The Diggers’ Club and Me

Jen often wants me to tell her a story. But it isn’t that easy. I’m not one of those blokes who can spin a yarn at the drop of a hat or even talk the legs off an iron pot (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). The mood has to be right and the muse suitably inspired.

The Harbord Diggers’ Club is a topic I’ve always vaguely intended to write about one day. Moreover, it’s an institution whose mere mention is guaranteed to send Jen into instant paroxysms of delight ever since she discovered its existence only last year. Not just that wonderful name, but the sheer hulking presence of this temple to fundamental Aussie values perched in tawdry isolation on the northern headland at Harbord beach where I grew up.

Strangely enough, the Diggers’ Club came up by sheer chance in conversation only a couple of nights ago, while we were having coffee and focaccia with Edmund and his partner Bob at the Cool Spot at Fannie Bay. I can’t quite remember how the topic arose, but Edmund confided he had once been a member of Harbord Diggers’ some years ago when he lived in Sydney. It seems Edmund wasn’t attracted by the beer or poker machines or the capacious lawn bowls greens at the Diggers’. He joined solely because of the excellent gym facilities, and so he could jog around the headland with the circuit training class. Edmund is a chappie of roughly spherical physical proportions these days, so I couldn’t help secretly visualising him as a chubby cherub prancing lightly around the Harbord headland, loosely clad in diaphonous robes and closely followed by an intensive care ambulance in case of sudden cardiac arrest.

Edmund’s unexpected conversational gambit spurred a series of long-dormant memories. I’ve realised that Harbord Diggers’ Club played a larger part in my life than I have heretofore admitted even to myself. And just as alcoholics begin their twelve steps to recovery by confessing their guilty secret before their peers, so too I begin mine in this post by confessing that I was a Harbord Diggers’ kid. I learned to ski while staying at the Diggers’ ski lodge at Perisher. Spent lazy summer days at the Diggers’ holiday shacks at Sussex Inlet on the NSW south coast. Suffered successive casual rejections of my fumbling nerdish romantic overtures at Diggers’ Youth Club dances. Later, I even worked a second job at the Diggers’ for a few months, squeezing between the glazed-eyed patrons at the serried ranks of poker machines to pick up beer glasses and empty ashtrays.

But the family’s most extensive connection with the Diggers’ Club happened much more recently, only a few years ago in fact. Mum and Dad didn’t have much time for their own social life while us Parish kids were growing up. But once Dad retired in the mid 1980s both of them threw themselves into the social whirl of the Diggers’ Club with gay abandon. They joined the Diggers’ Lawn Bowls Club. The greens are atop the multi-storey carpark adjoining the main club premises. Dad soon became a major talent among codger bowling ranks, while Mum let loose her prodigious organising skills on the ladies’ bowls club committee. Their days were filled with bowls club activities; the phone never stopped ringing even on the increasingly rare occasions they had a day at home.

Eventually around 1999, Mum’s awesome bureaucratic skills brought her to the attention of the powers-that-be at the Diggers’. She was approached to join the Board of Directors of this august multi-million dollar institution, the first woman ever to become a Director. Her appointment even made headlines in the local Manly Daily. All her fellow directors were boozy, rotund, florid-faced geriatric returned servicemen, and most had been on the Board for thirty years or more. Mum thought she’d been approached to bring some fresh talent to the club’s administration, and help to reverse the decline in membership that had begun to pose financial problems. In reality they probably saw her as a token piece of window-dressing who was smart enough to know what was expected of her and old enough not to rock a leaky boat.

At first everything went well. But then Mum had a flash of inspiration. She decided that the decline in membership numbers was partly caused by the fact that only returned servicemen who had seen active war service were eligible for full membership of the Club (and therefore Board membership). The younger members felt excluded and disenfranchised, that the club wasn’t being run with their interests in mind. No doubt she was right. Anyone at all could join as an associate member, hence Edmund had been one of those, as had I when I lived in Sydney 23 years ago. But not even retired miltary personnel could be full members unless they had served in a war zone. Many other ex-servicemen’s clubs had abolished these restrictions years before. But not the Diggers’, despite the fact that all its World War 1 vets were dead and most of the Second World War ones had reached a stage of life when time with the grandkids or a pipe and slippers in front of the telly were much more appealing prospects than a boozy afternoon at the Diggers’ . It was high time the Board bit the membership bullet, Mum was convinced, or the Club would continue its long, slow decline into bankruptcy, having not so long ago been the largest and richest club on the northern beaches.

But she reckoned without her fellow Board members. They warned her that she was treading on dangerous ground, and that she would be well advised not to put forward any motion to widen membership if she knew what was good for her. But Mum felt her own integrity required it, and she proposed the motion anyway. It lost by 11 votes to 2 or thereabouts. She was written off as an airhead troublemaker and voted off the Board soon afterwards. The Club still isn’t prospering, although it hasn’t gone broke yet.

Mum took her fall from grace hard. She not only withdrew from Board affairs but from the ladies’ lawn bowls club as well. She kept playing carpet bowls at Dee Why RSL for a while, until she tripped on a step and broke her arm. Then she retreated to the loungeroom and the soporific solace of daytime TV.

Jen is keen on an anthropological visit to the Diggers’ Club when we’re in Sydney at Christmas. We might even have a game of bowls with Dad, who still plays socially a couple of times a week when his health permits. But if I happen to see one of those Director codgers I’ll be sorely tempted to slag in his beer while he isn’t watching.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Life. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2024 years ago

Another great post Ken. By the way, do you have an explanation for Jacka Park near Harbord, I presume it is to honour Jacka VC but he was a Victorian so how come…..?

To the main issue, the rule of “no membership without war experience” of course dates from WWI when most of the diggers returned from the trenches. That was an experience of such unmitigated horror that there was an incredibly deep bond between the people who came out of it. To illustrate with a small anecdote – a senior politician went to Canberra in the 30s for an appointment with another senior and distinguished member of the party. When they met at door of the office, after shaking hands these two middle-aged men engaged in a serious (but not hostile) wrestling match until one pinned the other for a count of three. Then they sat down and got on with their business. The point is that they were both diggers and there was a lifelong cameraderie and affection that found one form of outlet in physical contest, like kids in the playground.

Among the victimes of the rule were the men at the battery at Port Melbourne who fired the first Australian shots in the Great War, accross the bows of a German freighter heading for home when war was declared. The men at the battery never had a shot fired at them and they went home for dinner every night and slept between cleanish sheets. The men from the trenches did not want anyone to think that these men were in the same category of servicemen, for quite understandable reasons. Of course that attitude was out of date many decades ago, but not at Harbord!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


Yes, armed services personnel who served in Darwin during WWII suffered similar discrimination, not only at the hands of their overseas-serving brethren but the authorities as well. They were until fairly recently denied many of the pensioner and medical benefits available to those who had served in overseas theatres of war. That was so even though military service in Darwin was more dangerous and deadly than quite a lot of the overseas places where troops served. Darwin was bombed some 64 times during 1942-43. It was a theatre of war in every sense, even though news of that fact was rigorously suppressed during the war itself to avoid panicking the populus. But an unexpected result was that it never thereafter (perhaps even right up to the present) really sunk into the public or bureaucratic consciousness just how desperate, dangerous, extensive and protracted the Battle for Darwin really was.

Jeff Guy
Jeff Guy
2024 years ago


Great stories about Jacka VC & the Diggers Club.
Both my father & I were members & assoc members respectively of the Diggers during the 70s & 80s. In fact my father may still be a member. He used to live across the road (with Mum) in one of those the salubrious units overlooking Freshwater. What a great spot. I maintained my membership for many years because of the outstanding gym facilities.

Unfortunately like your friend Edmund I am now distintly rotund despite the many years of swimming, sauna, weights, badminton & squash within the confines of that club.

One yarn I sometimes tell relates to the Anzac day march that took place each year from some local park (maybe Jacka Park)in Harbord up to the club. Upon arrival all the marchers would be rewarded with free grog & two up for a time, after a suitable dawn service & pontifications on the headland just outside. It was a popular event.

One year 3 generations of us marched, i.e. my Grandfather, Dad & moi. It was the first & only time I have taken part in an Anzac day march & on the day I was suitably moved by the generational aspect of the occasion. As we were trundling up the final stretch of road towards the club it occured to me that marching in troop was an unusual activity for one such as I, a child born in the early 50s, whose views had been forged in the turbulence of the mid to late 60s. Apart from assemblies & disconsolate filing into class at school I could only recall one ocassion when I had previously marched with feeling. Turning to the old man & Grandfather I stated,” you know the last time I marched like this was down George St during the Moratorium.”

Well I will never forget the look on the faces of those around me & though I’d meant no disrespect, & in fact felt there was an appropriate synergy & connection between the two events, I shrank at my (now more fully appreciated)crassness.

So we all went & got full of beer in the main function room entertained by the Joe Martin’s ribald humour & then at about 11am the ladies were let into the main bar/pokies area. Well that certainly changed the atmosphere. Mum, Nan & my then girlfriend joined us. The girlfriend was a sexy lass & some of the other lads fired up by Joe’s repartee & the free grog thought they might have a crack at her. After one particularly unsavoury remark the old man could bear no more & sprung at the throat of the offender. Grandad was swinging his cane like a shillelagh, & I, the former anti-war protester had no choice but to join battle.

It was certainly an Anzac day to remember & one I always dwell on briefly when once a year I cant resist the urge to swith on the telly & watch the old diggers marching down George St.