, club presidents, staff … over the years … please contact Peter, Marketing, Ballina RSL Club on 02 6681 9523 or email Peter.Boucher@ballinarsl.com.au
The club enjoys such a rich social history and we would appreciate any of your efforts that may assist us in sharing this.
(These extracts from: The Advocate, Thursday September 9 2004 – Ballina RSL Club 50th Anniversary 1954 – 2004 40 Years on the River Special Feature).