Australia Hall stands empty, but is on the point of becoming irretrievable
Stand before a derelict entertainment facility, and it’s not difficult to hear peels of laughter, gasps of thrill or horror, applause. Those are hardly joyful sounds, however, if they merely reverberate eerily through a crumbling, empty hall.
Such a cheerless edifice stands in shambles in Pembroke, a town on the small island nation of Malta. Traces are few of the building’s bustling heyday, which lasted for several decades while it was a multipurpose hall that welcomed World War I to World War II servicemen and women of British Commonwealth forces.
Australia Hall, as it is still named, was located on a large British base, St Andrews, now shuttered. From 1921, it was a cinema for thousands of military personnel who came in civvies, up to 500 at a time, to watch popular movies. The venue’s added attraction was there, there, films were spared the censorship that cut away political and artistic expression that ruffled the thinning feathers of the the free-falling British empire. Around England’s diminishing dominion, the regime of censorship remained strong until the 1960s.
When the building was completed in 1915, a plaque over its front door explained: “This building was erected in November 1915 by the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society for the benefit of the soldiers of the empire.” The plaque is still there, underneath an Australian coat of arms: the emu and the kangaroo, “Advance Australia,” the seven-pointed star of the federation… The branch intended it as a contribution to the wellbeing of wounded troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – “ANZACs” – and as a permanent monument to their sacrifice. ANZAC and other British Commonwealth soldiers came to Malta as casualties of fighting in the Dardanelles campaigns – from the fronts at Salonika (Thessalonica) in Greece and Gallipoli on the coast of the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey.
At first a recreation center and theatre, Australia Hall was simple and functional. With just a few stately elements, it exemplified British colonial military architecture. It was a place to defuse on the male-overloaded military barracks just north of the capital, Valletta. As such, it formed part of Malta’s proud legacy of its role as “Nurse of the Mediterranean.”
Packed in, some 2,000 people could sit in the hall for stage productions, bingo, dances, and other entertainments. The building of a projection room over the front foyer in 1921 ushered in the hall’s cinema era.
By that time the war was over, of course, but many troops remained, and even then another conflict threatened. During the mid- to late-1930s, when German and Italian expansion threatened to proliferate, and then did, Malta again became a key site for the treatment and recuperation of British Commonwealth wounded.
Through the conflicts, the movies shone on.
Residents of Malta and former members of the Commonwealth military forces who witnessed the facility’s cinema days recall it – or remember their parents recalling it – as a heartening oasis amidst the terrors and tensions of war in the Mediterranean theatre. War brought not only fear, but boredom and homesickness that cinematic escape could alleviate.
Even in the 1960s, recalls one local resident, Peter Bezzina, Australia Hall was a buzzing venue. From a family of publicans, he worked at the cinema’s bar, as a 16 year old. Enforcement was lax at the time, but when a new commander took over at the barracks, Bezzina recalls, “he took one look at me and said ‘What’s that child doing in here?’” and banished him and two of his cousins from the venue. Losing their job was one thing, but missing out on the movies was another, so they found a remedy: “In the summer it was very hot in there because there were not enough fans, so they left the side doors open, and we would sneak in for movie nights.”
The British military presence would not end until 1978. At that time, the Maltese government took over the hall. Gloomy days were ahead. In 1998, a fire gutted the trusses and sheeting of its ceiling, as well as the stage area. Arson was suspected. The structure’s four walls survived, but what remained of Australia Hall became prey to the elements.
Today Pembroke is a pleasant coastal town of 3,000 just west of Paceville, the hub of Malta’s nightlife. Much of Pembroke is recently built, but the region has a long and gloried military history. That began when the centuries-old Knights of the Order of Saint John – the Knights Hospitaller – built two watchtowers there. The battle-hardened knights had relocated to Malta during their ceaseless path of military conquest and flight. They hoped the Pembroke watchtowers would help them to defend the awesome fortifications of the fortifications – bastions, curtains, and ravelins – that ably defended Valletta, a few miles to the east, even during Nazi and Fascist World War II bombing.
The British military presence came in 1859, when construction began of a military base at the modern-day location of Pembroke. Fort Pembroke went up between 1875 and 1878, as one of several means of shoring up defences. The town of Pembroke came later, in the last years of the century, as a location for canon emplacements.
During World War I, Pembroke became an important location for the British army, and that role continued in the second war. During it, the Pembroke base had not only a hospital and recuperation facilities for the wounded, but also extensive barracks for its resident soldiers. Also on the site was a prisoner-of-war camp for captured German soldiers – 2,500 of them by the end of the conflict; all were repatriated by 1948. But the last British soldiers did not leave until the late 1970s.
Already, by that time, the base was falling apart. In fact, the town of Pembroke was abandoned until housing projects revived it during the mid-1980s after the land had returned to Maltese government control.
Along with a military cemetery for war dead – 593 of them, including 315 from World War II – several British military buildings remain in Pembroke. But once the area relinquished its military role, the entertainment centre that provided distraction for Commonwealth forces soon came to look like it should be buried, too.
The likelihood that Australia Hall, now a forlorn shell, could ever again host entertainments appears remote. Still, calls for a heroic architectural reclamation have lately sounded in Malta. The greatest stumbling block appears to be not structural – the walls of the old building could serve as the starting point for a complete refurbishment. Rather, the hitch is partisan politics.
The building has been protected since 1996 by its historical status. But it has been subject to depredations, nonetheless – vandalism and graffiti, certainly, but also squabbling and attempted horse-trading among the small nation’s dominant two political parties.
During recent decades, the hall has been drawn into maneuvers by the National and Labour parties designed to increase each group’s political grip. Both parties have clamoured charges, and countercharges, about each other’s attempts to feather its own nest with valuable properties, such as the land on which Australia Hall sits.
Rumours have included that one party or the other would cash in on the property’s value by building a shopping mall there, or some other money-spinner.
It would be difficult to determine whether one party is less culpable or maneuvering than the other, but the courts may at least eventually determine the fate of Australia Hall.
The current situation, at least as it concerns Australia House, is in limbo, says the Hon. Jason Azzopardi, of the Nationalist Party, who served as Minister of Small Business, Lands, Consumers, and Competition until March 2013, when the Labour Party returned to power. When the Nationalist Party was voted out of government, and he left parliament, he says, “there was still pending before the Courts a law suit instituted by the Lands Department against the Labour Party to retake possession of this site.” Adds Azzopardi, who mounted an enforcement and awareness campaign calling or more responsible and sustainable use of public property: “I had given instructions to start proceedings some two years ago. So until the Court delivers judgement, I can only say that to date this site is held by the Labour Party under title of emphyteusis” – meaning that if Labour improves the property and pay taxes on it, it may use it in the interim.
The Nationalist Party had itself filed a suit back in 1988 to contest Labour’s hold on the property, and its alleged neglect of it – today it would be difficult to argue that no one had neglected it.
Online comments from former servicemen and locals who attended films at Australia Hall provide a sense of the place. For a start, recalls one nostalgic ex-soldier, “movies there were not censored! Wish it could be rebuilt as it was.” Another remembers watching movies there in the 1970s, when it was the garrison cinema: “I remember we all stood for the national anthem at the end of the evening.”
But the current state of the building merely shocks one former movie-goer. Now a resident of Australia, like so many Maltese, he wrote to the Times of Malta that “I visited the Australia Hall site in September 2006 and was absolutely appalled and horrified at the ruinous state such a historical building was allowed to degenerate into. It is part of Malta’s heritage and it will be an indictment on the government if the building were not saved for posterity in recognition of the role Malta played in world history.”
Instead, says Peter Bezzina, “it was all left open, and ignorant and stupid people vandalized it. It’s been burned twice.”
Certainly, the connections between Australia and Malta, both during the world wars, and since, have intensified calls for refurbishment.
But, politics being what they are, and cultural heritage so often being far down lists of priorities, renovation appears unlikely.
– Peter Monaghan