The Bachelor Quarters

contributed by Michael Hall

Canberra Soccer Club 1914

One of the advantages of Canberra as the site for the future national capital was the absence of an existing town or village. It was also a disadvantage as it meant that there was little accommodation for the Commonwealth employees and workers who were needed to build the city. 

By 1912 a tent settlement had sprung up at Acton where almost everyone lived under canvas. Dozens of men from this early settlement served in two World Wars. 

To accommodate the increasing number of survey, drafting and clerical staff a temporary wooden structure was built in 1912. Officially known as the Professional Officers Mess, the building, occupied in August of 1912, became known as the Bachelor Quarters. It was still too small to accommodate all the staff so some of its residents continued to live in tents. 

Even in early Acton the comfort of accommodation was linked to an individual’s seniority in the public service. Several cottages were built, some of which still stand on Liversidge Street, but they were occupied by more senior staff and their families.

By 1914 lower level clerks and draftsmen such as Francis Hatfield and Leo Little, earning about £280 a year, enjoyed a room in the Bachelor Quarters for an annual fee of £13. The junior clerks, on an average salary of £138 per annum (like Alfred AyrtonAlbert “Eddie” Edwards and Les Willis) had to make do with life in a tent for which they paid £6 a year. Regardless of whether they lived in a tent or a room, all residents of the Bachelor Quarters enjoyed Mess facilities and attendance to their needs by stewards, all within a short walk to their offices at Acton. 

The men were either permanent public servants or temporarily employed by the Commonwealth so naturally life in the Quarters was overseen by a Mess President and committee. Charles Seddon was probably the first President and he certainly occupied that position in early 1913 when a pivotal moment in Canberra’s history occurred – the naming of the city on 12 March. Seddon, along with other residents of the Bachelor Quarters including Harry Cadden, Francis Hatfield, Frederick Lynch and Henry Bradshaw, were all present at the naming ceremony, but only Alfred Ayrton’s impressions of the day remain. 

Ayrton had assisted Colonel David Miller, organiser of the ceremony on 12 March 1913, during the visit of the ‘Great White Fleet’ (the American navy) in 1908. Miller had Ayrton transferred to Canberra to help with the transport arrangements for the official guests at the naming ceremony. So much was happening on the day that Ayrton admitted he did not fully appreciate the significance of the occasion but he was impressed by the ‘most wonderful telegraphic set-up for the transmission of official communications and reports of newspaper representatives.’ He was keen-eyed enough to notice at the official luncheon that Lady Denman’s long white glove on her right hand had been sullied by a large black thumb print. 

The Canberra naming ceremony was a brief distraction so, with little to do outside of work, the men at the Bachelor Quarters founded a number of sporting clubs and community groups including the Canberra Sports Association set up to control (by committee of course) access to the primitive facilities gradually being provided on the flats beside the Molonglo River. 

A tennis club was formed and a cricket club as well as an Australian Rules football team, captained by Leo Little who had played with the University club in the Victorian Football League before being transferred to Canberra. The Canberra Football Club (soccer) was founded in 1914 and included Ayrton, Edwards, Charles Laverty, Percy Douglas and Anthony Donovan, the chief steward at the Bachelor Quarters. Donovan enlisted in 1918 as a guard at the Molonglo Internment Camp situated in modern-day Fyshwick.

The galvanized iron Acton Hall, erected in mid 1912, provided a venue for an assortment of cultural pursuits and community groups. The Reverend Richard Boyer regularly conducted Methodist services there as did his successor, the Reverend Vivian Thompson. Seddon arranged ‘smoke’ nights for the Jerrabomberra Club, Little booked the hall for the Glee Club and it was the venue for performances of the Canberra Pierrots. Seven of the residents (Charles Young, Hatfield, Gilbert Adams, Ivo Smith, Willis, Little and Lynch) and two of the stewards (Reginald Timpson and Anthony Donovan) were foundation members of the Canberra Rifle Club formed in May 1914. 

At the outbreak of war only one of the residents, the 40 year old Harry Cadden, enlisted immediately. He served briefly on Gallipoli but his age and poor health meant that he spent most of the war in clerical posts. Timpson, an Englishman, was an Imperial Reservist and left Australia with the first contingent of men in October 1914. He served with the 2nd Border Regiment but was wounded by gas and, despite marrying in England, returned to Australia and became a prison guard at the Molonglo Internment Camp in 1918. 

Eddie Edwards, who shared a tent with Willis, Harry Turner and Charles Laverty at the Bachelor Quarters, saw no need to enlist straight away. ‘When the German Army violated the neutrality whole of Belgium in August 1914’, wrote Edwards, ‘neither myself nor my immediate friends in Canberra decided that it called for any active interference on our part.’ Popular opinion around Acton was that the war would be over by Christmas. But ‘as the three months declared by the newspapers to be the length of the war lengthened into six months, then to nine months,’ Edwards and his three room mates ‘searched and failed to find any good reason why we should not join in the trek overseas.’ 

All four enlisted. Turner joined the artillery and served in France. He was discharged in early 1918 as medically unfit, suffering from an arthritic right shoulder. Laverty served as a wireless operator in Mesopotamia and was later mentioned in despatches. Edwards and Willis decided to join the infantry but first arranged shooting and infantry drill practice with Warrant Officer Harold Chumleigh from the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Both joined the 1st Battalion in late 1915 and embarked together the following June. Despite being on a crowded troopship Edwards and Willis soon discovered an empty first class cabin and so enjoyed a comfortable cruise to England. 

Both men arrived on the front line near Ypres, Belgium, in September 1916, though by then they were in different companies of the 1st Battalion. The following month their battalion moved to Flers in the Somme region of France where Edwards was introduced to trench warfare spending ‘56 hours in 2 feet of water on an empty stomach, a foretaste of what was in store for us that winter.’ To Edwards the very name of the Somme conveyed ‘visions of mud, mud and then more mud. Men lived a life of mud in a landscape of mud, never knowing for days together what it was to have a dry place to rest, or dry clothes, or dry boots to live in.’ Then, as winter set in, the ground froze so hard ‘that 18 pounder shells ricocheted without penetrating the surface.’ 

Willis’ active part in the war ended in May 1917 when he was wounded during the second battle of Bullecourt. He saw out the war with the Pay Corps in England. Edwards continued fighting with the 1st Battalion through 1917 and was part of the attack on Broodseinde Ridge near Passchendaele in Belgium in October where he earned the Military Medal. He was later promoted in the field to the rank of lieutenant.

Edwards for one returned home a wiser man. While waiting to be discharged he recorded his memories of the previous five years and expressed amazement ‘at the illusion of war I cherished in 1914.’ He had viewed war as something thrilling and exciting, of ‘brilliant uniforms, marching soldiers, music, drums and glory’. But what he saw was very different: ‘The blackened bones of simple men lying rotting in the shell torn earth, of the blinded who would never see God’s blue sky again, of the maimed and crippled.’ There had been nothing to tell him ‘of the hideous nightmare of pounding shells and long nights of agony’ before he had enlisted.

Only one man failed to return. Gerald Potter, who worked at the Bachelor Quarters as a steward in 1913 before moving to the Royal Military College, was killed by shell fire on 31 August 1918 during the Battle of Mont St. Quentin in France. Nearly all the pre-war residents of the Bachelor Quarters returned after they were discharged and most of them lived and worked in Canberra for years afterwards. The Bachelor Quarters continued to provide accommodation for public servants until 1960. However, in 1935 it was renamed as the Acton Guest House and became a home for men who would serve in World War 2.