Esteemed members of the exclusive men-only Melbourne Savage Club have their cravats in a granny knot over a proposed change to the height of the club’s internal balustrade, with dissidents accusing President Jerry Ellis of declaring war on a heritage-listed building.

In a stinging spray relayed to Crikey by Ellis’ internal enemies, members have expressed their displeasure with the former BHP director and Monash University Chancellor after he moved to raise the height of the hand rail at the club’s Bank Place headquarters by four inches to avoid bumbling drunks from toppling to their death.

The move followed a near fatal fall last year, after one over-sauced Savage went sailing over the balustrade, plunging four flights of stairs and narrowly avoiding paraplegia.

The irate Savage mole told Crikey: “Ellis thinks raising a handrail by 4 inches (pulling out the old balusters in the process) to grind his personal axe will stop drunken imbeciles launching themselves over the railing. A drunken moron who is sufficiently sentient to climb over a balustrade is unlikely to find Jerry’s four inches of protection particularly daunting.”

Sources say the Prez was keen to avoid a prospective six figure payout brought by members who found themselves sprawled on the floor following a repeat occurrence.

After the unfortunate incident, Ellis, who has a long history forcing through unpopular Occupational Health and Safety reforms during his corporate gigs, moved swiftly, engaging leading Melbourne architect John Briggs to oversee an application for the building works to Heritage Victoria — required because the construction of the clubhouse dates to the late 19th century.

Under 1993 amendments to the Building Code of Australia, buildings require a balustrade height higher than was originally mandated. However, under section 28 of the Act, Heritage listed buildings like the Savage Club are exempt.

Despite that, Ellis subsequently received approval for the works from Heritage Victoria last August — part of the Department of Planning and Community Development — and while the club’s internal Building Advisory Sub-Committee apparently ruled against the works, the boardroom veteran was keen to proceed forthwith.

According to Briggs, the ructions began in the lead-up to Christmas when a cancerous cell of aggrieved members began to arc up with some “fluff and bubble” over the alterations, which they say have the potential to destroy the club’s ambiance and casual but refined atmosphere.

“The whole thing’s a pretty interesting joke,” Briggs said, describing the dissidents’ case as “fundamentally flawed.”

They rebels claimed that because the staircase pre-dated the Savage’s arrival at the premises, it was therefore historically more “significant” than first thought and shouldn’t be touched. But Briggs says the members had failed to properly read the original heritage application, which listed the staircase as significant regardless of when it was built.

The “bohemian” club was established in 1894 for the appreciation of the finer things in life, including music, art, drama, science and literature. It moved into its current headquarters in 1925 and is regarded as a more sozzled alternative to the genteel Melbourne Club which has its headquarters at the Paris End of Collins Street. It attracted criticism alongside other men-only clubs when then-Attorney General Rob Hulls failed to ping it on s-x discrimination grounds.

But unlike the balustrade, the club’s profile could be receding with some members upping sticks for the more modern RACV edifice up the street.

According to one source: “I gather the Savage Club is just about deserted at lunchtime in comparison to the old days. Who’d want to go to a club where you get pilloried by “Committee Men” for daring to ask questions?”

Current members include pillars of the Melbourne establishment such as occasional Q and A panelist John Elliott. Another member is known to refer to himself as “esquire”, despite that honorific usually being bestowed by others.

In 2008, Ellis eerily foreshadowed the current stoush, telling the Safety at Work Blog: “Behaviour implies, in my mind, the soft stuff. The only way to achieve anything in the steel industry was just brutal.  If you didn’t perform, you were out.  And that changed behaviour…. It only had to be done once, but it had to be done. It was necessary to demonstrate that you would not tolerate people who would not take the subject [of OHS] seriously. This is a position that I favour, safety through enforcement.”

A spokesperson for Heritage Victoria told Crikey that while they had received more contextual information on the age of the staircase before Christmas, the permit remained valid:

“Works have not commenced yet. Heritage Victoria received further information in late December indicating the staircase was older than originally thought. However this is not an impediment to works proceeding.”

Savage member Peter Blomquist, who is understood to have assisted with the application, told Crikey that the issue was an “internal club matter that shouldn’t be out there”.

Jerry Ellis did not return calls before deadline.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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