Clunes history

November 9th, 2020Clunes history

THE Independent Order of Rechabites is a fraternal organisation founded in England in 1835. Founded by a group of Methodists in Manchester, its name was lifted from the nomadic, teetotaller Rechabites of the Old Testament.

The modern incarnation of the Rechabites was part of the larger temperance movement popular at the time and encouraged complete abstinence from alcohol. The Order grew to have chapters around the world including Australia and still exists today as a financial institution retaining its temperance message.
In the burgeoning colony of Victoria, its members were concerned for the wellbeing of the workers of the Goldfields and set up their first “tent” at Clunes on June 27, 1865.

The term tent was another nod to the historic Rechabites and the nomadic dwellings where they lived and preached. But moves were immediately afoot to secure the funding for a permanent structure and by June 13, 1868, a capacity crowd attended the formal opening of a new solid brick hall.
In the cosy 17-metre x 9-metre space more than 300 attendees listened to “Yankee Bill” Ward and Mr. Mathew Barnett extol the virtues of an alcohol-free life and principles of the Rechabite Order. A good time was had by all.
The Morning Star Tent of Rechabites, Clunes continued to operate up to 1902 when its last residing Brother, G.S. Allen, was sent to Beechworth. However, within a few years the space became popularly known as the Apollo Hall. It went through several owners including local journalist Joseph Tarrant before eventually being sold to the Clunes Fire Brigade in 1907.
Over the course of its history, the hall was a big part of the social life of Clunes. In fact, a ball (presumably alcohol-free) was being held there when lower Fraser Street was destroyed by fire in October 1870. The smouldering remains were then inundated by the great flood of 1870 the next day.

Even though it was turned into a fire station, this did not spell the end of the space being regularly appropriated for social occasions. Fawcett’s Rhythm Aces with Bill and Madge Fawcett played many times there in the 1930s.
And Spike Jones, a long-time Clunes resident stationed at the Fire Brigade from the 1950s on remembers well the gatherings at the old building. “They had big events there, dances, balls, even table tennis. Many local musicians performed there and the shows would attract hundreds of people from all around the district including Avoca and Campbelltown.”
The Fire Brigade Service remained at the site for 84 years, adding an extra shed and emergency bell tower during that time. Today the building is in private hands but retains the façade of the original building and all the features that would have been familiar to a person viewing it 152 years ago. It remains the oldest surviving hall of the Independent Order of Rechabites in Victoria.

Image: The former Rechabite Hall in the 1950s when it was the base for the Clunes Fire Brigade, courtesy of the Clunes Museum.

As the building is today

Words and inset image: Tony Sawrey

Thanks to Clunes Museum president James Curzon-Siggers for his assistance with this article.

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