Established in Sydney in 1939 to promote literary and artistic pursuits and fellowship among journalists, the Journalists’ Club’s 58 years were equally noteworthy and controversial. Journalist Ray Chesterton wrote of the club on its closure in 1997: ‘It had more tales than the Arabian Nights, more adventures than Superman and more colourful characters than a dozen royal commissions.’
The Journalists’ Club emerged following the demise of its predecessor, the Press Club (est. 1911), in 1939. Ironically, it was the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA, later the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) that contributed to the Press Club’s downfall. In retaliation for the loss of board control to non-journalist members, several journalists—including Fatty Finn comic strip cartoonist Syd Nicholls—testified to the Licensing Court about illegal trading and gambling, leading to the licence withdrawal.
Wanting to distance themselves from the earlier venture, AJA members agreed to form a new club, the Journalists’ Club. The club held an inaugural dinner, attended by newly elected Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, and received licence approval on 20 September 1939. In the interim, the Journalists’ Club leased the third floor of the Teachers’ Federation building in Phillip Street. The club opened on 28 June 1940. In 1958, the club bought a warehouse in Chalmers Street, Surry Hills, near Central Railway Station.
Although independent from the AJA, the club was closely linked through its common membership. During newspaper strikes in 1944, 1955 and 1967, the club’s premises were used as editorial centres to produce strike newspapers. Club membership was not limited to journalists: from an initial 42 members in 1939, numbers reached 630 two years later, and peaked at 4628 in 1980.
The popularity of the club was not surprising, given its lively and bohemian atmosphere, literary and artistic membership, and frequent visits and addresses by noted luminaries, including Australian prime ministers and British and American actors. Members included the journalist and poet Kenneth Slessor (president, 1957–65) and cadet journalist turned Hollywood actor Peter Finch. In 1970, police barriers were erected when Pope Paul VI visited the club, in response to an invitation from the appropriately named president, Don Angel. The Pope later commented on Australian journalists’ ‘nobility of spirit’.
Less gracious was the club’s attitude towards women. In 1939, 36 women members of the AJA unsuccessfully presented a petition seeking associate membership; however, despite frequent lobbying, women had to make do with honorary membership for a further 33 years. The issue came to a head in 1971 when a number of women journalists formed the Media Women’s Action Group. Members staged a picket and a sit-in, attracting widespread publicity. Germaine Greer joined the campaign after declining an invitation to speak at a club that she could not join. The AJA brought in legal opinion from Neville Wran QC (later NSW Premier), advising that the club’s constitution did not prevent female membership as its references to members were in terms of ‘person’ rather than gender. Approval for women membership finally came in September 1972.
Throughout its history, the club remained true to its intention to promote literature and art. In 1956, it received 121 entries for an inaugural award for an Australian stage play. The winning play, The Shifting Heart by Richard Beynon, is still performed today. Other awards were presented for poetry, short stories, television plays and painting. The club also hosted art exhibitions. Among its own art collection was the 1958 Archibald Prize winner, a portrait of journalist Ray Walker by William E. Pidgeon. In 1996, this was one of two portraits, the other of Daily Mirror news editor Bill Perry, stolen from the club’s dining room, only to be mysteriously returned a few days later.
The club made news headlines again in June 1997 when armed intruders forced the night manager and a security guard to the floor before escaping with the night’s takings. The robbery was a fittingly dramatic finale, as four days later the Journalists’ Club closed, amalgamating with the Sydney Sports Club. The Journalists’ Bar at the Sports Club closed in 2010.
REFs: D. Angel, The Journalists’ Club Sydney (1985); S. Moylan, ‘The Gentlemen’s Club’, Hindsight, ABC Radio National (2012).
MARGARET VAN HEEKEREN