The Red Cross Family Dance at Golspie was on a Friday night in July. The weather was bitter, though nothing unusual for the Southern Tablelands at that time of year. The crowd was not as large as expected — about sixty people in a hall that holds over three hundred. We bought tickets from the Red Cross ladies at the door, and a few more for the raffle. The prize (a bottle of whisky) would have kept the cold at bay, but the raffle was not drawn until after midnight. The drinks stall, set up by the Taralga Lions Club, stood in an alcove near the door. There was no-one on the dance floor when we arrived, as the band was late setting up. It was a country-style rock band — two-piece plus rhythm box — from Goulburn, an hour’s drive away.
The air was pungent with smoke from the Lions Club barbecue in the supper room. Beyond it was the kitchen with its big stone fireplace. As the evening drew on, the older people gravitated towards the fire, pulling up benches to its warmth. Local farmers and their wives sat watching the flames or stood in small groups chatting while the Red Cross ladies busied themselves with the supper.
In the hall, the teenage girls danced in pairs. Occasionally their parents tried to foxtrot or quickstep to the rock beat, and when the band started up a slow ballad a dozen waltzers would sweep onto the floor. The older adolescents stood in groups — the boys near the drinks stall, the girls on the opposite side of the hall — the bolder ones making an occasional foray across the floor.
Supper was served at about ten-thirty. Although people had been drinking throughout the evening and cleaning up the steak sandwiches in the supper room, tea and coffee were welcomed, and plates of home-made cakes and slices were passed around.
It was after eleven before the band could be persuaded to play a barn dance, which they did to the wrong music (waltz time) and followed with the hokey pokey. Almost everyone joined in, and the two dances together lasted nearly half an hour. My partners in the progressive barn dance ranged from waist high to giant size, from ten years old to eighty, and every one of them had an idea of how to do the dance. At the end I won a bar of chocolate for being on the right spot when the music stopped. Then the band reverted to rock covers and people went back to their drinks, their friends or the fire.
I sat by the fire then, roasting and talking, and heard stories of the district and the dances that used to be held in the hall, glamorous affairs with sit-down suppers and everyone in the district dancing to the Acme Orchestra, the women in their long evening gowns.
I wanted to know more about those days. How did halls like this come to be built in the first place? What role did they play in people’s lives? That night I saw the young people awkwardly eyeing each other from across the hall, their parents socialising with confidence, the older people managing the supper or settling to a good yarn. I was aware, too, of the empty dance floor and the mixture of music and dancing styles. In other areas, the local halls had already closed. So, knowing that time was running out, I set off to discover something of the history of the Golspie Hall.
I followed up the invitations of people I had met at the dance, tracked down the records of the hall committee, the local clubs, the store, school, post office. I found old maps and newspaper reports, read histories of the area and talked with people who had grown up near the hall or had gone to dances there. I listened to their stories. I looked at other halls, too, found their records and spoke with their custodians. I took photographs, went to dances and made notes.
What follows is the life story of a small country hall, a story with two sides. The inside story tells of the ways in which the hall acted as a focus for a rural district, a venue for the expression of people’s sense of community. The outside story is of a stranger who came to study the hall, taking photographs, asking questions, introducing a whole new thread to the texture of interwoven stories that makes up the Golspie community. It also tells of a public identity, the way Golspie presents itself to the outsiders it attracts to the dances at the Golspie Hall.
In the severely cleared grazing land seventy kilometres to the north of Goulburn, little now remains of the village of Golspie. The hub of the district is the Golspie Post Office and manual telephone exchange, which operates from a room of the Collins house. Next door, the Golspie Store has teen dosed since 1950. The original post office, now a farm house just behind the Golspie Hall, was opened in 1872 when the first postmaster, George Murray, named the district after his birthplace in Scotland.
Along the road to Crookwell, past the flat paddock which is the Golspie Sports Ground, past the Catholic Church, now seldom used, and the little stone Golspie School, which closed in 1950, the Golspie Hall stands alone. The small parcel of land is fenced off, and a gate with ‘Golspie’ in wrought iron helps to distinguish it from the other corrugated iron buildings — mainly woolsheds — on neighbouring properties.
The farms around Golspie are now devoted to cattle raising and wool production; the area is noted for its fine wool. The families of most of the original settlers — Croker, Keough, Marmont, Boys, Lang, McInnes — have stayed in the district. But with each generation more of the young people have moved away. The land — or, rather, the prevailing farming practices — cannot support them. There were 148 residents in the district in 1911. Now the count stands at 120, only twelve of whom are under the age of twenty-one.
Such a decline would have been unimaginable at the turn of the century. The area was settled and prospering and the Golspie Hall was being planned. Dances were held in people’s houses or woolsheds until an enterprising school-teacher, George O’Brien, arranged the conversion of a disused schoolhouse into a small community centre, where dances, meetings and debates were held. Before he left the district in 1901, O’Brien gained permission for a School of Arts to be built on land donated by the postmaster, George Murray. It was opened in 1905.
The hall was built of rough wooden slabs; one large rectangular space was partitioned at the far end for the library and tea room. There was no kitchen then, and when a dance was held the billy was boiled for supper on a fire outside the hall.
Marjorie Matthews, born in 1910, remembers going to the hall as a child. People would drive to dances by horse and buggy.
When they arrived, they would bring their rabbiters’ lanterns inside to hang along the walls. During the 1920s, with more people using motor vehicles, attendances at country dances increased. Cars came from as far as Crookwell, and the Goulburn-Taralga mail-car was used to run a private passenger service to dances at the Golspie Hall.
Like many other districts, Golspie responded to the demand by providing a larger hall that was more suitable for dancing. In the early 1920s a stage and supper room were built on, the external walls replaced with corrugated iron, and more seats and permanent lighting installed. A kitchen was added about 1929. Its big fireplace is still in use, but at first it was separated from the supper room by a narrow concrete passageway. Until mains electricity came to Golspie in 1956, the hall was lit by a row of Shellite pressure lamps, which hung down the centre of the hall, supplemented by Tilley lanterns along the walls.
The twelve other halls I looked at all had the same general features — a dance floor and stage, supper room, kitchen and cloakrooms. Most were made of corrugated iron, although several were built of local stone. Unlike some of the nearby halls, the Golspie Hall was never dedicated to those who served in either of the World Wars; when the Golspie School closed in 1950, however, the honour board for the district was hung behind the stage in the hall. It commemorates thirty-seven local, men who served in the First World War, thirteen of whom were killed.
The Golspie Hall, like the others in the area, was run by a committee of local men who were elected at annual public meetings. The Hall Committee set rents, organised fundraising, paid bills, rates and licence fees, arranged repairs and took bookings. It also ensured that the hall met stringent regulations governing lighting, exits and plumbing. From 1939 the women’s role of cleaning, decorating and catering for Hall Committee functions was formalised with the creation of a Ladies’ Auxiliary. The Committee had no need to make rules about behaviour in the hall. As it included most of the community’s adult men, it acted as an extension of patriarchal authority within the family. All the families in the district were represented on the Hall Committee over the years. It was often a large committee, too: in 1929, when the population was just over a hundred, there were twenty-seven men on the Hall Committee.
The Hall Committee had one of its busiest times during 1939-40, when the hall was rebuilt and opened with a Grand Ball. Although much of the labour was voluntary, wages and materials cost £400. A bank loan of £300 was raised; £70 came from donations.
The Goulburn Evening Post described the finished work — the large supper room, the retiring rooms and committee room, and the paintwork in cream, green and brown — but failed to mention the beautiful dance floor. It was made of tallow-wood, a resilient, self-oiling wood which is milled in narrow boards to produce a smooth surface for dancing. It is said to be one of the best in the district. As the Grand Ball approached, the floor was carefully prepared. Bags of sawdust impregnated with kerosene were dragged across it to create a clean and shiny surface. Just before the dance, the floor was sprinkled with sago — they certainly liked a fast dance floor.
Elaborate arrangements had to be made for the ball. Souvenir tickets were printed and advertisements placed in the Crookwell Gazette. Dignitaries were invited from Goulburn, and the Crookwell Acme Orchestra was engaged. The store records for 3 June show purchases of cups, plates and spoons, coffee, ham, cheese spread, Marmite, beans, sauce, salmon, coffee essence, Sao biscuits, butter, paper serviettes and the sago for the floor. On 9 June, the day of the ball, the Ladies’ Auxiliary made sandwiches at the hall, as well as baking cakes and slices at home.
In the end the Grand Opening Ball was almost too much of a success:
The attendance was far too large to permit of dancing in comfort, but all present came prepared for this and met the situation with the utmost good humour and entered into the spirit of the evening.
Fundraising was a major function of the Hall Committee. The steady income from renting out the hall was supplemented by donations and the proceeds of Committee functions such as the Golspie Sports Day and Dance. This was a popular event, with races and an assortment of competitions, including the ‘men’s throwing at the wicket’, the ‘women’s tossing ball through tyre’ and the ‘old buffers’ race’.
On these occasions Golspie put on its best public face, and won a reputation for co-operation and hospitality. The Goulburn Evening Post commented:
Apparently believing that unity is strength, the residents of Golspie district showed what could be achieved by a spirit of co-operation, as the organising committee was representative of practically the whole district.
Co-operation also crossed religious boundaries. The Catholic and Anglican churches at Golspie were both built by a communal effort, and the whole district would be invited if either held a special service. Similarly, both Protestants and Catholics would attend St Mark’s harvest festival, which was held in the Golspie Hall for many years. Social occasions were also shared. The Anglicans organised socials, but everyone went along. The Catholic New Year’s Eve Ball, held at Golspie Hall each year from 1930 to 1981, was the main New Year celebration in the Crookwell area, and often attracted a crowd of 400 people.
The hall was also used by Golspie people as their community centre. Sporting clubs and associations such as the Red Cross, Ambulance and Progress Association held meetings there and, until the last Federal election, voting took place in the hall. Concerts and community singing were held there, and card parties, sometimes with dancing to music by local residents.
One popular musician played the portable organ.
He would play with his head turned away from the dancers, he said it put him off to watch them. He would have a bottle of port at the end of the organ, and as the night wore on his head would come down closer and closer to the keys till it was almost touching.
Golspie Hall was only a short walk up the hill from the school. Josie Croker remembers that each year the children went there for their school picnic and Christmas tree. In the evening they had their party tea sitting at trestle tables in the supper room. On other occasions ‘juvenile dances’ were held in the hall, and everyone came and helped teach the children to dance.
The hall was also an important venue for private gatherings — rites of passage such as gift evenings for women who were about to marry, and bucks’ nights for the men, twenty-first birthday parties, wedding anniversaries and, in more recent times, wedding receptions. During the wars, ‘send-offs’ and ‘welcome homes’ were held for local men who went to war. Mrs Cartwright told me that when she arrived in the district as a bride about twenty years ago, everybody in Golspie came to welcome her at a function in the hall.
In the 1930s the Touring Talkies came to Golspie every two months or so on their country circuit. Travelling variety shows also performed at the hall. Testimonies to these entertainments are still chalked up on the walls of halls from Laggan to Reid’s Flat. The Sloggett family, who brought their magic show to the area each year, are immortalised in many signs that read ‘ALWAYS REMEMBER THE SLOGGETTS’. Harold Croker, who saw their show as a child in the early 1930s, told me he had never seen better sleight of hand.
One night, an old man was sitting in the front row. Sloggett asked him for his hat, which he gave. The hat was put on the table, and Sloggett tore the bands off, broke eggs into it, poured metho in it and lit it. ‘By gee, I think me hat’s boggered now!’ said the old man. But Sloggett tapped the hat with his stick and it was right as ever it was.
Of all the events held at the Hall, by far the most popular were the dances. Almost every local family would be represented at a dance. No-one in the district was considered socially unacceptable, but then the population was fairly homogeneous, with almost every family owning grazing land.
One of the keys to organising a successful dance was to engage a good dance band. In earlier times there was always an MC as well. The musicians were selected according to the occasion. For a big turn-out such as the New Year’s Eve Ball, a dance band or ‘orchestra’ would be engaged. The most popular at Golspie was Crookwell’s Acme Orchestra — piano, trumpet, violin and drums. Local musicians would be called upon to perform at smaller functions.
Stan Treacy, of Crookwell, was born in the area eighty-nine years ago. He is a fine self-taught violin player who earned fifteen shillings playing for his first dance at the age of thirteen, and has been playing for dances ever since. Mr Treacy remembers playing in the Golspie Hall during the 1930s, when he would generally take home five pounds for the night’s work. Old-time dancers still appreciate his sweet tone and his strong, steady rhythm. His successes have not all been musical, though, as he recalls with pride:
At a dance here in Crookwell the woman sitting at the table next to me asked if I would tell her the names of all the dances … So each time I got to the end of a dance I’d lean over and tell her the name of the tune. Then when I’d played this waltz [hums it] I leant across and said ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’, and she said, ‘Yes!’
The dances themselves have changed a great deal in the seventy-six years Stan Treacy has played for them. Early in the century dances like the Alberts and Lancers declined in favour of European couples dances like the waltz, mazurka, polka, schottische and varsovienne. By the 1940s these vigorous, graceful dances had been superseded by ‘jazz’ dances and the barn dance, and in the 1950s rock’n’roll arrived.
If they were not dancing, the young men would eye off the girls from the ‘catching pen’ (the meeting room alcove next to the main doors), but they would have to go outside if they wanted a drink. Until the Lions Club started up in Taralga several years ago, no liquor would be served in the hall, but everyone confirmed that there had always been drinking at the dances — outside. The men would often bring a little bottle of rum, which they hid somewhere outside the hall and would visit throughout the evening. It had to be well hidden, though, as one young man was notorious for nosing out these little bottles. Stan Treacy recalls the illicit sale of liquor, the betting, and especially the fights.
One family was particularly bad — they settled out at Golspie for a while. I remember the five of them, brothers, at a dance in Tuena one time. They started a fight in the hall just as the tea was getting brought out on trays, and there were cups and saucers flying everywhere. There were three policemen just sitting up on the stage, they didn’t dare do anything. In some places they stopped having dances for a while because of this sort of thing.
From the late 1920s, when the kitchen was built, suppers were a feature of the dances at the Golspie Hall. In the 1930s supper would start at about half past eleven and if it was a good crowd there would be two or three sittings. The women waited on the tables after putting their children down to sleep in the Ladies’ Room.
After this room had been built in the early 1920s, the women were supposed to stay inside the building for the duration of the dance. The only reason a woman might have for venturing outside while the dance was in progress was a ‘bad’ one — drinking or courting. But they did go, and I was told that people would notice, and word would go around. As dances provided rare opportunities for young people in rural districts to meet, it is understandable that a degree of courting was permissible — but the guidelines were strict. Vera Collins, who was born in 1924, told me that when she was sixteen she was allowed to be escorted to the family car by a young man who was paying her attention, and perhaps have a kiss and cuddle, but anything more and a father’s wrath would descend.
After the cloakrooms, kitchen and supper room were divided off from the communal space, the women had authority over these new areas, and the boundaries between male and female domains seem to have become more distinct. So, too, did the difference between the sanctioned aspects of the dance (dancing, conversing, eating) and the illicit activities (drinking, fighting, courting) that went on outside.
These changes are not recent, however, and the codes and customs of the dances have long been an established part of the district’s social life. For over eighty years Golspie people have been going to dances at the hall they built. It was there that they first got drunk, or had their first kiss; there they were welcomed home from war, or farewelled into retirement. In between were all the meetings, the parties and the dances at the Golspie Hall.
These days the Golspie Hall has a tenuous future. Only three or four social functions are held there each year, often farewells for people leaving the district on their retirement, or socials like the Red Cross Family Dance last July. The small attendance that night was perhaps a sign of the times; there was some confusion about the dances and the music, the supper and the barbecue; nevertheless, the supper went ahead, the dancing and conversing went on, the boys and girls flirted and one young couple even braved the heavy frost outside. The people I met there were pleased and gently curious that someone might want to study their hall and listen to their stories, and they told me: ‘If you don’t have somewhere like that where the population can meet … you seem to lose your district’s identity somehow.’
 Interview, Judith Matthews, Golspie, 4 July 1987.
 Interview, Marjorie Matthews, Taralga, 5 July 1987.
 Interviews, Josie Croker, Golspie, 15 August 1987; Marjorie Matthews, Taralga, 5 July 1987; Joe Croker, Golspie, August 1987.
 Minute Book of the Golspie Hall Committee. Held by Joe Croker.
 Goulburn Evening Post, 19 June 1939, p.3.
 Ibid., 19 June 1939, p.3.
 Ibid., 8 January 1968.
 Interview, Judith Matthews, Golspie, 4 July 1987.
 Interview, Harold Croker, Crookwell, 18 July 1987.
 Interview, Stan Treacy, Crookwell, 5 September 1987.
 Interview, Vera Collins, Golspie, 1 August 1987.
 Interview, Marjorie Matthews, Taralga, 5 July 1987.