Our history and heritage

A council at war: World War 1 in Sydney

As we commemorate Anzac Day, we look in our archives to explore the involvement of Sydney Municipal Council in World War 1 and the war’s aftermath.

  • Australians give generously

    World War 1 broke out on 4 August 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany. Australia was involved in the war from the start.

    Sydney Municipal Council likewise supported the war from the outset. The Lord Mayor’s Patriotic and War Fund was established 5 days after war was declared. The fund supported the families of soldiers and sailors on active service and the widows and children of the men killed.

    Patriotic Australians gave generously to the fund and volunteered their skills to the war effort. This report in a local newspaper reported in the month since the fund was established that £125,000 was raised. In current value, that’s around $16.5 million.

    By 1918 the fund had supported 14,000 families. Some on multiple occasions or with weekly allowances. It was wound up in 1920.

    A second fund was established in 1939 for World War 2. This cotton bag was used during the war to send comforts for troops serving overseas and for those in need at home.

    Credit: Cotton bag – Lord Mayor's Patriotic and War Fund, 1940–1947, City of Sydney Archives CC-000096
  • Council staff go to war

    Sydney Municipal Council supported staff recruitment and promised to keep jobs open for those who returned from the war. It also paid enlisted staff the difference between their military pay and normal pay.

    Around 600 council officers and employees enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force during World War 1. They ranged from block boys, carters, draftsmen and drivers to engineers, labourers and rat catchers. Officers who enlisted included Adam Forest Grant, pictured in this photo second from right.

    Grant started his working life at Sydney Council in 1908 as a draftsman in the Electric Light Department and was quickly promoted through the ranks. He worked for council until he died in 1949. Over 41 years, he worked his way up to become the supervising engineer of Building Works. His work service was interrupted for 3 years when he enlisted in the Field Company Engineers on 23 March 1916. This photo was taken on board the ship as Grant made his way to Egypt.

    A longstanding member of the Photographic Society of NSW, Grant was a camera enthusiast who documented Sydney’s urban life in the interwar period. His family donated around 180 of his photographs, slides, films and glass plate negatives to the City of Sydney Archives in 2012.

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00034489
  • Fundraising with gusto

    Sydney Town Hall was the location of many war-related events during World War 1, including several fundraising concerts featuring popular singer Dame Nellie Melba.

    “More than three thousand people were spell-bound by the magical charm of Dame Nellie Melba's voice at Saturday's matinee in aid of the Lord Mayor's Fund for soldiers' dependents. There was not a person present who did not feel privileged to hear the world's great representative soprano displaying her art in matchless song.” – Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October 1918. This program is from that concert.

    In 1941, sculptor Arthur Murch created an art deco bas relief tribute to Dame Nellie Melba, which is located in Centennial Hall.

    Credit: Concert program from Dame Nellie Melba's concert in Sydney Town Hall, 26 October 1918. Concerts. Box 1, folder 2, State Library of NSW F940.394/2.
  • Women’s involvement in the war effort

    Rooms within Sydney Town Hall were used to support the home front war effort. A recruiting depot was opened in the lower town hall in August 1915. Lord Mayor Richard Watkin Richards handed over the cloak rooms for ambulance training. Lady Mayoress Mrs Richards lent the 3 elegant reception rooms on the first floor for a sewing guild.

    Sewing machines were donated by Singer & Co and committed female volunteers spent the war years sewing and knitting warm clothes and other necessities for soldiers overseas.

    Journalists from the Sunday Times visited town hall in October 1914. They reported that on the day they visited the guild’s “tally of the work turned out” included “2 dozen pyjamas, 49 chest protectors, 50 soldiers' bags, 27 cholera belts, 2 dozen shirts. So let no one say that the Guild is merely ornamental or its time devoted to tea and gossip”.

    There was also the Red Cross depot in lower town hall, where up to 30 women “toiled daily” to make bandages from old linen, for soldiers on the frontline.

    These knitted socks were reproduced from a Red Cross pattern used during World War I.

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives CC-000072
  • Changing of the guard

    In 1916, a new Lady Mayoress, Alice Meagher (pictured), took over the sewing guild from its founder Minnie Richards. There were no hard feelings between the women. When the sewing rooms reopened after a Christmas break in February 1916, following a change in mayors, it was reported the former Lady Mayoress showed up to sew like any other volunteer.

    By 1918, the sewing guild was a highly respected fixture of Sydney Town Hall, as reported in a local newspaper: “The hum of the sewing machines and the click of the knitting pins lends a different aspect to the handsome rooms where Sydney society was wont to foregather in its best frocks when the reigning civic queen was receiving in the happy days before the war. But there is no war weariness about the band of devoted workers who are as enthusiastic as ever for the soldiers' needs.”

    Mrs Richards regained the mantle of Lady Mayoress in 1919 when her husband became Lord Mayor for a second time.

    Credit: Portrait of Mrs Meagher, Lady Mayoress 1916–17, City of Sydney Archives A-00031691
  • Australia divided on the conscription debate

    The conscription debate divided Australian society along class, gender and sectarian lines. War weariness set in by 1916, following significant losses at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Sydney Town Hall was a key forum for the debate.

    On 18 September 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes launched his pro-conscription campaign at the town hall. As shown in this photograph, Centennial Hall was packed with around 4,000 people for Hughes’s address. Many thousands more – most of them against military conscription – were crowded outside.

    Credit: Government Printing Office 1 – 18448 – Mr Hughes' meeting, Sydney Town Hall, glass plate negative, 1917. NSW State Archives NRS-4481-3-[7/16382A]-St5972
  • Violence possible

    Security was a concern for Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s pro-conscription launch event at Sydney Town Hall in 1916. The question of conscription and the related referendums divided Australians. Violence fears were outlined in this letter from Corporal E Llewellen from the Soldier’s Club on George Street to the Lord Mayor Richard Meagher.

    “During the week, I have heard it repeated that there is an attempt made to do some mischief at the Prime Minister’s meeting. Today, I was told there is a strong probability that bombs will be used.

    “This referendum has created a crisis, and the [need] has arrived for more active co-operation of the military and police to deal with all possibilities,” he wrote. “Without a picket, a bomb thrower could easily hide himself during the day and do his deadly work at night.”

    The council engaged police officers to control the crowds, but apart from some vocal hecklers, the meeting remained peaceful.

    A post-event letter from the Prime Minister’s office to the Deputy Town Hall Clerk William Layton showed that despite fears, “it was a great success and everything went off without a hitch”.

    Credit: File – Use of Sydney Town Hall for conscription referendum, 1916. City of Sydney Archives A-00103584.
  • Application denied

    Sydney Town Hall was a pawn in the conscription debate in 1917.

    Future Lord Mayor William Lambert was a key mover in the anti-conscription campaign. In November 1917, Lambert tried to book the town hall for a meeting, but his application was rejected. Lambert told the Sydney Morning Herald, "we tried to get Town Hall, but evidently some influences are at work which prevented us from getting it”.

    Town Clerk Thomas Nesbitt was not impressed by Lambert’s claims, and presented this Minute Paper to the finance committee, rejecting the “mischievous and damaging innuendo”.

    Nesbitt said no application had been made, but that in any case, the town hall was already booked out for the date they requested.

    Nesbitt continued: “The Town Hall officials do not take sides in political matters but invariably hold the scales evenly … No influences of any kind, direct or indirect were at work to prevent the promoters of the Anti-Conscription meeting obtaining the Town Hall for purposes of their meeting.”

    Credit: File – Sydney Town Hall unavailable for Anti-Conscription Meeting, 1917. City of Sydney Archives A-00104482
  • Victory at last

    Armistice came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918.

    The war was over.

    Cities and towns around Australia erupted in celebration. This photograph was taken on Victory Day held 6 months later in July 1919. Crowds filled Sydney’s streets to view a peace pageant and a procession of returned soldiers through the city.

    See more images and find out more about Victory Day .

    Credit: Victory Day Parade, Bridge Street Sydney, 1919. City of Sydney Archives A-00022402
  • Sydney Town Hall

    Sydney Town Hall was not illuminated to mark Victory Day. The Labor-dominated council was criticised in the press for this decision, and for their “pacifist leanings”. In sympathy with this position, conservative alderman Lindsay Thompson argued that the £700 would be better spent providing housing to returned soldiers.

    Thompson argued that the world was in the middle of an influenza epidemic and that the parade went against the wishes of health officials. Although other aldermen argued, “that peace – the most important event in the history of the world – should be celebrated”, Alderman Thompson won the argument with 13 votes to 11.

    Decorations on Sydney Town Hall included a banner hanging from the balcony that read: 'Sydney Municipal Staff and Employees. Enlistments, Killed in Action, Munitions Workers'. People on the street held up a sign that reads 'Prizes in Bolshevik Lottery Salvaged Goods'.

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00017073
  • Honouring the dead

    Soon after Armistice Day, Lord Mayor James Joynton Smith planned for an honour board to be erected at Sydney Town Hall, commemorating “every man who enlisted from the city”. Smith lost his mayoral seat soon after and in the following years, questions were raised about funding for the memorial and where it would be placed in the building.

    In 1924, legislation was passed that gave council statutory power to erect a roll of honour and the city architect and building surveyor prepared a design for it the following year. The memorial tablet was fabricated but its installation was delayed when it became clear the cost to install it would equal its manufacture.

    For the next 24 years the tablet sat locked in a strongroom until World War 2 took its course and warranted the production of another honour roll.

    Credit: Plan – Town Hall Honour Roll World War I, 1940. City of Sydney Archives A-00545403
  • Quiet recognition

    In 1949, 2 honour rolls were finally installed on either side of the entrance to Sydney Town Hall, recognising both world wars.

    The World War 1 roll of honour contains the names of 640 enlisted men employed by the council during the war, as well as veterans who joined the council once the war had ended. In contrast to other municipal honour rolls unveiled during World War 1, Sydney Town Hall’s rolls of honour were set in place with no fanfare or elaborate unveiling.

    Credit: World War 1 roll of honour at the southern entrance to Sydney Town Hall photographed in 2015 (Paul Patterson / City of Sydney).