Keith Spence and the Lane Cove Men’s Shed
Barry Golding’s account of the history of the Lane Cove Men’s Shed in my Men’s Shed Movement book (published during 2015) was based on documents on hand to early 2015.
In late 2015 Helen Johnston-Lord, from Warnervale, New South Wales) contacted me asking whether I was aware of her father, Keith Spence’s role in the very early days of the Lane Cove Men’s Shed. Helen subsequently provided me with copies of original documents and recollections about her father, cited below, that confirm that Keith (aged 84 in mid-1997) certainly played an important role in shaping the Lane Cove Men’s Shed at least 17 months before its official opening in December 1998.
Sharon Pearce, the then Lane Cove Council’s Community Development Officer also played a hitherto poorly documented role, as these new documents confirm. Sharon Pearce cited as the contact person about ‘the shed project’ soon after the Shed officially opened (in an article in the Sydney Weekly, dated Jan 12-18, 1999, with the header ‘Opening the door on men and their sheds’ with a picture of ‘Lane Cove resident Keith Spence tooling about at the men’s shed’. In the August 15-11 2000 issue of the Sydney Weekly (p.10) is a photograph of ‘Keith Spence, 87, Ted Donnelly, 66 and Bruce Brown, 71’ citing Ruth van Herk as ‘the project co-ordinator’.
These documents confirm that the Lane Cove Men’s Shed was being planned at around the same time (in mid-1997) as the Men’s Shed in Tongala, the latter being the oldest officially opened anywhere in a community setting with ‘Men’s Shed’ in the organisation name as the ‘Dick McGowan Men’s Shed’ on July 26 1998, approximately five month earlier than Lane Cove.
The early rationale for the Lane Cove Men’s Shed
The Northern Herald article headed ‘Strong support for Lane Cove ‘Men’s Shed’ Idea,’ dated July 10 1997 (p.3) is very early indeed and says the following in the second paragraph:
A unique idea to establish a Men’s Shed in Lane Cove has been met with enthusiastic support from older men in the community, many of whom no longer have that special retreat. The brainchild of the council’s community development officer, Sharon Pearce, the Men’s Shed will offer a meeting place where older men can socialise and carry out activities.
Whether Sharon Pearce was actually ‘the brainchild’ for the Men’s Shed is debatable. Keith’s daughter Helen Johnston-Lord wrote recently that that Ian Longbottom (also actively involved in the early days of the Lane Cove Men’s Shed) ‘… commented that it was certainly NOT Sharon Pearce’s brainchild’.
The July 1997 newspaper article cites Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data from 1995 confirming the relatively high proportion of older people in Lane Cove, as well as research commissioned by the State Government in 1996 which found that men over 60 who lived alone spent 84 per cent of the time on their own. Sharon Pearce was cited as saying that:
A lot of men were saying that they really missed their place, that the domestic domain for that particular generation [of men] was the domain of their partners
Towards the end of the article ‘Mark Thomson, who wrote Blokes and Sheds’ is quoted as saying ‘it’s not what you actually do in the shed but the potential of what you can do’.
As of July 10 1997 ‘… the plan was to build a “homey little shed” [in Lane Cove] with a grant from the department of Health and Family Services and give local retired men a say in its design and use.’
For context, only four days earlier than this newspaper article and 700km away in Victoria (on 4 July 1997) Ron McLeod of the Tongala RSL was penning support for the late Dick McGowan’s already well developed proposal to create what I still contend is the first Men’s Shed by that name to open in a community setting anywhere in the world.
The back-story about Keith Spence
Peter Keith Spence, widely known as ‘Keith’, was born in Sydney on 14 Feb 1913 and died 16 Sept 2002 at the age of 89. By the 1930s Keith was working as an electrician, and was married in Lane Cove in 1936. He later worked for Frank Packer at the Daily Telegraph and developed an interest in sailing, building and racing a 30-foot sailboat.
To quote from parts of his daughter’s (Helen Johnston-Lord’s) biography of Keith:
After he retired in 1979 he took to woodwork. … In late 1992 [he] was involved in an almost fatal motor vehicle accident. … [He] survived although he had to give up driving and was a little lost about what to do with himself. Never fear. He became part of the Greenwich Day Centre and was quickly helping with activities, a welcome addition with his fresh approach to life.
At the ripe old age of 84  he had an idea about a place for men and he was asked to help set up the Lane Cove Men’s Shed. He had been such an inspiration to many people and some of the contacts from his past thought the idea of men getting together might work in the wider community. Just a few days before being told he had lung cancer, he was at the Shed.
The following are some pertinent quotes taken from a longer article headed ‘Vale Keith Spence: Men’s Shed Patriarch Passes on’ in The Village Observer (October 2002, p. 20).
Keith, often referred to as the “Guru” or the “Boss”, was a founding member of the Men’s Shed and an integral member of the team. Keith’s shared vision of a Community Shed which would provide a space for where older men could come and share some time with each other and lean skills together, was an active passion in the last three years. …
A generosity of spirit and an ability to cheerfully impart knowledge were the characteristics of this man who inspired so many worthwhile community projects and helped to emerge the current ethos of the Men’s Shed – which is to be of service to the community by making useful and interesting wooden items for a variety of institutions while having fun and enjoying some company. …
Keith has bequeathed the Lane Cove Community a valuable legacy. His belief was that we could all make a difference and each of [us] could bring some joy to another was underpinned by an impish sense of humour that inspired some amusing projects to generate fun in families and communities. His spirit of generous sharing of knowledge and skills is now integral to the Men’s Shed community.
… We would suggest that by now St Peter would have been co-opted to find some space so that Keith could form the Heavenly Men’s Shed so that the blokes could get together in a familiar environment and have a bit of a chat.