Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days, Volume 11, 1995-2000

'Sacred and bright with flowers': the Bassendean War Memorial as a symbol of community values

Amanda Curtin

Curtin, Amanda 1999, 'Sacred and bright with flowers': the Bassendean War Memorial as a symbol of community values', Early Days, vol. 11, part 5: 629-637.

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War memorials are complex symbols of remembrance of the past and hope for the future, as perceived by the people who erected them and in the context of their times. The Bassendean War Memorial is typical of the 1,455 largely community-funded memorials erected around Australia after the Great War, 1 but its symbolic value is no less complex for that. It was planned during a period encompassing the final years of the war and the early years of postwar reconstruction - a time of great uncertainty characterised by general social malaise and lack of consensus 2 - and the choices made concerning its form, features and location reflect some contemporary social issues. It is also a multi-layered memorial, having been added to over the years - each addition representing the ideological concerns of the different times. These concerns encompassed imperialism, patriotism, gender issues and even spirituality, as notions of the sacredness of the memorial changed.

Bassendean is situated on the Swan River, near Success Hill, on the opposite side of the river from Guildford, some 12 kilometres east of Perth. In 1920, when the war memorial was erected. West Guildford (as Bassendean was called until 1922) was a small, semi-rural community of fewer than 3,000 people. 3 It was home to many senior civil servants and prosperous businessmen and their families, but since 1905, when the government railway workshops were relocated from Fremantle to nearby Midland Junction, it had been attracting an increasing number of railway workers and the community had become a Labor stronghold. 4 In spite of the suburb’s working-class reputation, however, J. Carter claims that West Guildford was a conservative, traditionalist community 5 - although it had its share of radicals, too: three of the six founding members of the Communist Party in Western Australia gave West Guildford as their address in 1920. 6 Also among its residents were Chinese market gardeners, and an Aboriginal population that was increasingly being driven, through residential development, to the margins of the district, where tracts of native bushland remained.

At this time, the town was administered by a local road board and boasted such hallmarks of civilisation and municipal progress as electric street lighting, a community hall, schools, churches, a ratepayers’ association, an orchestral society, a volunteer fire brigade, a masonic lodge and a mothers’ union. Commercial enterprises such as Everingham’s Cooperative Stores, Armstrong’s Printery and

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the grand retail emporium of Walter Padbury (a building that still exists today) were counterbalanced by heavy industry: the Cuming Smith chemical fertiliser works, and Richard Purser’s and the Australian Electric (later Hadfields) steel works. Scattered throughout the town were dairies, commercial market gardens and poultry farms. Unemployment in this postwar period was high, but the incidence of serious crime must have been comparatively low, since it was not until 1927 that the town had its first resident police officer. 7 However, there were complaints' of ‘rowdyism’ by ‘irresponsible youths’ disrupting the fortnightly road board meetings. 8

In 1920, a pound of bacon cost 1s.11d. at Padbury’s Stores, while sugar was 6d. and freshly ground coffee 2s.3d. per pound. ‘Ladies longcloth nightdresses, trimmed with frills’ were 6s.11d. each, and a pair of ‘gents black cotton half hose’ could be bought for 1s.6d. A two-roomed jarrah bungalow in West Guildford was worth £175, while a brick home with four rooms, on a three-quarter-acre block, and including stables, was advertised at £640. During the year, the road board dealt with complaints of wandering cows, calves, pigs and bantams; considered suggestions by the Agricultural Department that it form a vermin board to combat the newly emerging rabbit problem; and warned residents suffering from diphtheria to remain in isolation until throat swabbing proved them to be non-infectious. For entertainment, adults could patronise ‘picture attractions’ such as The Other Dear Charmer, The Follies Girl and The Romance of Arabella, while younger residents could, for ninepence, go skating at Forest Hall all Saturday afternoon. 9 But the shadow of the war could be seen in the prominence given in the newspapers to activities of returned soldiers organisations and the Red Cross, and occasional headlines such as ‘Treatment of War Strain’ 10 hinted at social problems not often talked about at a time when ‘servicemen who succumbed to mental illness were accused of weakness’. 11

In these changing social circumstances, the Bassendean War Memorial was erected at a cost of £245.12 As Richards notes, postwar communities wishing to remember their indebtedness to those who had served in the war had to decide whether to choose a traditional monument with symbolic meaning, or a utilitarian memorial. 13 The West Guildford community considered practical options such as a memorial park or a town clock but, like many suburbs and small towns, ruled these out because they were financially out of reach. 14 The local road board convened an Honour Roll Committee in 191715 and set about raising funds by the methods popular in those times: picture nights, jumble fairs, socials, dances, regattas, euchre parties, gala days and, finally, a door-to-door collection. 16 The form of monument chosen was the popular and inexpensive obelisk - a symbol of regeneration 17 with ancient classical origins.18The obelisk, as a ‘traditional cemetery icon’, 19 was also particularly suited to a monument that the community saw symbolically as a cenotaph: ‘this memorial represents the graves of our loved ones’. 20 A point conspicuously noted in contemporary newspaper accounts 21 and in the governor’s dedication speech 22 was that the memorial was designed and constructed by two

I returned servicemen, Messrs Wales and Gillies. This was significant at a time when unemployment was high, and the preferential employment of returned servicemen was supported by local communities and their authorities. 23 The five-metre-high monument was constructed of Mahogany Creek granite 24 with a dressed granite plinth and rock face base; 25 according to Richards, ‘the rough finish on stone obelisks was seen to represent the rugged character of the Australian soldier’. 26

Richards claims that the simple alphabetical listing of names on honour rolls, with no differentiation in rank or social status, is the most potent symbolism of the Great War memorials, representing ‘equality and individual worth’. 27 The Bassendean memorial honours 160 men in this way, of whom twenty-eight paid the ‘supreme sacrifice’. The original inscription plate reads, in imperialistic tones:

Erected by the Citizens of West Guilford to commemorate
the Great War of 1914-1919.
In honour of those who fought and fell in defence of the Empire.

Twenty-eight names follow, of which four are out of alphabetical order, indicating that they were added at a later date. Moreover, the 132 names on the other three polished sides of the plinth, recording the volunteers from the district who survived the war, were also not inscribed at the time of dedication. The inclusion of all enlisted men, the survivors as well as those who died, was a feature peculiar to Great War memorials. Inglis and Phillips believe that it was a way of silently, but permanently, rebuking the ‘shirkers’ of a district who had not volunteered. 28 As the majority in West Guildford had supported the anti-conscription platform of mainstream Labor in the conscription crisis of 1916-17, 29 it would be tempting to

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read the absence, at the dedication of the memorial, of the names of all those who I served, as an ideological statement. However, the explanation is far more mundane: the Honour Roll Committee could not afford the additional £50 it would have cost to inscribe the full complement of names. It must be noted, too, that in spite of the community’s majority anti-conscriptionist stance — which attracted accusations of cowardice and pacifism from its strongly pro-conscriptionist neighbour Midland Junction - it was staunchly patriotic and had responded enthusiastically to recruitment rallies. 30 As the West Guildford Road Board claimed, ‘Nearly every house in the district was represented at the front’. 31 Presumably, then, there would have been few ‘shirkers’ to rebuke.

However, the decision not to include the names of all volunteers caused community dissension at the time. At a special ratepayers meeting held to discuss the issue, many insisted that the memorial was supposed to honour all those who I had made personal sacrifices for their country, not just those who had died. Some even offered to make a small donation towards the additional cost. A Mr Pickering reminded the meeting that although a monument had been decided upon, the original intention of the Honour Roll Committee had been to inscribe all enlisted men’s 11 names on a jarrah board. 32 But the constriction of limited financial resources held 'sway and the meeting endorsed the committee’s decision, although it was always N intended that the names would be added later, when finances permitted. 33

Over time, simple plaques have been added to the memorial by the local Returned Services League to commemorate ‘all those who served’ in the World War and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. It is interesting to compare the language and form of these later plaques with the original: gone is the singling-out of individuals; gone, too, the imperialist sentiments and, with the greater involvement of women in succeeding wars, the exclusively male focus. It is not known whether any of the eighty-five Western Australian women who served overseas with the Australian Army Nursing Service in the Great War 34 were from West Guildford, but in any case the memorial was always referred to in contemporary newspaper accounts as a ‘soldiers monument’. In 1993, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Remembrance Day, a plaque was dedicated to ‘the Unknown Australian Soldier’ an interesting reinforcement of what Inglis and Phillips refer to as the Australian practice of ‘honouring the digger in general’, 35 and perhaps, for the 1990s, a peculiarly masculinist sentiment. In contrast, however, recent Anzac Day ceremonial speeches at Bassendean have been conspicuously inclusive in terms of gender and contribution, acknowledging the men and women who served overseas in all wars, I those who assisted on the homefront, as well as those who contributed to overseas I peacekeeping forces in recent times. 36

In 1920, dissension over the form of the inscription was minor compared to the arguments over where the memorial should be erected. It was originally placed on a high and prominent block adjacent to the town hall, on the comer of Wilson Sheet and Old Perth Road. One concern over the choice of this site was the fear

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that it might be built out - ‘out of sight and forgotten’ - although contemporary accounts confidently described the location as ‘so situated that it can never be ' obscured by any building that may be erected in times to come’. 37 Another concern was that it ‘might have to be removed later’. 38 Ironically, this did happen, as was the fate of many Great War memorials. 39 But the major concern was the placement of the memorial in the heart of the town. Those opposed to the site stressed the ‘sacredness’ of the memorial, with Councillor Wicks pleading that it should be ‘away from buildings altogether, where people could go to have a quiet moment’ 40 The Recreation Ground and Success Hill were suggested alternatives, although it is difficult to imagine how the former might be conducive to ‘a quiet moment’.

The most vociferous protests came from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The union drew up a petition, signed by Edith E. Wilson, Jane Bailey and twenty-five others, asking that the memorial be sited away from ‘buildings where dances, picture shows, and other entertainments are held’ 41 - a reference to the proximity of the proposed site to the town hall. These concerns should be placed in the context of the times. The temperance movement was particularly strong in the postwar period. As Oliver points out, the impact of the war on the working class had been particularly devastating 42 - and West Guildford was by then a working-class suburb. Tragedy and personal hardship woe endured by many, for there had been ‘unprecedented loss of human life’ in the Great War. 43 One hundred and sixty men from the district enlisted of whom twenty-eight (seventeen percent) were lost. The community itself also suffered. The initial mobilisation in 1914 depleted, for example, the ranks of both the road board and the volunteer fire brigade, and municipal progress and stability on the homefront were disrupted for the duration of the war. 44 Then followed the unemployment, industrial unrest and general social dislocation of the postwar period. As Carter notes, it is perhaps not surprising that when people were faced with ‘what appeared to be the breakdown of traditional values’, some sought to ‘pin the blame... on the “demon drink.” ’45

A letter to the editor of the Swan Express invoked a potent combination of matemalism and patriotism to put forward the argument of the temperance women:

We want it where we can beautify the surroundings, and on each anniversary of our men’s sacrifice place a token of our love and remembrance. Could any mother or wife do that on the present site? 46

Although this argument failed, and the memorial was constructed on the site selected by the road board, Mrs Wilson and Mrs Bailey, at least, did succeed in registering a symbolic protest that remained for sixty-seven years. In a letter to the editor of the Swan Express in 1920, ‘Ratepayer’ wondered whether it was true that ‘a number of the bereaved ones, and returned soldiers, are going to object to having their names on the memorial if it is erected on the proposed site’. 47 It appears that the rumour was indeed true, for in 1987, the Bassendean Town Council received requests for the inscription on the memorial of names that had been omitted at the

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time of dedication in 1920. 48 According to a West Australian article, the omissions had been made at the insistence of the men’s relatives who were members of the temperance union. 49 The inscriptions that were added to the memorial in 1987 honoured B. H. Bailey, who had died instantaneously from a bullet wound to the head within minutes of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915, 50 and W. J. Wilson, an ambulance driver and West Guildford Road Board member who was killed six weeks before Armistice Day. 51

At the dedication of the memorial in October 1920, at a ceremony led by Governor Sir Francis Newdegate, and attended by distinguished guests ‘and a large company of adults and children’, the Chaplain-General focused on the memorial as a symbol of the community’s aspirations for the future. It was, he said, ‘a spire pointing upwards to give hope to those who had lost dear ones, and to be an incentive to the youth of Australia to look upward’. He ‘hoped the children would be taught to keep die place sacred, and bright with flowers, and perhaps once a year wreaths would be placed there publicly’. 52

It has not always been held ‘sacred’ by all sections of the community. As early as 1923 - perhaps vindicating the dire predictions of the temperance women - there were reports of ‘youths and girls frequenting the memorial after sundown’, resulting in the gates having to be locked each night, 53 while a month later ‘a large number of... very undesirable half-baked youths’ were responsible for what was described as ‘the sordid desecration of our Memorial Reserve’. The reporter expressed the opinion that this behaviour, which included ‘disporting themselves on the grass’ and ‘vile language and jests’, should have earned the miscreants ‘six months had they received their deserts [sic]. 54 In recent years, the Bassendean Town Council has had to have the memorial cleaned and made graffiti-proof. 55 In counterpoint, however, for many years (until the Anzac Day service was moved from dawn to 11.00 a.m.) local boy scouts kept an overnight ‘sacred vigil’ at die memorial on the night before Anzac Day ,56 and the memorial is still the focus of the community’s well-attended Anzac Day service and wreath-layingceremony. The site is not always ‘bright with flowers’, but a chance visit on 14 April 1998 showed four bouquets at the foot of the memorial, placed there by a local primary school.

The resiting of the memorial in 1972, to make way for the municipal library which was named the Bassendean Memorial Library in acknowledgment of the (former use of the site), is perhaps the most poignant comment on the changing perceptions of what a community considers ‘sacred’. The move was made after protracted debate in council, 57 with Councillors Robinson and Ravenscroft dissenting largely on aesthetic grounds, and despite objections from the RSL,5* which felt that the memorial would be obscured from public view in its new location. It now stands in the garden in front of the Bassendean Town Council administration offices, 200 metres east of the original site, in a sunken, paved square with clumps of rosemary (symbolic of remembrance) on three corners.

However, its continuing significance to the local community is reflected in the fact that the Bassendean Centenary Committee has established a Memorial Research Unit, which is currently researching the war service and biographical details of the 160 men whose names are inscribed on the memorial, as part of the Bassendean Centenary 2001 program. The unit’s research covers embarkation rolls, Australian War Memorial end-of-war lists, army pay records and Battye Library archives, as well as personal information and oral histories volunteered by descendants. Researcher Paul Bridges, who proposed the project to the Centenary Committee, hopes that ‘fleshing out’ the names inscribed in stone, and making this information accessible to the public by transferring it to a database at the Bassendean Memorial Library, will ensure that ‘their names liveth forevermore’. 59 In 2001, another small plaque will be added to the monument, explaining its history and referring interested people to the library database. Thus in Bassendean, as elsewhere, traditional forms of remembrance are being upheld, but are also being reinvented for the twenty-first century in a way that could never have been envisaged by a community in mourning for its lost heroes in 1920. Who is to say whether stone or microchip will prove the more lasting memorial? 60

War memorials invite us to remember and honour the past - but they represent a way of doing so that was chosen by those in power at the time. This essay has highlighted some conflicts over how the citizens of West Guildford/Bassendean wanted to commemorate the Great War, who they wanted to commemorate, and where they wanted to commemorate them. The protests of Mr Pickering, Mrs Wilson and Mrs Bailey, Councillors Wicks, Robinson and Ravenscroft, the RSL, and many others unnamed in the sources, add to the complexity of the Bassendean War Memorial as a symbol of remembrance and regeneration.

Endnotes

1. K. S. Inglis & J. Phillips, ‘War memorials in Australia and New Zealand: A comparative study’, in J. Rickard & P. Spearritt, (eds), Packaging the Past? Public Histories (Melbourne, 1991), p. 180.

2. B. Oliver, War and Peace in Western Australia: The Social and Political Impact of the Great War 1914-1926 (Nedlands, 1995), p. 21; J. Carter, Bassendean: A Social History 1829-1979 (Bassendean, 1986), p. 113.

3. The census of 4 April 1921 recorded a total population in West Guildford of 1,329 males and 1,400 females. Western Australian Statistical Register, 1920-21.

4. Carter, op.cit., p. 107.

5. ibid., p. 158.

6. ibid.

7. ibid., p. 191.

8. Swan Express, 16 July 1920,

9. ibid., 16 April, 30 April, 5 May, 21 May, 18 June, 25 June 1920.

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10. ibid., 16 July 1920. : rwii ...(uil -, m 1

11. Oliver, op.cit., p. 152.

12. Swan Express, 25 June 1920.

13. O. Richards, War Memorials in Western Australia (Como, 1996), p. 4

14. Swan Express, 21 May 1920.

15. ibid., 22 June 1917. ^

16. ibid., 10, 17 May, 11 October 1918, 2, 16, 30 April, 30 July, 24 Sept 1920.

17. M. Hedger, Public Sculpture in Australia (Roseville East, 1995), p. 27.

18. Richards, op.cit., p. 4.

19. Inglis & Phillips, op.cit., p. 186.

20. Swan Express, 2 July 1920.

21. See, for example. Swan Express, 30 July 1920.

22. Swan Express, 17 October 1920.

23. e.g. ibid., 6 December 1918.

24. ibid., 30 July 1920.

25. Richards, op.cit., p. 21.

26. ibid., p. 12.

27. O. Richards, ‘The empty tomb: Memorials to World War II in Western Australia’, in J. Gregory, ed., On the Homefront: Western Australia and World War II (Nedlands, 1996), p. 276.

28. Inglis & Phillips, op.cit., p. 186.

29. Carter, op.cit., p. 111.

30. ibid., p. 112.

31. Swan Express, 16 April 1920.

32. ibid., 25 June 1920.

33. ibid., 25 June 1920, 17 October 1920. Despite discussions with the RSLand long-time local residents (Bernie Arrah, secretary, Eastern Suburbs Regional RSL Branch, 15 April 1998; John Cox, 16 April 1998; Jeff Jeffrey, 21 April 1998; Alec MacDonald, 21 April 1998), I have been unable to determine when these names were inscribed. They were certainly there in 1947, when Thomas recorded that the memorial bore 154 names. See A. Thomas, A History of Bassendean (Bassendean, 1947), p. 46.

34. Oliver, op.cit., p. 113.

35. Inglis & Phillips, op.cit., p. 186.

36. John Cox, addresses on behalf of the Eastern Suburbs Regional RSL Branch, Anzac Day services at Bassendean, 25 April 1998, 25 April 2000.

37. Swan Express, 25 June, 30 July 1920.

38. ibid., 18,25 June 1920.

39. Richards, ‘The empty tomb’, p. 280.

40. Swan Express, 18 June 1920.

41. ibid., 2 July 1920.

42. Oliver, op.cit., p. 21.

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43. ibid., p. 15.

44. Carter, op.cit., pp. 105,110.

45. ibid., p. 113.

46. Swan Express, 25 June 1920.

47. ibid., 9 July 1920.

48. Bassendean Town Council Minutes, 25 May, 26 October 1987, held in the Bassendean Local History Collection, Bassendean Memorial Library.

49. West Australian, 28 October 1987.

50. Introductory Remarks by Gregory Peterson, Deputy Mayor of Bassendean, Anzac Day service, Bassendean, 25 April 2000.

51. Carter, op.cit.,p. 110.

52. Swan Express, 17 October 1920.

53. Bassendean Magnet, 28 November 1923.

54. ibid., 9 January 1924.

55. Bernie Arrah, pers. comm.

56. Joan Hinchcliffe, Bassendean Historical Society, personal communication, 21 April 1998.

57. Swan Express, 22 July 1971,21 October 1971.

58. ibid., 2 December 1971.

59. Paul Bridges, personal communication, 13 April 2000.


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