In our “A Drink with Jeff” series, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of club identities. This month, it’s local legal eagle Jim Marsden OAM.
Jim Marsden knows the famous myth about his brother… Once upon a time, there was a big bad lawyer called John Marsden who huffed and puffed but failed to stop The Catho being built. As a result, he was banned from setting foot in the club when it opened in 1968. It’s a vivid piece of folklore, told and retold, and perhaps only eclipsed in its immortality by the anecdote about comedian Dickie Valentine being hauled off stage for uttering the Fword. Yet, for all its fame, no official record of the “Marsden ban” exists. John died in 2006 and can no longer tell his side of the story, so I invited his brother, Jim, to join me for this month’s Drink with Jeff.

As we enjoyed our beers, Jim dropped a few twists — like the fact that he, too, was once refused entry! Let’s start with an introduction for a bloke who really needs no introduction. Few Campbelltonians have championed our city as enthusiastically as Jim and, since the death of his brother, Jim has been the face of Marsdens Law Group. I mean that literally. That’s Jim’s big head you see on those buses driving around town.
We greeted each other in the foyer, Jim looking a bit too slim and fit for his 72 years. I remembered the last time I bumped into Jim in the club foyer, he had just finished having a coffee with a client and then popped up to Aquafit for a few laps. Not bad for a supposed enemy of The Catho. It’s also why Club CEO Michael Lavorato laughs whenever the “Marsden ban” is recounted. “Jim uses this place anytime he has a visiting VIP to entertain — and one of our Club Directors is none other than Peter Crittenden, who is a partner at Marsdens!” Let’s not forget, too, The Cube is where Marsdens Law Group held its gala 50th birthday celebrations.

Jim, at left, with his brother John, pictured in their Dumaresq Street legal offices about 30 years ago.

Nonetheless, it’s true, the relationship was once very different. John expressed his bitterness in his 2004 autobiography, I Am What I Am, explaining the “pretty rough” court case against the Catholic Club in 1968. “Unfortunately, it created enemies for life,” he wrote. “I eventually lost both the battle and the war — I was banned from entering the Catholic Club for the better part of the next 20 years…”.

For readers who are too young to remember John Marsden, he was a human headline. A flamboyant and larger-than-life gay activist known for high-profile clients, civil rights activism, and a landmark court victory in Australia’s longest-running defamation action.

Also, a brief bit of Catho Club backstory might be needed as the reason why John fought against us…

The original idea for a Catholic Club came out of a 1964 working bee at St John’s Primary School, as an army of volunteer parents worked up a sweat building new classrooms. After a hot day’s work, some of these volunteers went to a pub and parent Bill Meehan looked down at the beers they had just paid a publican for, then looked at the tired faces around him, and uttered the famous line: “There’s an easier way to build schools than this.” A licensed club, using its profits to help fund Catholic education, was put on the drawing board, money was raised, and land was bought. But the hardest hurdle was getting a liquor licence — as it was opposed by all the local pubs.

One of those pubs was owned by the Marsden family — Lacks Hotel — and representing them in court was their young lawyer son, John Marsden, in his first big case. He lost it. The NSW Licensing Court agreed that The Catho did have a right to exist — and the rest is history. The club opened in 1968.

Half a century later, that battle of wills still conjures up images of some wild west showdown. The other gunslinger, Bill Meehan, is now in his 90s and revered as “Member No 1”. Bill admits the feelings against John were very hostile at the time but, in hindsight, Bill also acknowledges those emotions were understandable. In his own interview last year, he told me: “We have to remember that John Marsden’s parents, Guy and Tibby, owned the Lack’s Hotel in Queen Street, they were both Catholics, and John had just opened up his law firm in Campbelltown.”

So, that’s where I’ll now bring in Jim…

He, like John, was raised in Lacks Hotel as a son of Guy and Tibby, and also a grandson of the pub’s namesake, Herb Lack. This grand old building was bulldozed in 1984 but for many generations it stood on the corner of Queen and Railway Streets as a cosy fireplace-style watering hole where everybody knew your name.

Guy and Tibby Marsden at the bar of Lack’s Hotel in the 1960s, their other son Peter at right. The Marsdens were big local identities and popular Marsden Park, at Campbelltown’s Park Central, is named in their memory.

Then came the bitterness of the 1967 court case against The Catho.

“It was really sad in a way because Dad and Mum were part of that old Catholic community of Campbelltown,” Jim said. “The parish priests used to come down after Mass on Sundays and have a meal and some drinks and we, as the Marsden family, were all part of that.”

So, Lacks Hotel was sort of a Catholic club before The Catho?

“Absolutely,” Jim shot back. “When John started the legal action on behalf of the Australian Hotels Association, Mum and Dad were treated as pariahs by the local Catholic community. Friendships imploded.”

I pointed out that no written record of his brother being banned from The Catho had ever been found…but the oral record was strong.

“Yes,” Jim replied. “My own recollection is that John WAS banned — that came direct from his mouth and I had no cause to question it. And, I have no doubt that if John had walked into that little club back in the late 60s or early 1970s, and Bill Meehan or other Board members were at the door, John would have been turfed out. I have no doubt about that at all. In saying that, however, I was recently chatting with Steve Muter [CEO of the Catholic Club from 1991 to 2006] and he denied John was banned…but Steve wasn’t in charge of the club in the 1960s [he was still serving drinks].”

I put it to Jim that, official or not, his brother would have probably enjoyed the notoriety of being “banned”. (In my time as a local newspaper editor, some people would complain if they were mentioned in connection to a controversial topic, but not John, he’d only ever complained to me if his name WASN’T mentioned in connection top a controversial local story.) And, I might add, club stalwart Peter Barron once told me that for a bloke supposedly banned, John Marsden was certainly at The Catho a lot in later years. “I saw John here as a guest speaker for Rotary several times, and he would always joke about whether he was allowed in or not.” Peter smiled.

Jim laughed in reply to those memories. “Being banned was certainly a good story…and, yes, John did like to use it to his advantage.”

Jim also told me that while John was busy trying to stop the Catholic Club from being built in the late sixties, he was rolling up his sleeves to build the Club!

“I was 18 and hired as a builder’s labourer by Billy Beatty [who was working with Ted McGoldrick] to build the original clubhouse.”

How did your publican father respond to that?

The original Catholic Club under construction in September 1968, a clipping from the Campbelltown-Ingleburn News.

“He was actually okay, it was a job,” Jim said. “My dad seriously had no other issue with the Catholic Club except that he had a business in town, and in those days there was a massive inequality between pubs and clubs, in the sense that clubs could have pokies and different licensing rules, that sort of thing. They were really serious opposition.”

Did you visit the Club you helped to build when it opened in 1968?

“No. But I wasn’t really a Club person. The razzle of poker machines held no interest and it just wasn’t my scene.”

So, when did The Catho become your scene?

“In the 1980s or 1990s I think. I suppose I forgot about being anti-club. I was boss of the Campbelltown Chamber of Commerce at the time and involved in a few other things and realised I couldn’t have an exclusory or exclusive attitude. Campbelltown Catholic Club had, by that stage, became a significant business in town, and I recognised that.

“Steve Muter was the CEO and we became good acquaintances, and now we’re very good friends. The same exactly with [his successor] Michael Lavorato. I also knew the earlier club boss Max Imrie, God rest his soul. In the end, it was a no-brainer.”

It was at this point that Jim offered up a real gem of information…

“As I said, Steve Muter denies that John was ever officially banned…but, when I was talking to him recently, and he told me that I was definitely was banned!”

I scratched my head. What?

“Well, I’m not sure whether I was refused entry, or got kicked out because…well…I was extremely drunk at the time.”

I smiled. When most people tell a cautionary tale they tend to make themselves the hero of the story, but Jim doesn’t shy away from making himself the anti-hero of the story.

“I was behaving like an idiot,” he told me, “Billy Benson was the bar manager at the time, it was back in the 1980s, and when I strutted in through the doors he wouldn’t let me in. I had just come from a pub and was with a few people and was, well, heavily intoxicated. No question about it, I should NOT have been allowed in — in fact, if the club had let me in I could have sued it [laughs]. But, I was not thinking that way at the time, and I probably did ‘a bit of a John’ and put up a fight. ‘The only reason you’re doing this is because my brother has been banned from this F-ing place’…that sort of thing. In short, I generally carried on like an absolute bloody dickhead.”

So, were you officially notified that you were banned?

“No,” Jim said, “not at the time. But when I was talking to Steve Muter the other day he told me, ‘Your brother wasn’t banned but YOU were! For three months!’ I had no idea. I did ring up the morning after my bad behaviour and apologised, and Steve accepted my apology. I just didn’t know I was banned… until now.”

The modern version of Jim, somewhat older and wiser, looked around the Club as we spoke and clearly feels welcome now.

How often do you visit?

“Ha, I was only here this morning for a meeting,” he replied.

Jim Marsden on stage at a Mater Dei fundraiser at The Cube in 2012.

“I’m here for various events, or if someone says let’s have a drink after work. And, as you know, we always have our Marsdens Law Group Christmas party every year over at Campbelltown Arts Centre.  For a couple of hours up to 400 people attend but, afterwards, there’s always about 40 or 50 who come back here to The Catho. I make sure everyone coming over is extremely well-behaved,” he added with a smile, “and the Catholic Club is always extremely accommodating.”

When Marsdens decided to hold its grand 50th anniversary at The Cube did you ponder heavily on your brother’s long years as persona non grata?

“No,” Jim replied. “There was not a single thought about that. There may have been some discussion in a light-hearted manner about John turning in his grave… but that’s the thing, I don’t think he would have turned in his grave. My brother would have thought it was the perfect place, absolutely the best place, to celebrate because he adored his Campbelltown community.”

In unison, we both recite John’s all-time famous quote: “THERE ARE ONLY TWO GREAT CITIES IN THE WORLD – ROME AND CAMPBELLTOWN.”

Indeed, John and Jim were both raised in Lacks Hotel so they immersed themselves in two major pieces of bedrock: community and service. The same building bedrock underlies The Catho.

The proud local ethos is also strong. The Catho employs local people, backs local causes, and even sources its foods from local suppliers. Marsdens Law Group has a similar policy. “We used to have a rule that you actually had to live in Campbelltown to work at Marsdens,” Jim said. “We’ve relaxed that now because you don’t always get the best lawyers if you put that kind of restriction on it, but we certainly do encourage our people to live nearby because they get a better feeling for the community.”

Jim began to list all the proud Campbelltown faces on his team, such as local government law specialist Adam Seton who has been with Marsdens for 30 years, as well as a long list of other familiar names. (At this point, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention my own son, Robert, is among the associates at Marsdens and is based in the commercial law section.)

As we finish our beers, Jim makes his position clear: “Campbelltown Catholic Club to me is one of the best, if not the best, club in the region. It has been run exceptionally well by successive hands-on Boards of Directors. And look at the stability, with only two CEOs in 33 years. Some people say the Catholic Club’s success is down to good luck or good location, but that’s bullshit. It has been good management. The Cube is sensational. Rydges is sensational. Aquafit is sensational. These have created other revenue streams…not just beer and pokies…and it’s worked really really well. As poker machine income diminishes, as it inevitably will, it will work even better.”

Not a bad rap coming from a Marsden.

But that’s the thing. In my chat with Jim I was hoping to firm up the myth of one supposedly-banned Marsden only to end up with a new myth of two supposedly-banned Marsdens.

Then again, what use is a myth unless it is precariously anchored somewhere between folklore, nostalgia, colour and reality. And what use is a myth without old grudges and newfound intimacies, and a rich gallery of characters. Long live our myths.