The Battle of Adelaide: The Cheer-Up Society and the Returned Soldiers Association

Alexandrine Seager

Alexandrine Seager. State Library of South Australia SRG 6/34/1

This week’s article focuses on the effort played by people on the home front, and on a uniquely South Australian endeavour, the Cheer-Up Society. The society’s links with the Returned Soldiers’ Association (RSA), the precursor to the RSL, were particularly close. William Sowden was President of both the society and the RSA, and, in addition to letting purpose-built office space to the RSA, the society provided a grant of £50 towards its establishment.1 Along with Sowden, Mrs Alexandrina Seager (pictured), who also acted as Vice-President of the RSA until 1919, was the driving force behind the Cheer-Up Society. With three sons serving in the AIF, her mission was to provide comfort and support to South Australian soldiers leaving for the front.

The society was self-funded, supported by donations from individuals and organisations. The Murray Bridge branch, for example, raised £112 of which £19 came in from private donations and the remainder from local groups and businesses. Violet Day fundraising collections also made significant contributions to the Cheer-Up Society’s coffers, with Murray Bridge raising £40 this way.2

These funds were expended through Cheer-Up Huts dotted around the state, with eight country branches, in addition to the one in Adelaide. The huts contained tables for tea, a stage for entertainment and ladies in white to ensure that the “boys” were well cared for. The Observer reported that “it was a spirit of affection which made them refer to the men as “boys.” Some of them were grandfathers.”3

Cheer-Up Hut

Cheer-Up Hut, Adelaide. State Library of South Australia B 5505.

The work of the Cheer-Up Society was not confined to their huts. They travelled to places like Oaklands camp in December 1914, where enlistment was proceeding at a pace, putting on a program of music designed to heighten patriotic sentiment.4 However, the highlight of the Cheer-Up Hut’s events came just over a month later at the Egyptian Fair. Held in the grounds of the Cheer Up Society over two days, and managed jointly by the society and the RSA, the Egyptian Fair included all manner of inducements for visitors to part with their money. The chief entertainment, and revenue raising venture, was the “Battle of Adelaide,” a mock engagement between the combined forces of the society and the RSA on one side and the people of Adelaide on the other. The battle was “opened with tremendous zest” and the fighting, which continued to late in the evening, had to be suspended and renewed the following day. The public “had been fought heartily for their money, and they had yielded freely”.5


Returned servicemen in costume at the Egyptian Fair. State Library of South Australia SRG 6/34/10

The fair had opened with “a procession of soldiers garbed as are the picturesque citizens of Cairo”, with charcoal and coffee being used to achieve a “faithful Oriental tint.” They achieved their objective of attracting as much attention as possible, garnering “a great crowd” of onlookers. The “Egyptian” cohort was also in attendance at the railway station to welcome the returning soldiers before parading through the city.6

The fun and frivolity, which also included an Egyptian wedding, tea and music, fancy dress competitions and a confetti carnival, in no way detracted from the chief objectives of the Cheer-Up Society and the RSA; “first, to cultivate the strong patriot; second, to promote good comradeship; and next, to keep the men [who] came back fit and ready for the future defence of their country.”7 The RSA and the Cheer-Up Society were considered particularly valuable for the role both organisations played in recruitment, and that the Egyptian fair “would not be an inconsiderable factor in that direction also.”8

In particular, it was expected that the displays of trench fighting in trenches excavated and embellished with barbed wire for the purpose, would achieve a key objective, namely that “the men who might be thinking of going would gain a vivid idea of the work to be accomplished.” The Governor, Sir Henry Galway, was clearly of the same mind.

It [the fair] would increase the number of men who would seek the Currie Street depot to enlist in the next few days, after they had witnessed, and pondered over, the lessons imparted by the exhibitions of attacks on, and defences of, trenches... [Galway] felt that a true realization of what the exhibition meant could not but exhilarated the onlookers, and determine those who were able to take part in the real thing.9

The praise for the returned soldiers, was tempered by a caution to families not to “spoil their returned soldiers – that their inclination to go back to the trenches should not be lessened,” for the experience they had gained was seen as invaluable for the battles ahead.

The cessation of real battles in 1918 did not end the Cheer-Up Society’s endeavours. Although the society closed its doors on Christmas Eve 1919, it was revived during the Second World War, with a more extensive remit, including the provision of hostel accommodation for servicemen on leave. The Cheer-Up Society was finally disbanded in 1964 and the original hut, which had been sold to the government to house the Elder Park Migrant Hostel after World War Two, gave way to the construction of the Adelaide Festival Centre.10

However, the chance to experience a Cheer-Up hut has not been lost. As part of the ANZAC Centenary in South Australia, Veterans SA will be recreating Cheer-Up Huts around the state. The first opportunity to visit one will be at the Spirit of ANZAC Centenary Experience at the Adelaide Showground from 8 – 20 March, 2016. Find out more HERE.

[1] John Morison, “Returned Soldiers and the Cheer-Up Society,” The Register, 10 August 1916.
[2] “Cheer-Up Society,” The Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser, 30 March 1917.
[3] “The Battle of Adelaide,” Observer, 5 February 1916.
[4] “Cheer-Up Society,” The Mail, 12 December 1914; “General Items – Oaklands Camp,” The Register, 31 December 1914.
[5] “The Battle of Adelaide,” Observer, 5 February 1916.
[6] “The Battle of Adelaide.”
[7] “The Battle of Adelaide.”
[8] “The Battle of Adelaide.”
[9] “The Battle of Adelaide.”
[10] Veterans SA, “The formation of the Cheer-Up Society,” accessed 23/02/2016,

© 2016 Elsa Reuter