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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In 1931 and 1932, Reveille the journal of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, (the predecessor of the Returned and Services League and referred to as the RSL) published lists of Aboriginal men who served in the First World War. These lists named men from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland and noted their service in a range of capacities – mainly infantry battalions and light horse regiments but also transport, signals, ambulance, engineers, artillery, remounts, machine gun companies and service corps. The publication was based on information received from state Aborigines Protection authorities and an appeal to readers. The interest this displayed was not isolated and was part of a wider movement in the 1930s to write about and document war participation and experience. The service of Aboriginal men was then forgotten and never part of Australia’s history of this conflict.

In the 1970s things started to change – if slowly – spearheaded by the discovery of the Reveille lists by military historian Dr Chris Clark and his important 1973 and 1977 articles drawing long overdue attention to Aboriginal service in the First World War. In 2015 Dr Clark revisited these lists in an attempt to explain the increase in number of Aboriginal soldiers which had escalated sharply from the 1980s.  His conclusions were based on careful deductions from the Reveille numbers – 289 (actually smaller because of repetition of names across and within state lists) in relation to the 1911 Commonwealth census which showed 75% of Aboriginal ‘half castes’ lived in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. The remaining 25 % of men described in this way lived in the states not represented in Reveille’s 1931 and 1932 articles. This led him to estimate, by deduction that the number 289 from the eastern states reasonably could be seen in proportionate terms to represent 75% of the number of Aboriginal enlistments  nationally. This being so the number of men from the remainder of Australia would account for 25% of enlistments or a number of approximately 96. However he noted that the total of these two figures, 385, falls far short of the number of men now said to have served. It was on this basis that he concluded that many of the men named from the 1980s onwards, although undoubtedly of Aboriginal heritage, did not physically display their Aboriginality and that the increase in numbers must be because ‘many of the men now identified as Indigenous either did not know or acknowledge that fact at the time, or chose to conceal it’ and so are the result of what he calls ‘broadening the definition of Indigenousness’.

In the latest edition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: The Indigenous response to World War One (to date containing the only referenced list of volunteers) I give figures suggesting that 759 men served overseas as opposed to a higher total number of volunteers, including those who were rejected or did not leave Australia. While the majority are from the states covered by the two Reveille lists, it does not automatically follow that the increase in numbers is the result of the recent identification of large numbers of men who were not recognisably of Aboriginal heritage. Although a lesser proportion of men do fall into this category, Dr Clark’s assertion is discounted by photographic evidence, information in service records and by other contemporary primary records and newspaper sources.  What is clear, however, is that the Reveille survey was even less reliable than assumed at the time and sometimes later – and as such is not a firm basis on which to project numbers.

There is considerable evidence to show that the lists from Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales are far from complete. There are no documents showing the way in which the Victorian and Queensland lists were compiled, but the records of the New South Wales survey have survived. These show that the names were sought by police stations across the state with the help of mission managers. It is likely that a similar approach was adopted in the other two states. The Queensland list bears this out. It not only contains men who were born and enlisted in New South Wales and the Northern Territory but also men for whom no AIF records can be located – suggesting that the names were the result of word of mouth searches. Moreover the total number of Queensland men listed in the 1931 Reveille, 154, (of whom only  109 actually enlisted from Queensland) is contradicted by a statement made in 1940 by the Queensland Department of Native Affairs about the service of what it referred to as ‘half- bloods’: ‘In the War 1914-1918 some 200 coloured people of whom this Department was aware, and there would be others, enlisted and served overseas.’ (NAA: MP508/1, 275/750/1310 Aborigines Enlisted in AIF).  The observation supports the contention that local inquiries rather than the records of the Chief Protector were the source of the names provided to Reveille. Just one of the Queensland men who were not listed by Reveille was Charles Alley , who with Martin Blyth was the subject of press and RSL attention in 1930, the year prior to the survey:

The bad old convict days ‘ of Australia are recalled by the banishment from the mainland ‘ to Palm Island of two half-caste aborigines — Martin Blyth and Charles Alley— both returned soldiers … the Returned Soldiers’ League in Northern Queensland are protesting “to the authorities, at what they call the ” barbarous treatment” of the two men. (Evening News (Rockhampton, Qld.) 17 May 1930:5.)

Of the two, Blyth was listed by Reveille and Alley was not, demonstrating the hit and miss nature of the name collection process. Similar comments apply to the Victorian list. Amongst others omitted  by Reveille were six Aboriginal men whose names appear on the honour board from the Lake Condah mission church. The Aboriginality of one of these Herbert Winter was noted as ‘complexion black’ in his service record.

It seems probable the background to some of the discrepancy lies in the fact that the efforts of the officials in NSW and elsewhere, well after the end of the war, were dependent not only on word of mouth but the collectors’ knowledge of the communities they were based in and the degree of application and interest which as individuals they brought to the task. Another indication of how unrepresentative the lists are can be seen in cases where only one brother of a number who enlisted is recorded, despite their enlistment often on the same day and with consecutive service numbers. These omissions can be found in all three states. In addition in some of the New South Wales correspondence, the reply to the official inquiries is demonstrably deficient in relation to Aboriginal men known to have served from a particular district. Surprisingly, too the New South Wales correspondence shows that not all the men whose names were reported by police were published in Reveille. There seems no reason for the omission of these names – possibly a slip up in the publication process – but it does highlight yet another weakness in the information provided to Reveille.

Relevant to men from all lists, but particularly for the larger states of New South Wales and Queensland, were the itinerant work patterns of bush workers which meant that they volunteered far from their original homes, sometimes in other states, making identification difficult or impossible and the fact that some men were loners, unknown in the communities they passed through and so unremembered. In other instances men and their families may have actively sought to keep under the radar of Protection authorities and police. A communication to the Inspector of Police, Broken Hill NSW dated 12 December 1931, from the constable at Ivanhoe, suggests some of the difficulties encountered by the name collectors, often faced with enormous patrol areas:

I beg to report that there are only two Aborigines within this patrol, whom the above mentioned Circular applies to and they are both absent droving somewhere in Queensland, and I have been waiting for their return. I have also been communicating with the Manager at Carowra Aborigines Reserve regarding this matter and the Aborigines cannot give any other information other than that they are returned soldiers.

In another communication, the manager of Angledool Aboriginal Station explained that  he ‘ found it very hard to get in touch with the people [he] named as they are on the move all the time and this information has been given by other people that are conversant with them.’ (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.).

The following indicative examples from New South Wales illustrate that men not recorded by Reveille came from differing locations and backgrounds. Walter Newton was born and lived in Corner country in the Broken Hill police patrol area but went to nearby South Australia to enlist as did other similarly located non-Aboriginal men. His Aboriginality was recognised in his attestation which recorded ‘complexion black’ and is discussed by Jeremy Beckett in Newton’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and an expanded article in Oceania. After discharge he returned to Broken Hill where he worked in the mines before resuming stock work. He also joined the RSL. Despite this he was not included on the Reveille list.

The identification of Aboriginal servicemen in the crowded environment of cities and their suburbs was similarly lacking. The police returns detailing men living in the Sydney area gave the names of three Aboriginal servicemen (Douglas Grant, Thomas Kelly and Tom Williams) but failed to identify amongst others Leonard Gilmore Smith, William Castles and Ewan Rose. Smith – also described in his attestation as ‘complexion black’ was from South Australia and living in Bankstown Sydney. There is no evidence that he was known to the Aborigines Protection Board, however William Castles, ‘complexion brown’ was a former Protection Board ward. He was a member of a family associated with the Plumpton and Sackville reserves and with his brothers, appears in the index to Protection Board minutes. Ewan Rose, awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre, an Aboriginal man from Queensland travelled to Sydney with a circus. He was befriended by a white family and lodged with them at St Marys before and after the war. His appearance is documented in David Huggonson’s Too Dark For the Light Horse photographic collection.

Particularly significant is the omission of William Irwin DCM, the only Aboriginal man to be identified by Charles Bean in The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. He was born at Coonabarabran and although he enlisted at Narrabri, his application to enlist was made at Moree which was also his postal address. His service record shows the presence of family in the Moree area and includes the results of a search in 1919 by the Moree police for family members eligible to receive his service medals and gallantry award. It also contains a 1936 letter from the manager of Quirindi Aboriginal Station about him, written on behalf of his brother. Despite all this in 1932 his name was not recorded in the New South Wales Reveille list.

These are all examples but not exceptions. I hope later to elaborate on this and to show even more clearly that the increase in number is not primarily the result of a changed perception of who may or may not have qualified at the time as an Aboriginal man according to the restrictive racist provisions of the Defence Act, its interpretation by recruiters or the community opinion reflected in the Reveille lists which included men described as both ‘half castes’ and ‘octaroons’. However the question pinpointed by Dr Clark remains, even given the difficulties faced by the Reveille collectors and their glaring omissions – that is what is the reason for the large discrepancy between the lists created in the 1930s and the much larger number of men of Aboriginal heritage now known to have served in the AIF?

The answer to this question lies primarily in the fact that the potential of word of mouth and memory available to police and managers to locate Aboriginal ex-service men, years after the end of the war, is hardly a match for the power of modern day printed resources and search engines. Since the early 2000s we have had the ability to read every AIF service record (available in the 21st century on the website of the National Archives of Australia) and to search for and read contemporary newspaper accounts via the National Library of Australia’s Trove digitised newspaper project. Combined with this is the easy access to a host of records including police records and photographs, and indexes and some records of Protection boards. All this is complemented by the growth in interest in Aboriginal family history and the availability of identifying photographs and family information via the public Aboriginal family trees displayed by The growth in Aboriginal biography and autobiography and of Aboriginal history itself – so long excluded from mainstream history are also important factors. Put another way this assembly of weaponry dwarfs the limited resources of the officials who conducted the inquiries on which the Reveille lists are based and has resulted in the discovery of information which far outstrips that provided to the journal’s editor. This is not in any way to diminish Reveille’s importance. The 1931 and 1932 articles, with all their deficiencies, were crucial in demonstrating the service of Aboriginal men – and Dr Clark’s actions in realising their significance and rescuing them from oblivion, unquestionably give him the distinction of being the first Australian historian to recognise and write about Aboriginal service in the first AIF. However these lists are only one source and, as Dr Clark acknowledges, are a restricted sample and in the nature of a snapshot. Rather than being seen as the basis for estimating maximum numbers they point instead to the minimum number of Aboriginal men who served in the First World War.

Philippa Scarlett   27 March 2016

Thanks to Christine Cramer for her help particularly with numbers in this post.

The articles published in Reveille are ‘Many served: AIF Aborigines’, 30 November 1931: 22 and ‘Aborigines: N.S.W.’, 31 January 1932: 20.


I am pleased that in 2018 the Australian War Memorial endorsed the comments in this blog post by their partial repetition in the War Memorial’s book For Country For Nation pages 22 and 23  and that in April 2021 the Memorial article which is referred to in this post was amended to reflect the position detailed above. See Indigenous service in Australia’s armed forces in peace and war

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In June 2013 I posted a photograph of a member of the AIF in a group of patients  from the Horton War Hospital, Epsom, City of London. The photograph was dated 4 April 1917. Close examination of this image shows that the soldier’s legs were amputated  below the knee. Although his identity was at that stage unknown, recent research by Christine Cramer has identified him as Thomas Rountree.

Identification has been guided by details in his service record which describe his injuries and the locations and dates of his treatment –  in particular his presence in 1917 at Horton War Hospital during the period the photograph was taken. Images of Thomas Rountree on public trees of the genealogy website show the older Thomas Rountree, now equipped with artificial legs.

Thomas Rountree was 18 when he volunteered in 1916 and living in the Ballina area of New South Wales. He served with the 30th Battalion in France before being pronounced seriously ill with trench feet. His amputations, which  took place in two stages – the second and more drastic operation in August 1917 – were originally the result of complications, probably gangrene.  This was the family story  a grandson remembers hearing as a child .

He  returned to Australia in late 1917 and was discharged in February 1918 to resume  civilian life. This could have presented overwhelming difficulties to men with similar injuries. However in Thomas Rountree’s case he seems not to have been unduly held back by his disability. In 1923 he was commended for his bravery by a judge for giving chase on artificial legs to three thieves. He  had successfully captured one who assaulted and robbed his mate. He later married and in June 1941 was called up for the militia. Despite his lack of legs he served in the army  in a salvage and recovery unit until 1944 when he was medically discharged after developing a cyst on one of his stumps. At the time of enlistment he was living in Sydney, aged 43 with four children. He stated he was a blacksmith when he joined the first AIF but in 1941 gave his occupation as war pensioner.

The photograph taken at the Horton hospital is uncompromising about the injuries and medical procedures Thomas Rountree  had suffered: no hospital blanket or rug is draped across his white bandaged remnant legs which stand out in consequence. Perhaps it is a measure of his bravery, unwillingness to  compromise and strength of character that he allowed himself to be photographed so starkly. What is known about his later life supports his possession of these qualities.

Philippa Scarlett   

6 December 2015


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In 2012 Andrea Gerrard of the University of Tasmania identified an officer of Aboriginal heritage in the first AIF.

This serviceman was Alfred John Hearps who volunteered on 20 August 1914 and served with the 12th Battalion at Gallipoli and the Somme. He was promoted second lieutenant on 5 August 1916 and killed two weeks later, during action at Mouquet Farm, 19-22 August. The circumstances of his death were not immediately apparent and the terrible distress this uncertainty caused to his family is recorded in letters in his service record.

Lt A D Tynan on death of Alfred Hearps

Comment on the death of Alfred Hearps by a fellow lieutenant, A.D. Tynan, 12th Battalion This is amongst papers in Hearps’ service record in the collection of the National Archives of Australia.

Alfred Hearps was Tasmanian and a descendant of tribal leader Mannalagenna. Although a description in his Red Cross Missing and Wounded file describes him as ‘a young dark fellow’ it is probable that his Aboriginal heritage was not known to his fellow servicemen. He may well have been one of those men who were regarded by the AIF and its recruiters as of southern European origin.

To date Hearps is the only officer of Aboriginal heritage identified by name in the first AIF. However in 2012 Timothy Winegard, in Indigenous Peoples of the First World War (Cambridge University Press, p.199), stated that two men of Aboriginal descent served as lieutenants – one from Western Australia in the 6th Light Horse Regiment and a second soldier from New South Wales, a member of the 51st Battalion. Winegard also drew attention to an Aboriginal man, unnamed, who was awarded the Military Cross (p.237).

Later writers have noted Hearps’ status as the only known Aboriginal officer as well as also referring separately to the award of the Military Cross mentioned by Winegard. However to date no one has noted the significance of this award. This lies in the fact that in Australia, during the period of the First World War, the Military Cross was a decoration reserved for commissioned officers and warrant officers. In the light of the information proffered by Winegard, it is possible that this award indicates the presence of yet another officer of Aboriginal descent in the AIF.

However while the names of these three men are unknown – or at least have not been made public – and without information to the contrary, it seems likely that they are amongst those Aboriginal men who were identified in the AIF as dark skinned white men or with other ethnicities than their own.

The foregoing comments highlight the diversity of the Aboriginal men in the AIF, who include a very few identified in their attestations and in external sources as ‘full blood’, men whose attestations refer to them as ‘half caste’ or similar and others like Alfred Hearps whose Aboriginality was obscured.

Philippa Scarlett  3 November 2015


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Sidney Gerald Jones volunteered to serve in the First World War in December 1914. At age 19 he was just within the army age limit of 19 – 38, but legally underage. His record shows he received his parents’ consent to enlist. He initially served with the 7th Battalion, one of the first infantry units raised for the AIF and in August 1915 was wounded at Lone Pine, Gallipoli. In March the following year he was taken on the strength of the 1st Pioneer Battalion. Less than three months after arriving in France he was killed at Pozieres between 26 and 28 July 1916. His body has never been found but he is remembered at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France.

jones sid 1916 from pam mcgqann resize

Sidney Gerald Jones. Courtesy Pam McGann. 

Sidney Jones’ service and death is typical of many others but in one respect is unusual. Sidney Jones was Aboriginal. He is one of thirty men of Aboriginal heritage known to have been accepted into the AIF in 1914. The enlistment of men like Sidney Jones, who clearly displayed their heritage, would seem in contravention of the Defence Act 1903-1909 which prohibited the service of men not of substantial European origin. However it was not until 1916 the Army, in Instructions for the Guidance of Enlisting Officers at approved Military Recruiting Depots (Anthony James Cumming Govt. Printer), specifically nominated Aboriginal ‘half castes’ as amongst those who should not be enlisted. What prompted the Army’s 1916 advice to recruiters is not clear. It may have reflected concern on the part of some about the number of men already enlisted: according to information in their service records, the majority of the men of Aboriginal heritage who served in the AIF were  accepted in 1915 and 1916. At the same time any concerns of this kind would have been offset by the increasingly desperate need for men, exacerbated by the failure of the first conscription referendum in October 1916. In fact despite the advice to recruiters, the need for recruits became so urgent that in May 1917 a regulation was introduced to allow the enlistment of Aboriginal men with one white parent – providing that such men had association with white people.  However by that time enlistment generally, including Aboriginal enlistment, was irretrievably on the wane and despite the efforts of recruiters and a steady stream of recruiting propaganda in the press, it did not recover before the war’s end.

There is much to be investigated in relation to the history and circumstances of the recruitment of Aboriginal men in the early stages of the war. In Sidney Jones’ case it is probable that his successful enlistment was related to his family’s standing in the Deniliquin community. His father, John Jones was well known in Deniliquin as a bandsman and sergeant major in the Salvation Army. He had had 40 years of service when he died in 1928 and a memorial service conducted on his death in 1928 testifies to his influence and the respect accorded to him.

John Jones Salvation Army Deniliquin from Pam McGann

Salvation Army Band Deniliquin showing John Jones back left. The two women in this photo, yet to be identified, may also be Aboriginal. Courtesy Pam McGann

John Jones was the son of a stockman, David Jones and Ellen Tailby. Little is known about his parents but the fact that he was born in Forbes is an indication of probable Wiradjuri affiliation. He had been a member of the Salvation Army since 1888, the same year the Army was established in Deniliquin. Four years later, at the age of 40, he married a white woman and widow, Frances James (nee Gill).

Sidney was the second of John and Frances’ four children. He attended the Deniliquin Superior Public School, was a member of the Oddfellows Lodge and at the time of his enlistment belonged to a militia unit, the 67th Infantry. Sidney’s brother David (born 1889) also joined the AIF, enlisting on 26 January 1916 and serving with the 56th Battalion in France. Both brothers are named in the Deniliquin Superior Public School Souvenir Program which accompanied the unveiling of a roll of honour on 26 September 1917. Sidney’s name was also recorded at a wattle planting ceremony which took place later the same day, in memory of those who had lost their lives.

A surviving postcard sent by Sidney shows his warm relations with his half-sister Lily and her family. She was the child of Frances first marriage

Sid Jones AIF postcard 1916. From Pam Mcgann

A 1916 postcard to Lily, Sidney’s half-sister, wife of James Hood. It was written just over a month before Sid was killed. Courtesy Pam McGann. Pam is the daughter of  Gladys mentioned in this note.

Sidney’s strong family relationships is evident too in a letter sent to his mother by his sergeant, Percy Donegan, published in the Deniliquin Independent, 6 October 1916 p. 2.


Mrs. J. Jones, of, Henry Street, has received the following letter in connection with the death of her son, Private S. Jones, who was killed in France on 26th July –   “1st Pioneer Battalion,1st Australian Division, France, August 5th,1916. Dear Mrs Jones.— No doubt you will wonder who it is writing to you, but you will understand when I tell you that your dear son, Sidney, was detailed off amongst a number of others to work under my supervision ; and let me say here that he always did his duty nobly and well. It is an unthankful task at any time to break bad news to sorrowing relatives, and it is more so when one has the task of breaking the bad news to devoted mother. But as your dear son wished me to write to you in the event of anything happening to him, I feel that I must carry out my promise to him, now that he has died the noblest of all deaths, in the service of his King and country. To you, his mother, I tender my deepest sympathy in your bereavement, but it may lessen your grief to know that he died instantly, and so was spared any lingering pain. I may say that his thoughts were always with you, hence his desire that I should write to you. I am forwarding you a card which I found amongst his correspondence, knowing that its value will be enhanced by you. With the hope that your grief will be lessened by the fact that your son has always carried out his duty as a gentleman and a soldier, believe me to be, yours in deepest sympathy, SERGEANT P. DONEGAN.”

Sergeant Donegan wrote sensitively and with compassion and his letter demonstrates the regard he had for Sidney. This has particular significance in view of Sidney’s Aboriginality. The potential for racism was always present, in an AIF which was told by recruiters it was fighting to keep Australia white and which was drawn from an Australian community steeped in the policy of White Australia. It is impossible to determine the degree of racism to which Sidney Jones may have been subjected – but the signs are that in life and death he was able at least in part to escape the discrimination experienced by some other Aboriginal soldiers whose names do not appear on memorials and who faced racism in their home towns.

Philippa Scarlett   17 October 2015

Thank you to Pam McGann and Michael Howard, descendants of Sidney’s half-sister Lily who provided documents and information used to write this post.  

Little is now known of Sidney’s brother David’s family. On return from the war David married Dorothy Briggs, a member of the Aboriginal Briggs family of Deniliquin, New South Wales and Victoria. They had three children but he later disappeared and his movements have to date been impossible to trace. It is possible his disappearance was linked to the effects of the war time trauma experienced by many former soldiers.

Pam and Michael would like to locate other member of Sidney’s family particularly the descendants of David Jones and Dorothy Briggs and perhaps, should David have them, descendants from a second relationship.

Note: The spelling of Sidney Jones’ name in his service record, displayed online by the National Archives is ‘Sydney’. However the correct spelling ‘Sidney’ is used by his family in correspondence in his record and in pension applications also present in his record.




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I have stood shoulder to shoulder with half castes in Hell’s pit, [Hell’s Spit] on Quinn’s Post, and seen them die like the grandest of white men and other little stunts I can mention. Cairns Post, 28 January 1933

These words were written in 1933 by  James Bennett formerly of the 15th Battalion. Their significance is twofold. They show the prevailing view of society – and within it the AIF  – that being white was the measure of a man’s worth – one  applied here to Aboriginal soldiers, albeit in terms of deepest praise. But perhaps what is more important they show the presence of Aboriginal men at Gallipoli, the well-spring of the Anzac legend

To date 55 Aboriginal men have been identified as serving in this campaign and it is likely that there are more. The presence of these men, most of whom volunteered in late 1914 or early 1915, was in most cases in direct contravention of the provisions of the Commonwealth Defence Act 1903 (amended 1909). This, in line with the prevailing white Australian sentiment prevented men ‘not of substantial European origin’ from serving their country overseas. Their presence in the AIF shows the inconsistent application of these provisions which is evident throughout the course of the war.This resulted in just over 900 (verified) Indigenous men volunteering and a slightly less number being accepted for service in the AIF. These successful volunteers included men clearly not of substantial European origin and a minority described as ’full blood’. They came from all Australian states with the largest number coming from New South Wales.

Of those Aboriginal men who served at Gallipoli, service records show that at least one man, Cyril Johnson, a Tasmanian member of the 15th Battalion took part in the landing on 25 April. He died three months later of wounds received at Gallipoli. Others arrived in subsequent days and months. While most were members of infantry battalions some belonged to light horse regiments which fought dismounted. These included two descendants of Yarramundi, chief of the Boorooberongal tribe of the Darug of the Sydney region – Henry [Harry] James Locke 1st Light Horse Regiment and Alfred Frederick Bolton1st Battalion. Both survived the war. Men who died at Gallipoli or from wounds received there included Arthur Charles Homer 5th Light Horse Regiment, Edgar George Bindoff 1st Battalion, Edward Lewis Maynard 15th battalion and Peter Zeisser 1st Light Horse Regiment. Zeisser’s Aboriginal mother, Bella signed with a cross to acknowledge receipt of the official photographs of her son’s grave.

Two of those who survived the war were Charles Gordon Naley 16th Battalion and Charles Hutchins 28th Battalion, both born in Western Australia. They came home with English wives and are just two of a number of Aboriginal men who, like non Indigenous servicemen, married in the UK and brought their wives, and sometimes their children, back to Australia. Naley was also a prisoner of war, captured in France in April 1917.

Alfred John Hearps 12th Battalion, the sole identified officer of Aboriginal heritage, also survived Gallipoli, only to die in France. Another Tasmanian, 12th Battalion soldier, Jack Roy Johnson was 17 when war broke out and in the absence of his parents’ permission, volunteered under the alias John Rollins. He was awarded the Military Medal after service in France. Between them all these men were wounded – sometimes more than once, gassed or suffered from disease during the course of the war.

The variety of Aboriginal experience in the AIF replicates that of non-Aboriginal men but despite their shared experience and presence in the AIF from the early days of the war, there is an important difference. Officially if substantially not of European descent, their country did not want their service. When it was accepted it was basically for pragmatic reasons, particularly as the war progressed and volunteers were in short supply. As Bennett pointed out so clearly, Aboriginal men served with distinction – even if with the caveat that they were not white – but they returned to an Australia where Aboriginal people, although British subjects, were denied rights enjoyed by others and faced on-going prejudice. Bennett’s impassioned statement about the Aboriginal men at Quinn’s Post and Hell’s Spit was prompted by an attempt by the Queensland RSSILA (predecessor of the RSL) to prevent Aboriginal children, some the children of former soldiers, from attending schools with white children. It was indicative of the attitude in Australia to Aboriginal people. Those Aboriginal men who thought that service would result in changed conditions for Aboriginal people were disappointed but as is now being recognised Aboriginal experience of war forms part of the background to the developing fight for Aboriginal rights and so from this point of view was not in vain.

Now the increasing recognition of Aboriginal service is at last enabling the acknowledgement of the place of Aboriginal men in the Gallipoli experience, so meaningful to many Australians, service which until recently was absent from white Australia’s remembrance of war.

Below I post again the names of Aboriginal men who served at Gallipoli in a list compiled by David Huggonson. Additions based on my own research are indicated by an asterisk.  This list has been amended and updated from David Huggonson’s original list of 32 names and now stands at 55.


First  Posted on May 27, 2014 by Indigenous Histories

Details of the service of these men can be found in their service records, digitised on the website of the National Archives of Australia. The place name after each service number is place of birth as stated in the service record. All men listed here are either named in the referenced listing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: The Indigenous Response to World War One or will appear in a forthcoming edition.

Why is it important to draw attention to these men? It’s because Aboriginal war service was ignored for so long and because showing the presence of Indigenous men in this campaign is one way of incorporating (but not assimilating) Indigenous service into the story of Australian military history and the history of Australia.


Compiler DAVID HUGGONSON  2014

BINDOFF, Edgar George 1720, Sydney, New South Wales

BOLTON, Alfred Frederick 682, Windsor, New South Wales

BURKE, James Ernest 529, New South Wales *

CAMERON, Alfred 1173, Meningie, South Australia

CROUGH, Kenneth 1125, Warrnambool, Victoria

DICKERSON, James 392, Gin Gin, Western Australia

DRURY, Albert Matthew 863, New South Wales *

FARMER, Larry 62, Katanning, Western Australia

FARMER, Lewis 421, Katanning, Western Australia

GOLDSPINK, William 2172, Tumbarumba, New South Wales *

HARRIS, William 2538, Wellington New South Wales *

HEARPS, Alfred John, [409] 2nd Lieutenant, Forth, Tasmania *

HOLT, Harold John 2289, Launceston, Tasmania *

HOMER, Arthur Charles 115, Bathurst, New South Wales *

HUTCHINS, Charles 307, Busselton, Western Australia

JACKSON, William John 1952, Bunbury, Western Australia

JOHNSON, Cyril Allen, 1340, Sheffield, Tasmania *

JOHNSON, Jack Roy, 1867, (served as John Rollins), Warrnambool, Victoria *

JOHNSON, Vernon Phillip 2225, Sheffield Tasmania *

JONES, Sidney Gerald 1573, Deniliquin New South Wales *

KARPANY, George 3502, East Wellington, South Australia

KELLY, Alfred William 590, Macksville, New South Wales

KIRBY, Richard Norman 2305, Dubbo, New South Wales *

LAVENDER, Andrew 285, Wellington, New South Wales *

LOCKE, Henry James 532, Waterloo, New South Wales *

MARTIN, Richard 1359, Brisbane, Queensland

MASON, Allan 1962, New South Wales *

MAYNARD, Edward  2294, Flinders Island, Tasmania

MAYNARD, Frank 1153, Flinders Island, Tasmania

MAYNARD, Leo 3992, Flinders Island, Tasmania

MCCALLUM, Arthur Edward 165, Albany, Western Australia

MCDONALD, Allan 764, Condah, Victoria

MILLER, John William 1227, Peppermint Bay, Tasmania

MUCKRAY, Hurtle 757, East Wellington, South Australia

NALEY, Charles Gordon 1310, Eucla, Western Australia

OLSEN, Andrew 736, Toowong, Queensland

OWEN, Frank Edgar 4193, Wallaroo, South Australia *

PERFECT, Joseph 200, Rockhampton, Queensland

PRIESTLY, Norman 2786, Gordonbrook Station, New South Wales

REID, John Patrick  2195  Cooma, New South Wales *

ROBINS, Alfred Arthur 1426, Junee, New South Wales

ROWAN, John 1506, Healesville, Victoria

SAYERS, Frederick Leslie 1042, Busselton, Western Australia *

SHAW, Claude 2413, Gin Gin, Western Australia *

SIMPSON, Stamford Wallace 687, Kangaroo Island, South Australia *

SKELLY, William 2933, Mount Hope New South Wales *

SLOANE, John 783, Forbes, New South Wales

SMITH, Leonard Gilmore 1303, Norwood, South Australia

STAFFORD, Charles Fitzroy 190, Mudgee New South Wales *

STOW, Albert Edward, 2162, Dungog, New South Wales

THOMPSON, Albert Victor 1644, Perth, Western Australia *

TRIPP, Hubert Frank 1428, Victor Harbour, South Australia

WALKER, Arthur Thomas 2466, Wallaroo, South Australia

WALLER, Charles Stephen 1337, Kangaroo Island, South Australia

WRIGHT, Alfred 2017, Nyngan, New South Wales *

ZEISSER, Peter 168 Sydney, New South Wales *

Philippa Scarlett 

23 April 2015


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Charlie Alley was born in Charters Towers, Queensland in 1901. His father also Charles came from the Malay Straits and his mother Fanny Palmer was born under a tree at  Canobie station near Blackjack.

During the World War One Charlie’s father was actively involved with the war effort.

My grandfather, he looked after the stockyard for the horses to go over to Egypt … they used to bring the horses in from the station, then they’d hold them in the paddock at Blackjack … and then they’d ship them out from there. Harry Allie 2008.

ALLEY Charlie Alley  father of WW1 Charlie Alley from Harry Allie

 Charles Alley senior. Courtesy Alley family

Charlie who was too young to serve would have made his initial contribution to the war effort by helping his father. Then in August 1917 he successfully volunteered for the AIF. Although he stated his age as 18, information he gave when he served again – this time in World War Two – shows he was only 16 when he became one of the 1st Reinforcements Egypt.

These Reinforcements arrived in Egypt on 17 July 1918 and following initial training, were taken on the strength of the 11th Light Horse Regiment. The Australian War Memorial has summed up this last phase of the 11th Light Horse’s activities in Egypt and Palestine:

In August, the regiment was issued with swords and trained in traditional cavalry tactics in preparation for the next offensive against the Turks. This was launched along the Palestine coast on 19 September 1918. The 11th Light Horse displayed its versatility at Semakh on 25 September by first charging the Turkish defences around the town on horseback, with swords drawn, and then clearing the actual town on foot, with rifle and bayonet.

Semakh was the regiment’s last major operation of the war; the Turks surrendered on 30 October 1918. While awaiting to embark for home, the 11th Light Horse were called back to operational duty to quell the Egyptian revolt that erupted in March 1919; order was restored in little over a month. The Regiment sailed for home on 20 July 1919.

In addition to Charlie Alley at least seven Queensland Aboriginal men were part of the 1st Reinforcements Egypt. They joined other Aboriginal men already members of the 11th Light Horse – twenty six of whom were in the 20th Reinforcements, given  the nickname the Queensland Black Watch, because of the number of Aboriginal men in its ranks. (Investigation of slightly higher numbers stated elsewhere show these include non Indigenous men).

Other identified Aboriginal men who formed part of the 1st Reinforcements Egypt were Willie Allen 50246, Glen Combarngo 50248, Herbert Roberts 50265, Patrick Brady 50271, John Lewis 50276, Harry Roberts 50278, and Alexander Stanley 50280. Herbert Roberts did not leave Australia because of an injury before embarkation.  With Charlie Alley they swelled the number of Aboriginal members of the 11th Light Horse Regiment contributing to its Aboriginal character.

1 Reinforcements EGYPT

Ist Reinforcements Egypt. June 1918 . The photograph contains at least seven Aboriginal men although names cannot be linked to specific  individuals. It is possible that Charlie Alley may be one of their number. Too Dark for the Light Horse Collection. Courtesy David Huggonson.

When Charlie Alley arrived back in Australia on 28 August 1919 he was only just 18 but after the events of 1918 and early 1919 was already a battle hardened veteran. Twenty years later on the outbreak of World War Two he was again in the uniform of the Australian Army.

ALLEY Charlie Alley WW2 from Harry Allie 2

Charlie Alley, World War Two. He wears his World War One service ribbons in this photograph. Courtesy Mrs Mavis Blackman.

Other members of the Alley/Allie family also served their country.

ALLEY Billy Alley from Harry Allie

                          Billy Alley World War Two . Courtesy Alley family

Charlie’s brother Billy Alley served in WW2, his sister Martha Alley was a member of the Women’s Land Army and another brother Albert Alley, father of Harry Allie served in the Civil Construction Corp during World war Two. 

ALLEY Martha Alley from Harry Allie 2

Martha Alley, Women’s land Army, World War Two. Courtesy Alley family.

Charlie’s nephew David Allie served in Vietnam and another nephew Harry Allie was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force from 1966 to 1989. Harry has been continually active in the movement to recognise Indigenous service and is a mentor and role model for Indigenous people. In 2012 was appointed the first Air Force Indigenous Elder.

Woff  Allie in Malaysia Defence service medal presentation from Harry Allie

 Harry Allie: presentation of Defence Service Medal, Malaysia. Courtesy Harry Allie. 

The Alley family is justifiably proud of it service:

I can always remember growing up – my grandmother lived next door – that was always a photo on the mantelpiece of them in uniform Harry Allie 2008.

But despite their record, until 1983 Charlie’s family as Aboriginal people in Queensland still lived under the Act – the dehumanising Protection Act which dominated Aboriginal people’s lives. Records show some members of the Alley family at Palm Island – the artificial Aboriginal community formed from forced removals from the mainland by the Queensland government.

The Alley family’s contribution of service beginning with World War One is remarkable – however it is not unusual for Indigenous families to give generously to the service of their country, despite the treatment they and their extended families received.

This history is now coming to light and following the completion of Serving Our Country, a project which is exploring the contribution to Australian defence services of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples, stories like those of the Alley family will at last receive the recognition they deserve.

Philippa Scarlett 

15th April 2015

Thank you to  Mrs Mavis Blackman, Harry Allie and his cousin Yasmin Johnson for allowing me to reproduce photos of the Alley family and for their advice and comment.

In particular I must thank Mrs Mavis Blackman the daughter of Charlie Alley for kindly permitting me to write about her father.


[ Note.Charles Alley’s WW1 service number was 50270. His service record available on the NAA website has been amalgamated with his World War Two record under his service number for this conflict Q186382.]

Posted in WW1, WW2 | 15 Comments



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.

Posted in Aborigines sport, WW1 | 1 Comment


While the experience of Aboriginal men in the AIF is receiving increasing attention the experience of their families – particularly wives, mothers and sisters on the home front has to date been relatively neglected.

Aboriginal women’s stories are in many ways the same as those of non Indigenous women – but they are also different. The difference is created by the circumstances of Aboriginal life – lived in so many instances ‘under the Act’ and subject to restrictions on personal liberty and removal of children by the state. Not only this but allotments made to them from a soldier’s pay were in some cases made to a state Protection Board rather than to the woman herself.

Information about these women is not readily forthcoming but should not be impossible to piece together starting with service records, the most readily available source supplemented by other selected primary and secondary sources and hopefully helped by memories and knowledge held by families.

Women of Empire Exhibition is a travelling exhibition launching in February 2015. After touring Australian locations it will move to New Zealand and Canada and possibly further afield. The project is keen to include stories of Aboriginal women.

Contemporary newspaper articles show that Aboriginal communities supported the service of Aboriginal men they saw as fighting for the Empire and for King and Country, ironic though this seems in view of the treatment of Indigenous people under the Empire’s rule. Barambah in Queensland was one community which was active in raising funds for the war effort.

More about the Women of Empire Exhibition can be found at Contact details are

 Philippa Scarlett

22 October 2014

Posted in WW1 | 1 Comment


Frederick Prentice MM died in Katherine, Northern Territory on 22 November 1957 unknown and without family or friends. Using the fact that Prentice had told a fellow worker that he had served in World War One, the Acting Superintendent of Police, Northern Territory asked AIF Base records for help in identifying his next of kin. The information the police already had was that the dead man was half Maori and had died of a heart attack. In fact according to Eric Catterall descended from a branch of Prentice’s adoptive family he was also recorded as having second degree burns to one side of his body – consistent with rolling into his campfire, a not uncommon occurrence. Base Records was able to identify Prentice but by 1958 all links with his family and former life had gone.

Prentice joined the AIF in May 1915 and served in France with the 12th Battalion and later the 1st Pioneer Battalion. His successful enlistment was just another example of the inconsistent application of the provisions of the Defence Act which prohibited the enlistment of men ‘not of substantial European origin’. Frederick was not Maori but Aboriginal. In July 1916 he was awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Mouquet Farm, Pozieres. Here he ‘showed great courage, resource and ability in bringing machine guns and ammunition through the enemy barrage in the dark and broken ground.’

News items in South Australian papers show that his farewell before leaving for the front in 1915 was a stylish occasion.

There was a large gathering at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. J. Penna, Yunta, on July 15, to bid farewell to Mr. F. Prentice, who leaves shortly for the front. Songs and recitations were given by Misses Ethel Penna, Kornell Fitzgerald, May and Evelyn Penna, and Messrs. Prentice, Patman, and Penna. Mr. Prentice, prior, to enlisting, was employed on Manunda Station. Mr. Penna, on behalf of all present, wished Mr. F. Prentice and a comrade a safe voyage, God speed, and a safe return. Mr. Prentice responded on behalf of himself and friend. All present assembled at the railway station to see the boys off. Chronicle 24 July 1915 p. 46

Prentice who was an athlete, excelling in football, cricket and running, would have cut a dashing figure in his uniform – almost six feet tall and well built according to the details recorded in his attestation. Four years later his safe return was recorded by another paper.

Amongst the soldiers who returned to Wallaroo on Saturday last was Cpl. F. M. Prentice, M.M., who is a native of the Northern Territory and was for many years associated with Mr and Mrs Kell of the local post office, formerly residents of the N.T.  Cpl. Prentice is a fine type of man, and his manly bearing won plaudits from the large crowd that gathered at the station to welcome him home. He has been on Active service for about four years and was attached to the machine-gun section. He regards his safe return as providential. Twice, six of the machine-gun section (consisting of seven men) were killed by enemy fire, he alone escaping on each occasion. The Kadina and Wallaroo Times 4 June 1919 p.2

Frederick Prentice was born about 1894 at Powell Creek, Northern Territory. His father, Alfred Leslie Prentice was Justice of the Peace at Powell Creek at the time of Frederick’s birth. Alfred Prentice came from Victoria and was variously a drover, station manager, station owner and mail contractor in the Northern Territory. Frederick’s mother was an as yet unknown Aboriginal woman. The name Prentice can be found associated with several other Aboriginal people born in 1900 living at Elliott near Powell Creek and Newcastle Waters and identifying with the local Tjingili/Jingali people, suggesting that Frederick was not Alfred Prentice’s only child. Alfred died in 1916 probably unknown to Frederick who was serving in France.

Frederick’s early childhood was spent at the Powell Creek Overland Telegraph Station with the stationmaster Walter (known as Dan) Kell and his wife Isabella nee Birkett, who arrived there in 1896. The Kells had no children of their own and adopted Frederick and another Aboriginal child, a girl. Isabella who was 43 when she married Kell, her second husband, was a nurse and formerly a respected matron at Palmerston hospital.

The home that Frederick lived in until 1905 when the Kells moved to South Australia was characterised by its comfortable and friendly atmosphere. This was described by anthropologists Spencer and Gillen when they stayed with the Kells in 1901 during their expedition into central Australia. Spencer writing in his diary stated that

Mr & Mrs Kell received us most kindly and we are quite at home already. The station is really pretty with a splendid garden

while Gillen describing Powell Creek in Camp Jottings Vol. 3 wrote

There is an air of comfort about this Station in great contrast to the batchelor quarters of the Tennant and Barrow Creek. The verandahs are broad and strewn with great easy chairs that present an inviting appearance to the weary traveller …The Station is picturesquely situated on the bank of Powell Creek just where it junctions with a smaller creek called the Kintore; looking to the north the eye rests upon a scene of almost tropical luxuriance: around a spring on the bank of the creek a variety of trees are growing and one very fine tree, bauhinia, is near to us. Peeping out from behind the trees are rows of banana plants, some with yellow clusters of fruit hanging from them, the whole making a decidedly pleasing and refreshing picture after the arid dreariness of the track. In the afternoon I stroll with kindly Mrs. Kell in the garden and eat bananas fresh from the trees … We discuss Mr. & Mrs. Kell and vote them both jolly good fellows and regret that we cannot find an excuse to devote a month or two to the Chingilli tribe – and the Kells. p.269.


Garden scene at Powell Creek Station.The seated woman is probably Isabella Kell who was the only white woman living in the Powell Creek area; Walter Kell (Centre) and ‘Wallaby’ Holtze (Right). Identification Eric CatterallNorthern Territory Collection, State Library of South Australia

The reason for Spencer and Gillen’s visit to Powell Creek was to study the Aboriginal people in the area, the Tjingili, several of whose camps were close to the station. Spencer took many photos of the place and some of its people and also recorded ceremonies which he said occurred every day. The photos include a number  featuring a small Aboriginal boy and his dog. He wears European clothes and is almost certainly Frederick Prentice. His mode of dress compared with the Spencer’s other subjects underlines his separation from his culture.

Frederick Prentice Powells Creek 1901 (2)

Detail from a photograph of Powell  Creek Station 1901. The complete image appears on p.449 of Baldwin Spencer and F. J.Gillen Across Australia. This and others taken by Spencer at Powell Creek including photographs of Frederick’s sister can be seen at the website ‘Spencer and Gillen. A Journey through Aboriginal Australia’

Also visiting Powell Creek in 1901 was the Bishop of Carpentaria who commented on Frederick and his sister.

Mr. and Mrs. Kell have with them two half-caste children, of whom the Bishop of Carpentaria (Dr. Gilbert White), who visited Powell’s Creek in 1901, wrote in his journal under date July 7:-“At morning prayer I baptised two half-caste children. The future of these half-castes is a serious question. When young they often receive some kind of education and training, but the danger is lest they should be thrown on the black’s camp when they grow too old to be treated as children.” Mr. and Mrs. Kell have determined that their adopted children, whose intelligence is remarkable, shall be educated in the best schools available. Advertiser 17 August 1905.

These words echo the fear of ‘the blacks camp’ commonly held by white Australians and the belief that ‘half caste’ children should be separated as soon as possible from what was perceived as the camp’s pernicious influence. These were the justifications used in the 19th and 20th Australia for removal of children of lighter skin – a process championed by the churches of all denominations. The Protector of Aborigines South Australia (who was also responsible for the Northern Territory) noted with satisfaction in his 1909/1910 report that

During the year several half-caste children have been removed from the blacks’ camps and placed under the care and control of the State Children’s Department with most encouraging results … [they]will, I feel confident, grow up self supporting members of the community, as they will know nothing of the habits of the aborigines and will be given an occupation. Several letters have appeared in the press in opposition to the removal of these children from their cruel surroundings, but I think the writers have failed to grasp the seriousness of the problem now facing South Australia and some of the other States. p.1

He went on to emphasise the

necessity of steps being taken to convert these people into useful members of the community, instead of allowing them to grow up in the camps, where they acquire the lazy habits of the aborigines which unfits them for any regular occupation.

The Kell’s actions although no doubt aligned with this thinking had a personal element. Not only was it unlikely that they would have children but Alfred Prentice was a friend of both Walter Kell and his brother-in-law Waldemar ‘Wallaby’ Holtze who also lived at Powell Creek. What is unknown are the circumstances Frederick lived in prior to his association with the Kells. He could have lived with his father or what is more likely in one of the adjacent Tjingili camps. The whereabouts of his mother who was probably a Tjingili woman, her wishes or even whether she was still alive when Frederick joined the Kells are also unknown.

In 1905 Frederick’s life changed. The Kells moved to Adelaide when Walter Kell became senior telegraphist at Unley and true to their word and no doubt to the gratification of the Bishop, sent Frederick to Kyre College, the predecessor of Scotch College also in Unley. Here he excelled in athletics and won a prize for music. In 1914 when Frederick was 20 Walter Kell was appointed postmaster at Wallaroo also in South Australia. Frederick, who in 1915 was working as a station hand at Manunda gave his sister Isabella Kell of Wallaroo Post Office as his next of kin when he enlisted in May indicating his continuing association with his adoptive family.

Eric Catterall and Christine Cramer whose great great great uncle was Walter  Kell have traced Frederick’s later life via electoral rolls, newspaper reports and information in his service record. These shows that he returned to Manunda station after the war and remained there until at least 1926 perhaps not coincidentally the year of Isabella Kell’s death. Walter Kell died in 1919. His engagement with the community is demonstrated by his appointment in 1926 as clerk of scales at the Yunta races. By 1930 he was working as a miner in Kalgoorlie where he stayed for thirteen years. Here during the 1930s he participated in local sporting life as a valued team member. He played cricket and was a high scorer for the Kookynie Cricket Club and as well as playing for Shenton in the Menzies Football Association competition. Comments like that of the official who said thatas soon as he can get F. Prentice into the ruck he will have a team that will waltz all over to triumph and victory’ attest to the quality of his game and his reputation.  He was also a paid up member of the Australian Workers Union until at least 1940 and was made AWU representative for Comet Vale in 1937.

Between 1943 and 1957 his life seems less stable. During this time he worked in mines at Westonia, Comet (Marble Bar) and Blue Spec (Nullagine) where in 1951 he was described as ‘an old hand’. His name no longer appears on electoral rolls after 1958 the year following his death. The information provided to AIF Base Records in that year by the Northern Territory police paints the picture of a sober and solitary man.

This person had only been in Katherine about three weeks and did not associate with any other person in the town or frequent hotels. He was known to only one other person in the town a man named Weatherall who claimed that the man was called Fred Prentiss and that he had worked with him at various places in Western Australia. However he knew nothing of Prentiss background from where he a came if he were married or the name of his next of kin but he said that Prentiss had told him he was in the first world war and served with a South Australian regiment. 

AIF Base records could give the superintendent no more than the information in his service record. The early deaths of his foster parents and probably his sister according to family story and the fact that the Kells had no natural children meant that he had no immediate known relatives. There is no evidence that Frederick married or had children. He seems to have lived an increasingly solitary life moving around Western Australian mining towns until his death in the Northern Territory.

Frederick Prentice’s story has some parallels with that of World War One Aboriginal servicemen like William Punch, George Aitken and Douglas Grant all of whom became dissociated from their Aboriginal families and culture and were brought up in European families.

Aitken and Punch died in World War One. Douglas Grant survived. Like Prentice he lost his immediate foster family leaving him in a family sense virtually alone. Both Prentice and Grant were  men of character, athletes and educated and neither married. Both men at times occupied positions which show they had the confidence of others – Grant as a spokesman in the German camp where he was held prisoner and later as secretary of the Lithgow RSL and Prentice as a race official at Yunta and an AWU representative. As Aboriginal men brought up in a white world and unable to connect with their Aboriginality, family and culture both men’s lives had deep tragic elements.

Almost certainly Grant and Prentice would have been subject to the prejudice of racist white Australia. The reports describing Frederick’s departure and return to Australia show him as respected and part of the community he lived in. Significantly they do not refer to his Aboriginality but do mention his friends and adoptive parents. This situation is unlikely to have continued as he worked his way round Western Australia mixing with people who knew nothing of him and his white family, despite the personal qualities which gave him some recognition as a sportsman and in his union. Separated from both his Aboriginal and his adopted family he would have been very much alone.

What is different about the experience of Douglas Grant and Frederick Prentice is that Frederick spent his early life living close to the Tjingili camps and his own people, in earshot of their ceremonies but distanced by the fact of his adoption into a white family. This differentiates him from Grant who was taken to New South Wales from Queensland far from his people and makes the situation of the solemn faced little boy shown repeatedly in Spencer’s photographs even more poignant.

Walter Kell dispensing rations Powell Creek 1902 P42 The Chronicle

Walter Kell distributes flour to Tjingili men at Powell Creek, 1902 to. Chronicle November 1902 p.42.

Frederick’s adoption by the childless Kells was no doubt emotionally rewarding for them and considered to be in that ambiguous and discredited phrase ‘in the best interests of the child’. By ‘saving’ him from camp life his adoption satisfied the sensitivities of the people aware of the particulars of the white side of his heritage. He was educated and secured employment as desired by people like the Bishop of Carpentaria but at the same time he was denied access to his culture and his extended family. It is impossible to know how different his life could have been but it is likely, should he have avoided removal by the state, that it would have at least involved a sense of identity and an absence of the loneliness and disconnectedness inherent in the circumstances of his death.

In the 21st century as a result of extensive research by Eric Catterall and Christine Cramer,  something of his story is at last being uncovered. Their ongoing research which was originally prompted by comments made at a 1991 family reunion that Isabella Kell had adopted two Aboriginal children, has had rich results. Of course much is still missing but as a result of their efforts it is now possible to gain an impression of the man and the forces which shaped him and affected his life.

One other avenue remains to be investigated. It is conceivable that there are descendants of Alfred Prentice alive to day. The existence of other Aboriginal people named Prentice in the Northern Territory suggests that it may be possible to trace some Aboriginal people who are related to his son Frederick.

In 2014 Frederick Prentice lies in an unmarked grave in Katherine cemetery. There are moves to identify this with a headstone recording his story and war service.  Perhaps it will also be possible to find members of his Prentice family who could visit his grave in what would be a belated recognition of his family and identity.

I’d like to thank Eric Catterall and Christine Cramer for alerting me to Frederick Prentice’s background and for sharing their research without which this post could not have been written.

Philippa Scarlett 

5 September 2014



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