The Returned and Services League of Australia (the RSL) is one of the nation’s oldest and most respected national organisations. Established in 1916, the League supports the welfare and promotes the interests of serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their families.
Today the League has over 1500 Sub-Branches across Australia but we can proudly say that the Newcastle Sub-Branch was there from the very beginning. In fact, the first mention of a returned service organisation in Newcastle was 19 May 1912 when the Newcastle and Northern District Naval and Military Association (a break away from the Imperial Veterans Association) held a meeting at the Sailors’ Home in Wickham.
In November 1914, the Australian Imperial Force departed for Europe and on 25 April 1915 the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli where they fought heroically for eight months. Back home, the Newcastle Morning Herald reported on 6 November 1916 “The soldiers, as everyone knew were proving themselves as good, if not better than before, first at Gallipoli and then in France and Flanders.
In January 1918, the Anzac Memorial Institute or Kings Hall was opened on the corner of King and Perkins Street, complete with electric light and telephone connected!
In 1919, the Navy League joined the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League for Anzac Day celebrations but the deadly influenza epidemic halted all marches.
In April 1920 a carnival on Hunter Street was held to raise money for the Kings Hall project and for endowment purposes. The Sub-Branch received a two-pound donation from the Church of England Grammar School and it’s nice to know that today we give an annual prize to a Year 10 student excelling in Modern History.
In 1922, the Warriors Store opened at 28 Hunter Street to employ out of work ex-servicemen and the Unemployed Returned Soldiers Association was formed with the support of our Sub-Branch. The Newcastle Hotel in Scott Street was donated to feed and clothe unemployed, single ex-servicemen. It was called The Unemployed Diggers Hostel and was run by the men themselves.
In 1924, ANZAC Day was gazetted as a public holiday.
In 1926, a combined meeting of the Limbless Soldiers Association, the TB (consumptive) Soldiers Association and the Newcastle Sub-Branch agreed to raise money for the Returned Soldiers’ Appeal. They were dedicated to keeping the money in Newcastle for Newcastle soldiers.
Sometime between 1926 and 1931, the Newcastle Sub-Branch funded the setup of a soldiers’ camp in Cooks Hill. The Diggers Camp in Hall Street was a co-operative where ex-servicemen paid their dole coupons into a common fund from which the League paid for goods with the help of local donations. About 50 men received 3 meals and comfortable bedding, as well as tobacco rations, each day.
In 1932, Sub-Branches were being formed throughout the district but Newcastle was declared the busiest in the state with over 40 members calling in every day for various matters to be attended to, such as interviews and medical examinations.
During the late 1930’s, our name was changed to the City Of Newcastle Sub-Branch to avoid confusion with the Civic Sub-Branch.
In 1937, the Newcastle Pipe Band led the Anzac March and to this day, we are still a major supporter and sponsor of what is now the City of Newcastle RSL Pipe Band.
July 1937 saw a Permanent District Officer appointed by the State Branch to look after the pensions and employment of ex-Diggers and he worked out of an office in Kings Hall supplied at no cost by the Newcastle Sub-Branch.
Details of what happened in the war years are scarce, but we do know that in January 1944, the Newcastle branch of the Second Australian Ex-Servicemen’s Association was formed to give better coverage for all former and currently serving men plus women.
In 1946, the Newcastle area had 32 Sub-Branches and 6,500 members, yet the State Branch was still trying to close the office in Newcastle! On Anzac Day 1946, over 4,500 ex-service men and women marched in Newcastle. From 1946 to the current day most of us know what has happened. Headquarters closed the Newcastle Office, but we kept Kings Hall and numbers of returned service people declined.
In 1989 the Newcastle Earthquake destroyed Kings Hall along with all the records, historical documents and memorabilia. Sadly, the Vietnam Legion who had their room in Kings Hall also lost their entire collection of documents, photos and memorabilia.
After the earthquake, the Sub-Branch purchased the old Beefeater Restaurant in Scott Street as a temporary home for the club and Sub-Branch. Thankfully, they ignored the advice of so-called experts from Sydney and built the new 4-storey building known as the Kings Hall Chambers on the old site.
The Building Committee is still seeking a more permanent home for the Sub-Branch and the Club, as the Scott Street premises are a bit small.
Our commitment to charitable causes continues. We sponsor the City of Newcastle RSL Pipe Band, a number of junior netball teams, plus local primary and high schools.
We maintain strong ties to RAAF Base Williamtown and with the Australian Army and Navy.
We are strongly involved with all Memorial Services held in Newcastle and are the guardians of the ‘Little Digger” Gardiner Memorial on front of the old Post Office.
Our close ties to the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran communities have led to fresh young faces joining our ranks and ensuring that our role is as relevant today as it was in 1916.
It has taken me some years to research the history of our Sub-Branch. The above is correct to the best of my knowledge, but I do welcome input from members and the public.