The Defence Club’s famous dollar bills
26 June, 2022, 9:06 pm
Last week, Discovering Fiji took a rare glimpse into one of Defence Club’s most famous antiquated pieces – The Chandos wooden bar counter from London that has been on permanent loan to the Suva establishment since the colonial days.
This week we shall consider a few rare items that grace the walls and interior of the heritage haven at the intersection of Gordon, MacArthur and Hercules streets. Among the hundreds of pieces on display and those hidden from view, two that will strike any visitor are the framed dollar bills that the club lays a famous claim to.
One of the bills has signatures belonging to James Warner and Harry Lyon, who visited Fiji in 1958, 30 years after their historic landing in the Southern Cross at Albert Park in Suva on June 5, 1928.
James Warner, a radio operator, and Harry Lyon, a navigator, had accompanied pilot Charles Kingsford Smith and co-pilot Charles Ulm on that record-breaking flight.
The latter pair passed away in 1934 and 1935 respectively.
Kingsford Smith disappeared with his co-pilot after his plane crashed in seas off Burma in 1935 while Ulm disappeared with two others without a trace during a 1934 flight from California to Hawaii.
In 1958, Warner and Lyon were hosted to a reception hosted by the Mayor, Cr A.D Leys at Suva’s Town Hall followed by a buffet luncheon at the Defence Club whose president at the time was R.G.Woodman.
As chief guests, both men spoke briefly at the Town Hall.
Warner concluded his speech by asking for one minute’s silence in memory of Smith and CUlm, pilot and co-pilot during the historic trans-Pacific flight 30 years earlier.
In welcoming the duo, Cr Leys said the councillors of the city of Suva “count it a great honour” to be able to “welcome back Mr Harry Lyon and Mr James Warner.”
“In this century people even in isolated places like Fiji, have seen many wonders but it is the feat that is born of a spirit of adventure that will always stir people’s imaginations.”
Cr Leys said judging by what was shared with him by those who were fortunate enough to witness the arrival of the Southern Cross after her long flight from Honolulu, the famous 1928 touch down at Albert Part would be hard to erase from people’s memories.
“This voyage had all the elements of adventure and drama, a flight taking 35 hours and ending with only 20 minutes fuel to spare and a pocket handkerchief to land on,” Cr Leys said.
“I have often looked at Albert Park and have felt complete amazement at the whole performance. It is no wonder that in Fiji, so isolated and not in touch with the then development of aircraft, should regard the voyage as such an epic and memorable feat.”
The Southern Cross’ first flight was seen as the forerunner to the country’s aviation industry and marked the early development of our network of air routes which have grown to become an essential part of our lives today.
For more than 100 years, the Defence Club has welcomed historic figures through its doors, to enjoy a pint or two, play a game of billiard and crack jokes with friends.
The club had also witnessed many great events hosted at the capitak throughout the years.
It went through the uncertainties of world wars and experienced a large portion of 20th century Fiji, under British colonial rule.
It survived the country’s spate of political upheavals and coup d’etats.
The original dollar bill was the last one which the Southern Cross crew had on arrival in Suva in 1928.
The second bill was given three decades later when Lyon and Warner visited Fiji again in 1958.
“Kingsford-Smith had not then learned of the Australian Government’s offer of 10,000 pounds if the Pacific flight was completed. He and co-pilot Charles Ulm had spent all their money and were worried about the future,” reported The Fiji Times of the 1928 flight.
Pitching in like true gentlemen, Defence Club members at the time organised a collection and gave the four men 100 sovereigns.
The money was placed in a tortoise shell casket and a photo of that box can be spotted on one of the club walls.
Mr Lyon, in return, promised to send back from Australia their last single dollar bill.
This was returned about a week after the Southern Cross departed Fiji from Nasilai’s shorelines, with a note written and signed by Lyon on June 13, 1928.
“Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to send you the torn dollar bill over which we talked during my stay in Fiji,” the note said.
“Being of superstitious mind, as all sailors are, I feel it has brought to us a certain amount of luck, and if there is anything in this ‘luck’, I shall feel eternally gratifed if it brings luck to the Defence Club of Suva.”
At the Defence Club, in 1958, Lyon told members:
“I am an old sailor and was always told, if you take a chance with your last buck it will bring you luck.
“I thought as this dollar had brought us to Fiji we had better keep it with us for the rest of the flight. Well we got through. You have the dollar.”
Mr Warner had earlier taken another dollar note from his pocket to compare the old and new bills. It was here that two men decided that they would give this one too, to the club, so they both autographed it.
Mr Lyon then said with a bit of humour: “We have a few more this time, so you needn’t take up another collection.”
At the Defence Ckub today, a note under the 1958 bill says: “The above dollar note was presented to the Defence Club on 2nd August, 1958 by Mr Harry Lyon and Mr James Warner (ofKingsford-Smith fame) on their return trip to Fiji
after 30 years from the original landing of the “Southern Cross” on Albert Park.”
Both bills are framed and remain part of the Defence Club’s memorabilia.
The older bill has been with the club for 94 years.
Another interesting item on display is the secretary’s test kit, which is made up of a few peculiar-looking things encased in a glass and wooden box.
According to Defence Club literature, from the 1920s to the early 1950s, bottled spirits of any kind were difficult to procure for commercial reasons, especially in Fiji.
Liquor, in those days, had to be ordered in bulk containers through agents like Burns Philip, Morris Hedstrom and later Carpenters, who imported the liquor from Australia, New Zealand and England.
The club secretary was required to test each consignment in order to obtain the specific gravity and ensure that each container was not tampered with.
“He would then dilute each container, if necessary, to obtain the desired profit margin required as directed by the President’s Committee.”
“To avoid contamination, the 1Gill (one quarter of a pint) taken from each container was not put back into the barrel. The secretary was allowed to drink this portion. This was known as the Angel’s Share.”
Hence, the secretary was often seen heavily intoxicated and staggering home early to sleep.
Another interesting thing worth checking out at the club are its array of military plagues.
In keeping with its proud military history, the club keeps a considerable number of them.
Visiting military personnel would present their unit plaques to the club as a mark of respect for the gentlemen of Fiji’s Defence Club.
These military trophies can be spotted hanging prominently above the bar.
Then there are oddities, like two quaintlooking tills, an old leather bag and a wooden clock, old police helmets and caps, among other things.