100th Anniversary of the Royal British Legion Club, Gillingham
Updated: Mar 2
The Royal British Legion Club in School Lane has its beginnings in 1919 and was officially opened on 13 March 1920.
STATION ROAD HOSPITAL CLOSES
After four years and three months the Gillingham V.A.D. Hospital, known as the Station
Road, Red Cross Hospital, closed on 6 March 1919. It was opened on 21 October 1914
with 25 beds. With the benefit of extensions there were 62 beds by November 1918. The premises, on the junction of Station Road and Buckingham Road, were designed and constructed as a girls’ school for Miss Sarah Dunn around 1900. It was advertised as a High School and Kindergarten and operated until 1914. Miss Dunn was the Principal and Mlle. Schaefer the Head Mistress. Between 1905 and 1908 it functioned as the girls’ department of the Grammar School.
Messrs Senior & Godwin were instructed to sell the freehold property on 14 April 1919. Also, for auction was ‘a well-built corrugated iron hut or temporary ward, lined inside, fitted with three gas pendants, three brackets, Peveral grate and chimney, double lavatory and w.c. - Inside size 40 feet 2 inches by 19 feet 5 ins, on brick work and easy for removal.’ This was the annex of the Hospital which went by the name of the ‘Evan Down Ward’ - Mr Down was the manager of the Oake Woods Bacon Factory.
THE COMRADES OF THE GREAT WAR
It is thought that around this time the Gillingham Branch of the Comrades of the Great War was formed. The Commandant being Dr Walker, a Major during the War. Enquiries were made about the hut annex, situated in Buckingham Road, and it was eventually agreed by Red Cross Trustees to give the hut to the Comrades.
The Club hut in Buckingham Road proved too small for the growing number of members attained. Membership grew rapidly to 200 as the soldiers returned home. The men who had suffered wounds or illnesses were assisted in their claims for pensions or gratuities and the secretary processed over 200 claims, being successful in over 160 of them. In May 1919, the Governors of the Gillingham Grammar School considered a request from Dr Walker for a site for a hut for the Comrades of the Great War. It was a unanimous decision on the proposition of Mr Martin, seconded by Mr Matthews, to offer a site near the Fire Engine shed about 6 perches in extent on a lease for not exceeding 21 years determinable at the end of the first seven or fourteen years at the annual rent of 30 shillings. It was left to the Chairman and the Repair Committee to arrange further details. The 1919 November meeting of the Governors record that ‘the draft lease to the Comrades of the Great War of a site for a hut which had been prepared by Messrs Freame, Light and Wyld was read and approved.’
Above: Looking down School Road from the Grammar School 1905. The site in front was used for the Station Road 'hut'. The edge of the Fire station is on the far left.
THE COMRADES - The first officials of the Comrades were: Captain: - Dr A Walker DSO, Treasurer: - H G Harris, Secretary: - E A Martin Sports Secretary: -A D Beal Committee: - Major Freame, H M Martin MM, C T Harding, M Brown, S Green, B Birchell, L Lurcombe, W E Edwards, A V Luffman, F J Read, H Luffman, A S Maidment, S J Webber, Rev L Bartlett.
THE 'SIR DOUGLAS HAIG CLUB'
Sometime in late 1919 it was decided to call the new headquarters the ‘Haig Club’ after Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and permission was gained. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE was a senior officer of the British Army. (See photo right: Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig) During the First World War, he commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front from late 1915 until the end of the war.
GRAMMAR SCHOOL GOVERNORS The Governor Minutes of March 1920 confirm that the lease to Dr Arthur Walker and others was executed by all the Governors present.
COMRADES’ CLUB OPENED
The opening of the Haig Club happened on Saturday 13 March 1920.
The Western Gazette 19 March 1920 recorded the occasion as follows:
‘In connection with the Comrades of the Great War (Gillingham branch), the opening ceremony of the ‘Sir Douglas Haig Club’ took place on Saturday. The proceedings commenced with a luncheon at the Phoenix Hotel, where there were present Lt General Sir Montague and Lady Harper, Captain Davies, Sir Harold and Lady Pelly, Lt Col and Mrs Welman, Lt Col Bell, Lt Col Troyte-Bullock, Canon Abbott, Mr and Mrs Carlton Cross, Major and Miss Freame, Mr H Kaines, Captain and Mrs D H Brown, Captain Beck, Lt George, Miss Matthews, Miss Bridges, Mr W R W Hussey, Mr C F Ellerton, Dr. Walker, DSO (commandant), and Mrs Walker, Mr and Mrs N P Batten, Mr A J Chubb, Dr. Morgan, Mr E B Down, Mr Jackson Taylor, and others.
Mr Carlton Cross (in the chair), after proposing the loyal toasts, gave that of the Navy and Army, coupled with the name of Sir Montague Harper.
Lt General Harper, in replying, said that it was the comradeship of all branches of the service, and the co-operation of the nation as a whole, that eventually won the war. (Applause). Lt Col. Troyte-Bullock then toasted the success of the ‘Sir Douglas Haig Club.’ – Dr Walker, replying, said the Club had only been made possible in the first place by the Red Cross, who had so generously given the hut to them, and then to those who had so freely helped the funds. – Lt George proposed the toast of ‘The Ladies’ present, coupled with the Red Cross and Lady Pelly. – Lady Pelly replied. Captain Beck proposed the toast of ‘The President,’ who, in replying, said that he was grateful for the privilege of being President of the Club, for it was clubs of this character that produced such an enormous amount of good comradeship throughout the country.
A move was made to the hut, where a large gathering had collected. Mr Carlton Cross handed the key to General Sir Montague Harper, who declared the Club open. The Town Band rendered the National Anthem, and the Union Jack was unfurled at the mast head. Sir Montague made a short speech.’
A short programme of music followed, and tea was provided. In the evening a smoking concert was held in the hut..
THE BRITISH LEGION The Comrades of the Great War was one of the original four ex-service associations that amalgamated on 15 May 1921 to form the British Legion.
The Douglas Haig Club continued as a separate Club until acquired by the Royal British Legion in 1978.
A Blue Plaque, placed by Gillingham Local History Society on the RBL wall, was unveiled by Frank Burton on Sunday 3 August 2014 to commemorate that the main part of this building was used as a ward in Station Road Red Cross Hospital and relocated to form a meeting place for the Comrades of the Great War. The relocation date shown is 1921 but recent
research has shown that it should be 1920.
(Photo left: Frank Burton with Standard Bearers, Allan Bishop and Tony Otton)
Below: The RBL Club in September 2019 (photos by David Lloyd)
Researched by David Lloyd March 2020.