Victoria Branch Centenary 2019



The first meeting to establish a Branch of the English-Speaking Union in Melbourne took place in 1919 at the mansion of Norman & Mabel Brookes on Domain Road, South Yarra.

In 2019, we celebrate the founding of our Branch at that inaugural meeting.

In June 1918, John Evelyn Wrench similarly met with 15 friends and supporters in London to establish the English Speaking Union of the British Empire.

Henry Noyes, a Melbourne industrialist, was one of those friends. So Australia and more particularly Victoria can claim direct involvement in the founding of the English-Speaking Union.

In founding the English Speaking Union in 1918, Sir John Evelyn Wrench set out its aim: “To draw together in the bond of comradeship the English-Speaking peoples of the world”.

Winston Churchill, himself the second chairman of the English- Speaking Union of the British Empire in 1922, in his famous History of the English-speaking peoples, defined the English speaking peoples as the people of the British Isles and their descendants who settled Australia, Canada, New Zealand and America.

In The Story of the English-Speaking Union, Sir Evelyn Wrench explained:

“In their common language, common sympathies, common traditions and common ideals, the English-speaking peoples possess a great common heritage which is indestructible.”

In November 1923, the Victoria Branch held a public meeting which filled the Melbourne Town Hall. This public meeting received messages of support from the Australian Prime Minister Mr Stanley Bruce and from Mr Herbert Hoover, a key member of President Calvin Coolidge’s administration and later himself President of USA. These messages endorsed the aims of the English-Speaking Union.

Keynote speaker Victoria Branch President, William Watt, explained that “the object of the English-Speaking Union was to promote the closer sentiment of kinship between the peoples of the world who spoke the English tongue. The peoples of the British Empire and America have the same language, the same literature, the same laws, the same traditions and the same blood. They are united by every human tie, and they have a common purpose to fulfil among the nations of the world.”

William Watt was the Victoria Branch’s first elected President.

Watt represented the Victorian seat of Essendon in State Parliament. He had already served as Victorian Treasurer and Victorian Premier before moving to federal politics, where he served as Commonwealth Treasurer and managed the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy. Watt was also Acting Prime Minister for over a year, while Prime Minister Billy Hughes was in London as part of the Imperial War Council in 1917/18. Watt later became Speaker of the House of Representatives, while fulfilling the role of English-Speaking Union President.

The Victoria Branch executive in its founding decade reads like a who’s who of Melbourne’s elite. Branch Vice-Presidents included Sir John Monash, Major General Sir C Brudenell White, Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel, Archbishop Lees, then Anglican archbishop of Melbourne and then Commonwealth Attorney General Sir Ernest Groom.

Prominent Branch Presidents in subsequent decades included:

In the 1930s Sir Charles Lowe, a Victorian Supreme Court judge and Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. President Lowe encouraged educational exchanges and international speakers such as Sir James Barrett, President of British Medical Association; American educational conference delegates; and Mary Heinig, a famous American educationist who helped establish the Australian Association for Pre-School child development

In the 1940s & 1950s - Sir Owen Dixon who was Chief Justice of High Court of Australia and universally recognised as Australia’s pre-eminent jurist. In April 1942 Sir Owen was appointed by John Curtin as Australian Minister in Washington. He represented Australia on the Pacific War Council from 1942 until his resignation in 1944.

During Sir Owen Dixon’s presidency, the Branch moved to clubrooms in South Yarra and expanded its membership; developed an unparalleled network of American diplomats, academics and speakers; and established a Branch scholarship scheme allowing recipients to further their studies in either the United States or Britain.

In the 1960s Sir Reginald Sholl, who was chief justice of Victorian Supreme Court. Sir Reginald was also a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria and a foundation member of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. During his Presidency, the Victoria Branch helped arrange British graduate working visits to Australia

The Victoria Branch at various stages in its history hosted Australian Prime Ministers Stanley Bruce, Earle Page and Robert Menzies as guest speakers.

During our hundred year history, our Branch pursued its aims in three main ways:

  • Promoting friendship and links between English-speaking peoples;
  • promoting culture and
  • Promoting education.

Promoting friendship and links with English-speaking peoples:

In 1925, ESU Victorian Branch held a huge ball in honour of the admiral and officers of the visiting US fleet, attracting 2,000 attendees, including 300 US naval officers and sailors.

This affiliation with serving and veteran US, Australian and British naval visitors continued through the decades, with the Victoria Branch in recent decades hosting the Melbourne Naval Centre, an umbrella naval group representing about a dozen Australian naval associations, at our South Yarra clubrooms until 2016, when we vacated those premises.

In 1929, the English-Speaking Union held a ball for travellers from US visiting Australia on the steamer Malolo – an early instance of a visiting cruise liner. Over 700 attended this ball, including 250 of the Malolo's American passengers.

Our Branch hosted receptions for international delegates to the Rotary conference in Melbourne and for members of the Empire Press Union, with more than 250 guests present.

In the 1940s, the English-Speaking Union in Victoria and other states set up Red Cross Branches and sent assistance including food parcels to London, to be distributed at Christmas among families who otherwise might not receive any Christmas gifts. These parcels contained tinned meats, honey, cheese and raisins.

In 1956, the Victoria Branch hosted nearly 1600 people over month-long period during the Melbourne Olympic Games in September.

From our earliest years, our Branch sponsored international speakers such as Mr. Frederick Kellogg, director of the Los Angeles Evening Press and proprietor of 15 daily newspapers in the United States. Another early prominent speaker was Dr Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic in America. The purpose of sponsoring these influential speakers was to promote cordial relations between the English-speaking people – between America and Australia and Britain.

In 1983, the Victoria Branch hosted an English-Speaking Union World Members’ conference in Melbourne, and provided hospitality to many ESU international visitors as well as sponsoring international guest speakers

There were of course also innumerable instances of hospitality accorded to individuals and small groups over the decades, including American days to which prominent US citizens living in Melbourne were invited and hospitality for visiting university debating groups from Britain.  

Promoting Education

The Victoria Branch participated in Books Across the Seas – an exchange scheme wherein books from Australia were sent to Britain, Canada and America and ESU branches in those nations reciprocated by providing ESU branches in Australia with books about their nations’ history, art and literature.

In 1955, the Victoria Branch established and funded English-Speaking Union Travelling scholarships – initially, this comprised £150 for 2 scholarships plus 6 weeks hospitality in the UK.  Scholarship winners included Dr. Lindsay Grigg, who completed a medical degree at Melbourne University and then studied in England. Dr Grigg became Australia’s foremost thoracic and vascular surgeon. Another early scholarship winner was Stuart Devlin, gold and silversmith, one of very few Australians to be admitted to the Royal College of Art in London and later the designer of Australia’s first decimal currency coins.

This scholarship scheme continued until 2015 – over that time, the scholarship amount increased to $1500 for travel to Britain or to the USA. Nearly 80 award recipients benefited through pursuing studies or work placements in Britain and America.

In 1957, the Victoria Branch took over administration of King George VI memorial fellowships to enable Australian graduates to undertake post graduate studies at US universities.

In the 1960s, the Victoria Branch sponsored working visits to Australia by British undergraduates - 119 British university undergraduates benefited in 1965. By 1969, scheme had been extended to European students – ESU in Victoria and in other Australian states sponsored 201 students from Britain, The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

Our Branch also hosted exchange teachers and post-graduates from the US & UK commencing in the 1960s

In 1968, the Victoria Branch established a committee to provide social functions to welcome new arrivals in Victoria, with a focus on British migrants. This committee adopted the title New Arrivals to Australia. The focus of activities shifted to English conversation for non-English-speaking migrants in 1970s. This program continued for many decades, involving many Branch volunteers.

In 2015, ESU Victoria Branch participated in Magna Carta competition for secondary students to commemorate 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Australian and Pacific region junior winner of that Magna Carta competition, who also competed in the international final in London, was a Victorian.

Promoting Culture

Our Branch has convened Shakespeare and other literary events since the 1920s. Professor Osborne, an early Victoria Branch President, was also President of the Shakespeare Society in the 1920s. Our relationship with the Shakespeare Society was re-established in the 1990s, with the Society holding regular meetings performances and readings at our South Yarra clubrooms until 2016.

Among prominent Australian and international artists feted by the Victoria branch over the decades were opera singers such as Dame Nellie Melba and Elsa Stralia; painters and sculptors such as Arthur Streeton and Paul Montfort; actors such as Dame Sybil Thorndike and John Bell, Australian founder of Bell Shakespeare company;  and Fritz Hart, conductor of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Academic speakers at ESU functions over the decades included prominent authorities on English literature such as Professor Ian Maxwell of Melbourne University and Professor Mungo MacCallum of University of Sydney. Many international speakers provided talks on American, British and Australian culture at ESU functions.

Our Branch also established early relationship with the British Council, when the Council first started to operate in Australia in the late 1960s.

Through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we sponsored and organised art exhibitions. In the 1980s, our Branch established the high profile Stuart Devlin Craftsman award with $10,000 in prizes.

This snapshot provides an indication of both the depth and breadth of the Branch’s activities over the hundred years of our Branch’s existence.

This history confirms the role of the Victoria Branch as a prominent contributor in Australia over the past century in establishing links and promoting understanding and co-operation among the English–speaking peoples, through friendship, education and culture.

Future Direction

This paper sets out a condensed history of our Branch’s past achievements.

As an active body, we are also planning for the future.

Our Branch activities have historically centred on three spheres – promoting friendship and communication, promoting culture and promoting education.

Our planned future activities and initiatives focus on these same spheres.

In terms of friendship and communication:

We are establishing a Media Centre, with hardware and software which will enable podcasts, video production and video-editing. This will allow our Branch opportunities to engage in online activities, publicize our programs and make an impact in the digital age. It will also allow members and affiliated groups to benefit from use of state of the art media equipment.  

We have been developing a relationship with the Home Education Network, providing a venue and programs for home-schooled students. As part of this developing relationship, we have launched our own independent public speaking program, focusing on home educated students. This inaugural program is being conducted by a professional secondary teacher on our behalf over a series of sessions on weekends. Our plan is to expand this program in succeeding years.

In terms of education:

We are establishing an Old English online course. We have an academic researcher developing the course and a technology specialist setting up the online platform. This program will be launched in 2020.

We are intending to revamp our educational awards and scholarships with a re-launch of a range of educational sponsorships, awards and related initiatives in 2020.

In terms of cultural activities:

In October 2018, we collaborated with the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Melbourne Shakespeare Society to present a theatre-style performance of historical speeches by Australia’s Governors–General.

In May 2019, we collaborated with the British Australian Community in sponsoring Britfest, a festival celebrating British culture, entertainment, and food and drink.

We will continue to hold and promote similar cultural events in 2020.

We are hosting a poetry and music performances later this year and in doing so we are establishing links with Australian poetry groups such as the Henry Lawson Society.

We hope all members and friends of our Branch can participate actively in these planned activities.

For us, the future holds great promise.

Our common aspiration is that the English-Speaking Union will re-establish its former profile and again assume an influential role in Australia in promoting bonds of friendship among English speaking peoples.