Category Archives: January to June 1918

156. B P Morris

MORRIS Brian Percy 344

21MG Coy  DoW 19/3/18

Brian Morris was born in 1898 in Presteigne, Wales. He went to the local council school in Presteigne but then, at the age of twelve (1910), he came to Australia. It appears that he was most likely adopted as his parents – Henry Frederick and Annie Mary Morris – were both long-term residents of the Shire of Alberton. There was another brother – Harold Geoffrey Morris – who was 2 years older – and who also gave his place of birth as Presteigne, Wales – who was also most lekely adopted. Additionally, there were at least 2 younger children in the Morris family: Roland J Morris born 1903 and Kenneth J Morris born 1906. These 2 children were born in Gippsland.

Both parents are included in the electoral roll for 1915. The father was listed as ’dairy farmer’ of Devon North and the mother as ‘domestic duties’ of Yarram. Oddly, there is no reference to either parent in the rate book for 1915. The father would have been in his early fifties. Possibly, the family had moved from the farm at Devon North to Yarram by the start of the War. When the older (adopted) brother enlisted in October 1914 he had given his mother’s address as James Street, Yarram. Then when Brian enlisted in June 1916, nearly 2 years later, he gave the father’s address as ‘Highfield’, Yarram. All the correspondence in the service file was directed to either ‘Highfield’ or ’Braeside’ or ‘Kywong’, all of Yarram, or Commercial Street, Yarram.

When he came to Australia as a twelve-year-old, Brian Morris must have attended Devon North State School for one or two years. Both his name and his death, are recorded on the school’s honour roll. His name is also recorded on the honour roll for the Methodist Circuit and the District roll for Devon North. His name also appears on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial in the main street of Yarram.

As indicated, the older (adopted) brother – Harold Geoffrey Morris (1565) – enlisted early in the War. At the time (10/10/14) he gave his age as 19 yo. He reached the rank of sergeant but was captured at Reincourt in April 1917. He was imprisoned in Germany and repatriated to the UK at the end of 1918 (26/12/18). He returned to Australia in July 1919.

Private Brian Morris enlisted in June 1916 (20/6/16). He took his initial medical at Yarram and was re-examined in Melbourne where he completed his enlistment. He was 18 yo at the time and gave his occupation as ‘farm labourer’. His mother, when she completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour, indicated that he was working in the dairy industry. But it also appears that he was a paid employee of the local council. Private Brian Morris had spent 9 months in the Senior Cadets, presumably in Yarram, prior to enlistment. He was single and gave his religion as Presbyterian. His brother gave his religion as Baptist.

Private Morris joined 21 Machine Gun Company. His unit left Melbourne in mid August 1916 (18/8/16) and reached Plymouth in early October (2/10/16). There was further training in England and he did not proceed overseas to France until March 1917 (17/3/17). While in training in England he was charged with and convicted of being AWL – nearly a full day – for which he was fined one day’s pay and confined to barracks for 5 days. It was a common offence. In July 1917, he expressly recorded on Form 311B that he did not … wish to make a will. At the time he would have been 19 yo.

In France, up to the time of his death, his service record is sketchy. There was a brief period of hospitalisation in January 1918 for diarrhoea. He was wounded – gassed (‘severe’) – on 17/3/18. The next day he was evacuated, via ambulance train, to 14 General Hospital at Wimereux, near Calais. However, he did not recover and died there on 19/3/18. He was buried on 20/3/18 in the Wimereux Communal Cemetery. The family was advised of the death by cable dated 25/3/18.
The death was written up in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 28/3/18:

Mr. and Mrs. H. F. Morris, Yarram, received the following sad message from the Victoria Barracks, St. Kilda road, on Tuesday [26/3/18]: – “Officially reported 344 Private B. P. Morris died 19th March, 1918, from effects gas at 14th General Hospital.” This was the second occasion Private Morris had been gassed, having been discharged from hospital only six weeks ago. He was the second son of Mr. and Mrs. Morris, and enlisted the day after his 18th birthday. He wanted to go to the front at the age of 16. In June next he would have attained his 20th birthday. We need hardly add that the bereaved parents have the heartfelt sympathy of Yarram and district.

The reference to Private Morris having been gassed earlier does not appear to line up with the service records. As indicated, the only period of hospitalisation to match the timeline was the January 1918 stint which was recorded as ‘diarrhoea’.

In March 1918, 21 Machine Gun Company was part of a reorganisation that created 1 Machine Gun Battalion. The war diary for the new unit locates it near Ypres at the time. The closest town was Scherpenberg, near Reningeist and Kemmel. There is a brief entry in the war diary on the 17/3/18 to the effect that there was ‘heavy gas shelling’ by the Germans, coming from the direction of Zonnebeke/Warneton. There is no indication of casualties. Such heavy shelling on the allied lines was a common feature at the time and, invariably, the diary would follow up with a note that no infantry attack followed. It was still several days before Operation Michael and the German onslaught.

Nearly one year after the death of her son, Mrs Annie May Morris wrote to Base Records (21/2/19). In the letter she queried the amount of her son’s pay that had been returned and also the whereabouts of his personal kit,

Yesterday was paid arrears of deferred pay of 344 Pte B P Morris 21st Machine Gun Co deceased, £35.16.7 but think there is more money due.
At the time of his death, he was expecting to go for holiday, and had been saving money for that purpose. About the time of his death I had letter from him in which he says we cannot go [to] Blighty, unless we have £10.0.0 in our pass book. I haven’t saved quite enough yet. My turn will soon come.
Up to the present I have not had kit etc of deceased. Heard from section officer also chaplain who said kit etc would be forwarded.
Shall be glad if you make enquiries into the matter. It is nearly 12 months since time of death and the kit etc should have been forwarded.

Base Records replied within a few days (25/2/19). They passed the query re the pay to District Paymaster, Victoria Barracks. The response regarding the whereabouts of the personal kit was revealing:

… I regret to inform you that a package of personal effects was included in a consignment shipped from England per “S. S. Barunga” which vessel was lost at sea with all cargo, as the result of enemy action, on its way to Australia. However, should anything be received later it will be transmitted to deceased’s father, as the legal next-of-kin, in the absence of a will prescribing otherwise.

The father did, finally, in late September 1919, receive a copy of the items of kit that went down with the Barunga,

Disc, Letters, Photos, Photo case, Wallet, 12 Stamps, 2 Francs, Piece as [of] Disc on Chain, Cards, Handkerchief, Unit Colours.

with a note which stated that … no hope can be entertained for the recovery of the articles so lost.

[The Barunga was sunk by a German U-boat on 15/7/18 when it was approx 150 miles off Lands End, Cornwall. It was carrying Australian troops on the voyage back to Australia. Fortunately there were destroyers nearby and everyone was taken off before it sank. The Barunga had in fact been a modern German steamship that was captured in Australia at the outbreak of war and used as an Australian troopship.]

At a ceremony held at North Devon in mid September 1918 – reported in the local paper on 18/9/18 – to present medals to returned men from the district, there was also a presentation to families of men who had been killed. Speaking of his son, Henry Frederick Morris was reported thus:

Mr. Morris said he wished to express his appreciation of the thoughtfulness of the Our Boys’ Association in presenting mementoes to the parents of the fallen lads. His lad was at Devon school, and he could truly say was liked and esteemed by all. There were many names not appearing on the honor roll [it is not clear to which ‘roll’ he is referring here], but when they all passed over that great river those who had made sacrifices might see their names along with those of their lads written in the book of life. God had promised to reward those who had made sacrifices, and he felt sure he and his boy would meet again. (Applause)

In the Red Cross file for Private Morris there is correspondence from R. M. Kinsley Esq, of Bryntirion, Towyn, Merioneth [t is difficult to make out the address] which appears to be in Wales. The letter was dated 8/4/18 and it requested information for Private B P Morris. It included the correct regimental number and unit. The writer indicated that he had heard indirectly that Private Morris … was gassed and has died of his wounds. The writer added:

My wife is his next of kin (Aunt) in this country and has not heard from him lately.

The detail tends to confirm that Brian and Harold, born in Wales, were adopted by the Morris family in Yarram. It also suggests that the boys were in contact with members of their original family in Wales.

There was a reply from the Red Cross, dated 30/5/18, which confirmed the death.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 2, The Alberton Project

National Archives file for MORRIS Brian Percy
Roll of Honour: Brian Percy Morris
First World War Embarkation Roll: Brian Percy Morris
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Brian Percy Morris

155. R H Hofen

HOFEN Robert Henry 363
23 B  DoI 18/3/18

Robert Hofen was born in Orbost. His mother and sister were living at Orbost at the time he enlisted and then right through to the end of the war and beyond.

At the time he enlisted – 19 February 1915 – Hofen was 33 yo and living at Woodside. His name appeared on the electoral roll (1915) as  ‘labourer’ of Woodside. His enlistment form recorded that he had been a member of the Woodside Rifle Club for 3 years and his name was mentioned in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 1/9/15 in a detailed account of a smoke social held at Woodside for the local rifle club. The event was held to issue club trophies – Hofen was listed as a recipient – and acknowledge those locals who had already left – he was acknowledged by name as one of this group – or who were about to leave for the front. His medical was in Yarram with Dr Rutter. His name even featured in a timely warning that was included in an editorial in the local paper on 24/3/15. It would have been about one week after he enlisted and headed off to Broadmeadows:

People who purchase bicycles on time payment should know better than dispose of them before the final payment is made. R. Hofen, of Woodside, recently sold his bicycle to Mr. Burris, and left for Broadmeadows. This particular bike had been supplied by Mr. I. Hetherington, local agent for the Canada and Cycle Co., on time payment, portion of which is due. A warrant has been issued on a charge of larceny as a bailee. Hofen will be brought to Yarram.

There is no further record on the matter so, presumably, Hofen settled it before any court proceeding.

Clearly, Robert Hofen was living and working in the Shire of Alberton at the time he enlisted, and he was well known. However, his name does not appear on either the Roll of Honor for the Shire of Alberton or the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial.

At the time he enlisted, Hofen was single and he gave his mother – Mrs Kate Hofen – as his next-of-kin. In his will, dated 1/8/17, his mother was listed as the sole beneficiary. His religion was Church of England.

He joined the newly formed 23 Battalion and left Melbourne on 10/5/15. His record of service for the period that 23 Battalion was involved on Gallipoli is sketchy but there is a reference to him having dysentery in late August 1915, round the time the battalion moved to Gallipoli. There are references in his file to the effect that his next-of-kin, or some other member of his family, was eligible to receive the Gallipoli Medallion, which was awarded to those who had served at Gallipoli.

His service through 1916 is also sketchy. There is a reference to him attached to 6 Training Battalion in England in July 1916. There is also a record indicating that he was hospitalised for a month with mumps at the end of 1916. He then proceeded overseas to France in March 1917. He was with 23 Battalion at Bullecourt 2 and was wounded (3/5/17) – ‘GSW right wrist’ – in the fighting. He was hospitalised for one month and rejoined the battalion on 10/6/17. Then, at the end of 1917 (26/2/17), he transferred to 2 Divisional Salvage Company.

In February 1918 (9/2/18) Private Hofen was given leave and proceeded to England. Just over a week later (18/2/18), he married May Charlotte Sergent at the Register Office, Wandsworth London. She was 23 years old – he was then 36 – and she was from Tooting. Her occupation on the marriage papers was given as ‘printer’s assistant’.

Just two days after the wedding, Private Hofen was admitted to the Tooting Military Hospital, not far from his new wife’s family home where he was staying. His condition was identified as an abscess of the liver and he was operated on the next day (21/2/18) but his condition gradually deteriorated and he died without leaving hospital on 18/3/18. He died exactly one month after his wedding.

There are extensive medical notes in his file, including those from the post mortem. The preliminary notes made on his admission indicate that he ‘felt well’ when he left France on 9 February. However they also reveal that the trip across the Channel left him ‘wet through’ and that he had then endured a ‘cold ride’ to London. From the time of his arrival in London his condition obviously worsened and by the time of his marriage he was in a bad way. In fact, for at least 2 days before his marriage he had only been able to drink milk. By the time he was admitted to hospital (20/2/18), he was suffering from acute pain in his abdomen, was not eating and was subject to coughing fits and bouts of vomiting and could not lie on his left side because of the pain. The medical history also reports his claims that he was a ‘slight smoker’, had ‘never been drunk’ and was a ‘rare drinker’. It also noted the case of mumps followed by pleurisy some 14 months earlier, as well as the dysentery at Gallipoli, for which he had been hospitalised for 6 weeks.

There are accounts of his new wife, and her family, attending to the welfare of Private Hofen. One of them is contained in a detailed letter from Base Records, written in June 1918 to the mother in Orbost. Essentially, this was the letter to give details on both the funeral and the location of the grave.

With reference to the report of the regrettable loss of your son, the late No. 363 private R. H. Hofen, 2nd Divisional Salvage Corps, I am now in receipt of advice which shows that he died at Military Hospital, Tooting, England, on 18/3/18, of abscess on liver, and was buried on the following day at Brookwood Cemetery, Brookwood, consecrated ground, section – Australian Military Burial Ground, grave No. 180, 715, Chaplain Shannon officiating.

The following relatives were present at the funeral: – Mrs. Hofen (wife), Mr. & Mrs. J. D. Sargent (sic) (father & mother-in-law) Misses Rosalie and Jessie Sargent (sisters-in-law) and Miss F. E. Gough (friend), all residing at 19 Totterdown Street, Tooting.

The deceased soldier was accorded a Military Funeral. The coffin of good polished elm with brass fittings, was covered with the Australian Flag. Several beautiful wreaths were placed on the coffin by the relatives and Nursing Staff of the Military Hospital, Tooting. Band (Pipers), Firing Party, Bugler and Pallbearers under the command of Lieutenant Hennessey were supplied by the 2nd South African Regiment stationed at Brookwood.

There is also a letter written by Matron M A Maxwell of the Tooting Military Hospital. It was written in June 1918 to the Red Cross Society. It points to the wife’s close attention to her husband.

Concerning the illness and death of R. H Hofen who died on the 18th March last. He was taken ill when on leave and admitted to the hospital Feb 20th suffering from internal trouble which necessitated operation, it was then found he had an abscess of the liver and he also developed pneumonia. His condition was most serious from the commencement and although he rallied a little after the operation, his recovery was always regarded as doubtful. His wife who lived near here was with him constantly and she intended writing to his relatives in Australia all about it, most probably they will have heard from her by this time. He was buried in Brookwood Cemetery with Military Honours on March 23rd 1918.

In terms of the family back in Australia, Private Hofen’s mother – as next-of-kin – was informed that he had been hospitalised by letter at the end of February 1918 (28/2/18). In the letter his condition was described as ‘severe’. Then came the cable advising of his death. This was dated 18/3/18, the day of his death.

What is not clear from the file is whether the mother knew of the marriage before it occurred. Nor is there any indication as to whether the wife wrote to the mother following the death. Certainly, the mother knew about the marriage after her son’s death. In fact, the cable advising the mother of the death specifically indicated that his wife was aware of the death. Also, as already indicated, the detailed description of the funeral highlighted the presence of the wife and her family. But there is no way, from the file, of establishing whether the marriage would have come as a surprise to the family in Orbost.

Two pieces of correspondence in the file suggest that neither the mother nor sister had come to terms with the marriage, in the sense that they did not appear to appreciate its significance in terms of replacing them. The first letter was written to Base Records by the mother – Kate Hofen, Orbost – a couple of weeks after her son’s death. In the letter, she requested details of his will. Basically she wanted to know how he had left his money. The issue was not resolved, at least in terms of what is in the file. However, as pointed out earlier, the mother was the sole beneficiary in the will written up at the start of August 1917, suggesting that the marriage was only organised in the 6 or 7 months before his death.

The second letter was written by the sister – E. E. Hofen, Newmerella via Orbost – several years later (January 1923). In it she requested, presumably on behalf of her mother, the “Bronze Plaque” issued to Mothers of Deceased Soldiers and any other medals for which her brother was eligible.

The response from Base Records (20/1/23) to this second letter described the general situation in relation to memorabilia and medals following the marriage.

With reference to your enquiry making application for a Memorial Plaque in respect of the late No. 363 Private R. H. Hofen, 2nd Divisional Salvage Company, I have to inform you that only one is issued in connection with a deceased member of the A.I.F., and in this instance same was forwarded to the London office for disposal to the soldier’s widow, who is the actual next-of-kin. Similar action is being taken with regard to war medals issuable on account of the late soldier’s service.

However, to complicate matters further, there is another record in the file which suggests that the Gallipoli Medallion for Private Hofen was sent to the sister.

There is no record of any personal kit being returned, either to the widow or the mother but, presumably, whatever personal kit Private Hofen had with him in hospital was handed to the wife after the death.

There is at least a suggestion in all this of misgivings held by the mother and sister over the way their son and brother’s memories and affairs had been taken over by a wife of just a few weeks whom they had never even met.

The young widow had remarried by the time she completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. She gave her name as Mrs May Charlotte Tibbles, late Hofen.

Robert Hofen passed very quickly from local memory. In May 1918, just 2 months after his death, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (17/5/18) featured a detailed report of a memorial service held in Yarram for all … those from the Alberton Shire who have fallen in the service of their country. The names of fifty men were read out but Private Hofen’s name was not included.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for HOFEN Robert Henry
Roll of Honour: Robert Henry Hofen
First World War Embarkation Roll: Robert Henry Hofen
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Robert Henry Hofen


154. The start of the 1918 school year and yet more division

This post continues to explore themes raised in earlier posts, particularly Post 84 and Post 68.

At the start of 1918 there were 2 very significant developments in the provision of schooling in the local community. At the Yarram State School, higher primary grades commenced and, nearby, the new Catholic primary school – St Mary’s – was opened.

The local community had been calling for a higher primary top to the local state primary school – even a separate high school – for several years. Just days after the outbreak of War, the Director of Education (F Tate) visited Yarram (10/8/14) at the invitation of the local school board to consider the provision of higher primary/higher elementary schooling. The basic agreement reached was that continuing classes – to Intermediate level – could be set up in (new) buildings on the existing primary school site, with the local community agreeing to contribute an amount of £350. In theory, the money was to be raised by the local council setting a special levy. But then the reality of the War intervened.

By late 1917, the push for the higher elementary school picked up again after the Victorian Government set aside funds (£2,000) for a higher elementary school in Yarram. Again, the local community was expected to contribute financially. The amount was now £400, over 4 years. This time the money was to be raised by subscriptions, not a special levy via the council. Tate visited Yarram again in January 1918 and by the end of February, 60 students were enrolled. Initially they were accommodated in existing buildings on the site but new buildings, specifically for the higher primary years, were planned in mid 1918 and officially opened in April 1919.

The provision of higher primary or higher elementary schooling was very significant. Students could now pursue formal education beyond the primary level, without having to leave the district. Other neighbouring towns – Sale, Warragul and Leongatha – had already established equivalent, and in some case even more impressive, post primary schooling. The establishment of the higher primary school – on the grounds of the Yarram Primary School – was proof of civic worth and status. When Tate had first visited in August 1914, he was reported – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 12/8/14 – as stating that he believed that Yarram warranted the higher primary school and that the community could well afford it. He had observed the … substantial appearance of Yarram with its fine hotels and other buildings.

The overall success of the initiative was qualified in one critical way. At the speech night at the end of 1918 – reported in the local paper on 24/12/18 – there was an urgent appeal for a ‘hostel’ to be set up in Yarram to accommodate students from ‘outside parts’ over the school week – Monday to Friday. Such a facility had been established at Leongatha and it was recognised that an equivalent boarding facility was required in Yarram if students from other townships and settlements in the Shire were to be able to take advantage of the improved schooling. In the same speech, it was noted that while there were 42 students from Yarram attending the new higher primary school, there was only an individual student – or in a few cases 2 or 3 students – coming from Balook (3), Wonyip (2), West Alberton (3), Jack River (1), North Devon (1), Womerah (1), Tarraville (1), Lower Bulga (2) and Welshpool (2). Clearly, the benefits of higher primary schooling were largely restricted to those living in Yarram. Families with sufficient finances who were keen for their children to have a complete secondary education – generally with a view to pursuing a degree at Melbourne University – had traditionally sent their children to a boarding school (college) in one of the larger rural towns – e.g., Geelong (Geelong Grammar School), Ballarat (St. Patrick’s College) – or Melbourne. This pattern continued after the extension of primary schooling at Yarram.

The opening of the Catholic primary school – St. Mary’s – for the start of the 1918 school year was a very pressured business. The building had only just been completed and the accommodation for the Sisters of St Joseph – the teaching order to run the school – was only finalised in the week leading up to the opening. The frantic pace was captured in an editorial in the local paper – 1/2/18 – which also praised the determination of Bishop Phelan:

The Catholic community in this district has accomplished a great deal. They built and opened a large brick church – an ornament to the town – built a school, and have now purchased Mr. Brennan’s property for the comfortable housing of the teaching nuns. When Bishop Phelan gets to work things move apace.

Phelan had made it clear to the Catholic community that he expected a Catholic primary school to be established and that it was to serve not just Yarram but the surrounding district, with students, initially at least, boarding at the convent. But Phelan had also made it clear that the school had to come after the new church had been built and after suitable accommodation had been arranged for the nuns. The church, the convent and the school were all to stand as proof of the strength and social status of the local Catholic community in the district.

Interestingly, much was made of the new teaching order of nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph. From the late 19 C, a French order of nuns – Sisters of Our lady of Sion – at the invitation of Bishop Corbett, had been operating schools in Gippsland – at Sale, Bairnsdale and Warragul. But for the new school at Yarram, Bishop Phelan had been successful in securing ‘local’ nuns. The following appeared in the local paper on 6/2/18. The claim of Scottish ancestry was, presumably, for the benefit of the large Scottish demographic:

With regard to this particular order of teaching sisters, the branch now established at Yarram is purely Australian. The Mother Foundress of this Order, Mother Mary McKillop, is of Scotch descent, and was born in Brunswick St., Fitzroy. So that the sisters of the Oder which she established are for the most part Australians. They have houses, schools, orphanages from West Australia to New Zealand.

Both these significant developments in the provision of local education took place at the start of the fifth year of the War and, as been argued in previous posts, at a time when, in theory, all fundraising was focused on the War effort. The issue is whether either or both of these initiatives attracted any criticism.

In the case of the local state school there was certainly no criticism. The commitment to establish a higher primary top to the primary school at Yarram had been there well before the War. The community had always been strongly behind the proposal. The Victorian Government had placed the proposal on hold because of the War and the local community had, patriotically, accepted this decision. But now, at the start of 1918, the Government had found funds for the proposal to proceed, accepting that the local community also contributed. Further, the local committee appointed to secure the £400 of local contribution was heavily representative of local Imperial Loyalists. Three members of the small committee stood out: A J Rossiter, the editor of the local paper; Rev C J Walklate, the local Methodist clergyman; and A E Paige, the head teacher of the Yarram SS. These 3 high profile figures would have provided an effective ‘guarantee’ of the appropriateness of the fundraising. Additionally, many of the most generous contributors to the public subscription – names were published in the local paper – were also high profile Imperial Loyalists. The lists included people like B P Johnson (£5), T G McKenzie (£10) and Dr Rutter (£10). Importantly, the change from a Shire-imposed rate increase to a voluntary subscription must have also reduced the potential for conflict. Additionally, the change avoided conflict with the Catholic community who could have argued that they were being forced to contribute, through increased rates, to a school system that they would not use, or even – from the perspective of Catholic faith – could not use. The Catholic Church already argued, on the broader scale, that this was the case with State taxation to support state schools. It appears that subscriptions to raise the £400 came overwhelmingly from Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. The records, published in the local paper, are incomplete but it appears that Catholics were under-represented, notwithstanding a large contribution (£5) from Michael O’Callaghan, a Catholic grazier from Jack River.

Overall, there was very strong support for the higher primary schooling at Yarram SS and there was no evidence of any opposition to the fundraising associated with it. The situation in relation to the new Catholic primary school at Yarram was a more complex affair.

Ironically, there was an immediate and very significant positive associated with the opening of the Catholic primary school. The forty or so enrolments in the new school reduced the numbers at the state primary school and this meant that the new higher primary students could be accommodated in the existing facilities at the school. The need to build new classrooms was not immediately pressing.

However, such an immediate benefit hardly compensated for the major fault line which was revealed by the opening of the Catholic primary school.

On the surface at least, there did not appear to be any overt hostility directed at the fundraising associated with the new Catholic school. No one appears to have used the local paper to attack these particular fundraising efforts. Indeed, as noted, editorials at the time were complimentary of the Catholics’ efforts. However, there must have been un-reported opposition to the Catholics’ church and school building projects over the course of the War. Bishop Phelan himself made this point, explicitly, in a talk he gave on the visit of the Apostolic Delegate to Sale in April 1918. His address was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 26/4/18. Talking about all the difficulties he had faced in his ambitious building program post March 1915, Phelan noted:

But the greatest difficulty experienced was the wall of prejudice raised by narrow-minded people who endeavored to howl down every movement for raising funds except for Red Cross or Imperial purposes. But the stirling Catholics of Gippsland, like their fighting brothers at the front, did their duty towards all the demands of the Empire, and broke through every barrier that prejudice and bigotry would raise between them and their own field of labour.

He specifically cited the school at Yarram in the same speech; and he used the same emotion-charged language:

Already two convents and two schools, Leongatha and Yarram, have been added to our brave army fighting the battle of Catholic education.

But if fundraising for the Catholic primary school was not a major public concern at the time, there was still considerable controversy associated with its opening.

The new school – with the exception of a brief interlude for an earlier version of St Mary’s primary school, Yarram (1885-1890) – marked the first time that the Catholic community of the Shire of Alberton had withdrawn their children from the local state school(s). Effectively, all the young, local Catholic men who enlisted from 1914 had been educated at the local state school(s). Even though their family background, for the most part, was Irish-Australian, they had been schooled, via the state system, in absolute loyalty to Britain and the Empire. Now, in the fifth year of the War, and with 2 failed referenda on conscription – with much of the ‘blame’ for the failure sheeted home to Catholics – the local Catholics were withdrawing from the state school.

The significance of the opening of the school at that point – the start of 1918 – also needs to be seen in the context of the continuing conflict between Catholic and Protestant over the issue of scripture lessons in state schools. The conflict over scripture ‘readings’ or ‘lessons’ was a constant and while it might seem by our standards, 100 years on, as minor and even trivial, it went to the core of the Protestant – Catholic divide. It was a passionate debate, for while the Protestants argued that any form of state aid to support the independent Catholic sector would be in complete breach of the principles of the ’Free’, ‘Compulsory’ and ‘Secular’ education acts of the 1870s – and only further entrench the Catholic tendency to separation and exclusivity – the Catholic Church argued that any ‘non-dogmatic’ scripture lessons, taught by ‘non-sectarian’ mainstream teachers was nothing but a brazen attempt to incorporate Protestantism in the state school systems and would therefore also be in breach of the same principles. The politics of the day meant that neither side could prevail; but each could antagonise and frustrate the other.

The conflict over scripture lessons was hardly new. For example, for an insight on the complexity and centrality of the issue, consider this account of the 1913 debate – Catholic Educational Claims – held in Melbourne where the proposition was – That the Roman Catholic claims for financial aid from the State treasury toward their denominational schools are not just, and would be destructive of our State system. Speaking for the proposition was Rev J Nicholson, spokesperson for the Scripture Campaign Council, the body representing the Protestant Churches pushing for scripture lessons in state schools. Speaking for the negative was Thomas C Brennan of the recently formed Australian Catholic Federation. The debate was in front of an audience of approximately 1,000 people and while the proceedings were civil it certainly exposed the stark differences between Catholic and Protestant at the time.

The division over the push for scripture lessons in state schools – there were attempts to have referenda on the issue put to the Victorian people – was certainly evident in the Shire of Alberton. In fact, the issue was raised, very publicly, in the lead-up to the opening of the Catholic primary school. In mid September 1917, Bishop Phelan gave a sermon in Yarram. It was reported, in detail, in the local paper on 12/9/17. In brief, Phelan instructed his congregation that in the upcoming state elections they could not vote for any candidate who supported the call for a referendum on the introduction of the scripture lessons in state schools. He saw this referendum as an attempt by the Protestant majority to … crush the Catholic minority.

Phelan must have provided a copy of his sermon to the editor of the local paper because the reporting of the sermon is so detailed. There is an entire section on the Virgin Mary. Citing Luke’s Gospel, Phelan went into great detail outlining the centrality of Mary to Catholic faith, teaching and veneration. The intention behind this specific focus on Mary was to highlight the chasm, between Catholic and Protestant, on the issue of ‘Bible reading’. Phelan pointed out that, irrespective of what the Bible said, Catholic teaching on the role of Mary, and devotion to her, were both anathema to Protestants. He reminded his congregation that up to the very recent past, British monarchs had had to … declare before receiving the crown that “the adoration of the Virgin Mary and the sacrifice of the Mass, as they were used in the Church of Rome are superstitious and idolatrous” . Prior to the Accession Declaration Act of 1910 – in time for the coronation of George V – the wording of the new monarch’s ’declaration’ had been, in part:

… I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever: and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.

The declaration also denied the authority of the Pope.

In the face of such diametrically opposed positions – based in large part on Bible reading – Phelan argued that the idea of a ‘non-sectarian’ lesson of Bible reading – conducted by mainstream teachers in state schools – was a myth. For him, the idea of a ’non-dogmatic’ Christian faith was a nonsense. For him, there could never be, as it were, a ‘generic’ Christianity. For the Catholic, the Bible was to be read and interpreted through a person’s faith, which itself had been formed by the teaching of the Church. But from the time of the Reformation, Protestantism had had a very different take on the relationship between the Bible and the individual. The Catholic Church saw the bible lessons in state schools, within the promise of ‘non-dogmatic’ and ‘non-sectarian’ scripture readings, as a thinly disguised attempt to proselytise in the name of Protestantism. It would never accept it.

It would be a mistake to see this particular dispute merely in terms of differences in religious dogma between Catholic and Protestant. Other references in Phelan’s sermon that day show how the tension of the difficult history between England and Ireland was ever present. It coloured everything. Speaking of the efforts of the Irish in England from mid 19C to fight for their faith and the provision of Catholic schooling, Phelan made this extended reference:

The men and women who fought for Christian education in the land of the Saxon were the sons and daughters of Ireland driven from the home of their fathers in the middle of last century by a trinity of evils, the awful visitation of Providence, the famine of ’47, the worst landlord system that ever cursed a nation, and a Government whose policy at that crisis can only be described as diabolical. When Lord John Russell was asked for ships to bring food across the Irish Channel to a starving nation he peremptorily refused, declaring that “such a use of Her Majesty’s navy would interfere with the legitimate freights of the shipping industry of Great Britain.” And the London “Times” spoke enthusiastically of the good time coming when “a Catholic would be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a red Indian on the banks of the Manhattan.”

The not very subtle sub-text was that the persecution of Irish Catholics at the hands of English Protestants was both historical and ongoing.

Not surprisingly, Phelan’s sermon prompted a vigorous response. The first letter appeared one week later (19/9/17). It was from Joseph Nicholson, Superintendent of the Scripture Campaign, the body driving the push for a referendum on the issue of bible reading in state schools. Nicholson was arguably the most high profile advocate for the cause. He had appeared in the 1913 public debate referred to above. Nicholson argued that it was possible to have (scriptural) lessons of ‘absolutely unsectarian character’. He emphasised what he saw as the Catholic Church’s reluctance to have its followers read the Bible:

It is no doubt difficult for a non-Romanist to understand the fears of the Roman Catholic clergy concerning the effect of Bible reading by their people.

Further, he insisted, even if the Catholic clergy were that terrified about their members reading the Bible – by themselves – the lessons in the state school were not to be compulsory:

While we do not share the fears of the Roman Catholic clergy concerning the disasters that are likely to follow from Scripture reading, yet, in our scrupulous desire to protect Roman Catholic children from what they disapprove, we insist on their absolute freedom from Scripture lessons, and make provision for secular studies instead.

This letter was followed by one from Father Stirling which was published on 21/9/17. Stirling made claims about the misrepresentation of the Catholic position but overall his letter read more like an attempt to defuse the situation. This letter was responded to, again by Rev Nichoslosn, who dismissed Fr Sterling’s ‘feeble comments’. The letter was published on 26/9/17. There were more claims of misrepresentation amid pointed claims that … this infallible church is not uniform in its teachings. Nicholson argued that the arrangements for ‘non-sectarian’ bible reading lessons in Victorian state schools for which the Scripture Campaign was advocating, were in place in other education jurisdictions, both in Australia (NSW) and overseas. Nicholson chose to represent the dispute in terms of the rights and responsibilities of the 2 parties, one the minority and the other the majority. As he saw it, the Catholic minority was at fault:

The Roman Catholic opposition to “unsectarian” Scripture lessons is … intensely selfish in seeking to interfere with the Protestant majority that is tenderly considerate of the Romanist minority. We give them safeguarded liberty, but refuse Romanist domination of Protestant liberties.

This particular iteration of the struggle over the teaching of ‘non-sectarian’ or ‘unsectarian’ or ‘non-dogmatic’ scripture lessons disappeared from the local paper by the start of October 1918. However, as we will see, the issue itself certainly did not disappear. Throughout 1918, Catholics continued to block this Protestant proposal. For their part, the Protestants maintained their absolute rejection of any ‘state-aid’ for Catholic schools.

Leaving aside the symbolism of the local Catholic community establishing its own primary school and withdrawing its children from the local state school, at the very time Imperial Loyalists were calling for a single, united and focused War effort – and also at the very time that the community as a whole was trying to extend the range of post-primary state schooling throughout the district – it is clear that Bishop Phelan’s unrelenting focus on Catholic education during WW1 served to heighten division within the broader community. Effectively, he forced the Catholic community in Gippsland as a whole, and not just in the Shire of Alberton, to assert their separate identity and status through education. The problem was that this identity was overlaid with so many religious, cultural, social and political associations that the loyalty of this minority, at that particular time of National crisis, would inevitably be called into question by the Protestant majority. As much as locals wanted to downplay or ignore the division, it was always there. Equally, while their opposition to conscription is routinely presented as the distinctive behaviour of the Catholic minority in WW1, it is clear that considerably more than this single issue was at play. Indeed, as an immediate example of just how complex the issues were, Thomas Brennan – referred to above as the key Catholic spokesperson in the 1913 education debate and also the first president of the Australian Catholic Federation – supported conscription and was an outspoken critic of Mannix on the issue. Bishop Phelan was said to be neutral on the same issue. In short, the Catholic question went well beyond the issue of conscription.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Synan, T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria