On December 9, 2016, architect Louis Hay's Prairie-style Napier Soldiers' Club building on the Marine Parade was 100 years old.

World War I wasn't the first conflict that the Napierites saw their young men enlist for. Many contingents went to fight against the Boers in the South African War in their patriotic duty to Mother England.

When World War I began in 1914 New Zealand once again offered its military support to England. A Napier branch of the National Reserve was formed in February 1915.

This involved citizens who were working but took part in military duties such as administration, parades and field practice. They opened a recruiting office and Soldiers' Club rooms on October 20, 1915 at the Napier Borough Council Chambers on Marine Parade.

The Soldiers' Club became very popular in spite of initial doubts over its success. The bulk of the work was done by Frank Moeller - the originator of the club - and S V Wenley.

Frank was the owner of the Masonic Hotel, which was across the road from the Napier Council Chambers - and the Soldiers' Club rooms.

Advertisement

It was said that he and S V Wenley made the Soldiers' Club their hobby. Soldiers in the clubrooms were supplied with morning and afternoon tea from the Masonic Hotel and it was reported that "Mr Moeller deals out hospitality and kindness with a lavish hand".

If soldiers could not walk to the Masonic Hotel, he would send their lunches and dinners across the road.

He did this all for free. Mr Wenley's son was serving in France, and he devoted "practically the whole of his life to the patriotic cause". The club was run by the men of Napier, and the "ladies have practically nothing to do with it".

By January 3, 1916, 226 men had been recruited through the Napier Soldiers' Club. This number would reach just over 1000 near the end of the year.

The demand for the Soldiers' Club was such that a need was identified for larger permanent premises in December 1915, and a fulltime caretaker to help the few National Reserve members - mainly Frank Moeller and S V Wenley - with the work they were doing.

The National Reserve began an appeal for donations to build premises for the Soldiers' Club in January 1916, and within hours of the appeal William Nelson of Tomoana Freezing Works was the first to donate with £25 (2016: $3385).

Frank Moeller would act as treasurer for the fund. A section was purchased from Walter Lean for £1000 ($135,000) in February 1916 on Marine Parade for the new clubrooms.

When the National Reserve tried to form a society called the Napier Soldiers' Club Incorporated they were given legal advice that the club should be kept separate from their organisation, so they followed this advice and created a structure which allowed for civilian and returned soldiers. The Napier Soldiers' Club was incorporated later in the year on October 26, 1916.

The plans for the Soldiers' Club building were drawn up by architect Louis Hay, who did not charge for his services.

Tenders received in April 1916 for the building ranged from £3230 ($437,000) to £3861 ($522,650).

The minutes of the Soldiers' Club recorded "All the above tenders were considered too high."

The two lowest tenderers were approached to see if they would resubmit a tender, which they did. It appears that Louis Hay altered the plans to reflect a lower cost, and he must have done this almost immediately as the new tenders were submitted only five days after the committee met to consider the first tenders.

W M Angus was the successful tenderer at £2720 ($368,000). In September 1916 Louis Hay attended the Soldiers' Club committee meeting and told them that the building cost would be higher than expected by £320 ($43,000), and they should talk to the builder. Committee members James Coleman and Frank Moeller were given authority to negotiate the cost. The final agreed amount was not recorded.

Many activities began to raise money for the Soldiers' Club building.

In March 1916 J S Orr said he would donate £25 ($3385) if Rule Britannia was sung in public. Four thousand people turned up to the bandstand in front of the Masonic Hotel on Marine Parade to sing, accompanied by the Napier City Band.

The building started in May 1916, after the foundation stone was laid on Anzac Day, and by November 1916 it was almost completed. The style of the building impressed many, according to the Hastings Standard, who could not believe "such a handsome structure had been built for a soldiers' club". The reporter went on to describe the building:

It is artistic in the extreme ... its red-tiled roof overhanging in places and suggestive of Italian architecture adds an additional charm to the building.

Advertisement

Broad steps lead to the entrance, which is given a massive aspect by the massive pillars supporting the porch. Everything is massive, and a visitor making an inspection is impressed with the solidity of all that is seen. Entrance to the social room billiard room and other main departments is by swing doors - doors that should swing for a century.

The foundation stone bears the words "Honour the brave" and this building will serve to remind future generations that the brave have been honoured.

Many of the inside fittings were donated, such as the billiard tables (by F W Williams and J Vigor Brown) and an oak settee (by Napier Golf Club).

An advert was placed for a housekeeper, and a man for general work - with knowledge of a billiard room. The Hastings Standard in their local news column noted that the Soldiers' Club "wanted a man with knowledge of billiards".

The opening ceremony was on Saturday, December 9, 1916. J H Coleman opened the proceedings and acknowledged Frank Moeller, who had the idea for the club, and Louis Hay, the architect. Frank Moeller's wife had provided almost all the furniture.

Frank Moeller then spoke, saying the building was free from debt, although ongoing maintenance costs would need to be met. He remarked it was "one of the finest furnished clubs in the colonies, if not in the world".

Corporal W Tweedie spoke of behalf of the Returned Soldiers Association, of which he was president. Napier mayor J Vigor Brown said in opening the building that finance would be a key aspect of the non-combatant effort and "victory would depend on finance".

"If we did not win what was to become of the money of the people who were misering [not giving freely of money to the war effort] it up?"

The main objective of the Napier Soldiers' Club, according to its revised in 1920 rule book (from the 1916 original), was to "Promote and provide a club for the use and benefit of past and present members of all His Majesty's forces".

Membership was open to all members of His Majesty's forces, which meant not only men who had fought in the Great War, but also territorials and those who had enlisted for active service, and members of the National Reserve who were paid-up at the date of that body's disbandment, whether or not they had seen active service.

The original 1916 membership criteria was restricted to returned soldiers, but as members began to become harder to find, this was relaxed.

Soldiers' clubs existed all over New Zealand. It is thought that Napier's was the first purpose-built one opened.

The early success of the Soldiers' Club after World War I didn't last. One reason given for this was that significant numbers of soldiers had successfully rehabilitated back into society and no longer needed the ongoing comradeship of their fellow servicemen. By 1930 the Napier Soldiers' Club building had been turned into a private hotel.

* Michael's books A Collage of History: Hastings, Havelock North and Napier and From Disaster to Recovery: The Hastings CBD 1931-35 are re-released for Christmas and available at Whitcoulls, Hastings and Napier; Napier I-site; Art Deco Trust Napier; Wardini Havelock North and Napier; Hastings, Taradale and Napier Paper Plus and Poppies Havelock North.

Michael Fowler (mfhistory@gmail.com) is the heritage officer at the Art Deco Trust, and trainer in accounting for non-accountants www.financialfitness.co.nz