Frederick Prentice AWM P10966_001

More research and a confluence of information has made it possible to identify a photograph of an Aboriginal World War One soldier in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. This until recently was captioned ‘unknown’ but is now described as ‘probably Frederick Prentice’. My own position supported by his foster relatives Eric Catterall and Christine Cramer, is that comparison of images and coincidence of documentary information all lead to the conclusion that the unknown Aboriginal soldier is Frederick Prentice.

I first came across this photograph, in early September 2014 shortly after making the post Finding Frederick Prentice. The South Australian origin of the photograph created by Adelaide photographers Edwards and Errington, the obvious height of the soldier and his general physical appearance all made me think that this man could be Prentice. This perception was fuelled by the discovery that Edwards and Errington had opened a studio at Mitcham camp, Adelaide to produce portraits of AIF recruits. Frederick Prentice was at Mitcham prior to leaving Australia on 26 August 1915

Together with Eric Catterall and Christine Cramer I embarked on a mission to positively identify this man. Using his Lee Enfield rifle as a yard stick it was possible to determine that he was over 6 feet tall (c. 183 cm.) This coincided with information in Northern Territory police reports obtained by Eric Catterall relating to Frederick Prentice’s death in 1957. Although Prentice’s AIF attestation shows him as just under 6 feet it is not uncommon for lack of precision to exist in AIF records.

Information from the Australian War Memorial about the message on the reverse of the photograph was also encouraging. This is unsigned but reads ‘Just a little card to remember the good times at Paratoo’. Paratoo was a pastoral station near Yunta in South Australia and also the name of a railway siding. The community associated with Paratoo was not large and most would have been known to each other. Frederick Prentice is recorded both before and after his war service as working at Manunda Station in the Yunta area and playing cricket for Paratoo. The McLachlan family, owners of Paratoo Station, were keen and accomplished cricketers and the Paratoo team which played regularly against neighbouring teams would have drawn on talent in the area. Frederick’s education, foster family background and sporting prowess no doubt facilitated his acceptance into community life – attested by press reports of his farewell and return from the war and his role as clerk of scales at the Yunta races in 1926.(for more about these three reports see Finding Frederick Prentice).

Amongst those mentioned as attending Frederick’s farewell was a Miss Fitzgerald. This provided another point of coincidence. The recipient of the photograph of the unknown man was Gertrude Fitzgerald, a member of the Fitzgerald family of Paratoo.

Although a note obviously added to the photograph decades later by a relative of Gertrude’s states that, unlike Frederick, the soldier in the photograph died in World War One, this is consistent with the belief of the extended family of Frederick’s foster parents, the Kells, and one perhaps which later was widely held, no doubt assisted by the early deaths of Walter and Isabella Kell – both had died by 1926 and the fact that shortly after this time Frederick moved to Western Australia.

Further research has so far failed to find a photograph of Frederick as an adult. However following contact by Eric Catterall, a search of the Scotch College archives by Drs. Alex Pouw-Bray and Robert Craig has resulted in the location of two school photos. These are of Frederick at Kyre College in 1906 and 1907 and show a clear resemblance to the unknown man in the Edwards and Errington portrait. They also compare positively with the photographs of the boy in European clothes taken by the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer at Powell Creek.

Comparison of the writing on the reverse of the photograph of the unknown Aboriginal soldier with the hand sometimes evident in Frederick Prentice’s Army pay book (digitised on the National Archives website) reveals a strong similarity. The relevant writing is the signature and the personal detail entries. These are in a different hand from other information which would have been filled in by an official.

The Adelaide, South Australia location of the photograph, comparison of photographs of the soldier with earlier photographs of Frederick Prentice, the similarity in the two handwriting specimens, coincidence in the height and build of Frederick Prentice and the unknown soldier and the association of both men with Paratoo and with the name Fitzgerald all point to the conclusion that this unknown soldier is Frederick Prentice.

The search goes on for information about Frederick Prentice. Much has been added recently, some of it throwing up more questions than it answers about his later life and the circumstances of his death. A major goal is to discover more photographs perhaps as a member of one of the sporting teams which he belonged to in South Australia and Western Australia before and after the war. Christine Cramer’s research into the family of Gertrude Fitzgerald shows she married Reginald Roy Shanks from Kadina near Wallaroo in 1920. Perhaps some of her descendants can provide more information about Frederick Prentice. Descendants of the other people recorded as attending his farewell at the Penna’s house in Yunta 1915, named as Misses Ethel Penna, Komell, May and Evelyn Penna, and Messrs. Patman, and Penna, may also have something to contribute. In July 1915 Frederick attended a gathering of Kyre College old boys who had volunteered for the AIF. It is possible that these men were recorded in a photograph commemorating the occasion and that a copy is in the possession of some of their descendants. Their names are listed on page 10 of the Advertiser of 10 July 1915.

Research to date has gone a long way towards giving life to Frederick Prentice and changing the latter day image of him as an unknown ‘half caste’ Maori who died in Katherine apparently friendless and without family, to that of a talented Aboriginal man who was valued by family and friends, someone who was described as an accomplished sportsman, and a ‘fine type of man,’ of ‘manly bearing’ who on return from the war ‘won plaudits from the large crowd that gathered at the station to welcome him home.’ While the discovery of more about his early and later life has revealed its tragic elements it serves to reveal the calibre of the man who was Frederick Prentice.

Philippa Scarlett

24 December 2014


Recognition of Prentice has also been given by the Northern Territory Government on their Territory Stories (recently updated to include his photograph) and by the Katherine community. Not only has a song been written about his war service but his memory and service are now honoured and commemorated by a plaque in the Katherine Memorial Cemetery. In addition he has received recognition in the state where he spent most of his early life. Ian Smith from Aboriginal Veterans South Australia BlogSpot has commented that Frederick Prentice’s  name has been selected to form part of a travelling exhibition which will feature South Australian  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans.

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  1. Well done Phillipia, that is wonderful news, I am researching the Royal Gate in Parramatta.

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