Eltham War Memorial Buildings: A Lost Appeal but a Victory of Sorts

4 June 2021

By Andrew Lemon

After a full-day public hearing last February, and weeks of consideration, a panel of the Heritage Council recently formally announced it had rejected the appeal spearheaded by ECAG to have the Eltham War Memorial complex of buildings included on the Victorian Heritage Register. A disappointing result, but the process has delivered three benefits.

A reminder to the casual passer by: the Eltham War Memorial for which we have been advocating is not the small memorial obelisk, or cenotaph, beside the Main Road footpath. This originated in 1919 after World War 1 as an ‘Eltham Peace Memorial’ and has been located on three different Eltham sites since then. It was moved here as recently as 2012 and carries its own statutory protections.

Our concern is, instead, the adjacent complex of modest cream brick buildings, purpose-built in the 1950s by the community for children’s services: a baby health centre, pre-school and children’s library. The buildings are essentially intact and the pre-school continues. The complex, in a larger garden setting, was to be a ‘living memorial’ to Eltham servicemen killed in the Second World War. It was initiated and funded (including buying the site) largely by the women of Eltham and, after completion, was given in trust to the then Eltham Shire Council in 1965. It was to be ‘a constant reminder to us of those who fought for us, and the little ones for whom they fought and died.’

Constant reminder, perhaps—but in subsequent years the grounds have been compromised and the place underappreciated by Eltham residents and local councils. This can and should change.

What are three positives?

First, it has given scope for deeper historical understanding of the place’s origins and of the people who created it. Thanks to the architectural and historical research of Kate Russell, architect Lynnsay Prunotto and her architecture-student daughter Michaela, and of Jim Connor and his team at Eltham District Historical Society, we now know a great deal more about the significance. We were brilliantly supported by submissions by Sue Dyet and expert witnesses Professors Julie Willis and Judith Smart. Our arguments to the Heritage Council were powerful and cogent, and the panel commended the quality of the submissions. I detect it was a close thing.

Second, our nomination thwarted the hurried and cynical initiative of the previous Nillumbik Shire Council in 2018 to sell this community asset, in tandem with the adjacent open land that had briefly housed the Eltham Shire Office. Our nomination was not simply a strategic delaying tactic. It was an insistence that the significance of the Eltham War Memorial complex needed proper consideration. The panel recommended that the Nillumbik Council consider the place for local heritage protection.

Finally, the work that went into the nomination and the appeal, and the seriousness with which Heritage Victoria dealt with the process, encouraged the current Nillumbik Shire Council to see in principle that this place is deserving of strong local heritage protection under its planning schemes.

Now it is up to Council to formalise local recognition and protection as promised. It is evident we need people individually to contact councillors and CEO Carl Cowie before this publicly owned site is coveted for some other brainwave. Protection is in the hands of Nillumbik Council.

Please contact Nillumbik councillors and CEO requesting they make it a matter of priority to place local heritage protection on the war memorial buildings.

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About the author

Andrew Lemon, a local resident, is passionate about Eltham’s community and history.

A professional historian, he has won national literary awards, and for his body of published work, was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters in 2005 by the University of Melbourne.

Andrew has served on Victoria’s Heritage Council and the State Library of Victoria Board, and has been president of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. Locally he was actively involved in the Save Community Reserves campaign and has worked tirelessly with other locals to research and share information about Eltham’s War Memorial Buildings.

Published 4 June 2021

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