A Look at the History of
Officers Mess Victoria Barracks
1848 – 2001
by John Kreckler
From the Author
The authenticity of this work is quite valid, coming as it does, from impeccable sources
acknowledged at the end of the work. Any mistakes must therefore be mine, ones that I have
made whilst putting it all together. I have enjoyed writing this story and I hope it meets with
Publications consulted include Tom Roberts by Humphrey Roberts; Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia; Victoria Barracks, An Historical Summary by Rosemary Annabel and the Attendance Books of the Mess, from 1895 to the present.
1 - The Entrance to the Mess
To write of Victoria Barracks, or any part of it, and exclude early Sydney, with its colourful history, would indeed be wrong. A military association was born with the new colony of New South Wales and subsequently with our nation. This military association has had long lasting results.
The landing of the First Fleet with its detachment of Marines marked the arrival of the first European soldiers in the colony. The Marines were followed by the New South Wales Corps and 29 other British Regiments of Foot, together with Engineers, Artillery, Sappers and Miners and other staffs until departure of the British garrison in 1870. Not many of these soldiers are closely associated with the present barracks.
In the 1830s, after forty years of occupation of the George Street Barracks, the buildings were beginning to show their age. The most significant factor in deterioration of the timber and brick buildings was the behaviour of the „green‟ timber used in their construction. As well as
the need to refurbish the barracks other interests were influential. The site of the barracks 1occupied 16 / acres in the middle of a rapidly growing commercial centre and „the soldiery is 2uncouth and has no interest in trade‟. The cry was „get the soldiers out of town‟.
Governor Bourke appointed a Board of Officers in 1836, with Brevet Major George Barney, Royal Engineers in charge, to select a new site for the garrison to be housed. The Board recommended three sites, two of which the Governor dismissed. The town was extending toward the west and Bourke felt that a new site in that direction would create another „George Street débacle‟. The third site recommended met with acceptance. It had a number of advantages: it was removed from the town; there was a ready availability of sandstone for building purposes; it included an excellent supply of fresh water and it was well positioned for the defence of Sydney from the only undefended routes in the south and east.
Following approval in 1841, construction of the new accommodation for the garrison was begun without delay. The first building completed was the Officers Quarters and Mess. The remaining buildings were constructed over the next seven years. The site was to be the Head Quarters of the garrison in New South Wales until the British Army was withdrawn in 1870. The General Officer Commanding was responsible for the garrison of the whole of mainland, Tasmania, New Zealand and some other places until 1861 when New Zealand was made a separate command.
Five Regiments of Foot saw service at Paddington Hill, the name of the area on which Victoria Barracks was constructed. The first regiment to occupy the Barracks and use its facilities was the 11th Regiment of Foot (The North Devonshire Regiment). The regiment marched from Circular Quay to occupy the Barracks on 6 August 1848, some eighteen months after its completion.
The North Devons were followed in occupation of Victoria Barracks by:
77th Regiment of Foot (The East Middlesex Regiment) 1857 - 1858
12th Regiment of Foot (East Suffolk Regiment) 1858 - 1861
50th Regiment of Foot (The Queen‟s Own Regiment) 1866 - 1869
18th Regiment of Foot (2nd Battalion) (Royal Irish Regiment) 1870
In 1870 significant changes were heralded by the departure of the British Army garrison. Within twelve months the defence force vacuum was apparent and the New South Wales government had raised its own military forces. The New South Wales Permanent Military Forces, formed in August 1871, were located at Victoria Barracks. These consisted of a battery of artillery and two companies of infantry. The artillery was formed rather hurriedly, as a rumour rife throughout the colony suggested that a filibustering expedition had left San Francisco in December 1870 with the object of carrying out a raid on Sydney. The officer commanding B Company of the NSW Infantry was Captain Alfred Spencer Heathcote, VC whose portrait is held in the Mess collection. The threat from overseas did not materialise. By the end of 1872 the government believed the expense of maintaining the permanent infantry was unnecessary and that force was disbanded. The permanent artillery continued in service, supplemented by volunteer and partially-paid troops. A review of the defences of the colony by Jervois and Scratchley in the late 1870s showed that, apart from the permanent artillery, the forces were insufficient to be effective. However it was not until a supplementary vote of ?70,000 was included in the military estimate of 1883 that good work was to be carried out. In 1884 the strength and composition of the New South Wales Forces stood as follows:
Artillery - permanent 319
Artillery - militia 300
Engineers - militia 60
Infantry - militia 1340
Torpedo Force - militia 100
Sudan War 1885
The departure of the Sudan Contingent was preceded by a parade at Victoria Barracks. 'At 11.45am bugles were sounded, men fell in and rolls were called, there were no absentees and the contingent marched off through the waving crowds.' Great Britain's grateful acceptance of the Colonies 'splendid offer to assist, seemed to send a thrill of pride and joy from one end of the country to the other.'
New South Wales South African Contingents 1899-1902
The South African War between Great Britain and the two Dutch South African Republics broke out in October 1899. Negotiations between the British Government and the Transvaal and Orange Free State had been followed with intense interest in Australia, particularly when war seemed inevitable. The outbreak of war was the signal for enthusiastic volunteering. Although the New South Wales contingents did not see very much fighting in South Africa 'they acquitted themselves well and proved beyond doubt that they were second to none in resource, initiative and gallantry.'
The Boxer Rebellion
Early in 1900, when the South African War was at its height, an uprising was taking place in China. New South Wales agreed to send 262 Naval men. Prior to sailing the manning proposal was changed. It would now comprise 200 Naval men plus fifty soldiers from Victoria Barracks. Then a great problem arose. The soldiers objected to serving as naval ratings. To confound the situation, the sailor objected to having soldiers in their ranks. Eventually a compromise was reached. The soldiers sailed as a detchment of the New South Wales Marine Light Infantry. Everyone was happy.
Time of Federation
Federation came 1 January 1901 and from that date the defence policy became a Federal matter. The Military Forces of New South Wales as a separate entity ceased to exist. A Commonealth Ministry of Defence took control of all state forces under the terms of the Federal Constitution.
At the request of the Federal Government a distinguished British soldier, Major General Sir Edward Hutton, KCMG, KCB, who commanded the New South Wales forces from 1893 to 1896, was sent out to organise the new Commonwealth military establishment. It was mainly though his great administrative capabilities from 1901 to 1904, that the heterogeneous forces were gradually shaped into a single army, and the foundations laid on which all subsequent organisation was based.
Wherever the slouch hat of later days has appeared, it has become the symbol for high courage and initiative, for audacity in attack, generosity in victory and grim courage in adversity. The tradition was founded by the New South Wales Bushmen in South African and the Anzacs on Gallipoli and in France. It was enhanced by the sons who fought at Bardia, Tobruk and El Alamein, over the Kokoda Tracks, in the bitter island campaigns of the Pacific and in the gallant forlon hopes of Greece, Crete and Malaya. Added lustre was gained in the battles in Korea and Vietnam, on to and including INTERFET action in Timor.
Officers from Victoria Barracks served in all the wars in which the Commonwealth has been involved and prior to Federation with the New South Wales Military Forces. In many cases the troops were assembled and paraded at Victoria Barracks pior to marching off to war. The Mess Visitor Books name the officers involved. It seems as though every Senior Officer has visited the Mess at some time or other, and this could be so when one remebers that Victoria Barracks was the Administrative Headquarters during both World Wars.
Some of our Honorary Members were members when a lot of the foregoing history was enacted. The post war years saw some of them serving with the Indian armed services. They were following in the footsteps of seven graduates from the Royal Military College 1931 - 1936. Quite naturally 'The Crown' of the Army's Senior Commonwealth Mess, rests lightly on the Officers Mess Victoria Barracks, Sydney.
Naming of the Barracks
From 1840-1849, the barracks was generally referred to in all official correspondence as the New Military Barracks. The name „Victoria‟ did appear during the construction period in
1845 and 1846. Apparently the first use of the reigning monarch‟s name was in the 1844-45
edition of the City of Sydney Directory. The title did not appear to have gained official
approval yet. In official documents even the Commanding Royal Engineer closely associated
with the barracks construction still referred to it as the „New Barracks‟.
It was not until 1850 that Victoria Barracks was freely used by all and from then on was so
named in all official correspondence.
Greening of the Barracks
At the time of construction of the barracks, Paddington Hill was composed of sand dunes,
outcrops of sandstone and stunted trees. The only substantial vegetation was that of the two
fig trees in the Barrack Masters garden.
Following completion of the works in 1850 a „greening‟ of the barrack area was undertaken
using Moreton Bay Figs and Norfolk Island Pines. Eighty-two years later the second program
of planting took place. On 6 May 1932, 25 Brush Box trees were planted as memorial trees,
honouring 22 officers and three civilians. Additional memorial trees have been added since.
A planting ceremony on 17 July 1952 was addressed by Lieutenant General F.H. Berryman,
GOC Eastern Command.
Welcome to members of the Royal Australian Historical Society and relatives of Warrant Officer
Henry Green and Major General William Holmes, CMG, DSO, VD. We are gathered together to
do honour to two outstanding soldiers and to perpetuate their memory in these barracks which they
both loved so much. What spot could be more appropriate than this skyline of Sydney seen by
many thousands who pass along Anzac Parade each day ... Today as I survey this scene with four
generations of the Green and Holmes families present, I like to think that William Holmes was
born here, as a child played here, and then enlisted first as a bugler. What place could be more
appropriate to perpetuate his memory by a living memorial.
stWarrant Officer Class 1 Nicholson, RSM 1 Field Artillery Regiment planted a tree in
memory of Warrant Officer Green and Colonel Basil Holmes, DSO, Rtd, planted a tree in
memory of Major General Holmes. The two trees, suitably identified, stand at the southern
end of the married officer quarters.
Command Avenue Plaques
The roadway that approaches the eastern end of the main building is known as Command
Avenue. Along the western side of this road, closest to the parade ground, a new series of
trees have been planted to mark events and people significant to Victoria Barracks. Plaques
near the trees are as follows:
nd? Lieutenant General L.G. O‟Donnell, AC on his last visit to 2 Military District as CGS;
? Major General P.M. Arnison, AO 8 May 1996 to mark completion of his appointment as
Land Commander Australia;
? Major General M.P. Blake, AO, MC 30 May 1994;
? Brigadier D.J. McLachlan 11 December 1990 to mark the completion of his appointment
as Commander 2nd Military District;
nd Military ? Brigadier V.A. Morgan Commander 1991 - 1992 to mark the desinence of the 2
? Major General N.R. Smethurst, AO, MBE 22 March 1990 to mark the completion of his
appointment as Land Commander Australia;
? Major General J.C. Hartley, AO 10 December 1999 to mark the completion of his
appointment as Land Commander Australia;
? Major General P.J. Cosgrove, AC, MC 9 June 2000 to mark the completion of his
appointment as Land Commander Australia.
2 - Military Officers of the British Empire attending the Commonwealth Celebrations in Sydney 1901
ORIGINAL OFFICERS QUARTERS AND MESS
Adapted from an article in Sabretache, The Journal of the Military History Society of
thThe 11 North Devonshire Regiment of Foot was not impressed with Victoria Barracks. They claimed that it was occupied six months too soon and as such the interior was unfinished and
ill-fitted. The Soldiers Barracks appear to have been acceptable. On the other hand the
Officer Quarters were subject to harsh criticism.
In the centre is the mess room, with two Field Officer Quarters above it. Each wing contains
another Field Officer Quarter, with eighteen others for the inferior grades, at the liberal allowance
of one room for each officer.
The Army owes a deep debt of gratitude to those considerate beings who have ruled that, in a
Sydney climate, a single room is a suitable habitation for the veteran Captain of twenty-five years
service, with his wife and such quota of children it may please Providence to bless him withal! Remaining space allowed for five maids, one sewing and five box rooms. The ground floor
comprised 23 rooms allocated as follows:
kitchen 2 dining rooms 5
breakfast rooms 4 smoke rooms 4
drawing rooms 8
Rosemary Annabel, in An Historical Summary prepared for Clive Lucas & Partners Pty Ltd in
November 1983, paid a fine tribute to this old but still gracious building.
The finest and most important Officers Quarters and Mess to be built in Australia during the 19th
Century. It is comparable to the best British military architecture of its epoch anywhere in the
world. It is a rare extant complex illustrating the domestic aspect of a Colonial Officer‟s lifestyle
in the 1840s.
All the grandeur of this building came to an end in 1931 when the Royal Military College
(RMC) was located at Victoria Barracks. A summary of events related to RMC appears later.
It was a time of great change. The barracks would „never be the same again.‟ Perhaps the
most important change was the removal of the hospital function and its relocation to the
Repatriation Hospital, now The Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick in 1930. The empty
hospital building became the Australian Staff Corps Officers Mess.
The former Officers Mess area became a lecture room for the Staff Cadets. In 1936, when
RMC returned to Duntroon, the premises became a Command and Staff School (forerunner of
the Australian Staff College). From then on throughout the war years, it was destined to have
a varied use. Today we see it once again as a lecture room.
Over this whole period the quarters have at times served as Officers Quarters as well as a
married quarter. In 1947 work was carried out on the building making it a permanent married
When built, the roof was covered with slate. In 1930 it was reconstructed as a tiled roof, which was removed in 1977-1978 and replaced with the slate we see today.
3 - The original Mess with a mysterious female figure on the upper floor
Several parts of the barracks complex boast of their own ghost, each having a plausible story to match. The original Officers Mess also had a ghost, 'but in this case apparently, it is a fact.'
The ghost is a lady who is always beautifully attired wearing a white bodice with a sweeping black crinoline skirt. She always made her appearance on the upper verandah of the mess building with an enigmatic smile and a gentle wave of her hand to those passing by. Produced above is the photographic evidence.
The Cellar is immediately beneath the Mess of the original quarters. Construction commenced in 1841 and the building was completed in 1842. The existence of The Cellar poses an interesting question ... Which came first? The building or The Cellar? When it is considered that The Cellar walls are part of the structural foundations of the Mess above, it must be that The Cellar area had to be excavated and its walls built prior to the above ground work. Thus „The Cellar‟ takes the prize for the first building started and completed.
The underground rooms are entered by way of a winding staircase built of stone ... and pity the one who doesn‟t heed the warning „watch your head‟, for at the bottom the entry is quite low by today‟s standard, having only 5 feet 6 inches clearance. It is however, all worthwhile to enter, for The Cellar has a special ambience and the ceiling is normal height. The main room is rectangular in shape and divided into two sections with the wine stored at one end. When The Cellar is closed the wine storage end is separated from the other by means of a steel grille door. In this space perfectly built square slab stone bins for wine storage line the three walls, each bin containing up to 84 bottles.
On the northern wall hangs a print „Gentlemen The Queen’ presented by the Victoria Barracks
Corps of Guides, Honorary members of the Mess. The print is taken from the original, painted by Albert Chevallier Taylor (1862-1925). Portraits by him currently hang in the Imperial War Museum London.
This delightful venue is an ideal locale to enjoy a wine tasting - large in size and a most agreeable atmosphere to match. The 'other half' contains a stout table of large dimension where the multitude is fed. It must be a great occasion when, early in each year our friendly vintners gather in competition, complete with, if not their oldest, at least their „latest and best‟
to tempt the Mess Wine Member.
One excellent account of the prestige accorded by wine merchants to being recognised as a supplier to the Victoria Barracks Officers Mess may be judged from the following. One year a vigneron had had a small harvest, but one of „uncommon excellence‟. The vintage produced only 1,000 bottles of wine for the whole market. The Mess was offered 200 bottles and the balance was left to supply Australia wide.