100 years of service
In September 2019, Townsville RSL clocked 100 years of service to the city. In that Century, the business has evolved, the clubhouse site has changed, setbacks have hit the club’s redevelopment, namely this year’s monsoonal weather event, but the 20,000+ members have remained loyal.
100 years ago, Townsville wasn’t much more than sand and sawdust. The city was young, with a small population. In 1916, with WWI still in play for another two years, and those servicemen returning to Australia requiring support, a conference of state-based returned soldiers associations, including Queensland’s recommended the formation of the RSSILA – the Returned Soldiers & Sailors Imperial League of Australia.
“…the stairs were too narrow to transport kegs of beer up them! The soldiers got together and worked out a pulley system.”
The league’s purpose was to ease the transition of returning home, by continuing to provide the camaraderie, concern and mateship shown among Aussie troops while they were at war. Community support for returning ANZACs was strong, and in 1914, Townsville welcomed home the first returning troops.
The adjustment back into home life wasn’t easy for many veterans when it came to finding jobs and supporting their families.
“Back then our RSL was called RSSILA and, primarily, it was formalised when the first men repatriated from the Gallipoli campaign  and returned to the city,” says Townsville RSL General Manager Karla Malouf.
Townsville lost around 113 men as a result of the Gallipoli action. Another 40 men were lost during action at Pozieres in 1916. On March 8, 1917, the first notice of a formal meeting of returned soldiers appeared in the local paper, and held that night at the Buchanan’s Hotel in Sturt Street, with 20 men in attendance. However, it wasn’t until September 1, 1919 that the city’s RSSILA Sub-Branch was granted a Charter (as only established groups were eligible for Charters), and this is the day we celebrate as Townsville RSL’s official beginning.
“The early formation of our RSL Sub-Branch started meeting at the Buchanan’s Hotel which was in Sturt St [that venue eventually burned down in 1982], and the next step was establishing The Soldiers Rest Rooms located on the corner of Flinders and Stanley Streets.
“They then bought land in Sturt Street, and in the early 1930s they built a Memorial Building. There was a funny flaw in their design though – the stairs were too narrow to transport kegs of beer up them! The soldiers got together and worked out a pulley system.”
That building burned down in 1965 following a series of arson attacks in the city. Taking the funds they made in selling their city sites to council and Woolworths, the RSL purchased a site on Charters Towers Road for $36,950. The location was chosen due to its central location, and this is the Townsville RSL site we visit still to this day. This was also the year the RSSILA changed its name to the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL).
The RSL built a new building, which opened in 1966. That old brick building is a distant memory though, with many redevelopments, refurbishments and expansions happening in the decades since. Most recently, Townsville RSL had just completed Stage 6.6 of its major redevelopment when the Townsville monsoonal weather hit earlier
“We had water coming through the roof from Wednesday, January 30, which was even before the peak of the destruction,” says Karla, who has worked at Townsville RSL for almost 25 years. “This caused the ceiling to collapse in our gaming room located on the ground floor.”
The monsoonal event forced the business to close for 106 days, and Karla estimates the total damage bill to be $15 million. “This has left us really struggling, as we are still battling with insurers, but we are grateful our members and community continue to support us.”
In May, the top floor of Townsville RSL opened with one bar, one restaurant and 122 gaming machines. In September, Townsville RSL celebrated its 100th year with a public party at Jezzine Barracks, and welcomed its oldest member, Arnold Forrester, to cut the cake. Arnold had turned 100 the week before the party.
The Townsville RSL’s 100th year has been a rocky one, no doubt. But, having rebuilt before due to disaster, we know the club will push through.
“We will come back bigger and better than ever,” says Karla. “We’re looking forward to supporting our ex and serving defence members and the wider Townsville community once again.”
Source: A History of the Returned Services League Townsville Sub-Brand 1917-2000.
By Dorothy M. Gibson-Wilde and Bruce Gibson-Wilde.