The Royal Automobile Club of Australia
115th Birthday Dinner
Saturday, 17th March 2018
Macquarie Street, Sydney
I am honoured to be here as Patron celebrating with you the 115th Birthday of an organisation whose history, in many ways, has run parallel to the history of our Australian servicemen and women from the end of the Boer War to the present time.
The Boer War was a pivotal war which spanned Federation and which announced Australia on the world stage. It is also possible Boer War veterans may have been part of your early membership.
I understand, last November, Colonel John Haynes, brought a life-size statue of a Boer War horse into the Dining Room!
While this was a serious exhibit referencing the new Boer War Memorial in Canberra, in having this exhibit here it also made the connection between a time when horses were both transport and defence, and the advent of the motor car which revolutionised transport, including defence.
In commencing this evening, I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the men and women who have walked and trod this land for tens of thousands of years, the Gadigal of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.
An automobile, as the car was called in the early days of motoring, is like any well-oiled machine in peak condition – it runs smoothly, its gears are engaged and it fires on all cylinders.
This analogy of the well-oiled machine applies just as much to our State and community organisations as it does to a product of industry – it applies to the Royal Automobile Club of Australia – and, indeed, the Defence Force.
As former Chief of the Defence Force, I know that an organisation is the sum of many parts. The whole unit is only as strong as its individual components.
So whether a Rolls or a Leyland P76 rolls off the factory floor will be down to the engineers, the part manufacturers, the technicians and every single person on the factory assembly line.
As we all know – we have had a few loose screws – and a few lemons - here and there!
As Governor of New South Wales, I can see the principle of shared responsibility at work also in our society, in our community and in our city’s unique cultural history.
The Royal Automobile Club of Australia has had a big part to play in each of these areas.
Your history reflects, in essence, the history of the change and development of our city, our State and our nation, spanning from the years following Federation, and the year following the end of the Boer War, 1903, to the present time.
And what changes this Club has participated in – and witnessed -during these past 115 years!
If we think of the history of the area in which this Club is located on Macquarie Street we can see that Sydney has changed an enormous amount in the past 115 years. The woolstores at Circular Quay - the most prominent of which is still standing is Hinchcliffs on Customs House Lane, with its steel hoist pulleys that raised the wool bales from the ground - speak of a time when the Quay was a centre for international shipping; customs duties was a form of revenue and wool was our chief export.
We can see that, even by the early 1900s, Sydney had begun to fulfil Governor Macquarie’s vision for Sydney Town, recorded in a letter of 1810. I read:
Government House, Sydney,
Saturday, 6 October, 1810.
HIS EXCELLENCY the GOVERNOR being extremely desirous to do everything in his power that can in the least degree contribute to the Ornament and Regularity of the Town of SYDNEY, as well as to the Convenience, Accommodation, and Safety of the INHABITANTS thereof, has already, in prosecution of these views, divided the Town into five separate Districts,
and has given Directions for the erecting immediately a proper Watch-house in each District, for the Protection of the Inhabitants from Night Robberies, and for the more effectually securing the Peace and Tranquillity of the Town, and apprehending all disorderly and ill-disposed Persons committing nightly Depredations.
… The principal Street in the Town, and leading through the middle of it from Dawes's Point to the Place near the Brickfields, where it is intended to erect the first Toll bar, being upwards of a Mile in length, and hitherto known alternately by the Names of High Street, Spring Row, and Serjeant Major's Row, is now named "George Street", in honour of our revered and gracious Sovereign.
… It being intended to remove all those old Buildings and enclosures now on that space of Ground which is bounded by the Government Domain on the East, by the Judge Advocate's, Secretary's, Chaplain's, and Commissary's Houses on the South, by the Spring of Water and Stream on the West, and by the Houses of Mr. Lord, Mr. Thompson, and Mr. Reibey on the North, and to throw the same into an open Area, the said Area or space of Ground, has been named "Macquarie Place", and it is henceforth to be so denominated.
(Signed) LACHLAN MACQUARIE.
By Command of His Excellency,
J. T. Campbell, Secretary.
At Macquarie Place, was placed the anchor of the First Fleet’s ‘Sirius’. Also, placed here, was the Francis Greenway-designed ‘Obelisk of Distances’.
Perhaps the earliest surviving monument in the Colony, the Obelisk’s inscription on one side reads ‘Sydney to Bathurst 137 Miles’ and, on the other side, reads: ‘erected in AD 1818 to record that all public roads leading to the interior of the colony are measured from it.’.
And signed: ‘L Macquarie Esq, Governor’
I have just returned from a trip to the ‘interior’ – to Gulgong and Mudgee, in fact – and I can report that the all public roads leading to the ‘interior’, aka our rural areas, are pretty good!
[PAUSE for LAUGHTER]
And, to that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Royal Automobile Club of Australia whose advocacy for motorists in those early days provided the spur to our road-building and our traffic laws.
Over the intervening years between Macquarie’s time and the early years of the twentieth century, many beautiful and graceful sandstone buildings would come to adorn this most historic of precincts in our city, including the Royal Automobile Club.
While George Street was the main thoroughfare, Macquarie Street was to become the milieu of political, cultural and intellectual life.
Lined with grand townhouses, it was further up the hill from the Tank Stream, the water source, which in an era of increasing population had developed a bit of ‘whiff’ about it.
In Macquarie’s time, it was clear that this Street was paved not with Gold, but with Rum.
Governor Macquarie’s Stables (now the Conservatorium of Music), at one end, bookended a ridgetop track through to Hyde Park Barracks, at its furthest end.
Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital stood at the very centre – in more ways than one - of the young Colony’s activities.
Between 1816 and 1848, this Hospital provided medical care for the colony’s convict workforce. The hospital was Lachlan Macquarie’s first public works project as Governor of New South Wales. Having been denied the necessary finances to build it, he struck up a deal with merchants Alexander Riley and Garnham Blaxcell, and colonial surgeon D’Arcy Wentworth. In exchange for a monopoly on the importation of 45,000 gallons of rum (spirits) to the colony, these contractors built Macquarie’s hospital, which, as we know, came to be popularly known as the ‘Rum Hospital’.
The Rum Hospital is today’s Parliament House – I’ll let you make any connections.
At the time of the establishment of the Automobile Club in 1903, our population was 500,000. Sydney did not yet have electricity - which arrived in the following couple of years - and street cleaners were tasked with the odious and odorous job of cleaning up after the horses that drew carriages along streets dust-caked in summer and mud-ridden in winter.
In 1901, Harley Tarrant produced the first petrol-driven car - the Tarrant – built entirely in Australia, manufactured in Melbourne.
With the development of the motor car – and the emergence of a new brigade of motoring enthusiasts - there was soon the need for an Automobile Club of Australia.
So began the Automobile Club of Australia, Australia’s oldest motoring association, which set out to defy the ‘tyranny of distance’ of this vast and sparsely inhabited land.
In the early days of motoring, the ACA negotiated with country hoteliers to stock fuel, providing Australia’s first petrol stations.
While motor cars and horse-drawn carts and carriages fought for space and plied the route outside these windows, it was not always an amicable relationship, with protests by horse drawn passengers against the drivers of the early motor cars, and vice versa.
By 1909, the Government had charged the Club, which had been set up to foster motor races and motor sports, with the responsibility for issuing Competency Certificates to drivers. While this may seem a bit like putting the cart before the horse, the first Driver Examiners were, in fact, Club Members.
So if we ever feel the need to tackle the ‘petrol heads’ on our roads, perhaps we should first consult the RACA records.
I am sure they would make for hair-raising reading.
In the area of pleasure motoring, the RACA had become a latter-day form, albeit much-needed, of Macquarie’s Watch-house – reporting on road conditions, the need for brakes, wayward vehicles, runaway horses … and much more.
The Sydney Morning Herald of Wednesday 9 July 1913, reports this fascinating snippet which gives us an insight into the early activities of the Club:
‘The Mosman Municipal Council will shortly erect one of the Automobile Club’s road caution signs at the top of the hill leading to the Spit on the Mosman side of Middle Harbour.
The club recently called the attention of the council to the fact that the four-mile an hour speed limit (!) notice, which already exists in the neighbourhood, is badly located, and likely to be overlooked by motorists.
The club sign will be erected some distance before the four-mile notice is reached, and will act as an additional warning to motorists.
The roads and tours committee met last evening to make final arrangements for the speed-judging contest for members, which will take place on Saturday afternoon.’
Slowing the small number of motorists down to 4 mile an hour became quite a task! Yet, note, in the same breath: speed-judging for motoring contests was a big part of the ACA agenda!
In the second decade of the twentieth century, the Automobile Club of Australia was tasked with something of a more serious nature …
As Australia entered the First World War, Members of the Club placed their motorcars at the hands of our First Australian Imperial Force and to transport returning wounded soldiers from ships to hospitals. For the duration of the war, motoring and manufacturing were suspended as resources were directed to the war effort.
Even prior to this, in the 1900s members offered their vehicles to the military authorities for use in Continuous Army Training at Liverpool, setting the basis for the formation of the Volunteer Automobile Corps, the first Motor Transport Unit in the Australian Army.
A previous Governor, Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, braved a 1906 journey from Moss Vale to Macquarie Fields to inspect the Corps.
It was clear the motor vehicle was to become a critical arm of our defence force. A section of the Automobile Club badge was also incorporated into the Volunteer Automobile Corps’ badge.
In 1919, after the conclusion of war, King George V conferred the status of Royal on this Club, recognising the service of this Club to the new nation and to the cause of the Empire.
In 1926, the Royal Automobile Club was built here in a grand, neo-classical palazzo style at 89 Macquarie Street, with the building opened on 23 March 1928 by the then Governor of New South Wales, Admiral Sir Dudley Rawson Stratford de Chair who knew a good – and convenient – watering hole when he saw it.
Architects Ross and Rowe were given honorary membership, as was Australian aviator Bert Hinkler following his London – Sydney flight. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew were also members – as was Englishwoman Miss Violette Cordery who visited the club in her capacity as the Royal Automobile’s worldwide test driver of the ‘Invicta’ car – an enviable role.
Our nation was again tested during World War Two. RACA members signed up for service, petrol rations were distributed by the Club, lectures were given about burning charcoal for gas, and vehicles were mobilised for the use of the Red Cross to transport the wounded from ships to hospitals.
Throughout the 20th century and now, into the 21st century, the Royal Automobile Club has been both driver and passenger to the many significant changes that have engulfed our city, our State and our nation.
Whether it was seeing the Harbour Bridge built and advocating for lanes to be marked, supporting the case for safer motoring as a precursor of the NRMA, or looking after the social and recreational needs of members, including the many from country areas and the armed services, you have been there – in the driver’s seat – proudly driving our physical movement and our psyche – and spurring us to connect with each other, the wider world and our global community.
In 1986, the Club incorporated the Imperial Services Club, further cementing a relationship with our servicemen and women that has been part and parcel of this Club from its very foundation, and linking this Club through its activities to our Imperial Forces during the First World War.
In 1969, the Ladies Committee was formed by Mrs Beth Fennell, bringing a new expansion of activities and energies to the club.
Linda and I convey our congratulations to the Ladies Committee on your 50th Anniversary this year and wish you all the best for your celebrations later this month.
I would like to return to the ‘Obelisk of Distance’ erected by Governor Macquarie in Macquarie’s Place.
After all, as before-mentioned, overcoming the tyranny of distance through promoting motoring was a prime purpose of this Club over the past 115 years.
I would like to conclude by reading a poem called ‘Commonwealth Home’ by Roderick Quinn, written in 1925.
It seems to sum up to me something of the history of this Royal Automobile Club of Australia, incorporating the Imperial Services Club, and what this history - and your future – is all about:
‘From here the roads take measurement
That journey south and north;
From here o’er leagues and gleaming leagues
The Western Road sets forth.
Who stands beside this Obelisk
And dreams a quite a while
Shall see them moving, marching on
Mile after shining mile.
He shall behold them scarfing heights
And ribboning wide plains;
Now carpeted with summer dust,
Now wet with winter rains.
And he shall see, and thrill to see,
With mind and heart aglow,
Long wool-teams moving down their length,
Long grain-teams crawling slow.
Dream-gazing, he may glimpse dim shapes-
Stern, resolute, sublime-
The men who trod them ere they knew
The wearing of wheels of time.
And, musing still, he may discern,
Unaltered by the years,
The footprints left by them of old-
Our deathless pioneers.
Who stands beside this Obelisk
And dreams awhile may see
Australia radiant on the road
Of her bright destiny.’
Linda and I congratulate the Royal Automobile Club of Australia, incorporating the Imperial Services Club, on your 115th Anniversary.
Sydney Gazette - https://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/1810/govorder6oct1810.html