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Early in 1916, four entrepreneurial and influential women agitated to set up an ‘Anzac Buffet’ in Sydney's Domain. Mrs L Vickery was the President and Secretary and Mrs Jane Barff, Mrs Christian and Mrs Edgley were also on the founding committee. Their formal education probably ceased when they were 12 years old, yet they managed to convince a cash-strapped NSW State Government that it should spend £1500 providing lighting, fencing and a kiosk for the buffet in the Domain. According to historian Lionel Gilbert, they also overcame the objections of the well-regarded and long-standing director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Jospeh Maiden, who did not want to see Sydney’s principal park “defaced” by a hideous temporary structure enclosed by a high fence.
In June 1916, Chief Justice Sir William Cullen opened the buffet, which was situation on three-quarters of an acre near the St Mary's Road entrance to the Domain. It aimed to provide a gathering place for soldiers and sailors which was free of the temptations of liquor, gambling and “unattached women”. Soldiers were encouraged to partake of the free refreshments and amusements and "indulge in songs to their heart's content".
The Anzac Buffet was entirely volunteer run and relied on public donations. Articles in the Sydney Morning Herald and regional newspapers called for donations of:
money, urns, cups, saucers, spoons, milk jugs, basins, knives and forks, glasses, salt and pepper, plates, bread-cutters, a cash register, kitchen dusters and brooms, three small wooden tubs for washing up, wooden flooring, two turnstiles, cigarettes, pipes and tobacco, tea, coffee, a piano, a gramaphone, a cinematograph, bagatelle boards [a form of table billards on a wooden board], quoits and white oilcloths for the tables. Country districts can undertake to provide supplies of eggs, butter, cake and fruit to be sent to Mrs Vickery at 'Berachah', Darling Point. These calls for assistance were quite successful and resulted in donations from manufacturers such as Griffith Brothers (tea) and other suppliers who were keen to be associated with this admirable cause. By 1917, the women had also raised a garden bed about 6 feet by 12 feet and cultivated crops of "flourishing tomatoes" for use in sandwiches. They planned to plant herbs for flavouring soups.
All of this enterprise resulted in the buffet being open from 10am - 10pm seven days a week. Legions of volunteers (probably all women and girls) served meals to 24,000 servicemen over four years. Approximately 200 servicemen visited the club each day. Just washing and drying all the crockery, cutlery and napkins in the era before dishwashers and sterilizers was a huge feat! Miss Annie Evans, Commandant of the Mosman no. 8 Volunteer Aid Detachment of the Red Cross, managed Sydney's Anzac Buffet "with a bundle of tact" from 1917-1920. She was later awarded an M.B.E. (Member of the British Empire) for her services.
Sydney's Anzac Buffet was modelled on the one in London, which was also established and run by female volunteers. Ellis Silas recalls (in his diary MLDOC 378):
It seems aeons since we left the sunny coasts of Australia. There has been hard training in Egypt followed by the stress, privations and brutality of the battlefield, and now we find ourselves dumped into the murk and gloom of war ridden London. But the doors of the Buffet open [...] and lo ! London is forgotten for there around us are Australian faces, womenfolk from our own shores, the red cover of the good old "Bulletin" and other Australian papers blink back at us, there are numerous tables whereon a plentiful supply of sandwiches and cakes and cups of steaming tea and coffee, one of these kindly women attired in green overalls addresses "will we have something to eat" – will we have something to eat! Mon dieu ! my word rather.
As men started returning from the front, the Anzac Buffet became the place where men were welcomed home. A ticketing system was introduced due to the dangerous size of the crowds waiting to greet returned soldiers and the fear that Spanish Influenza would spread in this environment. Only two tickets were issued to the friends or relatives of each returning soldier due to the space restrictions at the Domain. On a particularly busy day when four transport ships arrived, there were about 6000 people in the Domain welcoming 1600 soldiers. William Henry Nicholson wrote in his diary on 23 May 1918 [MLMSS 2931/item2]:
Arrived in Central Station, Sydney, at Mid-day. Went in a procession of motor cars to the Domain Buffet. The streets were decked with bunting, and the enthusiastic crowds in the streets were most embarrassing. A pretty girl I did not know kissed me heartily. A worthy reward!
In 1919 the government decided to capitalise on the popularity of the Anzac Buffet and build a medical inspection centre for the troops next to the Buffet building. This temporary arrangement stayed in place under the volunteers finally turned off the urns and packed away the last piece of crockery in April 1920. The Anzac Buffet was then re-purposed as a temporary day nursery. A community space that was initiated by women for men became a space for children. The Anzac Buffet building, which was sorely in need of maintenance, was finally torn down in late October 1921 and the materials were re-used within the botanic gardens.
A plaque commemorating the Anzac Buffet can be found under a fig tree, near the toilets on Hospital Road, behind the Sydney Hospital in the Domain.
The plaque reads:
This spot marks the position
of the Anzac Buffet
where during the years
1916 to 1920
82,000 soldiers and sailors
were officially welcomed back
on their return from
THE GREAT WAR.
Erected by the members of the
Mosman No.8 Red Cross Voluntary Aids.
As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, it is important to also remember the patriotic service, sacrifices and commitment of women who worked to support the war effort at home.
The State Libray of NSW will commemorate the centenary of Sydney's Anzac Buffet on 25 April with free tea, coffee and Anzac biscuits.
A free exhibition about the 200th anniversay of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens will be on display in the Mitchell galleries from 21 October 2016 - 15 January 2017.
Australian War Memorial collection items PR 3DRL/7028 and photographs P02427.001, H11575, H11574, H11576, and H16369.
Gilbert, Lionel A. Little giant: the life and work of Joseph Henry Maiden, 1859-1925. Armidale, NSW: Kardoorair, 2001.
Gilbert, Lionel A. Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney: a history 1816-1985. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1915, p.8.
The Sydney Mail, 9 January 1918, p.7 and 18 April 1917, p.7.