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Mysteries of the Patriots

One of the loveliest and best-loved historic buildings in Newcastle, NSW, is the “Longworth Institute” in Scott Street, opposite the former city railway station. Designed by celebrated German-born architect Frederick Menkens, the building was commissioned in 1891 by merchant and brewer Joseph Wood and began its functional life as “Wood’s Chambers and Auction Hall”. Wood died in 1908, and the building was acquired by William Longworth – a tycoon of the times who had grown rich from mining-related enterprises and who kept the opulent Glenroy estate at Karuah, north of Newcastle. In 1928 Longworth donated the building to a rather peculiar Newcastle-based organisation that called itself “The Australasian Society of Patriots”. This is the story – incomplete and mysterious, of how the Patriots lost the building, the treasures it contained and a large sum of money that had been held in trust on its account.

The origin story of the Patriots is an odd one. It grew – or rather split – from the nationally influential “Australian Natives Association” which had been started in Melbourne in 1871 as a friendly society devoted to helping white men who had been born in the colonies of Australia. (In Australia in those times that was a common definition of “native”: indigenous Australians were largely ignored by the white people in charge who expected them to die out.) The ANA sought to push back against the snobbery and political power of the British colonial rulers, who generally preferred overseas-born people for any and all positions of authority and influence. As such, the ANA was a strong force in favour of the federation of the colonies and it was fairly successful in its aims.

Former prime minister William Morris Hughes in Newcastle in 1938. He loved his native Wales . . .

The ANA had at least a few branches in the Hunter Region, including a Newcastle branch which appears to have taken the idea of patriotism to a different level from others around Australia. While Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes was in Britain in 1916, being feted by the English for his determined efforts to send as many Australian soldiers as possible to the front in the First World War, the Welsh-born PM uttered some words of profound affection for the place of his birth. Accounts vary, but Mr Hughes apparently said something like: “Wales forever best”, or “Wales above all”. When the Newcastle branch of the ANA was made aware of these remarks some members were outraged and passed a resolution that “the board of directors be instructed to cable immediately to the Prime Minister in London informing him that if the sentiment so expressed be maintained, he should remain in Wales and renounce Australia and its people”. The branch secretary, a Mr Donkin, added that speakers in support of the resolution had denounced “the base ingratitude so conspicuously apparent” and suggested it be made a condition that “Australians must be preferred to aliens on all occasions”.

This resolution from the Newcastle branch met a cold reception from the ANA’s governing body, which suggested that the prime minister ought to be applauded for his love of the land of his birth, since it was exactly this type of patriotism that the ANA had been trying to foster among people born in Australia.

I’m indebted to Lyn and Bronwyn at The Coliseum Antique Centre in Mayfield, Newcastle, for their kindness in giving me some fascinating documents that relate to what happened next. These documents, which came ultimately from the estate of the late Newcastle solicitor Basil Helmore, mostly deal with circumstances of decades later, but they contain a little bit of information about the events that followed Prime Minister Hughes’s pro-Wales declaration. A printed circular written in 1954 by a Mr O.T.C. Denny states the following:

The Australian [sic] Society of Patriots came into existence in 1918 due to the then Australian Natives Association branch in Newcastle being disenfranchised owing to a letter which appeared in The Newcastle Herald calling to task (by that great Australian patriot, the late J.J. Moloney of Newcastle) remarks made by the late Hon. W. M. Hughes when visiting his native land, Wales, where he was credited with saying in a burst of enthusiasm: “Wales forever best”. “The head branch of the Natives Association wanted Mr Moloney to withdraw his remarks and apologise. This he refused to do and said he would not apologise even to the then King, when he had right on his side. Mr Moloney and the writer discussed the possibility of forming an Association on the same lines as the Australian Natives’ Association – hence the birth of the Australian Society of Patriots which commenced with 200 foundation members.

The society met regularly in Inglis Chambers, King Street, Newcastle, for about 12 years. The late Mr H. M. Cohen, solicitor of Newcastle, was our first president and remained so until his death . . . The late H.M. Cohen bequeathed to the Australian Society of Patriots the sum of £500 which is held in trust for the time being by the Perpetual Trustees, Sydney.

Wood’s Chambers under construction in 1892. Photo courtesy of Robyn Carter.
The building shortly after completion. Photo by Ralph Snowball.

It is clear that John Joseph Moloney – warehouse manager for the prominent merchant firm of David Cohen & Co and an extraordinarily energetic and civic-minded character – was the driving force behind the formation of the Patriots. According to another long-time member of the Patriots, Harold Gale, Moloney named this first (and probably only) branch of the society “the Dalley branch” since he expected the organisation to have its head office in Sydney. This did not eventuate.

The Australasian Society of Patriots burst onto the Newcastle scene with a bang in September 1918, organising a big commemoration of the 1797 landing in the harbour of Lt John Shortland. The society maintained a visible presence for some years and numerous articles about its doings can be found in the newspapers of the day. This article is a typical example, Among its numerous activities was to gain trusteeship over Bulba [Pulbah] Island in Lake Macquarie and to mount a long-running effort to turn the island into a perpetual nature reserve, complete with jetty and caretaker’s cottage.

A visit to a tycoon

At some point it seems that Mr Moloney visited tycoon William Longworth at his Karuah estate and managed to persuade him of the importance of the work of the Patriots. Mr Longworth presented the Wood’s Chambers building in Scott Street to the Patriots, along with a substantial collection of valuable books, paintings and furniture, including a piano. The building was to be known as the “Longworth Institute”. Mr Longworth was known at the time to be looking to make some kind of grand gesture to benefit Newcastle. After years of extremely generous donations to a huge number of private and public causes, he had approached the councils of the Newcastle area with a plan to convert the mental hospital in Watt Street into a cultural complex featuring a zoo, museum and art gallery. That £20,000 offer was declined because the cost of relocating the hospital would have been too great. The idea of using a gift to the Patriots as a means of establishing a permanent library, museum, gallery and lecture theatre obviously appealed to the philanthropist.

According to a report in The Newcastle Morning Herald on December 7, 1927: “The building contains a concert hall or lecture room on the ground floor, whilst the first floor will accommodate an art gallery and museum. Mr Longworth is donating an extensive collection of valuable paintings and the library will contain many rare volumes bearing upon historical and scientific subjects.” The donor had “appointed trustees with the necessary authority to make the fullest possible use of the institute in the interests of those citizens desirous of acquiring historical or technical knowledge”. It is also understood that the collections housed in the institute included some mineral specimens and Aboriginal artifacts of various kinds. David Unaipon was a regular guest of the Patriots, which may account for the organisation’s strong views and advocacy on behalf of Indigenous people.

The papers recently recovered from the Helmore estate contain a copy of the trust deed, dated March 16, 1928, which you can read here. The deed gave the trustees full control of the building, in trust for the Australasian Society of Patriots, and required them to give the Patriots access to exercise its various endeavours and to lease any parts of the building not required by the Patriots to earn rent to help cover legitimate expenses. The deed tried to cover all possibilities – including that the Patriots might some day fold through dwindling interest, in which case the trustees were to ensure that any proceeds from the sale of the lovely building and its valuable contents were to be applied for the benefit of “charitable, educational or other institution[s]” in the Newcastle area.

William Longworth died in December 1928, aged 82, just months after he transferred the building to the trustees for the benefit of the Patriots. The Newcastle Herald’s obituary is interesting. He left a huge estate, but it may have been in the red after a few years of legal work, if this article is relevant.

The trustees who signed the Longworth Institute deed were J.J. Moloney, retired hotel-keeper Richard McAuliffe (a close personal friend of Mr Longworth) and Maitland solicitor Walter John Enright. It was the job of the trustees to manage the building for the benefit of the Australasian Society of Patriots which had, in turn, undertaken to maintain the collections and facility for the public benefit. In Newcastle’s 1929 Civic Souvenir booklet the Longworth Institute was described as “the intellectual centre of the Northern Districts”. “The reference library provides excellent service and the art gallery, which contains the famous Cayley collection, is open to visitors every afternoon.”

Although the society started with a bang, even by 1930 it seems to have been running out of steam. In this letter published in The Newcastle Herald, a writer complained that, although membership numbered well over 300, “yet the meetings are very poorly attended”.

Indeed, to a considerable extent the Patriots appear to have been a personal vehicle for the indefatigable J.J. Moloney. In 1936 Moloney gave a speech to mark his 70th birthday, discussing the origins and progress of the Patriots. He referred to former Prime Minister Hughes’s famous Welsh remark and spent some time discussing how the society had worked to help Indigenous Australians, whom he identified as “our native Australians”. In particular, the society protested successfully against the death sentence being passed against some Indigenous men. The Patriots pushed for wildlife protection, the reform of the Navy and the use of Indigenous names in place of European ones in the Newcastle district.

The Air Force Club moved in

When J.J. Moloney died in late December 1937, aged 71, it seems as though the wind was immediately taken from the sails of the Australasian Society of Patriots. Its name stopped appearing so often in the press and it appears its membership dwindled. The depression can’t have helped, and nor did the war, when it arrived. Somehow during the war the Victoria League (a royalist/patriotic women’s organisation) was given possession of the building for meetings and war-related purposes. After the war the Air Force Association and Club moved in and stayed. The club and the trustees of the Institute staunchly resisted all attempts by the surviving members of the Patriots to regain access to the building and the precious collections were scattered, ruined and mostly lost.

The question of the fate of the assets of the Patriots was already being raised in 1947. In response to a letter in The Herald on November 27, foundation trustee Walter Enright declared that Mr Wallace Chandler was now a trustee and he credited Mr Chandler with keeping the institute financially afloat. For his part, Mr Chandler commented that the valuable pictures and books had been “stored free of charge since their removal from the Longworth Institute”. According to Mr Chandler, “the last meeting of the society was held during December, 1942, when only five members attended. A motion was passed then that the date of the next meeting be left in the hands of the secretary.” Mr Chandler also asserted that the building was “in disrepair” when it was first acquired by Mr Longworth, who had died before he could arrange renovations. Mr Chandler continued:

The trustees were compelled to incur liabilities to repair, making the building habitable and suitable for letting. At one stage hundreds of pounds was owing to the bank, council and water board, but thanks to arrangements made by the trustees, the institute is now free of debt and the surplus money invested in Government bonds.

This good news was of little value to the intended beneficiaries of the Longworth bequest, however. In addition to the building and the hefty sum of cash involved, other assets included some type of involvement with Pulbah Island and the investments made there on behalf of the society over the years, as well as the collection of paintings and books originally donated by Mr Longworth. The fate of all these assets was shrouded in mystery, as far as the members of the Australasian Society of Patriots was concerned.

The anguish of the surviving active Patriots shows through the documents found in the estate of the late Basil Helmore. Their desperate efforts to either regain access to their building or to have it handed over to the people of Newcastle, in line with Mr Longworth’s bequest, were frustrated by their seeming inability to deal with the men who apparently held the trustee roles at that time and with the apparent lethargy of lawyers hired to take the matter to the NSW Supreme Court. It appears that those holding the trustee roles were asserting that the Patriots had ceased to exist as a society – so presumably their obligations to the group had expired. The Patriots kept holding meetings – albeit sparsely attended ones – screening documentary films and commiserating with each other on their inability to move their lawyers to meaningful action.

The Longworth Institute, home of the Air Force Association and Club in 1988. Photo by Don Ebbott.

According to an account written in the 1950s by long-time society member Harold Gale, when original trustee Walter Enright died in 1949, no meeting was held to replace him, just as no meeting had been called to replace Mr Moloney when he passed away in 1937. It appears that Mr Chandler – then living in Sydney but at one time apparently working at the Newcastle firm of David Cohen – had taken over from the late J.J. Moloney. Some members queried how he came to the role, but he had occupied honorary positions with the Patriots as far back as the 1920s.

Mr Gale wrote that he objected to the building being used for the benefit of a members-only club and he said that the sale and consumption of alcohol in the building was “a positive disgrace to Mr Longworth’s memory”. The then Lord Mayor of Newcastle called a meeting to discuss the issue and a committee was formed to take the matter on, but again no progress was made. A despondent Mr Gale wrote that: “I personally do not think the society will be resuscitated because of the shocking lack of interest and feel that the people of Newcastle should make something of this most generous gift. The idea of incorporating the Society into our Cultural Centre Movement seems to me an excellent one.” [At this time Newcastle people were working hard to create, at long last, a proper library and art gallery for the city. Their efforts eventually culminated in the War Memorial Cultural Centre in Laman Street.]

In his 1959 letter to Mr Gale, founding Patriot member O.T.C. Denny expressed deep frustration with the progress of the society’s attempted legal action:

It is now over 10 years since the matter was handed to Harris Wheeler and Williams. As you know, from time to time we were assured that they were moving in the matter. The last information over four years ago was that the case was set down for hearing in Supreme Court Sydney, and as far as we know it was never heard. Over three thousand has been paid in rent to Mr Chandler – and public trustees. The trustees entered the premises and removed valuable pictures and books, seating accommodation, piano etc, without calling a special meeting of members to decide what action to take.

The Longworth Institute circa 1990s Photo by Doug Brown.

He noted that, during the long delay, many original Patriot members had passed away. He purported to shed some light on the ascension of Mr Chandler to the trusteeship, noting that: “Both Mr and Mrs Cunningham stated they were not at meeting electing Mr Chandler but he got their signatures at their home at Wickham”. In another of his letters he complained that: “The solicitors we engaged are not moving on our behalf” . . . “To us it [justice] has been both delayed and denied”.

The documents so kindly given to me by my friends at The Coliseum piqued my interest immediately, since I had actually encountered the story of the Longworth Institute back in August 1994 and written about it in The Newcastle Herald. At that time I was told there had been a court case – in 1955 – that decided in favour of the trustees and led to the sale of the building to the Air Force Association. It appears evident from the documents now available that there had been no court case by 1959 and I am not sure there ever was one.

I pursued the story in 1994 after my friend David McLean, a well-known Newcastle book dealer, told me how, in 1988, he had gone to inspect some books for sale in a garage in Wallsend and saw very rare and valuable old volumes bearing the stamp of the Australasian Society of Patriots. “I had the impression the seller owned some kind of cleaning business,” he said. “The books were stored in an old refrigerator secured by chains and padlocks.” At that time David had never heard of the Patriots, and he encouraged me to learn what I could about them. My research led me, inevitably, to the Longworth Institute and the Air Force Club – a place that, incidentally, some of my work colleagues at the Herald habitually attended, giving it the picturesque name of “The Armpit”.

Crawling with silverfish

I contacted a former chairman of the Air Force Club, Michael Lester, who told me that the Longworth Institute had become available for sale and the club bought it. He said there had been piles of boxes of “spears and paintings and prints” in the cleaner’s room. Other material had been stored off-site since the club began leasing the building in 1948 and in 1981, wanting to wash its hands of the regular storage bill, it had sent several crates to Newcastle Art Gallery. The former gallery director, David Bradshaw, recollected the boxes arriving, “crawling with silverfish and god knows what else”. Artworks that would have been very valuable had they been properly stored were in a terrible state and were simply placed into plan drawers awaiting better times. Some lovely old books were re-bound and kept by the gallery while others were sent to the city library next-door. One or two of the fabled Neville Cayley works were able to be saved.

A spokesman for the library, Jenny Sloggett, recalled correspondence from the Air Force Club that discussed the need to wind up once and for all the affairs of the Australasian Society of Patriots. Some old files were archived at the library, some framed photographs were kept and other material sent to the State Library in Sydney. Much material was in poor shape and was discarded.

It’s a terrible story: the loss of this beautiful material and the utter failure to realise the well-intentioned plans of William Longworth. And although shards of light have slowly been shed on the dim picture, mysteries remain. What was done with the proceeds of the sale? Were they used in the spirit of the original deed of gift? And what of the cash left by H.M. Cohen?

Perhaps publication of this post may lead to still more information coming to light.

The Longworth Institute in 2007. Photo by Ron Morrison.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. John Carr

    The photograph of the building under construction is interesting as it shows the Key Stones at the head of each arched opening as unfinished blocks of stone. This fine grained Maitland sandstone is known as Ravensfield Sandstone and is an excellent carving stone from a quarry owned by my maternal Great Grandfather located off the Farley Road. All other sandstone on the building is also Ravensfield.
    The sculptor was probably concerned that a finished carved head on the key stone may have been damaged by a careless tradesman, leaving the completion of the carving to nearer the end of the wet trades to minimise the risk of damage.

    1. Greg Ray

      Interesting insight John. Many thanks.

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