Club’s war counter

The counter lies on the floor in a corner of the Defence Club in Suva and from a passing glance it may seem like just an old discarded piece of furniture ready to be used as firewood.

However, there is more to this counter than meets the eye.

A closer inspection of this interesting piece of wood, which has its origins in London, England, reveals the names of hundreds of people who have carved their names on it.

Among those who etched their names on this bar counter were the dozens of Fiji men who served in Europe at the height of the World War I.

This counter was in a below-street bar in the Chandos Hotel, near Trafalgar Square in London.

During World War I the bar was a regular meeting place and message centre for numerous Commonwealth troops when they were on leave in London.

The bar was particularly popular with the men from Fiji who served in France on attachment with the Kings Royal Rifles.

According to a framed ou­t­line of the history on the counter mounted in the corner of the Defence Club, among the bar’s regular patrons arose the custom of carving their names or initials into the counter.

However no Fiji names now remain because they were obliterated by later carvings.

After World War I, contact was maintained with the Chandos, and an Australian flag which used to be at the entrance to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital came from one of the barmaids at the hotel.

The Chandos was eventually damaged by war-time bombing of London and during restoration work in 1950 the downstairs bar was remodelled, with a Spanish atmosphere, and the carved counter was placed in storage.

According to club records in 1950, War World I veteran Les Lawlor and past Defence Club president Len Usher also a former The Fiji Times editor, visited London and asked the Chandos owners, the brewing firm of Truman Hanbury, to sell the counter.

Instead, the company offered to polish the surface of the counter and ship it across to Fiji, at their expense, “on permanent loan to the Defence Club”.

Another framed outline of the history of the counter was placed in the Spanish Bar by the hotel manager, Jim Hayden, who always made visitors from Fiji particularly welcome at the Chandos.

In 1965, Defence Club members and other delegates to the first of the two Constitutional Conferences preceding Fiji’s Independence were invited as guests of Truman Hanbury to a special party in the bar.

It is also understood a visitor from England several years ago broke down in tears at the Defence club after having tracked the counter down, on which was etched her grandfather’s signature.

Defence Club president Eddie Roxburgh said the bar top had been part of the main bar at club until it was decided last year to take it down for preservation purposes and has since been varnished and sealed.

He said the sizable counter was tied up with the club’s history as it was formed only a year after the start of World War I.

“Eventually we’re going to have it mounted in the club to allow our members and people to better appreciate it,” said Mr Roxburgh.

The club is celebrating its centennial next year and the counter will without a doubt, attract attention. It will serve as a reminder of Fiji’s contribution to the war.

The Chandos counter also is a legacy of spirited men who fought and died alongside each other on the battlefields of Europe in an era of great military tradition and comradeship.