- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross (Shore Establishment)
- December 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Fred Dawson, with acknowledgement to Foster Emery (dec.), Albert Morrison (dec.), Len Seyffer, Robyn Florance, OAM, Alan Clark, AM and Dr John Haken.
Following the commissioning in August 1949 of HMAS Albatross, the Royal Australian Naval Air Station at Nowra Hill, just five miles from the small country town of Nowra, integration with the local population was a concern.
A public meeting was held on 19 April 1949 to determine how best to resolve the problem, at which a committee was established involving both service personnel from Albatross and members of the local community, with the aim of raising funds to establish a venue in Nowra for sailors to relax when off duty. A second public meeting was held in the Nowra School of Arts in August 1952. A Women’s Auxiliary was soon raising funds, and within a couple of months Mrs Beale, wife of the Commanding Officer of Albatross, was stressing the need for the facility to the Nowra Country Women’s Association branch members.
The Committee moved decisively by making arrangements to purchase the former Shoalhaven Private Hospital in Bridge Road, which was then on the Princes Highway through Nowra. When this announcement was made at a cocktail party, the Auxiliary had already raised £1,000. This amount doubled to £2,000 when a monster fair was held at the base’s largest hangar followed by a dance at night attended by some 3,000 people. Holden cars were raffled by the Committee, and members sometimes travelled to Wollongong selling tickets to steelworkers at the change of shift. Another significant fundraiser and social event was the Coronation Ball held in the hangar in June 1953; in keeping with the occasion seven debutantes wore pearl tiaras, and the large crowd danced to the music of Jim Gossey’s ABC Dance Band.
Within 14 months of the second public meeting, some £8,000 had been raised, and with the assistance of the local Member of Parliament, Jeff Bate, the Committee was able to negotiate a £10,000 loan for reconstruction work on the old building.
The premises in Bridge Road, costing £5,000, were purchased on 30 October 1953 from Mrs Adelaide Neate who at the time was publican at the Greenwell Point Hotel. The building had been originally owned by Fred Duncan who had purchased Lots 1 and 2 from Adam Jarman in 1934 and erected a brick building known as Shoalhaven Private Hospital to replace the old Bridge Road Private Hospital on the corner of Hyam Street.
The Shoalhaven Private Hospital opened in August 1934 and operated until the Shoalhaven District War Memorial Hospital commenced in Shoalhaven Street in May 1951. Construction was undertaken by local builder J. Muller. A description in the local press at the time of the official opening reads as follows:
The building is of brick, of bungalow design, providing accommodation for twenty patients, each having access by wide halls. There are four private wards and three large general wards. There is also a fine operating theatre, a maternity ward, and a crèche for babies, hot water system, kitchen, and scullery, apartments for the staff, and office and waiting room. The premises also have roomy verandas in front and on either side for the comfort and convenience of convalescents.
Prior to the purchase of this building the fundraising committee was dissolved and a non-profit making company was formed in its place known as the White Ensign Club (Nowra) Ltd. The inaugural meeting of the directors was held on 21 September 1953. Members of the original board of directors comprised local businessmen, the majority being veterans, together with the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer of Albatross. The foundation members have now passed over the bar except for Mr Len Seyffer, who at 96 is Nowra’s last surviving Light Horseman. The first of four resolutions made at this inaugural meeting of the board of directors was to purchase the former Shoalhaven Private Hospital.
For the club to function, changes to the hospital layout were needed and plans and specifications were drawn up by Mr W. Daubney of Sydney. All the work on the White Ensign Club was carried out by, and purchases made through, local firms.
It was originally envisaged there would be club and dining amenities on the ground floor, sleeping accommodation for 100 men on the second floor, with a range of outdoor activities – tennis courts in the grounds and boating on the nearby Shoalhaven River. The plan to have sleeping accommodation did not eventuate, but the RAN provided a hut for this purpose, and its 44 cabins were utilised by the many young sailors who did not own a car.
The official opening of the White Ensign Club (WEC) was performed on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1954, by Vice Admiral Sir John Collins. During the opening ceremony mention was made of the naval training received at Jervis Bay by Sir John and the fact it was the tenth anniversary of him being wounded while on the bridge of HMAS Australia during the Second World War. Mr Morison told the gathering that £21,000 had already been spent, and it was planned to complete the development with a further £20,000.
Further amenities were provided and when the club celebrated its fourth anniversary, it also included recreation rooms, television lounge, ladies lounge, dining room, locker rooms and full bar facilities. Poker machines were also included. The library was also well used and an appeal was made for donation of publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, Walkabout and Readers Digest. More improvements were made during the 1960s and in 1971 some of the area used for accommodation was transformed into a meeting room.
During its period of operation the club had a number of Secretary Managers, but one was there for twenty-six years – a former Royal Marine Major, Les Young (and that would make another story).
The lifespan of the WEC in Bridge Road was 35 years. With the increased facilities on the base and in the district and the greater mobility of personnel, the reasons for its establishment disappeared. The club was popular during its lifetime, but eventually ceased to function in July 1989, leading to a great debate as to where the remaining funds should go. They finally went to the Fleet Air Arm Museum (FAAM) which had become an excellent attraction in the district.
Shoalhaven City Council acquired the property on 20 February 1990, except for the flagpole and fittings and a sandstone drinking fountain, which was moved to the FAA Museum. The building which had stood for over 80 years was demolished by Council in July 2005 to make way for the Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre.
The money which went to the FAA Museum following the closure of the WEC was used to fit out a kitchen in the Museum and a Café was established using the name White Ensign Club Function Centre. This sign is now attached to the north side of the FAA Museum, which is known as the White Ensign Club. The clubroom is managed by a committee and shared by the Naval Association and Fleet Air Arm Association. This new White Ensign Club contains memorabilia from the original club.