Social Institutions

provision of social activities

For much of the European history of the Williams Valley, there has been a strong link between social activities and fundraising for community benefit. Thus the various social institutions would devote much of their time to organising balls, dances, sports events and other activities, not only for their own sake but with the aim of raising funds for specific community needs. This was particularly the case both when most social activities were of a community nature in pre-TV days and when many community needs were supplied by the community itself with limited government contribution or control.1

Thus an organisation established with a welfare, religious or educational aim would regularly organise a ball or sports day. The Oddfellows, which aimed at providing support for families in time of illness, would hold sports events; the RSL would put on Diggers’ Balls to raise funds to assist unemployed ex-diggers; and the various churches sponsored balls, flower shows and bazaars for their general needs, or, in the case of the Catholic Church, for their schools. In later years, the various service clubs – Lions, Rotary, and Apex – organised annual carnivals and other activities to fundraise for the Ambulance Service and other community services.2


For the initial generation of European settlers, the first social institutions were the churches, with any social or fundraising activities organised outside these done so on an ad hoc basis. Soon, however, more permanent groups began to be organised, the Oddfellows and Masons being among the earliest. The Grand United Order of Oddfellows was a self-help organisation based on contributory insurance and was a predecessor of private health insurance. Both the Oddfellows and the Masons had a semi-religious or ceremonial aspect that was intended to help members to bond and trust each other. Another, in a similar vein, established later was the Order of Buffaloes.

The first Oddfellows’ Lodge, the Loyal Paterson Union Lodge, was established at Paterson in 1846 with a hall erected in 1865. A hint at the now obscure social divisions that then existed is provided by an account of the failure of the Paterson Oddfellows’ efforts to establish a Literary Institute:

We regret to learn that this institute has ceased to exist. Very few of the Oddfellows joined the institute, not apparently having much taste for literary matters, whilst the public refused to become connected with it, in consequence of its being connected with the Oddfellows: hence its downfall.3

In Dungog, a Good Samaritan Lodge opened in 1866, however, this first effort appears to have failed and was replaced in 1874 by the Star of the Williams. This Lodge erected a hall in 1893, which is now the music room of Dungog Public School.

The Oddfellows were big on display and sports, as a description of their 1883 event shows:

The ‘Star of the Williams Branch of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows’ held its ninth anniversary meeting in Dungog on Wednesday 3rd November 1883 with athletics at the racecourse and a ball that night. Some 700 people attended with beer and light refreshments, a shooting gallery, games of chance and ‘swings for the ladies’. The day was begun with a procession starting at 10 am from the lodge room that proceeded through the streets accompanied by the local brass band of 12 to the racecourse. Events included foot races, including a handicap race with a watch as prize worth 8 guineas, a sack race, throwing a cricket ball at a wicket (only two could hit it twice out of three), and horse jumping. Some ten pounds was the profit on the day, laid towards the building of an Oddfellows Hall.4

In addition, a ball was held at the School of Arts and a dinner for a dozen or so members was held the following Friday night at Joseph Robson’s Settlers Arms Hotel.

In Dungog, the Masonic Lodge Hiram No. 213 of the United Grand Lodge of NSW was first formed in 1894. However, by 1899 this first attempt had failed, and the charter was surrendered. A second attempt in 1905, proved more lasting, with the foundation stone of a new temple laid in 1908, and opened the following year. Membership of this lodge was at its peak in 1921 due to dam construction, but declining membership resulted in the last meeting of Lodge Hiram, Dungog occurring in October 2006. The building now serves as the Anglican Church Hall.5 A Masonic Lodge was established at Gresford in the former Butter Factory building until the 1950s.6

In another interesting glimpse into social perceptions, in 1859 the Oath taken by Colonial Police Officers was specially amended to state that:

I do not now belong to and that I will not while I hold the said office join subscribe or belong to any political society whatsoever or to secret society whatsoever unless to the Society of Freemasons or of Oddfellows. So help me God!7

While these two ‘secret societies’ were accepted by the Colonial Police, the Catholic Church was less sure. For this, and other reasons, the Catholic (Irish) community had organised its own mutual support organisation known as the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society (H.A.C.B.S.) or Hibernians. Branches existed at both Dungog and Gresford, with that at Gresford winning a shield at one point for having the highest membership, while that in Dungog organised an annual Christmas present for the nuns of the local convent. Like the Oddfellows and the Masons, the Hibernians enjoyed using ceremonial regalia and that of Gresford is now in the keeping of the community.8

Schools of Arts

Schools of Arts were part of a general education movement of the late nineteenth century and became essential for any progressive town’s image. In May 1860, a Reading Room was established at Dungog with members’ subscriptions purchasing periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, the Mechanics Journal and Punch. This group evolved into the Dungog Mutual Improvement Association which began in 1864 for ‘mental culture and social recreation’, with politics and religion to be avoided. By 1872, the Mutual Improvement Society was calling itself a School of Arts and had a permanent library and reading rooms in a cottage, but needed to hire rooms when special events or debates took place.9 In 1876, a wooden School of Arts building was erected, with athletics games on the racecourse the following year raising funds to add a ceiling to its roof. The building was used for balls and entertainments as well as debates and lectures. Though, in 1880 it was complained that few lectures took place in the School of Arts and it was a mere reading room.10 In 1883, it was the library that was complained of and it was hoped money would not be diverted to unnecessary building.11 This was not to be the case, as in 1897 the wooden building burned down after the adjacent building caught fire. The present School of Arts building was erected in 1898. The former building had been complained of as unworthy of the fast growing Dungog, while the new building was described as a ‘fitting building for this wealthy and progressive town’.12

While the library continued to be patronised, by the early 20th century the main activity appears to have been billiards, apart from the use of the rooms by various committees to meet, including the Wallarobba Council and the organising committee for the opening of the railway in 1911. Balls and race meetings continued to raise funds throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but, by the 1950s, the building had become vacant. In the 1960s, after a period of neglect, the building was restored, its two billiard tables sold and many of the books distributed to other libraries. Taken over by the Dungog Historical Society in 1968, this former School of Arts building now houses the Dungog Museum.13

Many other smaller centres also erected halls that were proudly styled ‘School of Arts’ such as that at Vacy (1901) and Bandon Grove (1930). A School of Arts was also erected in Gresford in 1890, raising money for its activities with bazaars, debates and maintaining a temperance bar during activities.14 In 1927, the School of Arts committee sold this Gresford building to the Church of England for use as a Parish Hall and built a new building at East Gresford which opened in 1930.15 Often these smaller settlements’ Schools of Arts operated largely as community halls, which is not to say they were not social institutions in themselves; acting not only as venues for events but generating social activities through their community based committees.

The people of Vacy seem to have used their old school building for dances and concerts but by the end of the 19th century this was in poor condition. Fundraising, including a picnic, enabled a pressed tin-lined School of Arts to be erected in 1901. The debt on this building was not finally paid off until after 1919, with the Vacy Girls’ Patriotic League and their bazaar making a great contribution. The Vacy School of Arts was the venue for fundraising not only for itself, but for many local causes with card parties, dances and bazaars raising money, such as the cricket club and the local church. The building had a local committee and, with men away during the First World War, the Vacy Girls Patriotic League organised many functions. After the war, a new room to accommodate a billiards table was added. Billiards was still being played there in the 1930s, although in many places (perhaps with more alternatives forms of entertainment), the popularity of billiards had by then faded. Over the years changes occurred, new books were bought for the library and electric lighting via a generator (until mains power arrived in 1937), was shared with the church next door. In the mid-1990’s the hall was taken over by the Dungog Shire Council, mainly to lessen the increasing burden of insurance and, in 2001, the centenary of the Vacy School of Arts was celebrated.16

Agricultural organisations

While usually classified as employee organisations, the broad interests of Farmers and Settlers Associations and Junior Farmers’ Clubs across a range of issues and their local focus within the three valleys justifies their inclusion as social institutions. Once agricultural workers began to organise themselves into unions, this in turn inspired the formation of the Pastoralists’ Union in 1890, which became the Graziers’ Association after 1917. This was largely an organisation of the larger landholders, while that for the smaller landholders, the Farmers and Settlers Association, had its beginning with the Free Selectors’ Association of Wagga in 1875, followed, in the 1880s, by many others, including the Hunter River Farmers’ Association, which united in 1893 as the NSW Farmers and Settlers Association. The concerns of this association included farm finance, weeds, land reform, land tax, local government, fire fighting, education, young farmers, and water conservation. In 1928, an off-shoot of the Farmers and Settlers Association were the Junior Farmers Clubs.17

There was a Graziers Association at Gresford, and Farmers and Settlers Associations at Hilldale and Dungog. Also branches of the Agricultural Bureau and Junior Farmers Clubs for educational purposes existed at such places as Eccleston, Fosterton and Hilldale.18 In the 1960s, dairy farmers attained a body of their own with the Dairy Farmers Association. However, by the end of the 20th century all of these separate groups had come under the NSW Farmers’ Association. In the 1980s, Landcare groups were also set up to assist landholders better care for their land.19

The Farmers and Settlers Associations had a wide brief, and, in 1909, the Underbank branch of the Farmers and Settlers Association resolved to urge the government ‘in view of the recent sad shooting accident, in which the young man Stanton lost his right arm, and of the many other gun accidents among boys’, of ‘the necessity of introducing legislation prohibiting the use of firearms by boys under l8 years of age’.20

Towards the end of the 19th century in Dungog, an Agricultural Society was established, the purpose of which was to showcase the agricultural produce of the district. The Dungog Show became over the years highly popular, incorporating agricultural produce with entertainments and competitions of various kinds. Gresford established its own show in 1927.21

Women’s organisations

Few institutions existed solely for the purpose of organising social activities, the exception being perhaps the Wattle Club (although this was technically an auxiliary of the Dungog RSL). Originally set up by women who had, during the First World War provided support for the troops overseas in organisations such as the Red Cross and the Comforts Club, the Wattle Club after the war worked in association with the newly formed RSL.22 From that time until the 1980s (it formally changed its name to the Dungog RSL Ladies’ Auxiliary in 1967), this women’s group was responsible for the organising of all suppers and associated support for the many balls, dances and other events put on by the RSL itself. A similar group operated in Gresford which continued in existence until 2012.23 Such organisations gave women a platform through which to fundraise and participate in the community. Events were often organised by two committees, such as the celebrations for the coming of the Railway in 1911, with a male committee organising the event itself, and a women’s committee organising the food and dinner.24

In addition to RSL associated groups such as the Wattle Club, numerous women’s groups existed which have made a range of contributions to the Williams Valley district. The Wattle Club, for example, organised numerous ‘suppers’ at dances and balls such as the annual Diggers’ Ball put on by the RSL. These dances were major fundraisers for many causes, including for the expansion of the RSL’s Club rooms so that it could hold dances in-house. A number of Country Women’s Association (CWA) branches were founded, and those in Gresford (1936) and Dungog continue today, while that at Vacy closed in 2007. Red Cross Societies were formed during the First World War and many continued until recent times; that of Gresford lasted for 46 years and that in Dungog until 2006. A variety of Women’s Guilds have been and are associated with the Church of England and other Churches.

The CWA in particular was a major community organiser and fundraiser with, for many years, a focus on setting up and supporting Baby Health Centres in their areas.25 The Gresford CWA, for example, began with an ‘American afternoon tea’ to provide ‘Xmas cheer’ for the local hospital. Over the years it held balls, provided lunches at the Gresford Show, sent parcels to troops, and maintained a rest room. In 1953, the Gresford CWA, like many, formed a ‘Younger Set’ to allow a new generation to participate in slightly different ways.26


In years after the First World War, the foundation of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League (now the RSL) created a new institution that was to have a major impact over the years. Initially the focus of the RSL was on providing a meeting place for ex-diggers and assistance to those needing to fit back within post-war society, particularly those with injuries. As time went on, the plight of ex-diggers passing through the Dungog district looking for work inspired the annual event known as the Diggers’ Ball. But it was in the aftermath of the Second World War, with an influx of new members, that the RSL began to organise dances and rodeos as fundraisers for its expansion. An expansion that saw it take over the Municipal Council offices within the Memorial Town Hall it had shared since 1920, and found the Dungog RSL Club in 1956. Further space for dances, bars and poker machines were added, until the RSL Club now dwarfs the activities of the RSL Sub-branch itself.27

The smaller centres of the three valleys found it more difficult to maintain RSLs. That at Clarence Town lasted only from 1950 to 1960, but a commemorative wall is maintained at the Clarence Town Bowling Club and the Clarence Town ANZAC committee is very active.

Historical Societies

The 1960s and 1970s saw a great rise in interest in local history and the founding of Historical Societies and associated museums. These societies have helped find a new use for a number of buildings such as courthouses and Schools of Art that were standing empty. In 1968, the Dungog Historical Society was formed and now occupies the former Dungog School of Arts. Both Paterson and Clarence Town Historical Societies also have museums and these are in the former courthouses of these towns. At first people who were also active in other areas of the community – local councilors, doctors, etc., served on these historical societies, as they did on the Parents & Citizens, but gradually, as in other areas, these organisations began to attract only those with special interests.

Service Clubs

As the Masons, Buffaloes and Oddfellows declined the so called service clubs developed in the 1950s and 1960s – Rotary (1950), Lions (1956) and Apex (1966). These clubs provided outlets for community activities across a range of areas. In 1956, the Dungog Lions Club held its first meeting with an aim to ‘take an active interest in the civic, commercial, social and moral welfare of the community’. By 1957, Lions were planning Lions Park, delivering Sunday papers to Dungog Hospital, and staffing the Dungog control point of the round Australia Ampol Trials. Over the years Lions’ projects have included the replacement of two storm damaged homes in the1960s, an annual ball at Clarence Town, a TV for the hospital, numerous fundraising events, a car for the district nurse, and, in 1975, a ‘Race Meeting and Trotting Gymkhana,.28 Gresford did not share in the rise of the service clubs; it briefly had an Apex Club but never a Lions or Rotary.29

In recent times the maintenance of the many, now aging, community halls has become a social activity in itself. The desire to preserve a piece of heritage has led many in the Wallarobba area, for example, to put much effort into ensuring the Wallarobba Hall has sufficient funds and activities to maintain its existence. Bandon Grove Hall, with it older community more intact, has continued to maintain its hall with less desire for innovative activities.

Community Organisations

As older organisations of long-standing such as the Red Cross have ceased to operate, newer arrivals have begun to form new groups. In Gresford, the Gresford Community Group was formed in the 1990s and has sponsored such events as the Gresford Annual Billy Cart Derby; GAPS – Gresford Amateur Performing Arts Society – has also been operating for a similar length of time. In Dungog, the Film Society has also operated since the 1990s and, in 2011, the Friends of the James Theatre was created to help maintain Australia’s oldest purpose-built Picture Theatre. In 2011 a community radio was established – Radio Dungog – which has begun to allow a range of local groups and individuals to reach out to their community.

Heritage Survivals

  • Oddfellows’ Halls (Paterson & Dungog)

  • Masonic Lodge (Dungog)

  • Paraphernalia of organisations, banners, etc.

  • Club minutes and records

  • Present and former meetings rooms

1 See Welfare.

2 See list of Social Institutions.

3 Maitland Mercury, 4/8/1868, p.3.

4 The Maitland Mercury, 11/10/1883, p.2.

5 Williams, Ah, Dungog, p.57.

6 Margaret Dent & Delma Lawrence, interviewed 5/4/2012.

7 Maitland Mercury, 31/12/1859, p.5.

8 Ingle, Valley Echoes, p.49.

9 Hunter, Dungog School of Arts Centenary 1898-1998, pp.5-6.

10 Maitland Mercury, 14/8/1880, p.2S.

11 Maitland Mercury, 28/1/1882, p.4.

12 Williams, Ah, Dungog, pp.49-50.

13 Williams, Ah, Dungog, p.50.

14 Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.167 & p.171.

15 Collison & Handcock, Gresford 170 years, p.95.

16 Clements, Vacy … One Hundred & Eighty Years of History, pp.124-129. Also see Leisure.

17 Lawrence, The more they remain the same, pp.5-23.

18 Sydney Morning Herald, 13/12/1937, p.7.

19 Archer, Social and environmental change as determinants of ecosystem health, pp.154-155.

20 Sydney Morning Herald, 13/8/1909, p.4.

21 Collison & Handcock, Gresford 170 years, p.101. See 3.4 Pastoralism.

22 Michaelides, Growing up in Dungog, p.29.

23 Dungog Chronicle, 28/3/2012, p.4.

24 Dungog Historical Society, One Hundredth Anniversary of the Maitland to Dungog Railway, 1911 to 2011, p.7.

25 See Health.

26 Dent, History of the Gresford Branch of Country Women’s Association, pp.14-18.

27 Dungog Chronicle, 12/7/1995, p.1.

28 Dungog Chronicle, 27/5/1981, Lions 25th Anniversary Supplement.

29 Margaret Dent & Delma Lawrence, interviewed 5/4/2012.