Monday musings on Australian literature: The Bread and Cheese Club, again

I promise that this, my third post on Melbourne’s now defunct Bread and Cheese Club will also be my last, but it was such an interesting club that I can’t resist one more post. Just to remind you, it was formed in 1938, with the following goals:

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 … (from H.W. Malloch’s Fellows all, p. 17)

My first post introduced the club, and particularly one of its founders, John Kinmont Moir (1893-1958), who was clearly the Club’s leading light, while my second post focused on some of the ways in which the Club supported indigenous Australian culture. In this post I want to give a flavour of how widely their activities and, probably, influence extended. To keep it simple, I’m just going to list a few of the activities I came across while researching the Club in the National Library of Australia’s Trove database for newspapers. Here goes:

  • Children’s Poetry Competition. Reported in The Argus, 1939
  • Exhibition of art and literature at the Velazquez Gallery. The writer in The Argus, 1940, saw it as a “mixed bag” (I love the language here!):

If the club had a selection committee to deal with the art side of the show, it was doubtless a committee more anxious to obtain a wide representation than a particularly high standard. It is doubtful whether a more mixed lot of pictures has ever been hung on the walls of any gallery in Melbourne. They range from admirable examples of the work of some of Australia’s most capable artists to hopeful (or despairing) efforts by the veriest tyros.

  • Publication of Frank Clune’s book, Chinese Morrison, about George E Morrison who, as many Australians will know, became an influential political adviser to the Chinese Republic in the early 20th century. Reported in The Argus, 1941
  • Short story competition, judged by Mrs Vance (aka Nettie) Palmer. Reported by the Courier Mail, 1942
  • First art exhibition by members of the Bread and Cheese Club Art Group. Reported in The Argus, 1946
  • Publication of naturalist David Fleay’s book, Gliders of the gum trees. Reported in the Queensland Times, 1947
  • Junior Art Competition. Reported in the Cairns Post, 1948
  • Surprising Dame Mary Gilmore with a bouquet of flowers on her 84th birthday. Dame Mary apparently said that “I had forgotten it was my birthday, but I’m so happy that my friends all over Australia remembered”. Reported in The Daily News (Perth), 1949
  • Organising significant people to address its meetings, such as Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir John Latham. (I liked this one because Latham is a mentor of the fictional Edith in Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy). Reported in Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 1951
  • Awarding annually the Australian Natural History Medallion. According a report in The Argus, 1956, the award was instituted by J.K. Moir in 1938 and was the most coveted natural history award in Australia. The 1956 award was given to Stanely Mitchell “for work on the artefacts of the Australian aborigines”.
  • Erecting a memorial in Darwin to commemorate Northern Territory pioneer Jessie Litchfield who, when she died in 1956, left “most of her estate for the encouragement of Australian literature”. Reported in The Canberra Times, 1964

Besides the variety of the Club’s activities evidenced in this (pretty) random selection, one of the most interesting things about these newspaper reports is where they are from. While the Club was Melbourne-based, albeit with some interstate members, its activities were clearly national, and were reported nationally. Sir John Latham’s talk in Melbourne, for example, was reported in a Broken Hill newspaper, and the Jessie Litchfield monument in a Canberra one. Is it just that these papers were desperate for copy or was the Club widely influential?

I will end my mini-series on the Bread and Cheese Club with a report on one more activity, because the report made me laugh. In The Argus of 14 September, 1951, Christina Mawdesley wrote an article titled “Nothing is new about prefab. houses”. She shares information from a reader who advised that Governor Latrobe’s cottage was an early prefab home, dating to 1839, and therefore earlier than the 1853 home that the paper had written about. She then goes on to quote Sir Thomas Mitchell writing from London, in 1830s-40s, about one “Manning of Holbourn” who was building wooden houses in sections for use in Australia. Mawdesley concludes her article with:

Could we discover the remains of one such pioneer prefab?

I am sure the Bread and Cheese Club would mark the spot with an engraved plaque, commemorating the good old days and “Manning of Holbourn”.

Is there anything, I wonder, that the Bread and Cheese Club didn’t do?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bread and Cheese Club and Indigenous Australians

Since last week’s Monday Musings post on Melbourne’s curious, but now defunct, Bread and Cheese Club, I’ve been doing further research into its various activities, and have found it to be an amazingly vibrant organisation. The club’s motto was “Mateship, Art and Letters” and a major focus seemed to have been Australian writers. Certainly its first Knight Grand Cheese, JK Moir, was a significant book collector, and it did publish around 40 or so books. However, its activities spread widely across what they would have described as Australiana. I might come back to them again, but today I want to write about their relationship to indigenous Australian culture.


The club was quite an active publisher and among its publications were some rather significant works, for the time in particular, to do with Australian Aboriginal culture:

Albert Namatjira, 1949 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Albert Namatjira, 1949 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

  • Art of the Australian Aboriginal by Charles Barrett and Robert H. Croll (with a foreword by anthropologist AP Elkin), in 1943. Charles Barrett was a naturalist and journalist, and R.H. Croll an author and public servant. Both travelled widely throughout Australia. Barrett was passionate about protecting ancient Aboriginal art, writing that its protection “should be a national concern: white morons have already disfigured many”.
  • The art of Albert Namatjira by C. P. Mountford, in 1944. Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s best known Aboriginal artists, a pioneer. Mountford was a mechanic and public servant turned anthropologist who, by the 1920s, was developing the interest in indigenous Australian culture that stayed with him the rest of his life. He was particularly interested in art, but I was intrigued to read in the Australian Dictionary of Biography that “in 1935 he was appointed secretary of a board of inquiry to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, at Hermannsburg and Ayers Rock”. He also travelled with Norman Tindale who is famous for his detailed map of indigenous Australia.

Interesting, I think, that it was this “little” club which published these books.

Donation to the Adelaide University’s fund for Aboriginal research

This one intrigued me, and is what inspired this post, in fact. I read in The Argus, 19 May 1951, that Albert Namatjira had donated £1000 to the Adelaide University’s fund for Aboriginal Research. But, apparently, the story goes, he did not make the donation himself because “as Australian law now stands, an aborigine cannot control an income of his own”! Enter Bread and Cheese Club founder JK Moir who made the donation on Namatjira’s behalf out of the proceeds of the book by CP Mountford. Moir is quoted as saying:

Albert, as an aborigine, cannot control his affairs, but I know what we have done has his enthusiastic endorsement. There is no precedent for this anywhere. An aborigine raising £1000 through his work for the cause of his own people is unique. I can assure you it will not be the last donation if we can help it.

Coranderrk and the Barak Grave

The final story activity I want to share is more in the style of those working bees that groups like Rotary and Lions have often done. It concerns the cemetery at Coranderrk. Coranderrk was an Aboriginal reserve established by the government for dispossessed indigenous Australians. It operated from 1863 to 1924. It’s quite a story that I won’t detail here, but in 1950 the land was handed over to the Soldier Settler Scheme. The cemetery, which of course contained graves of the previous indigenous residents, was by then in disarray. In a letter to the editor of the Healesville Guardian on 19 May 1951, naturalist David Fleay wrote of being “shocked at its state of absolute neglect and ruin”. Only two graves, one being that of, Barak, the last king of the Yarra Yarra tribe, were distinguishable he said. He also refers to the marble monument to Barak that had been in a significant position in the town of Coranderrk but was now in a depot. He argued that money should be put aside to renovate the cemetery and that the Barak monument go to its “rightful place”. He also suggests that “it is possible that the Melbourne Bread and Cheese Club, champions of Australiana would take a decided interest”.

And so, in fact, they did. A Healesville Guardian column by Oswald C Robarts on 11 November 1955 writes of their contribution. They seem to have become involved in 1952 and carried out at least one working bee in 1955. It’s not clear what else they did. A report in the Club’s journal, Bohemia, states that “we did a good day’s work and those who remember the terrible state of the Cemetery when we saw it on our first visit would be surprised. Much remains to be done.”

I will conclude though with Oswald C Robarts:

On January 23 this year, several members of the Club travelled from Melbourne, bringing with them the necessary materials and equipment for handling the heavy parts of the memorial. Working throughout the day in near-century heat, they completed the job. It should be scarcely necessary to add that these men, like others who have previously urged that something should be done about Coranderrk, were not concerned with public kudos nor material gain.

Basically, interest in the “old” Australians who have gone, and wise, firm and considerate care for those that remain, are matters of public conscience. There is by now fairly wide general agreement that far too often in the past, as well as today, they have been handed the seamiest side of Western civilisation. Here is a paradox to be removed, for Australia today is spending millions on the Colombo Plan, and bending over backwards to assure our Asian neighbours that there is no such thing as a “White Australia” policy in a racial sense.

There is an element of paternalism in “the wise, firm and considerate care for those that remain” but this seems to be to be pretty strong stuff for 1955. Thanks once again to Trove for making these papers available.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Bread and Cheese Club

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.

John Shaw Neilson

John Shaw Neilson (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

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.