I bet that title has you wondering! It was certainly new to me when I came across a book in my late mother-in-law’s collection titled Fellows all: The chronicles of the Bread and Cheese Club. Published in 1943, and written by HW Malloch, this book is a history of the early years of the club by its first voted-in member.
I was intrigued, of course, so did some research. The Bread and Cheese Club, as it turns out was formed in Melbourne in June 1938. Its motto was “Mateship, Art and Letters”, and it was particularly active in promoting Australian writers. The Club apparently published around “40 volumes of verse and tributes” as well as a journal titled Bohemia. The founder* and Knight Grand Cheese (oh dear!) was John Kinmont Moir (1893-1958), a Melbourne book-collector. He apparently died in 1958, and the club gradually declined, finally ending in 1988. I wonder how many Melburnians know about it now?
Delving further, I learnt a little more about Moir and the club. Moir, in particular, is a rather significant man in Australian letters. According to the State Library of Victoria, Moir, from the 1930s to 1950s, “set himself the daunting task of collecting one copy of every work of fiction, poetry and drama ever published by an Australian author.” This, they said, at a time when Australian literary authors were neither fashionably read nor collected. The result was “one of the finest private libraries of Australian literature ever assembled”, one that he donated to the State Library in the 1950s. It remains one of their most significant collections. You can read more about him – and it’s an interesting story – online in the State Library’s La Trobe Journal.
But, back to the Club. It was male only. The twelve founding members included the poet John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942) and balladist Edward Harrington. According to Malloch, the unusual name was chosen because they wanted something “Bohemian” and “arresting”, and it had the desired effect: it made people curious and provided an opportunity for members to explain their aims. Malloch tells a lovely story, too, about one of its practices – quaint to our point of view but indicative of their era – which was making it “a penal offence” to address each other as “Mister”. Doing so incurred a fine of one penny which helped, in the early days at least, to swell the club’s coffers!
John Arnold in the La Trobe Journal says that Moir was conservative – right-wing, in fact. But the club was not political – though I suspect from my reading of Malloch that it leaned more right than left. Its goals were:
To promote mateship and fellowship among persons of mutual interests, to foster a knowledge of Australian Literature, Art and Music and to cultivate an Australian sentiment … (Malloch, p. 17)
It did this not only through publishing but by undertaking a wide range of projects and activities such as art exhibitions, song of the year competitions, short story competitions, and lobbying government. Malloch describes some of the earliest activities, including a short story competition which was judged by Nettie Palmer. Searching the National Library of Australia’s digitised newspaper database in Trove provides a fascinating picture of the breadth of the Club’s** activities. One report states that the Bread and Cheese Club was behind the Commonwealth Government’s providing a grant for the writing of a biography about JF Archibald, the founder of The Bulletin.
The club also invited guest speakers, and often opened those meetings to the public. Malloch tells us that these speakers included artist Max Meldrum, indigenous Australian activist, pastor and state governor Doug Nicholls, and journalist-author Frank Clune.
I could go on … it’s a fascinating story of passion and commitment to Australian culture. They even printed 50,000 stickers with such slogans as “Combine Pleasure and Patriotism and Read Australian Books” and “Let Your Christmas Gift be an Australian Book”. Where are these people now!
Finally, before I go, I can’t resist sharing one of those odd little reading synchronicities. I have, as my regular readers know, just read Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries. It starts with 12 men gathered in a hotel room, but they became 13 when a hotel guest wanders in. The Bread and Cheese Club started when 12 men met in a studio with the aim of “fostering Australian Art and Literature”. Having had their meeting, they adjourned to a nearby “city hostelry” where they met Malloch, and promptly asked him to join them. And so, he writes, there were 13. I know, I’m being silly, but I enjoy such, dare I call them, coincidences!
* POSTSCRIPT: While some reports describe Moir as the founder, Malloch’s book doesn’t state this. On page 10, he writes that: “Twelve turned up at the studio of Fellow E. J. Turner, 132 Cubitt Street, Richmond, and set the ball rolling with the definite aim of fostering Australian Art and Literature”. And on page 13, he specifically names these twelve as “the founders”. Moir was elected president (aka Knight Grand Cheese) and Turner secretary (or Worthy Scribe).
** Searching Trove surprisingly retrieves another Bread and Cheese Club in Melbourne! Malloch tells us briefly about that too. It was a very small club of solicitors and in 1859 merged into the Law Institute of Victoria.