1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Volunteer Corps

The volunteer corps comprised units of unpaid part-time soldiers maintained by Melburnians for local defence from the 1840s. The first enduring corps were raised in 1854 in response to fears of Russian raids during the Crimean War. Within five years, one in 50 Melburnians, all adult males, were volunteers, and their corps were as much a part of community life as fire brigades and football clubs. Factory hands, tradesmen, shop assistants and clerks filled the ranks, and businessmen and politicians like John Templeton of National Mutual and Frederick Sargood of the Legislative Council held commissions. Mayors and councillors led communities in raising money and organising shooting competitions to equip, sustain and improve their corps, while landowners William Clarke of Sunbury and Andrew and Thomas Chirnside of Werribee competed to host the volunteers' annual Easter army camps. Vast crowds gathered to watch these camps, which featured 'sham fights' or mass manoeuvres - colourful events in an age of close-order drill and gorgeous uniforms. No anti-war and peace movement denounced the volunteer corps, which were not subject to military discipline or organised to fight in imperial wars.

With the withdrawal of the British Army garrison in 1870 the volunteers were Melbourne's only organised land defence. Volunteers themselves acknowledged they could not repel an enemy attack, and in 1884 Sargood, now Minister of Defence, converted all Victoria's volunteer corps into a paid and government-organised militia. It was in this force that John Monash, Melbourne's most famous soldier, began his military career. New unpaid volunteer corps came to be raised, notably the kilted Victorian Scottish Regiment, Melbourne's only ethnic volunteer corps.

Volunteer corps and militia regiments disappeared with the introduction of compulsory military training in 1912. They had never seen battle, but a few performed peaceful if controversial service when they helped rural volunteers under Tom Price break the 1890 maritime strike.

Craig Wilcox

Ward, George F., Victorian land forces 1853-1883, G.F. Ward, Melbourne, 1989. Details