Colonial defence to history and music

At the corner of William and A’Beckett streets, opposite Flagstaff Gardens, nestles a red brick Art Deco building – one of the few remaining low-rise buildings in a sea of tower blocks.

For more than a century, buildings on this site were associated with the defence of Victoria and Australia. To defend the Colony of Victoria, local military volunteer units were established in 1854. Volunteer orderly rooms and drill halls were set up in Melbourne and across the colony and by 1866, the site at 239 A’Beckett St was occupied by the West Melbourne Orderly Room.

The building became known as the Metropolitan Orderly Room in the 1880s. The volunteers were disbanded in 1884 and Victoria’s defences were completely reorganised. At about this time some additions were made to the Orderly Room. Following Federation the site came under the control of the Australian Department of Defence. In 1906, a new weatherboard building was completed on the eastern end of the site and remained in use until the 1930s.

The present building was designed for the Australian Army by George Hallandal, of the Commonwealth Department of Works in 1937-38. It was completed in 1939. It is functional and utilitarian, with a few decorative touches. A two-storey red and cream brick structure fronts on to A’Beckett St and an additional storey at the William St corner forms a low tower.

Hallandal was also responsible for the design of two other drill halls of similar appearance, one at the corner of Therry and Victoria streets in Melbourne, and one in Mateo St in Mildura. 

The interior of the building is largely taken up by two large halls, one on each side of the main entrance in A’Beckett St, together with additional offices and other rooms. The army hierarchy is reflected in the arrangement of messes. The mess for other ranks is tucked away in the basement, that for sergeants is on the first floor in the middle of the building, while the wood-panelled officers’ mess is on the first floor and looks out through tall windows on to William St and the Flagstaff Gardens.

First occupied by the Army Medical Corps, the building’s original purpose was to train army medical personnel in the provision of medical and hygiene services to troops, in the care of casualties, in disease prevention and in field skills such as map-reading and first aid. In addition, the building was to serve as a centre for research and advice on such matters as the physiology of physical training and medical supply logistics.

As well as training and research functions, the building was used for the medical and dental examination of recruits and for physical training and social activities for military and militia personnel. It also functioned as a supply and payroll centre. In the 1950s, the building was used by the army’s 3rd Psychological Unit, and in 1970 the Army Publicity Unit moved in and set up printing equipment and storage facilities in at least one of the drill halls.

In about 1988, the army moved out, the building was sold and plans were drawn up for its use as accommodation for Lindsay Fox’s collection of vintage cars. However, these plans did not proceed. 

In December 1988 the building was placed on the Historic Buildings Register. The Victorian Heritage Database states that the building:

 “… is of architectural significance as an excellent example of an inter-war period military building. [It] combines several stylistic influences, with colonial revival, art deco, classical and Moderne elements. The Art Deco and Moderne, in particular the modelled brickwork touches, gave it a contemporary feel, while the classical elements of the William St corner convey a sense of conservative solidity appropriate for a major public building, especially one associated with the defence forces.”

In August 1999 the Royal Historical Society of Victoria became tenants, sharing the building with the Victorian Concert Orchestra. The drill hall at the RHSV end of the building houses the society’s research library and gallery. Other rooms and offices accommodate manuscript and image collections and the society’s professional staff. The officers’ mess serves as a lecture theatre and meeting room. 

The Victorian Concert Orchestra uses the other half of the building for rehearsals and performances, and also shares facilities with other performers of music and dance.

Thus a site originally concerned with a colony’s defence is now concerned with preserving a state’s history and its culture of music and dance.

The Royal Historical Society of Victoria has an annual program of events, changing exhibitions, a history bookshop and a research library. It is open Mon-Fri, 9am – 5pm. 

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