Hall of fame: ‘An accomplished fact’: a brief history of the Montrose Public Hall, 1910-2020

The Montrose Town Hall as it stands today. Photograph: Deborah Lee-Talbot, 2021.

The Montrose Public hall exists on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri people. Negotiations for this building commenced in 1910 when the local government and the European-Australian Montrose community discussed their ambitions for Montrose. The local school had become too small for the regular public meetings residents attended to discuss roads, water troughs, borderlands and other issues that concerned the country town. The community fundraised £225 to cover the construction and to purchase land between a local store and the Church of Christ. It was not until Friday 29 October 1915 that the Ringwood and Croydon Chronicle documented the hall as ‘an accomplished fact as the timber is expected on the ground this week’.

The hall was used for official events. During February 1917, an election was held to fill a vacancy in the South-Western Riding of the Shire of Lillydale. Messers A.E.H. Matthews and William Rae ran for the position and each man demonstrated that they held great confidence in the ‘large support’ they would receive. Montrose hall was one of the local venues where these ambitions were played out.

During 1919, public gatherings were restricted due to the influenza pandemic. With six cases in the Mount Dandenong region, one in Croydon and one in Seville, it was decided by the Shire Health Officer, Dr Syme, that public meetings would be prohibited. Social gatherings of more than 20 people were not permissible throughout the Shire. The only exemptions were ‘divine services in churches, provided masks are worn by those who attend’. Montrose residents were given notice of an impending visit by the Health Officer for the purpose of inoculation. Calls were made in the area for ‘ladies who are willing to volunteer as nurses, assistants, or cooks in the event of the outbreak assuming a serious aspect’. The Health Officer asked the public to ‘assist in every way in preventing the spread of the disease’. Once again, the hall became a symbol of the community. This time to their small town’s dedication to the public health.

During July 1919 a ‘Welcome Home Reception’ took place at the hall for those returning from the Great War. The inconvenience of bad weather did not hinder the celebratory return of ‘our lads and a lassie’; the latter being Sister E.W. Yeaman, who was awarded a medal for her four years of service. The hall was ‘beautifully decorated with…greenery and flags’ and a banner across the front of the platform declaring ‘Welcome Home!’ Local women contributed the contents of their pantries and considerable cooking skills to ensure a table was well laden for all in attendance. Once teatime passed, there was singing that commenced with the National Anthem and the presentation of medals.

The hall was also a location for community farewells. On Saturday 25 February 1922 Mr and Mrs Fairbanks, fundraisers, organisers and community champions, departed the district. Their significant contributions to the public life of Montrose were recognised during an evening event hosted by the local Progress Association. The PA presented the couple with ‘a fi ne eight-day clock’ which held ‘a silver plate with the inscription “From the residents of Montrose to Mr and Mrs Fairbanks”’. With ‘great feeling’ Mr Fairbanks offered a thank you speech to conclude his time associated with the hall. With much merriment, dancing and supper were enjoyed before a final farewell.

Within three years a visitor became closely associated with the hall: Mrs ‘Pattie’ Deakin. Mrs Deakin, whose husband was Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, liked to visit the town for getaways. ‘Table Talk’, a social column in a local paper, detailed on Thursday 9 July 1925, Mrs Deakin was in residence at her ‘charming little cottage in Montrose’. The hall was located just opposite her holiday house and it was not uncommon to see her at the hall. One such instance was in aid of the funds for the Church of England, Mrs Deakin ‘sat and chatted amongst those at the rural entertainment and further added to the popularity she has already attained in that mountainside district’. It was a moment that contributed to her reputation as a philanthropist.

The hall’s use was shaped by the baby boom of the late 1940s. A Baby Health Centre was run ‘for a half-day fortnightly’ by Sister Dolphin in a single room within the hall. The Centre was opened on 13 July 1949, and 14 families attended regularly. This program ran until 1961 then with 101 babies enrolled. Then the single room was defined as ‘too cold and dark’ for the babies, and a new venue was sought.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the hall was transformed once a week, on a Saturday night, into the Montrose Theatre. Patrons paid to watch Hollywood films such as ‘The Nun’s Story’, ‘Pollyanna’ and ‘Pepe’. This trend lasted until the mid-1960s when Saturday hall films became less popular as Melbournians supported the new technology of television or supported other cultural venues that were opening in greater numbers in the Eastern suburbs.

Now, looking down a driveway that runs alongside the hall, you can see the signs of a Men’s Shed in the hall’s large garage. This addition was built in 1945 and extended after the 1962 bushfires for the local fire brigade. Once a week, the directions for a Zumba class drift out of the hall’s front doors. It is easy to see the charm, the stability and the ongoing worth of this community gathering place. Formerly a library, a political venue, a site for celebrations, a local theatre and a concert hall, the Montrose Town hall is a reminder of how a small Victorian community has developed since the early twentieth century.

-Deborah Lee-Talbot

This article first appeared in the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, History News, Issue 352, February 2021.