Tramway ANZAC: Hugh Gillies Cameron Spence

Comrade of Lawrence of Arabia

In his youth, Hugh “Hughie” Spence had some amazing experiences. From growing up on a farm in the Victorian High Country as a horseman – a real-life example of the legendary Man from Snowy River – to becoming a cable tram gripman in highly urban Port Melbourne, to serving in the Middle East in the First World War, consorting with the key players in the Arab Revolt Lawrence of Arabia and Hussein bin Ali, Sherif of Mecca and the future King of Hedjaz all before he turned 30. This series of events seems incredible to us today, but it was his true-life story.

Hugh Gillies Cameron Spence was born in northern Victoria in 1889, in the rural township of Cohuna. Well before the beginning of the First World War, the Spence family moved to a selection at Barwite, just outside Mansfield, in the Victorian High Country.

Spence was working for the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company at as a gripman [1] at Port Melbourne Depot when he enlisted on 14 July 1915. The majority of tramway employees who volunteered for overseas service in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were posted to infantry battalions or artillery batteries. However, due to his rural background and horsemanship skills, plus two years’ prior service in the Light Horse militia, Spence was posted to a reinforcements draft for the 13th Light Horse Regiment, known as the “Devil’s Own”. Many of the troopers of the regiment – who were mounted infantry rather than cavalry – were drawn from the Mansfield area.

He embarked for the Middle East on HMAT A38 Ulysses, on 27 October 1915.

After arriving in Egypt, in January 1916 Spence was detached to the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps, where he initially served as a Company Quartermaster Sergeant. The Corps consisted of Egyptian civilian labourers under British command. Many of the labourers were impressed into service. The Corps transported arms, ammunition and supplies to British forces fighting the Turkish army in the Sinai and Palestine. A secondary role was the evacuation of wounded away from the front lines.

During the war, over 170,000 Egyptians worked in the Corps as camel drivers and labourers. Service was subject to military discipline, despite the Egyptians being civilians. A significant number of them were killed, wounded or captured by Turkish forces.

On 1 December 1916 Spence was discharged from the AIF, and commissioned as a Temporary Lieutenant in the British Army, attached to the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). On his promotion, he took charge of a company of the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps.

One of the conditions of Spence’s discharge from the AIF was the surrender of free passage to Australia or England at the end of his service. At the end of their period of service, all AIF volunteers who served overseas could be repatriated free of charge to their choice of England or Australia, but only if they remained with the AIF for their entire term of service.

Spence, with his company of Egyptian cameleers, was assigned to the irregular forces of Hussein bin Ali, the Hashimite Sherif of Mecca, in the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 against the Ottoman Empire.

Supporting the Arab tribes in rebelling against their Ottoman Turkish overlords was an important British war objective in the Middle East. The success of the Arab Revolt in tying down large numbers of Turkish forces was a essential element in the British Empire forces (including the Australian Light Horse) defeating the enemy in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns in late 1917 and 1918.

The Arab Revolt would lead to the establishment of the independent Hashimite Kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan, although the Hashimites would lose the Kingdom of Hedjaz and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula to the House of Saud in 1925, resulting in the founding of the modern-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In his new posting, Spence became acquainted with Captain (later Colonel) T.E. Lawrence – the man who would become known across the world as Lawrence of Arabia. Spence was later named in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s autobiography.

After the end of the war, Spence returned to Australia in July 1919 on the Peninsula & Oriental ship SS Somali. He relinquished his commission in the British Army on 15 July 1919, retaining his permanent rank of Lieutenant.

Spence married Mary Alphonsus “Mollie” Comerford on 29 November 1919, at St Matthew Church, East Brunswick. Mary was a member of a large family of Irish heritage, who were extensively involved in the operation of licensed hotels in Melbourne. On 1 December 1919, Spence became the licensee of the Royal Oak Hotel, Fitzroy. The newly-wed couple lived at 197 Albion Street, East Brunswick.

Spence was decorated with the Order of El Nadha (4th Class) by the Kingdom of Hedjaz for his service in support of the Arab Revolt. The award was promulgated in the London Gazette of 30 September 1920. However, as the British authorities had lost contact with Spence, advertisements were taken out in a large number of Australian newspapers in February 1921, requesting him to contact the Secretary of the Department of Defence, at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne. At the time Spence had been the licensee at the Fountain Inn, on the corner of Crockford and Bay Streets in Port Melbourne, since July 1920.

In December 1921 he received the Order directly from the Governor-General of Australia, the Right Honourable Sir Henry William Forster, 1st Baron Forster, GCMG PC DL, at a ceremony at Government House in Melbourne. Contemporary newspaper reports also advised that he had been mentioned in despatches by General Allenby, the British Commander-in-Chief of the Sinai and Palestine campaigns.

However, the Spences would face tragedy the following year. On 1 October 1922, Hugh and Mary Spence had a stillborn son. They would have no other children.

In March 1925, the Spences transferred their licence for the Fountain Inn to another party, and become the licensees for the Royal Hotel, in Bendigo Street Prahran. They remained the licensees for the next twenty-one years, although Hugh Spence also held the licence for the Junction Hotel [2] in Collingwood in 1931. In April 1946, the Spences finally surrendered the licence for the Royal Hotel.

On 15 December 1949 Mollie Spence died at their home in 10 Broughton Road, Surrey Hills, and was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery. Spence later remarried, but his second wife Ellen died on 14 December 1954, when they were living at 18 Wilson Street, South Yarra. She was buried in St Kilda Cemetery. At the time of her death, Spence’s occupation was given as “Gentleman”.

Spence died in 1964, in Heidelberg.


The Argus (1919), Publican’s Licenses, 22 November 1919

The Argus (1919), Licenses Transferred, 3 December 1919

The Argus (1920), Marriages, 31 January 1920

The Argus (1920), Publican’s Licenses, 17 July 1920

The Argus (1921), Personal, 19 December 1921

The Argus (1922), Births, 7 October 1922

The Argus (1925), Hotels to be Inspected, 31 March 1925

The Argus (1931), Publican’s Licenses, 3 October 1931

The Argus (1943), Deaths, 16 March 1943

The Argus (1946), Victuallers’ Licenses, 27 April 1946

The Argus (1949), Deaths, 16 December 1949

The Argus (1954), Deaths, 15 December 1954

The Argus (1955), Law Notices, 29 September 1955

Australian War Memorial (2015), 13th Australian Light Horse Regiment – Unit History

Chris Cuneen (1981), Sir Henry William Forster, Australian Dictionary of Biography

City of Stonnington (2010), Heritage Citation Report – Former Royal Hotel

His Majesty’s Stationery Office (1918), Supplement to the London Gazette 31001, 9 November 1918, Wyman & Sons Limited

His Majesty’s Stationery Office (1919), Supplement to the London Gazette 31221, 11 March 1919, Wyman & Sons Limited

His Majesty’s Stationery Office (1919), Supplement to the London Gazette 31525, 28 August 1919, Wyman & Sons Limited

His Majesty’s Stationery Office (1920), Supplement to the London Gazette 32069, 30 September 1920, Wyman & Sons Limited

T.E. Lawrence (1926), Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The Mercury (1921), Government Advertisements, 25 February 1921

National Archives of Australia, Hugh Gillies Cameron Spence – Service Record, Commonwealth of Australia

The Prahran Telegraph (1926), Royal Hotel, Prahran – Bar Door Open, 4 June 1926

Public Records Office Victoria (2015), Index to Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists to Victoria 1852-1923

Record (1921), Brevities, 24 December 1921

Record (1945), The Final Call – Head of Strongest Clan in Licensed Trade, 12 May 1945


[1] Gripman was the term used in Melbourne for a cable tram driver..

[2] The Junction Hotel, at 229 Victoria Parade on the north west corner with Hoddle Street, was demolished in 1971 due to the widening of Hoddle Street.