They are there in most Australian towns. Old memorial halls honouring memories, an often lonely reminder of locals who never returned from the Grand Adventures. In smaller towns and areas they served as a constant reminder of the cost families paid. Such is the hall at Beazleys Bridge – a fly speck of a place in rural Victoria, about 12 kilometres from a place called St. Arnaud, which is a town 244 kilometres north west of Melbourne.
It has a bridge and a community hall. At some stage, back in the day, it had a sawmill, creamery and school. Now it only has the hall and bridge. The bush is nearby. It’s not the dense green bush of the mountains that can snatch the life of those who are lost, but the drabness of the dust brown wheat and sheep country.
There are four pillars standing guard at the hall — the gates and fences have long since disappeared — each of the pillars carries the names of those from the district who answered the call and never returned. The names cover the two world wars and have been gathering there since the hall was built in 1937. The inscription reads: “They sleep among the honoured dead their duty nobly done.” It was carved at a time when the world had a different view of conflict. Cars pass it every day. No one stops. No one goes there on ANZAC Day. There’ll be no Dawn Service, no flowers, no one will visit the names.
As in many parts of rural Australia, these halls mark the memories of local sons, fathers, cousins who went away. Back in the day, these halls reminded us of those who served, as well as fulfilling the role of district centre, the local heart. This was where newcomers to the district were welcomed and others were farewelled; where engagements, weddings and births were celebrated with a knock-about band and a keg out the back, and on Sunday, once a month, the local Minister came out and performed a religious service in the heat and dust.
At any function aside from the Sunday Church, you would find the men out the back around the keg during the hot summer and around a blazing fire on cold winters nights, while the younger and more optimistic women waited inside for their partners. A second group of women, older and much wiser in the ways of such functions, were inside too, preparing the supper in the kitchen and swapping recipes and gossip while we kids slid up and down the floor which had been polished with a combination of sawdust and kerosene.
It was where mothers taught their sons social graces, the waltz and the Pride of Erin (an ever popular for debutantes) and as you got older, fathers introduced you to cold beer and the company of men. They were shearers and farmers who frequented the hall; workers and jacks-of-all-trades who gathered to talk about the weather and wisely and knowingly talk about crops and harvests.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with these men moved you from boyhood to a wannabe man; a rite of passage tacitly supported by fathers and frowned upon by mothers. The hall was an important part of your journey — marking various stages of your initiation into the mysteries of men talk.
Sometimes, as they stood draining what was left in the keg, you would go to the pillars and slowly run your fingers through the grooves, tracing the names of the fallen. I did not know them — but they were part of the local folklore, part of local history. In many rural communities, just as at Beazleys Bridge, families were then, and are now and forever will be, haunted by a photograph on the mantelpiece: that honoured, iconic, faded photo of sons, husbands and brothers.