Saturday, 18 March 2017

Army Medical Drill Hall

239 A'Beckett Street, Melbourne
On Wednesday a group of librarians attended a meeting at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria in A'Beckett Street, Melbourne. The RHSV is located in part of the former Australian Army Medical Drill Hall building and the meeting was held in the Speaker's Room, originally the Officer's Mess. In this impressive wood panelled room located upstairs, it is easy to imagine the functions that may have been held in the room in the past.

In 2010 a series of podcast walks describing locations in the area close to the RHSV was prepared and information from some of that research about the medical drill hall is provided in this post. Much of the information about the building was later added to the RHSV website. The article on the website also mentions two historical assessment reports made of the building.
Army Medical Corps
The site of the Amy Medical Drill Hall was continually occupied by the Army from 1866 until 1988. From 1866 the small weatherboard West Melbourne Orderly Room and the adjoining drill hall were used by Colonial Volunteer Forces. In 1900 a contract was signed for the construction of new weatherboard quarters at the eastern end of the site. All these buildings were demolished for the Medical Corps building.

The Australian Army Medical Corps headquarters was built between 1938 and 1939 by J. Whitelaw, Richmond at a budget cost of £25,947. The architect was George Hallandal of the Victorian section of the Department of the Interior, Works Branch.

The principal entrance to the building is at 239 A’Beckett Street, and it is here that the words Army Medical Corps and the badge of the Corps are pressed into the cement cornice.  Of the numerous additional entrances to the building, the one on Williams Street leads to the Officer’s Mess.
Detail of building - corner of A'Beckett Street and William Street
The functional and utilitarian building has two large drill halls with offices along their northern wall. The drill halls are separated by a public entrance foyer which leads off A’Beckett Street. Messes are placed at the centre of the building for sergeants and at the east and west ends of the building for "other ranks" and officers. The room for "other ranks" was located in the basement.

The materials featured in this late 1930s building are primarily brick and plaster, plus timber. Design features include strong vertical and horizontal lines, fluted pilasters, arches, keystones, coffered ceilings and built-in seats. The offices along the side of the hall have Dutch or stable doors. The workmanship in the building construction is impressive showing off the quality of the work of the bricklayers, plasterers and carpenters.

The building was the result of both the defence build-up just prior to World War II and the end of the 1930s depression when government sponsored construction was used to employ trades people.

The Army Medical Corps' new building was purposely designed to provide a centrally located building for the administration, organisation and implementation of training, research and advice in medical, hygiene and hospital procedures, provision of services and the issuing of stores and payroll.

When the hall was built the staff of the Army Medical Corps was 39. By the end of 1944 the members of the corps numbered 32,100, including 3,500 nurses who were admitted to the corps after September 1940. As well as the two halls being used as indoor parade areas, they were used as a gymnasium and for general physical training. The halls were also used for social gatherings. 

Post war use of the building to 1988 included Medical Corps Reserve training, including nurses, premises for the 3rd Psychology Unit, army publicity (with printing equipment), intermittent drill training (including rehearsals for Legacy shows) and garaging of vehicles.

A number of the nurses who have made return visits to the building have described marching drill in the hall and also out in the street, watched by men waiting for accommodation at the Gill, located nearby.

By 1990 the building had been added to Heritage Victoria’s Historic Buildings Register as being of state-wide architectural and historical significance.

Since August 1999 the western end of the building has been the premises of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria to house the society’s library, images and manuscript collections, and as a space for exhibitions and lectures.

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