The Canberra Burns Club in 2014 celebrated its 90th birthday. Formed in October 1924, it is Canberra’s first and longest serving Club.
And having been in existence for 90 of Canberra’s 100 year history, it is perhaps also the longest functioning organisation in Canberra’s history.
This is a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the many remarkable people who have for years tirelessly served the Club, its members, and the broader Canberra community.
That the Club was formed in 1924 reflects the large number of Scots that were in Canberra at that time. Canberra’s population in 1924 was approximately 3,000. Around 1,400 of those were involved in the numerous construction projects being undertaken to build the new city. Many of those 1,400 were Scots.
So the Scots decided to form an institution where they could socialise, maintain their Scottish cultural interests and ties, and generally provide each other with moral and other support in their newly adopted country.
Within a very short space of time, the newly formed Burns Club became active in the Canberra community. Within 2 weeks of forming, the Club held a Halloween concert on 31 October 1924. A musical committee was established in the November to form a choir, the first Robert Burns Night was held in January 1925, a Highland Gathering was held in February 1925 (the profits of which were donated to the P&C Association of the Telopea Park school), a soccer team was formed in February 1925, and in March 1925 a series of concerts were organised to help raise funds for the Queanbeyan Hospital.
The Club’s early focus on community events and activities set the pattern for the decades that have followed. Throughout its entire history, the Club has been a conscientious corporate citizen of the ACT, mindful of the important role Clubs can and should play in helping shape and enhance the community that the people of Canberra have come to enjoy.
In 1927 the Club initiated a project to build a Robert Burns statue in Canberra. For the ensuing eight years the Club lead an Australia wide fund raising program with Scottish Societies in other States to raise the equivalent of $300,000 and to oversee the design and construction phases. The Robert Burns statue was unveiled at its current location of Forrest in January 1935 at a ceremony attended by many hundreds of visitors and officiated at by the then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. The statue, the first public statue in Canberra, remains in situ today and the Club annually on 25 January holds a Burns Ceremony at the statue to celebrate the birth of the famous bard.
Other significant Club achievements in its early years include sponsoring, in 1945, the establishment of the Canberra Racing & Trotting Club. The Club took a lead role in organising the first race meeting which was held at Acton Race course on 20 April 1946. The main race of the day was the Canberra Highland Society Handicap. The Club also played key roles in helping establish Royal Canberra Golf Club, Royal Canberra Yacht Club, the Ainslie Football Club, Griffith Primary school and Telopea Park School.
The Club funded and built its own permanent Club facility which opened in Forrest on 1 January 1957. For the next three decades the Club established and funded 13 different intramural sporting groups. The sports were billiards, darts, indoor bowls, cricket, golf, 10 pin bowls, bridge, rowing, fishing, tennis, lawn bowls, chess, and soccer. In many cases these Club groups helped build the Canberra wide sporting calendars and fixtures for these sports.
The Club also established and supported the arts and music, particularly those with Scottish roots. It established a pipe band in 1937, a highland dancing group in 1952, and a Scottish country dance group in 1953.
The Club relocated to new premises in Kambah in 1991, with the officially opening held on 31 August 1991 and officiated at by the then Chief Minister of the ACT, Rosemary Follett. Membership grew from under 300 at Forrest in 1989, to 14,000 in Kambah by mid 1995. The Club quickly become an important part of the Tuggeranong community, helping bind that community together. The Club provided residents of the rapidly growing Tuggeranong valley with a venue where they and their families could relax, have a meal and generally enjoy themselves. But it did much more than just provide a venue. Consistent with its early history, the Club made a conscious decision to proactively contribute to the local community, supporting multiple community and sporting groups as well as providing local employment opportunities. By 1995, the Club was supporting over 50 local community groups through donations of approximately $90,000. These groups included sporting clubs, schools, nursing homes, child care centres, Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul, Tuggeranong Community Festival, Community Work Program and Canberra Children’s Choir.
The Burns Club also has a long history of engagement with the political class. For example, in 1931, James Scullin, the Labour Prime Minister, was guest of honour at Burns Night. In 1932, the “Immortal Memory” at Burns Night was delivered by John Latham, Deputy Prime Minister in the United Australia Party Government. In 1933 the Club appointed George MacKay, the Speaker of the House of Reps, as its first Patron. Guests at the 1935 Burns Night included Sir Robert & Lady Garran. In 1937, the Club created a Patron-in-Chief role, and appointed the then Governor General, Alexander Ruthven, to the role. And in 1939, then Prime Minister Robert Menzies accepted the honour of being Club Patron for a period of 2 years.
It is clear from this short outline of the history that the Canberra Burns Club that is has been deeply imbedded in the Canberra community for most of its life and has a record of consistent community contribution and significant achievement.
But perhaps there are two achievements throughout its history which stand out above all else.
The first is that the Burns Club has actually survived for those years. Very few organisations in Canberra – perhaps none – can say they have been able to achieve that longevity. This Club has survived the Great Depression, the 2nd World War, and a significant downturn in business during the 1980s brought about by a combination of intense new competition from other newer Clubs, and considerable demographic & social changes in Canberra’s population.
The second great achievement is that throughout the years the Club has remained true to the Constitutional objective of its founding fathers which is to preserve and promote Scottish culture. The Club pipe band remains strong and is one of the country’s finest. The Club continues to support the ACT highland dancing community. The Club is a major sponsor of an annual Highland Gathering as well as an annual piping and drumming Workshop which has become internationally regarded. The Club each year holds functions to commemorate Burns Night, St Andrews and the traditional new year’s eve Hogmanay celebrations. The Club continues to support teams in the sports of soccer, Rugby leagues, AFL, billiards, darts, pool, golf and fishing. And the Club maintains an outstanding library of works on Scottish history, Scottish culture, and Robert Burns.