Sydney Journalists Club remembered 17

Sydney once boasted of one of the world’s wildest and wooliest Journalists clubs. Unique in Australia, the club owned its own city building which served as a centre for strikes, union meetings, offered literary awards, held a star studded guest speaker series and a library founded by one Australia’s leading poets and featured, lets admit it, a good deal of drinking.
Memorabilia from the Sydney club, which closed in 1997, is informing a major research project on Australian contemporary journalism history by the University of Technology Sydney.

Club members included a who’s who of Australian journalism, as well as movie stars like the iconic Chips Rafferty and Academy Award winner, Peter Finch and Prime Ministers, Robert Menzies and John Curtin.

According to veteran artist, George Sprod, the Journalists Club was “the liveliest place in Sydney at the time”. “Journalists were a gregarious lot, full of fun and games…on account of their boozing tendencies.

Arguments were frequent, sometimes erupting into beer slinging and fisticuffs, while as for the Fruit [poker] Machines…on more than one occasion a frustrated investor had been seen to lift up the offending contraption bodily and hurl it through the window into the street below.

In an attempt to show a semblance of respectability, a strict dress code was enforced by the stewards. In the early days, male journalists were told they should not wear hats inside or expose their braces outside, which apparently made them look like gangsters. In latter years they were made to wear ties. The irascible Paddy McGuinness was, as a result, once denied entrance. Paddy produced a tie and with a flourish, tied it around his head, Geronimo style. “Right,” he said” I’m wearing a bloody tie! Let me in!”.

The club was established in 1939. It closed its doors in 1997, merging with the Sydney Sports Club. This year the Sports Club closed its Journalists’ bar.

Where did it all go?

The Journalists club opened its doors with less than $140 in the bank. Forty years later it owned property and fittings worth $1.5 million and an investment portfolio worth $180,000. The building is now a block of flats.
Today all that is left is some books, photos and a few damaged paintings.

Club artifacts which still need to be located include:

  • The 1959 Archibald Prize winning painting of club president, Ray Walker
  • Archived photographs including a signed portrait of Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton
  • A rare framed newspaper post proclaiming “The relief of Mafeking
  • Original cartoons by Bernier, Mercier, Rafty, Sprod, Reilly and Glover
  • The club wine cellar, which was founded with a carton of Hill of Grace (We’re not too hopeful here!)
  • The entire Kenneth Slessor memorial library of first edition books
  • The Club’s VIP visitors book with its galaxy of celebrity signatures from a Pope to director, Alfred Hitchcock
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17 comments

  1. Ah, the power of the 24-hour licence – it was always time to go home if you there there! Many memorable moments in a young journo’s life including the late great Jim Oram’s 50th birthday party at which the late great Ricky May sang…

  2. The Noel Butlin Archives Centre at the Australian National University holds 5 boxes of records of the Sydney Journalists’ Club including Board minutes, membership registers and cartoons by Bernier (6) and Rafty (1). The Mitchell Library holds photographs and possibly other material.

  3. i have a membership badge which i would love to know who it belonged to. Maybe the uni should give the boxes of records to the national archives? my badge no is 2922.

  4. UTS has very little in the way of records. Just a few cartoons, a couple of paintings, some photos and a club brass plate.

  5. My father’s, (Bill Pidgeon’s) 1958 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Ray Walker was stolen twice from the Journalists Club around 1988 and returned under mysterious circumstances. On one occassion my mother received a phone call from an anonymous person who had a change of heart and wished to return the portrait. He said he would leave it near the letterbox of the family home in Northwood. My mother was apprehensive and did not want that. She told him to leave it at the shelter at Northwood wharf. When the Club folded, the portrait disappeared again under mysterious circumstances and has not been seen or heard of since. I suspect it was misappropriated by theft again possibly by someone with inside knowledge of it. I consider this painting stolen and would appreciate any information that would lead to its return to the art collection of the Estate of William Edwin Pidgeon.

  6. It really saddens me that the Journalists Club, a fantastic resource built over generations by people like Bill Pidgeon, appears to have been plundered when it’s financial resources were exhausted. Hopefully, some of the people who took these things, will have some conscience and return them for the common good.

  7. I agree Alan. The Club had some amazing treasures. It’s a real shame that it did not survive. It seems to me that the NSW State Library would be the most appropriate institution to hold these treasures for the benefit of all. Perhaps eventually they will find their way back together. I am currently reviewing all my father’s papers, etc and of course there are a number of items pertinent to the Club, including numerous membership badges. I remember going to the Club on several occassions and recall the excellent luncheons and interesting guest speakers they had such as Neil Armstrong, Rolf Harris, Gough Whitlam, etc. My mother Dorothy particularly enjoyed these occasions for many years especially after Dad had died. I was only very young at the time and may not have been so appreciative of them then but sure would like the opportunity nowadays if I could travel back in time.

  8. Sadly its no longer part of what remains of the club collection. It’s likely to have either been stolen or trashed. I live in hope that memorabilia can be returned, but its a faint hope.

  9. Not sure what happened to most of the paintings, the majority of which were painted by my father, Bill Pidgeon. As far as I know, his 1961 portrait of Ken Slessor, which was an Archibald Prize finalist is also missing. I do know that the one he did of King Watson was purchased by King’s family. Also, Tony Rafty told me ten years ago that the then President, Mr North, offered to sell to Tony his portrait by Sir William Dargie however Tony did not have the asking price of $2,000 at the time. Not sure if he ever did get to purchase it. Tony also informed me that Dad’s paintings of Don Angel and Matt Corbert were given to their families at no cost. It seems there was some inequity in how things were being handled and at no time was our family ever approached to return the paintings my father did, which would have been reasonable to expect given he did most of them at way below cost. (In 1971 Dad painted 7 past presidents of the Club for only $800. This was at a time when he was charging $2,000 to $3,000 per portrait commission.) Other paintings were put into storage at Millers and never seen again. Tony also informed me that he had been told Mr North had taken the Visitor’s Book with the Pope’s signature, etc into his care but what happened to it or whether his family still have it is unknown. Tony also said all the tapes of the guest speakers disappeared. It really is deplorable what happened to all these treasures and speaks poorly of the management running the club and the time and why, perhaps, it folded.

  10. I was in Hong Kong when the club folded. I was aware that there was quite a bit of memorabilia that was of historic value. I emailed Jim North and asked him whether my university could act as a custodian for it. He never replied.

  11. I’ve only just discovered Online Journalism. Better late than never.

    I was a club member from 1981 till it closed its doors in 1997, although I didn’t get there much in later years as pubs stayed open later and later. There used to be several clubs in the area _ the Journos’, the Musicians’ Club just along Chalmers St, and across Railway Square the Graphic Arts Club and the Transport Club. All long gone.

    Few journos made the trek up to Hunter St when the NSW Sports Club absorbed the Journalists’ Club. One who did, the late Tony Curtis, told me that he got a frosty reception when he sought entry one night.

    I’ve often wondered what became of the snooker tables on the top floor.

    • The Sports Club was kind enough to give UTS what was left of the old Journalists Club memorabilia. But they wouldn’t part with the huge nude painting which used to hang opposite the main bar. Tony Rafty, who spent quite a bit of time restoring it, was pretty cranky about that. We have hung what we have in the corridor of the UTS Graduate School of Journalism, I am not sure where we would have put the nude!

  12. I played in bands during the late 80s at the journos. A great place. I knew some journalists at the time and for me what happened is during the 80s restaurants took over. I remember Thai food was so exotic. Japanese, Spanish restaurants were all popping up and they were the places you bragged to your friends and colleagues about frequenting. I think everyone thought the Journos would always be there. In actual fact on a friday or saturday night during the late eighties other than the bands and the people that came to see them you were hard pressed to find a journo in there.

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