THE ABORIGINAL FIRTHS: AN UNUSUAL ANZAC CONNECTION

ERNEST FIRTH PHOTO state lib nsw  for blog

Ernest Firth  Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

In 1918 the Trustees of the Mitchell Library appealed to families for photographs of men who had served in the AIF. Aboriginal families were amongst those who responded and the collection which eventuated contains images of men from the Lock, Wortley, Stafford, Duroux and Firth families. The Library also sought letters and diaries and contributors included the mother of the Firth brothers – Ernest James, Francis Walter Bertie (known as Bertie) and Charles Allen, bush workers from Pilliga, New South Wales. Such records for Aboriginal families are rare and apart from the letters of Charles Blackman, now in the Australian War Memorial, to date these may be the only publicly available records of this nature.

The Firth’s records are unusual also because of another fact relating to their service. While two brothers served with the AIF, Charles who was shearing in New Zealand before enlistment became a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The three brothers served with Light Horse, Machine Gun and Transport units in the Middle East where Ernest Firth was killed on 3rd November 1917 at Tel Khuweilfeh. Bertie Firth went on to serve in France. However while Ernest is amongst those Aboriginal service men listed by the RSL journal Reveillle in 1932 – the names provided by police and mission managers did not include those of his brothers. In Charles’ case this is understandable but Bertie’s omission underlines the hit and miss nature of the collection process.

The letters from the Firth brothers, now available on the website of the State Library of New South Wales, are written to their mother Catherine and show a constant thread of warm family relationship, nostalgia for home and the trials of missing mail  – subjects which so often feature in wartime correspondence. They also show that the brothers were in touch with each other and tried to keep abreast of each other’s locations and movements, which in turn they relayed to their mother.

This is evident in a letters written in May and November 1916 from Ernest, which as well as general information about his part in the war, contain information about his two siblings and show a network of information sharing between  mates from both the Australian and New Zealand forces.

[15 May] We have been here about a fortnight and taking it all round we are not having a bad time Seemed strange to see the difference in the places on our way back. In a place where we had some of our heaviest fighting we had the pleasure of seeing a picture show in the Y.M.C.A. which of course we very much appreciated as its some time since I seen one I heard from Bert before we came here He was in hospital in France at time of writing. Have had two big goes with Abdul in the last two months And as I suppose you already he came off second best in both. I am sending a couple few of photos that Charlie gave me I will tell you what they are on their backs. Well mother I will close now. Hoping to hear from you soon. Best love to all at home … your loving son Ernie

[21 November] My dear Mother I cannot make out how it is I am not recieving any of your letters lately as I am sure you are sending them. They seem to reach Bert alright as I recieved a letter from him yesterday saying he gets his regularly enough. The only thing I can think of is that they are going to some other Firth in the light horse some where … Bert says he is O K and has been in the trenches for some time Have not heard from Charlie for a week or so He is only about 15 miles from here. I sent him a letter a few days ago and am expecting a reply any time now Seen some of his mates and gave them the letter They said he was well at the time’. Back out on the desert again and doing the same old work patrolling etc. We have no tents now but live in blanket shelters It would be rather amusing for you to see them the way they are built But they serve very well to keep the dew off at night as it falls very heavy now and is much colder .

Charles’ letters are less detailed but show he also sent photos home:

ca firth on horse negative

Charles Firth.  Image enclosed with a letter to his mother  Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

ca firth enveope addressed to  mother

well mother I ham sending you sum Photo of is on the desert I wood like to get back again to the old home and see all my old mates Dear Mother how is Dad and May I hope they are all well rembr me to all I remain your loving sun Trooper C A Firth

A letter from France written by Bertie in the last year of the war hints at more sober issues. (Although dated 1919 the details line up with the 1918 entries on his Service and Casualty record.)

My Dear Mother   Just a few lines to let you know that I am back again in France I had an enjoyable three months spell in England after my wound in the wrist I am O.K now. I recieved letters from you dated January 9 and none since then my letters must be going astray I am at our Base details Rouen am expecting to join my own unit any day now you had better keep writing to my address in England and I will be sure to git them, We have been having delightful wether over this side of the World but today has been a bit cold. I went to a quaint old Villiage church this a m it reminded me of the last time I was in church with you dear Xmas morning 1913 in Narrabri Things has changed a lot since then

In this closing comment Bertie seems to refer to his brother’s death as well as  reflecting on his whole experience of war.

The war certainly changed life for the brothers and their family. In January 1921 in a poignant letter to Senator Pearce, Minister for Defence  included with papers in Ernest’s service record, their mother summed up the current state of her family.

Thanking you very much for war book as my 4[th] son sleeps in Palestine Egypt My yung son CA Firth  in New Zealand yet cant get home for want of money My yungs [youngest] son FWB Firth been [?] sick in Sydney poor boy I and his father is old.

Both surviving brothers suffered from health issues on return from the war. Bertie said by his mother to be sick in Sydney was probably in the Randwick repatriation hospital. Charlie’s service record shows he was discharged in 1919 as medically unfit for further service. Writing to his mother from Auckland, New Zealand in May [192o?] he stated that I got no money to get my ticket for I cannot get eny and I not strong enoff to work and only for a frind I dont know whot I wood do. However his death registration in Narrabri near Pilliga in 1944 does show he eventually returned to his family.

The service of the Firths and the price they paid is one common to many families, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, whose members served in the First World War. But for Aboriginal families the difference lies in the fact that legislation attempted (often unsuccessfully) to prevent Aboriginal men from serving their country and then post war the service of those who were able to do so was ignored. This is cause for reflection on Anzac day.

The term Anzac was originally used to describe the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – which was part of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Today this word has evolved to describe any Australian or New Zealander who served in the First World War. The combined service of the Firth brothers with both the AIF and the NZEF – embracing both Australia and New Zealand – gives another dimension to their claim to this term and makes them unusual Anzacs.

Philippa Scarlett  24 April 2016

The service records of Ernest, Bertie and Charles can be read on the websites  of the National Archives of Australia and the Archives of New Zealand.

 

 

 

 

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20 Responses to THE ABORIGINAL FIRTHS: AN UNUSUAL ANZAC CONNECTION

  1. Julie McConachy says:

    How can you prove the Firth brothers were indigenous.? I have trace my grandchildren back and their births are all registered to an Australian born Irish woman Catherine Winifred McCarney who married Patrick Firth. Her parents coming to Australia as Irish Bounty Immigrants in June 1844 and Patrick being son of Irish convict, James Firth, transported to Australia in 1832

    • Ernest Firth is named as Aboriginal in this record
      Australian War Memorial: AWM27; 533/1, Returns showing particulars of men of Aboriginal parentage who enlisted and served with the AIF; presented by the Board for Protection of Aborigines, Sydney, 10 Aug 1932.

  2. Christine Cramer says:

    They were certainly Aboriginal as Joseph (brother born 1882 with same parents as Ernest and Francis) has a NSW gaol record describing him as “half-caste”. See the original of this record on Ancestry:

    Name: Joseph B Firth
    Birth Year: abt 1881
    Birth Place: Keelindi
    Age: 17
    Vessel Arrived In: B C
    Date of Admission/Photo: Dec 1898
    Gaol: Coonabarabran
    Gaol Location: Coonabarabran, New South Wales, Australia
    Record Type: Entrance and Description Book

    There doesn’t seem to be a birth record for father Patrick (which would not be unusual). However you could try his marriage and death certificates which might indicate his mother Catherine was Aboriginal or provide some clue.

  3. Tracey says:

    I too am researching the Firth family Joseph Bernard Firth is my great grandfather his daughter Elva Mary Firth married Edwin Harold Strickland, they are my grandparents. I haven’t found a great deal on them . Some have researched and found a Catherine Black married to James Firth maybe where our heritage as Indigenous started but can’t be sure. Can you suggest any places to find out more. Thanks for all the research you are soong

    • Hi Tracey I am sorry I can’t contribute more but you will see from the other comments that there is knowledge out thre.
      One thing I have wondered are you related to musician Mitch Tambo who nhas said he is a Firth. Also am interested in a soldier in WW2 2/1 Field Regiment called Speed Firth – don’t know his real given name. I wonder if he was one of your family

      • Tracey says:

        Thank you so much some of this is inline with what I know. Don’t know about Mitch Tambo, the only ww11 is Joseph Bernard Firth jnr who served in the RAAF

  4. Julie McConachy says:

    You will find that the wife’s name was Catherine and she was black. That’s how they recorded things in those days. I don’t know her family name. She was a Wiradjuri woman. James Firth arrived in Australia as an Irish convict and worked for Robert Smith He was sent to the convict settlement at Wellington called “the valley of the swells)He married Catherine ‘Kate’ and their son Patrick was born near Molong. James also lived near Black Rock where he was a Grazier ( no land, cattle ran wild in those days) and a tailor the trade he had in the army before being transported. The Strickland were related to John and Elizabeth Wilson who arrived in Australia on the 7 Jan 1842 from Manchester, England Alice May Wilson married Edward James Wortfield Strickland born in Victoria and married in Narrabri their son married Buddy, Elva Mary Firth on 3 Dec 1938 in Gympie

    • Tracey says:

      Thank you for this information you have confirmed some of what I had found, I found a Catherine Black in a parish register online it said she was born in 1820 to Bone and Mary.

    • Tracey says:

      I going grandma Biddy’s marriage in Queensland but still can’t find her birth information. Any pointer would be most appreciated

    • Tracey says:

      Little confused here John Wilson and Martha Burgess had Alice May Wilson can’t find Elizabeth did they divorce or did she die

  5. Julie McConachy says:

    Elva Mary Firth was born 20 May 1921 in Pilliga, NSW and died 8 Feb 2001 in the Dubbo Hospital. She is buried in the RC section of the Pilliga Cemetery in the Narrabri Shire. When Alice May Wilson married Edward James Worffield Strickland on the 25 Oct 1909 in Narrabri, The name changed from Stickland to Strickland. Edward’s parents were Edmund James Worffield Stickland and Naomi’s Griffith. It was Edwin Harold James (Joe) Strickland who married Elva Mary Firth

  6. Julie McConachy says:

    Elva Mary Firth was born 20 May 1921 in Pilliga, NSW and died 8 Feb 2001 in the Dubbo Hospital. She is buried in the RC section of the Pilliga Cemetery in the Narrabri Shire. When Alice May Wilson married Edward James Worffield Strickland on the 25 Oct 1909 in Narrabri, The name changed from Stickland to Strickland. Edward’s parents were Edmund James Worffield Stickland and Naomi’s Griffith. It was Edwin Harold James (Joe) Strickland who married Elva Mary Firth

    • Julie McConachy says:

      Edward James Worffield Stickland was born in England in 1834 and Naomi Griffith was born in Somerset, England in 1834 Edward died 23 March 1934 and is buried in Grafton. Naomi died 25 December 1904 and is buried in Coonamble, NSW. I don’t know what ship they Immigrated to Australia on.

  7. Julie McConachy says:

    Tracey, John Wilson born 8 Feb 1817 in Manchester, Lancashire England married Elizabeth Mather 2 Sept 1838 in Manchester Cathedral, Lancashire, England. They arrived in Sydney 7 Jan 1842 on the “Marchioness of Bute” with their children Isabella and Robert. The next 8 children were born in Gunning , Australia Their 7th child John Worffield Wilson born 11 July 1853 Gundaroo, Gunning, NSW married Martha Burgess on the 1 Nov 1880 at Cobar. They had 10 children. The eldest, Alice May Wilson born 27July 1881 in Cobar, NSW, married Edward James Worffield Strickland 25 Oct 1909 at Narrabri,NSW. Edward and Alice had 4 children

    • Tracey says:

      Ok thank you so much my brain was spinning from all the names and dates coming at me. Now that it’s written like this I’ve got it straight. Again wonderful job.

  8. Julie McConachy says:

    Edward James Worffield Strickland parents were Edmund James Worfield Strickland born 1834 England and Naomi Griffith born 1834 Somerset, England. Edmund died 23 Aug 1901 aged 73 Years living at Northam and is buried in Coonamble,NSW . He was described as a Selector. Naomi died 25 Dec 1904 and is buried in the Anglican section of the Coonamble cemetery. Edward James Worffield Strickland was born 17 March 1867 in The Springs, Victoria, Australia.

  9. Julie McConachy says:

    Tracey I’ve made a mistake. John and Elizabeth’s arrived in Australia with their son Robert only. Their first born Isabella was born in 1839 in Manchester and passed away the same year.

    • Tracey says:

      Yes I picked up on that I found the passenger list and it only had Robert aged 10months. Thank you again for all your wonderful help

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