Very Reverend Stephen Williams, Dean of Newcastle giving speech at the launch ceremony
On a Friday morning, 22 April 2016, a nationally significant cultural initiative, The Birdwood Flag Restoration Project, was launched at Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle.
Named in honour of General William Riddell Birdwood, the commander of the Australian forces on the western front, the Birdwood Flag Restoration Project aims to piece back together, and restore this highly significant Australian flag that served as the Australian ensign in World War 1. The Birdwood flag is of high national historic significance as it was the first recorded, and officially sanctioned presentation of an Australian flag in the field of war, created by a local community. Moreover, the Birdwood Flag is of outstanding social and historical significance for people of Newcastle since the funds raised for the flag’s creation and manufacture came from a public appeal organised by Miss Dora Sparke and the Newcastle Field Force Fund.
The story of the Birdwood Flag dates back a century ago, when a group of women in the Hunter, led by Dora Sparke, gathered the resources to send an Australian flag to fly over the ANZAC troops in Europe. These women took it upon themselves to make the lives of Australian troops a little better. For instance, they didn’t believe the standard issue socks that were provided to troops were of sufficient quality, so they set about knitting their own, that would be of superior quality and comfort. They also decided that it wasn’t good enough that our troops didn’t have a real Australian Flag to fight under, and so they set about manufacturing one, that ensured it was officially sanctioned. The work of the Newcastle community was presented at the General’s headquarters on a battlefield in Belgium, in September 1917, and served as the emblem of Australian soldiers during the war. It was to be passionately guarded until the time of victory.
General Birdwood (Image Courtesy of Australian War Memorial )
It was during his national tour of Australia in 1920, that General Birdwood took the opportunity to offically hand back the Flag to Miss Dora Sparke, at a civic reception held on the 28 April 1920, and with it The Birdwood Flag returned to its cultural home, the city of Newcastle. It was perceived as a “memento of a glorious cause, and we would do all in our power to see that it was placed where no other enemy but Time could destroy it”. Beyond the intentions in its production, the flag is also an interesting symbol of the formation of Australian nationhood. Its use signifies the distinct identity of the Australian soldiers as a significant collective. What makes the flag even more significant is that such a declaration of national identity occurs about a decade after the Federation in 1901 and many years before recognition of the Australian national flag in 1954 under the “Flags Act 1953“.
Fragment from the Birdwood flag, Image Courtesy ABC Newcastle
Following the Birdwood Flag’s rediscovery in 2013 lying in pieces within a shoebox inside a safe in the Cathedral, a meeting was held between the University of Newcastle’s Vice Chancellor, Caroline McMillen and the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, The Very Reverend Stephen Williams, to see what could be done to restore what was probably the most important cultural relic of the Great War in Australia, in anticipation of the Centenary of ANZAC commemorations. Inspired by the local community’s spirit, an action plan was formulated for the restoration of the rediscovered fragments of the Birdwood flag.
The Birdwood Heritage Committee (Birdwood Flag Committee) was formed under the leadership of Dr Patricia Gillard, and initial funding secured through the National Library’s Community Heritage Grants to complete the significance assessment phase. In 2015, a funding application to the Copland Foundation was also successful. As a result of the committee’s efforts the restoration phase of the Birdwood Flag has offically begun since April 22, 2016.
From left: Major Roland Millbank, Birdwood Committee; Dr.Rosemary Barnard, Birdwood Comittee; Dr. Amir Mogadam, Conservator, UON; Mr. Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, UON; Dr. Patricia Gillard, Birdwood Committee; Mr.Julian Bickersteth, Managing Director, ICS.
In this project, the Copland Foundation, Melbourne, International Conservation Services, Sydney, University of Newcastle (Australia) and Anglican Diocese of Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral, are collaborating to put the pieces of the flag back together again and tell the story of the community who enabled an official Red Australian Ensign to represent their troops during World War 1. As part of the ceremony a time lapse movie was screened showing the beginnings of conservation work being carried out by International Conservation Services in Sydney. It was quite an emotional moment to see the original stars of the Southern Cross begin to re-emerge within the fragments of the original flag.
Over many years our communities have become fraught with divisions and fragmentation, with people generally striving to seek their points of difference, rather than what they hold in common. It is hoped that this project is a small step towards bringing Australian communities closer together, as, in reconstructing this fragmented symbol of a local community’s care for its troops, so too it is hoped that the nation will rediscover its fragmented heart, and understand the forces that have shaped Australian national identity and the makeup of its culture and character.
Dr Amir Mogadam, Conservator and Mr Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist.