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History

08 May 2018

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Limbless in Southbank

One of the many tragic consequences of war is that some combatants lose limbs. Almost as soon as Australian soldiers were engaged in battles in the First World War, a need emerged for the production of prosthetic arms, hands and legs.

In 1917 a factory for the production of artificial limbs was established in Caulfield, which moved to Sturt St (on the western corner of Miles St) in 1919. It was part of a series of government workshops and factories in this part of Southbank and it soon became the centre of limb construction in Australia.

By the early 1920s limbless soldiers had formed their own association which continually sought increased pensions and to obtain concessions for travel and entertainment. The members were seeking meaningful work that would allow them to make a living, rather than charity, although they did expect preferential treatment from government employers.

As there was a shortage of professional limb-makers, a solution was to train limbless soldiers in the manufacture of prosthetics.

By 1919 the factory was turning out 80 limbs per month. In 1923 a photograph in The Argus shows various phases of factory work, including the carving-out of an artificial foot, fixing the thumb to an artificial hand (this work was done entirely by limbless returned men), and finishing off the completed article with emery-paper.

However many limbless soldiers struggled with the tramway system which ran along St Kilda Rd and deposited them outside Victoria Barracks. They certainly appreciated the new line along Sturt St which was established in 1925, as well as the later addition of a shelter at the tram stop.

By the late 1930s, the government was under attack for allowing the facility to become shabby. But World War II reinforced its importance and a new factory was constructed in 1946 and was opened by Sir Edmund Herring, Lieutenant Governor, on August 16.

Designed by architects from the Department of the Interior, the long sleek factory, in the latest style, featured a saw-tooth roof, articulated brick facades and steel-framed windows. The factory was an integral part of the Southbank community and was further extended in 1978.

Some South residents worked there, other couples met there and later married, the government-subsidised canteen was regularly used by workers from the many businesses in the area and nurses being trained for operating theatre duties at nearby Prince Henry’s hospital were regular visitors.

Today the building remains, now painted white and operating as a car-repair centre for K-Mart. But what an important part it played in Southbank’s social and military history!

Robin Grow - President

Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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