What was the Club like 50 years ago? Who were the members and what did they do? A review of some early yearbooks gives some clues. Copies held in the Royal United Service Institution of NSW library show some published in hard cover. The 1950 yearbook has a splendid photograph of cruising yachts under full sail as the frontispiece.
World War II saw an enormous expansion in the strength of the RAN, with upwards of 3,900 officers, including 165 women. Over 2,900 were reservists, many of whom were demobilised through HMAS Rushcutter within 18 months of the cessation of hostilities. They made many friends and had given extraordinary service. Many wanted to maintain contact with one another as they made their way back to civilian life.
LCDR Lawrence Hinchliffe RANVR the Senior Rehabilitation Officer for NSW, investigated the formation of an officers’ association. With the assistance of two friends, CMDR Ron Denovan RANR and LEUT Harry Campey RANVR, he called a meeting in the Teachers Federation Hall, then in Elizabeth Street, Sydney. The meeting was well attended and Ron Denovan was elected president and other office bearers were nominated. They passed around a hat to cover the costs of the meeting and established a small treasurer’s fund with the surplus.
FOCEA not supportive
The Committee sought the blessing of the Flag Officer Commanding East Australian Area (FOCEA), RADM G.C. Muirhead-Gould, to form a Naval Reserve Officers Association. He was not supportive, pointing out that KR & AI forbad officers forming an association. Later, he agreed that a club could be formed and Roy Goddard, who was a chartered accountant and a friend of the admiral, became its first secretary.
The Naval Officers Club was founded in April 1946. By then the Anti-Submarine (A/S) Officers Association had been formed, presumably without the Admiral’s approval and the Naval Officers Club suggested an amalgamation. The A/S Officers would not agree, claiming certain coolness towards them during the early years of the war. In any case, the Club increased membership quickly, initially with retired RANR officers; however by 1948 many ex-Permanent Naval Force officers had joined. Incidentally, Laurence Hinchliffe could not join the founder members because he was still serving.
The Club held its second AGM in Rushcutter, claiming 420 members, an increase of 70 over the past year. They paid a guinea in annual subscriptions and a call of 10 shillings seems to have covered the cost of functions. Their interests reflected those days of yore. Dinners were held in conjunction with Empire Day and Trafalgar Day. There were members’ nights with guest speakers. In 1947 the Empire Day Dinner was held in HMAS Rushcutter and guests included officers from a visiting USN Task Force. RADM Carson USN, the guest speaker, considered himself more a friend than a guest, he said, having served with so many Club members at the Battle of the Coral Sea and in other parts of the Pacific.
The Trafalgar Day Dinner was held in the Hotel Australia and both ADML A.R.M Bridge, Joint Chief of Staff in Australia, and RADM H.B Farncomb, then Flag Officer Commanding HM Australian Squadron (FOCAS), were the speakers. An annual church service was held in HMAS Rushcutter and members participated in an active sailing program. LCDR Max Hinchliffe was one of the more accomplished skippers and several Club members participated in the 1947 Sydney-Hobart race. The Club’s assets totalled A£267:12:4.
By the third AGM, membership had increased to 451. The Wentworth Hotel hosted the Empire Day Dinner, with 140 members attending, and the Trafalgar Day Dinner was held in Rushcutter.
The fourth AGM was held in the Royal Empire Society, in Bligh Street, Sydney, with the president, CMDR Stan Darling, reporting membership at 483. The Club’s Empire Day Dinner was held at the Carlton Hotel and other functions included a film evening at the Shell Theatrette, a dinner dance and a cocktail party at the Royal Prince Edward Yacht Club and a rifle shoot at the Long Bay Rifle Range. Sailing remained a popular pastime with many members racing on weekends. Stan Darling and Max Hinchliffe were two of the regular skippers and many members crewed in Sydney-Hobart races from 1947 onwards. The committee reported a deficit of £48:4:4 around 1950, because of the many functions held outside Rushcutter.
Membership fell away markedly during the 1970s and ’80s. There were only 154 members in 1971 and 125 ten years later. The Club’s resurgence from 1988 onwards can be attributed to the enthusiasm of the committee and the Hon Secretary, LCDR Peter Churchill, in particular. Peter introduced a bigger newsletter of great interest. By 1992 there were 492 members and now there are 690.
Today, the membership’s average age is much older than in the 1950s and activities reflect this, with no organised sporting events, although many individuals maintain an active independent interest in sailing everything from square riggers to racing yachts and dinghies. The commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar has always been an annual occasion and for a few years the Club regularly celebrated the Battle of the Coral Sea. Luncheons at the Royal Automobile Club, barbecues in the wardroom, HMAS Penguin and luncheons in Parliament House, became the most popular social functions in Sydney. Other events, including harbour cruises, cocktail parties and museum visits are arranged from time to time.
In 2004 the Club introduced a December Luncheon in the Strangers’ Room, Parliament House, Sydney. It has proved very popular with a full house of 220 attending in 2007. A major change from earlier years has been the formation of local committees and very active social programs in Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane. Their functions include regular formal and informal dinners, luncheons, barbecues, visits and harbour cruises. The outcome has been a significant increase in membership in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT. Plans are well advanced for a similar Perth-based program. The Club maintains a comfortable investment portfolio.
RADM David Holthouse was elected President in 1994. Over the next 14 years he guided the Club towards ever-expanding membership numbers, semi-autonomous State-based divisions, a solid financial base, a redesigned and internationally registered newsletter in 32-page magazine format, a 200-page website and, in keeping with the Club’s strong reserve officer origin, a twice-yearly “Naval Officers Club” prize for the best Reserve Entry Officers Course (REOC) graduate.
VADM Ian Knox relieved David in 2009.
In April 2000, Fred Lane relieved Peter Churchill as Hon Secretary and Newsletter Editor and John Ellis relieved Dicky Bird as Hon Treasurer. Peter introduced a Club tie in 1994 and in 2001 David Thomson, in Canberra, introduced Club polo shirts and a lapel badge a year later. This has expanded to include Club Christmas cards, name tallies, CDs of all the known newsletters in .pdf format, and another CD of Wardroom Songs. All merchandise except polo shirts remain in demand.