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History

08 Jul 2020

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Red Cross and Southbank

By Robin Grow

The Red Cross, a renowned international organisation, has long played an important role in Southbank and other parts of South Melbourne.

In 1914 the Red Cross established a committee to provide support for parts of the community and in subsequent decades Red Cross workers played a key role in the dispensing and delivery of food, clothing and medicine (such as delivering insulin shots to diabetics from the 1920s), as well as taking ex-servicemen on outings. Many returned service personnel depended on the Red Cross for the comforts that make all the difference to an invalid, which the Repatriation Department, with all its up-to-date establishments and methods, could not provide.

But perhaps the most important role of the Red Cross in Southbank was to provide canteen services at the new Repatriation Clinic at 310 St Kilda Rd, next to the Victoria Barracks. Opened in 1937, the stylish, Art Deco clinic replaced a nearby rudimentary clinic and catered to the needs of ex -military personnel, providing basic X-rays, dressing of wounds, massages from two masseurs, a theatre for performing minor operations under local anaesthetics, psychiatric treatment and a dispensary. Nurses enjoyed its beautifully lit, shiny, modern rooms, with many labour-saving devices.

The canteen was set up soon after the building opened. Open between 10am and 4pm every day, a team of female volunteers dispensed tea and cocoa, coffee, sandwiches, biscuits and cake, fruit and cigarettes, invariably in a cheerful manner, to hundreds of patients (about 300 per week) who gathered in the large Main Hall in the heart of the building to await treatment.

Many attended regularly for a period of years and looked forward to the cheerful banter that accompanied the daily provision of services from the Red Cross volunteers. Despite being downstairs, the canteen was a cheerful place, with fresh flowers and comfortable chairs. Funds to provide these services were raised by a round of social activities, including dances, jumble sales, handicraft shops, and large-scale appeals.

But there was never enough money or staff and a major task was the recruitment of volunteers to serve the veterans. Some of the staff who were there on opening day would go on to spend many enjoyable years at the clinic. The canteen, with its subsidised meals, was also popular with workers from nearby offices and workplaces. Where else could you get a pie and a hot drink for sixpence!

After being empty for over 20 years, plans for the restoration of the building and establishment of a veterans’ art centre and workshops are well under way, being led by Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM). The former clinic is now awaiting transfer from the Commonwealth Government to the City of Melbourne, and one of the proposed features of the refurbishment is a commercial café which will continue the long tradition of providing food and drink to the users of the building •

 

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