#ThrowbackThursday – Today we time travel back to February 1968 and the site of the Eltham War Memorial building precinct located at 903-907 Main Road, Eltham. The Memorial spans the area between Main Road and the railway line and is owned and managed by Nillumbik Shire Council (formerly Eltham Shire Council). It contains the former Eltham Infant Welfare Centre (now Eltham Food Share), the former Children’s Library (now War Memorial Hall) and Eltham Pre-School. The precinct also contains the Senior Citizens Centre though this was never part of the original Eltham War Memorial Trust buildings. The complex was developed by the Eltham War Memorial Trust Inc., as a form of living memorial as a ‘constant reminder to us of those who fought for us and the little ones for whom they fought and died’.
Eltham District Historical Society maintains an interest in this site as a living memorial, established from funds raised from within the community by public subscription, with a specific focus for the welfare of children of the district.
The Society also maintains an interest in the adjoining former Eltham Shire Office site at 895 Main Road for its historic connections with Shillinglaw Cottage and the Shillinglaw trees, which were originally part of the Shillinglaw Cottage garden on which all these buildings are located and which remain at the front of that site. Early Society meetings were usually held in the Eltham War Memorial Hall. From September 1983 they moved to the Eltham Senior Citizens’ Centre, contained within the Eltham War Memorial building precinct where they have remained to present day.
Nillumbik Shire Council will soon commence an extensive community engagement process to look at possible uses for the currently empty site at 895 Main Road, along with the adjacent parcel of land at 903-907 Main Road upon which resides the Eltham War Memorial building precinct, purchased by public subscription and donated to the Shire.
Eltham District Historical Society’s Position
Our Society is of the firm opinion that the original three Eltham War Memorial complex of buildings including the entrance gates should not be sold, nor demolished. The site should remain in community ownership and be retained as a form of living memorial with a specific focus directed towards the welfare of the children of the district to ‘be a constant reminder of those who fought for us and the little ones for whom they fought and died’.
Further, Eltham District Historical Society also holds the position that the three Mediterranean Cypress trees (Shillinglaw trees), which are well over 100 years old, still standing proudly in front of the adjoining former Shire of Eltham Office site, are of local heritage significance. These trees represent a navigational beacon between the past, present and future landscape and history of the district and are covered by a heritage overlay. The Society is determined that they should be protected; they should not be disturbed by relocation and that the land they reside upon should also remain in community hands, not private ownership.
History of the War Memorial
Following the end of the First World War, communities across Victoria and Australia typically erected memorials which were predominantly statues, cenotaphs, avenues of honour and plaques. The Shire of Eltham established the Avenue of Honour at the gateway to the shire as well as an obelisk at the corner of Main Road and Bridge street and the Shire of Eltham War Memorial Tower at Kangaroo Ground.
After the Second World War communities once again desired to preserve the memories of those who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Resources were scarce so there was a transition away from the traditional style memorials that sprang up post 1918 to one of building facilities that would provide ongoing benefit to the community.
Even before the end of the Second World War, the citizens of Eltham began to consider an appropriate form of memorial for those from the area who fought and died in the First and Second World Wars. In 1943 the Eltham Women’s Auxiliary raised funds for the construction of buildings to be established on land to be purchased for the proposed War Memorial. On March 27th, 1945, the Eltham District Progress Association called a meeting of local people who in turn set up and registered the Eltham War Memorial Trust Inc. As a focus for the purpose of the memorial, the newspaper notice read:-
‘Those who have had a member of their family in the fighting services will want to see that the form of a memorial we are concerned with is the one which will be a constant reminder to us of those who fought for us and the little ones for whom they fought and died.’
At that meeting it was decided the Memorial should take the form of a baby health centre along with a creche and children’s library. In late 1945, the newly formed Eltham War Memorial Trust purchased the land at 903-907 Main Road Eltham from Miss Shillinglaw, which once formed part of the Shillinglaw farm on Lot 90 of Holloway’s 1851 “Little Eltham” subdivision.
The Governor of Victoria, General Sir Dallas Brooks, laid the foundation stone on November 24th, 1950, in memory of those who fell in the Second World War. The Eltham Infant Welfare Centre was opened November 15th, 1952, the Pre-school on December 1st, 1956, and the Children’s Library on November 11th, 1961. In late 1966 the children’s library service was integrated into the Heideberg Regional Library Service and the building was officially renamed the Eltham War Memorial Hall.
Following the opening of the Eltham Infant Welfare Centre, work began in 1953 planning for the entrance to the grounds, which is signaled by a wrought iron arch entitled “Eltham War Memorial” . In 1954 the Eltham War Memorial Trust decided that a legacy provided by the late Councillor Ernest James Andrew (d. 29 March 1950) in memory of his wife, Mrs. Ellen Andrew (d. 13 July 1946) and who are both buried at Eltham Cemetery, should be used to fund the construction of the entrance. A metal plate inscribed to this effect was attached to the gates.
Work on the Memorial Gardens was undertaken throughout the following decade, with a Memorial Forecourt included in the final 1956 plans for the Pre-School Centre. A quote was accepted by the Trust in 1963 for the implementation of a memorial garden, which included grading of a sixty-five foot strip at the rear of the Trust buildings and construction of concrete paths. The stone retaining walls at the front of the site were installed in 1968 when Main Road was widened and it is believed that the Memorial Gates were relocated at that time also.
Eltham Senior Citizens Centre
In 1964, Eltham Shire Council purchased a section of land from the Trust at the northern end of the site, as a provision for Country Fire Authority buildings. At the same time the Elderly Citizens Club proposed a Senior Citizens Centre on the south western section of the Trust’s property. This was approved by the Trust with the provision that the building was constructed in ‘accord’ with those already existing. In 1965 Council took on board the plans for the Senior Citizens Centre and applied for a government grant. These could only be awarded if Council owned the site.
In 1962 the Trust had resolved to hand over the assets to Council once the Memorial Gardens were completed. This was in line with Health Department requirements that grants for the ongoing operation and maintenance of the three facilities would only be made once the the facilities were completed and handed over to Council. In 1965 the Department of Health further demanded substantial alterations to the Pre-School playground as a result of the pending impact of the planned Senior Citizens Centre and Main Road duplication. As a consequence, handover of the Trust’s assets to Council was initiated with a formal ceremony held in the Children’s Library on August 28th, 1965. The Trust continued on as a committee of management for another twelve months.
Plans and specifications for the Senior Citizens Centre were prepared by March 1966. Council obtained a grant from the Government which covered one third of the cost and the building was completed by April 1967.
Whilst the Senior Citizens Centre is contained within the original Eltham War Memorial building precinct, it was not part of the original Memorial and was not funded by the Eltham War Memorial Trust.
Eltham Major Activity Centre 2004
In the Society’s Newsletter No. 157, July 2004, we reported that as part of the State Government’s Melbourne 2030 strategy, Eltham (along with many other business centres) was identified as a major activity centre. The Council was required to produce a structure plan to guide future development of the centre. The activity centre was defined to include the Eltham shopping centre and adjacent residential areas, the industrial area based on Bridge Street, parkland and the library precinct linking the two business areas, and the railway station area.
Nillumbik Council’s consultants prepared a draft report containing wide ranging recommendations on land use, urban design, community facilities and transport within this area. As a Society most of the recommendations did not impact upon our interests. However, some of the recommendations related to heritage aspects and comment was provided to the Council at the time where these were considered to be detrimental to heritage interests.
The report recommended the sale of the Eltham War Memorial site and seemed to not fully recognise the significance of the site and its publicly funded memorial buildings. It was put to the Council by the Society that the site should be retained in its current role although some alterations to the buildings and their use may be warranted.
Similarly, with the adjoining site of the former Eltham Shire Offices, we opposed the recommended sale and, in particular, we supported protection for the three Shillinglaw trees remaining on the site.
In the Society’s Newsletter No. 159, November 2004, we reported as part of its adoption of a structure plan for the Eltham “Activity Centre”, Nillumbik Council decided not to adopt the recommendation to offer the Eltham War Memorial site for sale. Many submissions including one from our Society suggested that this was the correct course of action. However, it was also noted that Council still proposed to sell the adjoining former Shire Office site.
Eltham RSL and War Memorial
The Eltham War Memorial, which takes the form of an obelisk is inscribed with the names of Eltham serviceman who died in the First World War. The obelisk is one of several local war memorials. It was first erected at the north west comer of Bridge Street and Main Road. The memorial was unveiled on 3rd August 1919 by Sir William Irvine, then Lieutenant Governor of Victoria and Eltham resident. Photographs of the ceremony show a large crowd of people occupying the whole of the intersection. Later the names of those who died in the Second World War were added.
Its location was on a high bank above the road but with the duplication of Main Road in 1968 that bank disappeared and the location lies now within the road carriageway. It was moved to the Eltham RSL site in the 1950s well before the 1968 road widening.
The Eltham RSL had its origin in 1927 when it was formed as a branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League. Following the financial collapse of the Eltham RSL sub-branch and subsequent amalgamation with Montmorency RSL and sale of the Eltham RSL site, Council resolved to relocate the War Memorial obelisk to the Eltham War Memorial building precinct.
The obelisk was covered by a heritage overlay under the Nillumbik Planning Scheme and a planning permit was required for its removal. The Society wrote to both the state office of the RSL and Nillumbik Shire Council expressing our interest in the future of the memorial. We suggested a new location near the comer of Panther Place and Library Place adjacent to Eltham Library. This recommendation was not accepted.
The obelisk was ultimately relocated to the Eltham War Memorial building precinct in April 2012 and works to install a street level terraced area to accommodate the obelisk were completed at that time. In the citation for the Eltham War Memorial, comprising of the granite obelisk, plinths and bollards, it is identified as historical, aesthetic and of social significance to the Shire of Nillumbik. In 2013, a permanent heritage overlay over the obelisk was enacted.
The decision by Nillumbik Shire Council to allow relocation of the obelisk to the Eltham War Memorial building precinct was contrary to the view of this Society. In particular, it is considered that the site works required to install the monument significantly compromised the heritage integrity of the total War Memorial site.
Our society was concerned that we were being placed in a situation where we could be seen to be critical of ANZAC Day services and a revered organisation such as the RSL, because we strive to support retention and care of heritage places of significance in our local area. Members of our Society have been involved over many years with various related projects, including the Eltham Avenue of Honour, the War Memorial Tower and the replacement of the First World War Honour Board at Research Primary School, as well as detailed research regarding service personnel involved during both world wars from the Eltham Shire region.
Cultural Heritage Significance Assessment
In November 2011, a Cultural Heritage Significance assessment was undertaken on the Eltham War Memorial building precinct for Nillumbik Shire Council. The result of the study was that it was identified as being of local significance, worthy of being included in the heritage overlay. A primary reason for the significance of the Eltham War Memorial building precinct is its construction as a “memorial with a civic purpose and with a particular focus on the welfare of infants”. The report also states that the “construction of a
complex of war memorial buildings, all with infant related purposes, does appear to be rare, with no other known examples found during this assessment”. In summary, the heritage advice was that the open views to the War Memorial Buildings should be retained as should the relationship between the three buildings. Council considered this advice when it decided to relocate the Eltham War Memorial obelisk to this site in 2011 and resolved that any future works or planting should not limit visibility of the War Memorial Buildings from Main Road.
As the owner of the land and adjacent buildings, Council has a responsibility under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) to ensure, as far as practicable, that compliance with the DDA is achieved. In February 2014, Council conducted an audit of the Eltham War Memorial precinct to identify non-compliances under the DDA and the relevant Australian Standards. This audit included an assessment of access from Main Road through to Eltham Pre-school and the War Memorial Hall. The pathway was determined to be non-compliant due to the steepness of the gradient as a result of modifications to the entrance to install the obelisk. Subsequent to this, an extended ramp system was installed, which is not sympathetic to the original design of the War Memorial entrance and gardens.
Eltham District Historical Society was concerned when it was originally suggested to relocate the obelisk to this site as we considered it would inappropriately detract from the heritage significance of the Eltham War Memorial building precinct. We feel our concerns have been confirmed by the subsequent actions taken.
- War Memorial Building Complex, 903-907 Main Road, Eltham: Cultural Heritage Significance assessment, November 2011; Prepared for Nillumbik Shire Council by Samantha Westbrooke Pty Ltd in association with Peter Mills PhD, Architectural Historian
- Agenda, 14 October 2014, Policy and Services Committee, Nillumbik Shire Council
- Various Newsletters, Eltham District Historical Society