Canberra’s club culture

A table-top promotion for a 'Fast 50s' prize draw.

Every club runs a series of nightly promotions which are frankly, baffling to the newcomer.

Any Brit who moves abroad, no matter how much he or she loves their new home, will always find a pang of nostalgia for the good old British pub, with a name that evokes centuries of history, oak beams felled during Shakespeare’s era, a warm atmosphere and hearty food.

Family pubs don’t really exist in Australia. The closest equivalents are ‘hotels’ but these don’t tend to be as family-friendly, and certainly don’t have the same atmosphere as a traditional community pub.

What Australia does have is the members’ club, which is a big thing here.

Describing a members’ club to any Brit younger than 50 is a tough ask. Because the frames of reference for these places are the working men’s clubs of 60s and 70s Britain, or the dining and entertainment halls of Butlins or Pontins holiday camps which had their heyday in the same era.

As the name suggests, facilities are only open to members (although you can sign in as a guest if you are from out of town or only visit occasionally). Annual membership is usually a nominal fee – say between $1-5 – and allows you to come and go as you please, and to sign additional guests in too.

The clubs I’ve visited – three now – have a plethora of rules that seem puzzling to outsiders. You aren’t allowed to wear a hat, children aren’t allowed to come within a metre of the bar and have to leave the premises by 10pm and, while screen upon screen will show live rugby, football, AFL and other sports, the wearing of any sports jersey is prohibited. Some of these rules are enforced religiously (hats and children), others not so much (you could see plenty of sports jerseys in the clubs I visited).

You have a membership card which is swiped by staff every time you make a purchase and your spending accumulate points which translate into credits against future purchases. There are promotions too, with prize draws nearly every night and if you drop in during your birthday month, you are given some free credit on your membership card and entered into a birthday draw for a cash prize at the end of the month.

Members can buy food and drink at a slightly lower price than non-members, and there’s a large, sectioned-off, adults-only area where row upon row of fruit machines, known as pokies, attempt to extract money from guests. Other promotions – and again, evocative of 1970s Britain – include a regular meat raffle, and I’ve seen many a happy member trot off home grinning and carrying a tray of pork chops and sausages.

Some of the bigger clubs put on regular events and excursions. The excursions are reminiscent of the ‘works day out’ type trips – again from a different in the UK. While the events can be impressive – the Southern Cross Club, one of Canberra’s biggest, has an 80s night coming up with live performances from Paul Young, Go West, Nik Kershaw and Cutting Crew. Not tribute bands, the real thing, all on one night.

Many of the clubs’ regular promotions are baffling and would take years of study to understand. In our last visit to our local club, multiple screens were showing what looked like bingo cards, with numbers flashing up at regular intervals. I have no idea why. Around the walls were posters reminding members to enter for the ‘Fast 50s’, ‘Jolly Joker’ and ‘Spinners are Winners’. Again, no idea.

For families, the club seems to take the place the local pub holds in British culture and, while we do visit them from time to time, in truth, it’s no substitute for possible the only piece of Britishness I still really miss.

Now, who’s for a tray of a beef joint and some lamb cutlets? Go on, you know you want to.

7 thoughts on “Canberra’s club culture

  1. Wow Mark, sounds like the clubs on your side of town are more rule oriented that on ours. I’ve never seen rules about football jerseys, just no thongs and need to be in good casual dress. The kids and bars bit might be standard Australian liquor rules at any place selling alcohol from a counter but I might be wrong. We are members of three clubs on our side of town and they have their uses. Some have great children’s areas though your children are probably getting a bit old for those.

    I’ve often thought that our clubs replace pubs for in Britain and the so-called family restaurants (mostly chains) in the US, for family outings.

    We do have pubs, here, particularly in country towns, can be a bit more like the British pub. I tend to prefer them when we travel to the clubs which can be a bit the same whereas the pubs can reflect local regions a little more and, can often have cosy areas and garden areas. And of course, the gastropub is on the rise, but they tend to be for a different clientele altogether.


    • They are quite regimented and I don’t really feel an urge to return, to be honest. Pub-wise, I know the George Harcourt but haven’t really checked out any in Civic yet. I recently found an old Canberra Times article on the best five pubs in Canberra, so I think we’ll give those a try in order of recommendation.


      • Yes, they don’t have the charm of the pub, so I totally understand that. George Harcourt is fun though, particularly in summer with its lovely outside areas. (You will probably find that pubs won’t let minors within a metre of the bar – or at least not unless their in the company of a “responsible adult”). I was at a restaurant/bar over our side the other day, and there was a sign in one section saying that this part was a designated bar and minors yada yada …


      • Oh yes, actually that happened to us at the Raiders Club in Gungahlin. They have a tall table and stools blocking the carpeted route to the ‘sports bar’ area, so Mini trod on the tiled area around the bar only to be immediately told off. Bear in mind there was no other way to get to the other bar (other than through the pokies hall). We seemed to get told off every time we went in there (that was where I was admonished for the hat too). So we don’t go any more.


  2. Trish says:

    I’m not a fan of the big shiny clubs, i much prefer our local pub, but I can see the appeal of clubs. Nik Kershaw doesn’t come to my local.


    • Ha ha, I don’t know that he goes to many of them, and if he shows up wearing a cap and sports shirt, he won’t get in anyway. Having visited your local pub, I’s find it hard to make an argument for any rival establishment. It’s a gem, and you’re lucky to have it on your doorstep.


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