Local Treasures: The Birdwood Flag

The Birdwood Flag in its original condition. [Courtesy of The University of Newcastle's Anglican Diocese Archives in Cultural Collections A6137(iv)]

The Birdwood Flag in its original condition. [Courtesy of The University of Newcastle’s Anglican Diocese Archives in Cultural Collections A6137(iv)]

Day Shift – 20/05/2014 – 02:10 PM
Presenter: Carol Duncan
Interviewees: Bronwyn Orrock and Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, University of Newcastle (Australia)

Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist of the University of Newcastle introduces Bronwyn Orrock, University scholar in Fine Arts who, from 2009-2011, undertook an important research project into the archives documenting the provenance of every object, relic and example of art and artisanship held in Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle.

Until 2014, one item eluded her, The Birdwood Flag, Australia’s first National Flag, and arguably the most important national cultural relic of the First World War, whose remains lay in a cardboard box in a safe. This is the story of the flag, its creators, and its rediscovery.

Broadcast Notes:

Introduction: Re-discovering the Birdwood Flag

During 2010 I completed an Honours Thesis for my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Newcastle, researching the history of the objects in Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle. Many of the archives originally in an office in the damp south east corner of the Cathedral had been given by Dean Robert Beale (later Bishop) to the University for their embryo Local History collection in about 1976. I was given permission by the Cathedral Council to research those archives.

A chance finding of a little booklet referring to the Birdwood Flag started the process. After the goosebumps had settled down, realising that I was seeing important military history, I photographed the pages and put it in my folder of research material. Weeks later I came across some black and white images of an Australian flag but my non-military brain simply did not “connect the dots” (after all I was researching Fine Arts). Again I took some photo images for my research folder just in case there was any significance.

At first I believed that the booklet referred to The Gallipoli Flag in the Cathedral which had been painstakingly restored by public subscription and is kept in a glass case on the southern side of the Crossing. Several months later I was in the Cathedral photographing objects for my work and took a close look at the flag on display. I wondered what had become of the silver badges that were referred to in the booklet. Sometime later I mentioned to the former Dean Emeritus Graeme Lawrence, the material I had found about the flag and asked about the whereabouts of the badges. My confusion gave way to elation when he told me the Birdwood Flag was the one that hung over the Fallen Soldier in the St Michael Chapel until the early 1980’s and was the flag of the Commonwealth of Australia – not the Gallipoli flag which was a Union Jack.

He went on to explain that it was his task as Dean, when the flag fell (as is military custom) to “quietly and reverently” dispose of the flag (destroy). Although he did not know the history of the flag in any detail, he felt sure that the flag would one day be of great importance, simply because he knew it was an Australian flag from WWI, so he had made a decision to disobey tradition and secrete the pieces of the flag and the badges in a cardboard box in the bottom of the strongroom. That flag was replaced by a new smaller version in the 1980’s presented by the Returned Services League.

I went home and re-examined those old photographs for hours – enlarging them on Photoshop to see if I could read the badges or see the name of the flag-maker. I could suddenly see that it was hand-made and was a beautiful silk-like material, but the quality of my images and my Photoshop skills were not good enough to read it clearly.

I approached then Dean James Rigney, in great anticipation of the discovery and he told me that the strongroom contained items which I could not access. Disappointed, I kept the knowledge in my heart, hoping against hope the box had not been destroyed or thrown out in a clean-up undertaken after the retirement of Dean Lawrence. He later told me he did not believe the box was there any longer. I later told Gionni Di Gravio Head of the University Archives – I was bitterly disappointed that the flag seemed destined to be included in a section in my work cataloguing “Lost stolen or destroyed Cathedral treasures”. His advice was to hold-fast and wait, that one day there would be an opportunity to find out if the flag was really there. Three years later Dean Stephen Williams was appointed and I had a discussion with him and told him about the flag. He looked for the flag and the rest as they say, is history.

When I received the call to say the flag had been found, I cried with happiness and a wave of chills and shudders of emotion swept over me. Several years ago my husband and I visited the Somme, France for Anzac Day, as my husband’s Grandfather had died there only weeks after being relocated from Gallipoli. I shook with emotion when I realised that this Australian flag was probably the one saluted by our family member and the many other Aussie Diggers who went into those terrible killing fields and who never returned home to their wives, children and parents.

Just as in Australia, there was no grave to mourn in France, just a simple name chiseled on a limestone wall among thousands of others – all that remained to signify the existence of an” ordinary bloke” a courageous volunteer Aussie soldier at Villers Bretonneux. You see, there was no body to find and bury, no keepsakes or identity tags found to provide closure for the family, just fragments swallowed up by the mud in ‘no-mans’ land in the fields between the Windmill and Mouquet Farm in 1916.

And now…the possibilities of a National Treasure – that Australian Flag! I believe from my brief readings on World War I that this flag was possibly the only Australian flag used outside headquarters during WWI. General Birdwood had a deep respect for the Aussies under his control led by Australian hero of the Somme, Sir John Monash who pioneered new battle techniques, which led to the freeing of Villers Bretonneux and eventually turned the tide of war on the Western front.

Bronwyn Orrock
22 January 2014

Gionni’s note

It was at a meeting to discuss the care and preservation of some unrelated historic Cathedral drawings on the 12 November 2013, that both Amir Mogadam (University Conservator) and I got a chance to view the remains of the Birdwood Flag that lay in a shoebox. After a general question about the Birdwood Flag, and whether it had survived, the Cathedral’s Verger Robert Gummow took us to the safe and took out a shoebox marked “BIRDWOOD FLAG EXTREMELY FRAGILE”

The shoebox in which the remains of the Birdwood Flag had laid since the 1980s. (Photo by Gionni Di Gravio)

The shoebox in which the remains of the Birdwood Flag had laid since the 1980s. (Photo by Gionni Di Gravio)

When we opened the box our hearts sank.

The contents of the box, the crumbled remains of the Birdwood Flag (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio)

The contents of the box, the crumbled remains of the Birdwood Flag (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio)

My first impressions were very much like that of Rod Taylor’s character in the 1960 sci-fi classic The Time Machine, where the Eloi representative leads him into the archive and shows him the crumbled remains of ‘books’. What we saw appeared like the remains of the Dead Sea Scrolls, reduced to ash. How could we have allowed this to happen?

As soon as I had returned to the University I emailed Bronwyn Orrock at her last known email address, hoping to be able to tell her the news. She made contact two days later and I rang and told her the news. Her reaction was to burst into tears of joy. I again felt like I was in a Hollywood movie, this time, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana was describing to his father the Tomb of Sir Richard. She also eased my mind by telling me of the tradition of the flag fall. So, now what to do? Since the original future conservation trajectory of this important Australian flag had now changed course? Our conservator set about contacting institutions who could possibly be our companions in its restoration, while the Newcastle’s Museum, Julie Baird, found a more suitable container for the Birdwood Flag’s remains.

Birdwood Flag rehoused in a proper container (Photo: Bronwyn Orrock)

Birdwood Flag rehoused in a proper container (Photo: Bronwyn Orrock)

We hope to be able to conduct a full conservation audit of the Birdwood Flag at the University of Newcastle, and hopefully identify the signature located in one of the two photographs of the original flag. This could possibly be the embroidered name of the sewer or maker of the flag.

Detail from one of the two photographs of the original Birdwood Flag showing a blurry signature of its creator (Photo: UoNCC)

Detail from one of the two photographs of the original Birdwood Flag showing a blurry signature of its creator (Photo: UoNCC)

A History of

“The Birdwood Flag”

The Australian National Flag in the Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Newcastle.

by Bronwyn Orrock

This flag is a narrative of our young nation’s history, it represents the growth of national pride, the gallantry, honour, stoicism, ingenuity and heroism of our volunteer Australian Infantry Force; the fears, hopes and aspirations of the families who loved and supported them and it also vocalises the unmentionable suffering, cruelty, horror, despair and death of the World War I.

The start of World War I in 1914 caused immediate effects on this small community so far from the front line with a decline in trade through the port of Newcastle of 50% in the first year. As well as widespread unemployment and economic ruin, the names of 20% of the 1000 strong congregation of Christ Church Cathedral were already listed on the Honour rolls.

The news from Europe continued to be grim, by end of 1916 on the Western front alone there were some 40,000 Australian casualties.

Miss Sparke, the catalyst and presenter of the Birdwood Flag was motivated by the enlistment and proudly patriot service of her two brothers, both of who were later to die as a result of injuries from the war. Somehow her herculean efforts at establishing the Field Forces Fund (NSW) raising money, making clothing, gathering gifts and soldiers comforts was not enough for her. Hearing of the horrors of war that her brothers and friends faced, she wanted to lift the spirits of the Australians so far from home. After reading about the donation of a Union Jack to the AIF she determined to send an Australian flag to be flown for the Australians and for it to be held in trust.

On the 31st August 1916 The Newcastle and Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate reports the Australian Flag is almost ready to send overseas and the subscription list will soon be closed .

“Miss Dora Sparke writes, ‘The committee of the Field Force Fund, has received permission to present an Australian Flag to General Birdwood, for the Australian Imperial Force, in appreciation of the gallantry of our troops. All workers and sympathisers are invited to contribute, and in sending donations to the honorary secretary, to endorse them “Flag”. To attain the object in view, it is felt that it would be superfluous to make any more than a simple and direct appeal. It is proposed to have the names of the donors inscribed in a scroll to be sent with the flag. It is hoped that arrangements can be made for the presentation to be made upon Christmas Day. The time and place of the unfurling to be left to the proper authority.’ “

In the Northern Times (4.11.1916) it was additionally reported:

Any contribution however small, will be accepted in order to make the gift as representative as possible. The women and children of Great Britain recently presented a Union Jack to the AIF and it is through the Field Force Fund, that the Australian flag will float beside the flag of the Empire.”

In the Northern Times 7.12.1916 it is reported that

“Miss Ruth Seale, Hon Treasurer of the “Flag Fund” acknowledges receipt of the following amounts towards the Australian flag to be presented from the NSW Field Force Fund…

and the article goes on to list donors names and amounts (16) plus it mentions the silver plaque of presentation donated by Dora’s mother, Mrs Clara Sparke.

The Sydney Morning Herald (5.10.1917) reports:

“Attached to the standard was a silver plate of presentation donated by her mother”

Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate (5.12.1917) provides coverage of the AGM of the Field Force Fund and quotes Miss Dora Sparke at the end of giving her Annual Report:

“… read a letter stating that the flag had been presented to General Birdwood on September 12 on the field in France, and that the general had suggested that a silver shield should be attached to the flagpole upon which could be inscribed the famous battles of Australian troops. The committee, said the society’s organiser, had decided to adopt General Birdwood’s suggestion, and subscriptions would be specially invited for the purpose.”

Sydney Morning Herald (5.10.1917) said:

Miss Dora Sparke has received the following cable message from Mr Woodburn, Commissioner for the A.C.F abroad. “Have pleasure advising presentation flag General Birdwood in the field on 12th September. Many members present. General greatly appreciated gift, suggests silver plate engravings, showing names famous Australian battles be placed on pole. Shall we arrange have this done your behalf? Forwarding reports first mail”

The flag, which was subscribed to and presented from the women workers and honorary members of the NSW Field Force Fund, was accompanied by the following address to General Birdwood:

We ask you to kindly hold in trust for the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force the flag which will be handed to you by the Commissioner for the Australian Comforts fund, [who] is forwarding the flag on behalf of the NSW Field Forces Fund. We know that it will be zealously guarded by you until such time as the victory of the Allies gives you the opportunity to hand it over to the force which you have commanded with so much distinction.”

The flag was presented to General Birdwood at his headquarters in the field by the Australian Comforts Fund Commissioner. General Birdwood suggested that additional silver shields be added to the flagpole under the one (donated by Mrs William Sharpe) to commemorate all the famous battles in which Australian troops had participated. The letter of the Commissioner who presented the flag, referred to the:

“great operations in progress, and we could not ask for more time for a leisurely and elaborate ceremony. No guard was available; and we were extremely unfortunate in missing the official photographer, but it was a happy little event and unique in so far as Australians are concerned in France. A grass plot in front of the General’s hut, a few square yards in extent held us, whilst the light misty rain drove across the fields before us. The General with his trusted staff around him – signs of war on every side- the never ceasing roll of guns and traffic- and there you have the scene! To us it was a particularly happy thought that you should send this flag. We who have worked in the field know that no-one takes a greater interest in the welfare of the Australian troops than General Birdwood; and we regard the flag as an emblem of affinity between him and you dear folk at home, whose devotion has meant so much to the boys who are fighting the good fight, for those who may not serve:”

This letter was signed by Chief Commissioner of the War Chest Fund, Mr T. S. Woodburn on behalf of the Australian Comforts Fund.

The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (7.1.1918) & (26.7.1918)

The brief history of flag is given, followed by:

“ a letter dated London May 15, to Miss Sparke, from Colonel Woodburn concerning the making and presentation of the silver shields to General Birdwood in France. A letter from General Birdwood to Woodburn advised, “they have now been fixed to the pole bearing this flag, which you handed over to us some few months ago, and they do indeed look nice and add to the value of the gift.” Woodburn goes on to comment “These shields were engraved in three separate pieces recording the years 1915,1916 and 1917 and presented quite a handsome appearance. There will still be another year or part at least of actions of the A.I.F to be recorded, and we take this opportunity of asking that we may be allowed to complete the record on the flag of another year, by the addition of another shield at year end on your behalf.” The letter goes on to applaud the work of the NSW War Chest Fund and Woodburn talks at length of the heroism and homesickness of the troops, but their determination to compete their task….

It was in this atmosphere of staunch support for those who served, but gloom and malaise in the wider economy of the city, then Dean of Newcastle, Dr Horace Crotty determined early in the war to have a memorial erected in Christ Church Cathedral – perhaps an altar reredos. As the war years dragged interminably on, the widespread suffering and grief in the Newcastle region was a burden shared by the Dean and his colleagues who ministered to those left behind. Many families felt quite unable to say their farewells because they had no body to bury, no ritual, no ceremony that gave them the dignity of saying goodbye in a manner befitting the courage of these volunteers….and to assist in the healing of those left.

Some felt guilt that they were still alive while brothers and mates perished. It is a fact that no remains of any Australian servicemen killed in action in World War I were never repatriated, save the bones of a single soldier, which were placed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The signing of the Armistice on 11.11.1918 saw widespread rejoicing, but the enormous human impact and emotional malaise hung over the city like a cloud. Those who could, resumed their lives, and slowly talk turned to providing a place where families could come to grieve their lost sons, brothers and husbands. For former servicemen, a place to go to quietly to remember their mates that they left behind in the killing fields of Gallipoli and the Western Front. Many of these ‘walking wounded’ men were amputees, suffered bullet or shrapnel wounds or had post-operative infections, burns or mustard gas poisoning (even worse – this was before there were antibiotics and other life preserving drugs). Most suffered the continuing nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In this era of Victorian/Edwardian sensibilities and very civilised, polite society, the primitive indignity and gravitas of the war, which included chemical warfare and many new technologies was difficult for people to grasp, as news about the war to those at home had been ‘sanitised.’

Even if there had been money to undertake the long arduous journey by boat to Europe, (in those days a luxury for only the very wealthy) so many Australian service personnel had been buried hastily in unmarked graves on the battlefield, or disappeared without trace in the merciless bombardments, there was no identifiable final resting place of the loved one for families or friends to visit.

It has taken many years for us to understand the full horror of what those troops stoically suffered and how the families lived with anguish often for decades afterward. Mrs Clara Sparke is an example – she died less than two years after her youngest son at a relatively young age, and there is no doubt the boys’ fate impacted on her health substantially and affected the family severely.

Eventually the BHP Steelworks re-opened in 1922 and new industries sprang up to provide services; once more employment grew and hope emerged. During those years we also had a World Wide flue pandemic which killed scores of people in the region.

There was no official War Memorial in Newcastle when Dr Crotty launched an appeal calling on the community to build a special War Memorial Chapel to commemorate those who served their country. Immediately his call was answered by Hudson Berkeley, then owner of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate and a long time Cathedral parishioner and benefactor who said ‘he would find the money’ – and he did 9,000 pounds, but unfortunately he died before construction was completed. Other prominent families, such as Commander Gardiner, the Wood family and the Parnell family also gave generous donations. Dr Crotty said:

“We now appeal to the city to respond to the splendid lead already given [by several parishioners] by providing furnishings in keeping with the beautiful fabric provided. The interior can be as beautiful as we make it.”

Fundraising events were held, flowers sold, fairs arranged and the seamstresses and farm labourers, domestic workers and shop assistants, coal miners, steelworkers, teachers, nurses and housewives dug deep and gave their pennies and farthings to see this chapel constructed. The biblical parallel to the parable of the Widow’s two coins, cannot be more clearly demonstrated than in this fine building. So some 17 years before the War Memorial was established in Canberra, this Chapel was built in the Hunter by public subscription to hold relics of significance and to provide a place to mourn and hopefully find some peace. It was in this spirit that Miss Sparke determined that the Cathedral would be the flag’s final home.

The Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate on 8.4.1920 reports:

………..”The cable was received by Miss Sparke advising that General Birdwood would shortly be leaving London for Australia and he wished to have Miss Sparke express her wish for the disposal of the flag. Miss Sparke sent a cable expressing that the flag should be returned to this city. The wish was respected and a cable was returned saying the flag had been sent to the War Records Office Melbourne (by then absorbed into the War Museum Commission). The flag was forwarded to Newcastle this week and Mr W Sparke has taken possession of it pending the return of Miss Dora Sparke from Tasmania.

[note: Dora was in Tasmania following the announcement of her engagement to Mr Dudley Ransome a former RAF pilot from a wealthy grazing family – but the marriage never occurs ]

When General Birdwood visited Newcastle on 28.4.1920 in his six month tour of Australia after World War I, he did a ceremonial ‘handing back’ of the flag at a Civic Reception in the City. Miss Sparke said:

“ we received the flag reverently 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”

Newcastle Morning Herald 26.5.1922 reports on the previous Evensong Anzac Service at Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle giving account of the presentation of the Birdwood Flag” by Miss Dora Sparke to Dean Horace Crotty. In receiving the flag on behalf of the Chapter the Dean said:

“he would place it during the service on the Altar and it would afterwards find a permanent resting place on the walls of the cathedral, where it would speak for all time to the citizens of Newcastle of the glorious deeds of the men of the Australian Imperial Force. ”

[The words of the service were deeply moving and inspirational I recommend the full report is read]

It hung for many years over the magnificent bronze sculpture of Alfred Forster, representing all servicemen, When it ‘fell’ in the early 1980’s the pieces were recovered and quietly placed in a box in storage by Dean Graeme Lawrence and it is those tiny fragments of our collective national memory we hold so dear today.

In the aftermath of the 1989 Newcastle Earthquake, and the immense damage to the Cathedral, (which entailed an eight year rebuilding process) the flag’s very existence was forgotten until 2010. A chance discovery of the photographs of the flag were noticed in the University archives while other research was being undertaken, and the process tentatively began, to try and locate all the remains of the flag and re-discover all the history.

This is an unfinished story which will be added to as more information comes to hand.

Bronwyn Orrock 25.4.2014.

The silver plate engravings upon which were inscribed all the major Australian battles. (Image Courtesy of The University of Newcastle's Cultural Collections)

The silver plate engravings upon which were inscribed all the major Australian battles. Note the blurry signature on the left hand side. (Image Courtesy of The University of Newcastle’s Cultural Collections)


Who was Miss Dora Sparke?

Dora comes from a pioneer family of the Hunter. Her great great Grandfather was Edward Sparke Sr., who came as free settler from Devon in 1824 with wife Mary, five sons and servants, to take up a land grant along the Hunter River. The family had a long tradition of civic service and one of Edward Sr.’s nephews was the first Mayor of Sydney. Edward Sr.,  and each of his five sons received primary land grants in the Hunter Valley. These included “Woodlands”, “Webland Park” and “Woodbury”, the last two those of the family’s fourth son, William and his wife Mary Ann. William and Mary Ann were Dora’s great Grandparents.

Dora’s grandfather was William Andrew Sparke, born at “Webland Park” in 1832, second son of William and Mary Ann, and one time Mayor of Newcastle. W.A. Sparke and his wife Elizabeth Tighe (daughter of early Newcastle figure, Robert Tighe) were married on 23 June 1857. Their eldest son was William Sparke, born in 1858. He married Clara Harrison Smith in 1884, and had four children, the second of which was Dora, who was born in 1890.

William Sparke (1858-1948) was educated at Newcastle Grammar School, he was articled to George Wallace (at the time the Mayor of Newcastle). He was admitted to the Bar on the nomination of Sir Edmund Barton KC on 2.9.1882. He returned to Newcastle and founded his firm which over time became Sparke Millard and later Sparke Helmore Solicitors. He worked until 2 days before his death at age 90.

Miss Dora L. Sparke. President, Victoria League Newcastle. 1931-1948

Miss Dora L. Sparke. President, Victoria League Newcastle. 1931-1948

Miss Dora L. Sparke. President, Victoria League Newcastle. 1931-1948

28.7.1884, William married Clara Harrison Smith of Hobart, third daughter of (former) Captain Smith of the 99th Regiment – mother’s name not indicated.

Dora has one older sister Leila Muriel (1885-1968) and two brothers, both who joined the military and died as a result of War Service in World War I. There are no direct descendants of the four Sparke children.

Lt. Edward Rasleigh Sparke (1895-1919) younger brother of Leila and Dora was a volunteer in the first AIF and landed at Gallipoli in 1914. He fought in the battle of Lone Pine and continued on the Gallipoli Peninsula, eventually suffering a bullet wound to the foot. He returned to active service and he spent his 20th birthday in a dugout on the Gallipoli Peninsula. He was given a commission to Lieutenant and in April 1916 transferred to France where he had his 21st birthday. He was seriously gassed at the Battle of the Somme and never returned home to Newcastle. He was repatriated as an invalid to the Randwick Military Hospital, Sydney. He died of the complications of his gassing six months after the Armistice and was given a full military funeral on 24.6.1919 at Waverley Cemetery, Sydney.

Lt Alan Everard Sparke (1900-1927) wanted to “do his bit” for the war effort and being too young to enlist where his family was well known, he ran away from home aged 15 at the commencement of World War I. He traveled by ship to the UK dressed in Khaki, and arrived penniless. As a 6ft tall young man and an excellent horse rider, he was able to convince the authorities that he was in fact older than he was, and, enlisted in the City of London Yeomanry. After six months he transferred to the Royal Field Artillery serving in Palestine and Egypt. He gained a commission to second Lieutenant by 16, and later, a first Lieutenant. While on service in Salonika he contracted malarial fever and was evacuated to London where he recovered. He then joined the regular army where he was given a position as a military trainer at Aldershot. He was transferred to France to the Royal Horse Artillery and served with distinction until the Armistice was signed, (promoted to the rank of Captain at 18 in France) . After the war he went on a British Expeditionary Force (fighting the northern Russian Bolsheviks) traveling through Ukraine and 200 miles up River Dnieper. He served at Murmansk near St Petersburg and Arkhangelsk (Archangel) until the force was ordered back to the UK.

It was here in 1919 that he was informed of his brother’s grave illness and death in Sydney, so he took leave and returned home to family. Interviewed about the war in Russia on his return to Australia in 1920 he described scenes we would understand all too clearly today. In that interview he stated his ‘taking leave’ from his career and his intention to return to his life in the military in the UK after spending time with his family. Unfortunately Alan died at age 27 in the family home at Waratah. The initial media reports and the burial ceremony with no church service or military honours suggest suicide. A later Coronial inquest gives a finding of accidental death by gassing. A devastating tragic loss of an unsung true Hunter hero.

(Note: In those times suicide was considered a “sin” and not seen as the result of mental illness. Soldiers quietly bore the horror of their years of war and often told no-one not even close family members of their terrible experiences. Today we may understand this condition as probable post-traumatic stress disorder and the difficulty of re-adjusting to civilian life. He did not receive the hero’s burial one would expect of a gallant volunteer and later career soldier and adventurer.)

On this point we received this comment from Louise Gale, Sparke Family historian and (distant) cousin of Dora Sparke, by Email 13 July 2017:
“The suggestion that Alan committed suicide draws heavily on there being no church service at his funeral or military recognition. The burial took place long before the inquest findings, and indeed it may have been thought at the time that he had committed suicide, hence the low-key funeral arrangements, but the finding of the inquest (weeks later) was unequivocal that his death was accidental. Here is a link to the inquest report as reported in The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate:
To say that both of Dora’s brothers died as a result of WWI service is perhaps an unwarranted statement to make about Alan’s death as late as 1927. It suggests he committed suicide as a result of war-related post-traumatic stress, and places more emphasis on what people may have thought initially (suicide), without taking into account the evidence presented at the inquest and the very definite outcome.
Regards, Louise”


Dora Lempriere Sparke was born on 1.12.1888. A bright child, she is named as Dux of Dominican Convent School. (Presumed her primary school). Dora is Dux of the Graduating year of Newcastle Girls’ Grammar School Waratah. Principal Ms Brownlie MA read the Annual Report to the School Prize Giving function, where it was reported Dora Sparke had successfully matriculated (gained University Entrance) the previous March at specific examinations held at East Maitland (although we have not found a record of her attending University in Australia). In 1920 Dora became engaged to Lt Dudley Ransome formerly of the Royal Flying Corps and from a Tasmanian grazing family but the marriage did not eventuate.

In a 1915 SMH article, largely about the Red Cross activities it describes the beginning of the Field Force Fund and Ms Dora Spark and committee – The Red Cross acted as a shield group which took donations from many sources for distribution O/S. The article applauds the work of the Field Force Fund as a group of young ladies who met initially to make items as Christmas presents for despatch to troops in the battlefields. It grew quickly over weeks, to a large sewing circle, then to a second group at Mayfield. It started social activities and street stalls, flower sales and card parties as fundraising events and oversaw collection depots at major retail stores in the Hunter. Schools played a large part in providing goods made by students and fundraising in smaller communities. Dora travelled to many parts of Newcastle, Lake Macquarie & the Hunter (10 branches in the area around Scone/Muswellbrook alone) and to northern and mid-western NSW, starting new branches. The Field Forces Fund, which started in such a small way inspired many others. It was later invited to merge into the NSW War Chest Fund, and was renamed the Newcastle and Hunter War Chest Fund, stretching from Murrundi to Morisset with Dora Sparke appointed the Honorary District Organiser and Superintendent.

Miss Sparke was a published writer and correspondent with articles still available on the digitised newspaper service on “Trove” (National Library of Australia). She was an inaugural member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. A foundation member of the League of Nations Society and the Victoria League (A Commonwealth of Nations Friendship Society), she was for 17 years its President covered a period spanning World War II. This again saw her again undertake a huge volunteer public duty, fundraising and setting up industry to provide spun wool for knitting clothing, meals and services to allied military personnel (many of whom came to Newcastle at various stages of the war), arranged homestay and billets, raised cigarette funds for the troops, raised money to build mobile canteens to service air raid victims in the UK, sent clothing to victims of the London blitzes, supported the volunteer firefighters in the UK cities and after the war, worked with overseas born wives of Australian servicemen coming from around the world to live in the Hunter.


Planning War Work
PLANNING WAR WORK. (1939, September 14). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) , p. 3. Retrieved May 9, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article133742280

Spark family Home 1902 (Ralph Snowball Image Courtesy of Norm Barney Photographic Collection, University of Newcastle)

Sparke family Home 1901 (Ralph Snowball Image Courtesy of Norm Barney Photographic Collection, University of Newcastle)

The above 1901 image by Ralph Snowball (University of Newcastle Cultural Collections) also captures the only image we can locate of Dora Sparke. The family members are believed to be (from right to left) Edward Rasleigh Sparke (1895-1919) on the rocking horse, Dora Lempriere Sparke (1888-1957) holding the hand of her mother, Mrs Clara Sparke (died 1929). Leila Muriel Sparke (1885-1968) is on the verandah and holds baby Alan Everard Sparke 1900-1927. The last person, also shown in several other Snowball images with Clara and the baby, is believed to be the children’s paternal grandmother Mrs William Sparke (Elizabeth Tighe, daughter of Robert Tighe) This image shows the relatively newly completed Knoyle, later images show landscaping and fencing completed. See the larger detailed image here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/uon/3722295271/sizes/o/ 


Dora Lempriere Sparke (1888-1957) resigned per position from the Victoria League due to ill health in 1949 and is honoured as a life member of the Victoria League for her tireless work.

On her death she bequeathed the family home ‘Knoyle’ at Waratah to St Phillip’s Anglican Church. It became a Men’s Home and later became the first campus of St Phillip’s Christian School. It is still their administrative headquarters.

She is interred in the family grave at Sandgate with her mother father and two of her three siblings (Alan& Leila) while her brother Edward is interred in the Waverley Cemetery.

Mayoress Entertains

Mayoress Entertains

MAYORESS ENTERTAINS. (1944, July 20). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) , p. 4. Retrieved May 9, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article134251144 

Opening of Victoria League Club

Opening of Victoria League Club

OPENING OF VICTORIA LEAGUE CLUB. (1947, March 6). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) , p. 8. Retrieved May 9, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article132858345

The Warriors’ Chapel

Cover of The Warriors' Chapel Booklet

Cover of The Warriors’ Chapel Booklet

This official War Memorial Chapel, the St Michael Chapel predates the National War Memorial in Canberra by 17 years and while the tiny 46 x 18 ft space with a ceiling of 40ft is not the largest official war memorial, it can certainly lay claim to be the most exquisitely beautiful and impressive War Memorial in Australia. It is the Australian “Mother Church’ of the Toc H movement. The Chapel:

  • Is a celebration of Australian materials – it employed the best craftspeople and artisans from Melbourne and Sydney.
  • The whole of the chapel is lined with Sydney Sandstone and clad on the outside with the same pressed and double baked bricks as the rest of the Cathedral. The external roof was originally Muntz Metal which is a copper/zinc/iron alloy – a salt resistant material but this too was eventually affected by the salt air and had to be replaced in the 1970’s.
  • The only timber in the Chapel is the ceiling of Australian red cedar timber with carved timber angels and corbels. These originally supported Italian translucent marble lights, which unfortunately were replaced in the 1950’s due to their blackening caused by the heat of the incandescent globes.
  • There are arcaded recesses around the walls and the eastern end of the chapel is ‘apsed’ with pink marble reredos encasing the magnificent bas-relief George Tinworth panels. We are one of only four places in Australia who have examples of his bas-relief art – the other is Old Parliament House Canberra, the Sydney Powerhouse Museum, National Gallery of Victoria and Queensland Art Gallery. We understand we may be the only place in the world outside York Minster who can boast a complete Tinworth altar reredos still intact.
  • Anthony Horden and sons supplied the Altar and the marble steps
  • The floors are Australian marble and the steps leading to the pink marble altar represent the significance of Christian life expressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first step is white- Inferno – the mirror of penitence, the second Purgatorio – the Black step is the gloom of contrition, the red step Paradisio in Canto IX, represents the favour of the new moral world we pass into under the guiding hand of God.
  • Around the walls of the chapel below the highly placed 13 stained glass leadlight windows by Kempe and Co of London, is a stringer course of stone exquisitely carved with foliage and the inscription with the verse of Laurence Binyan, we have all learn’t as children:They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn , at the going down of the sun and in the morning we shall remember them. These last four words appear above the altar.
  • A perpetual red light of remembrance hangs from the top of the Sanctuary above this shrine. Above this is a bronze of the crucifixion – the Christus being crowned with an Imperial Crown as the King of Sacrifice.
  • Carved in the solid stone is the following inscription:

    “Hallowed in the name of Christ, be the memory of the Brave Men and Women who died in the great war for the Freedom of the World. They shall yet stand before the Throne an exceeding great army, and in that last muster, There shall be found, These our own well beloved”.

  • The western wall of the chapel has three gothic recessed archways and the centre one has the Australian “Rising Sun” insignia worn by our Army. The left archway has the Navy insignia and the right hand archway has the Air Force insignia. This is where the Birdwood flag hung from 1924 until the 1980’s when it fell to the ground.
  • On this wall is also a glazed case containing an original timber cross marking the grave of an unknown soldier in France and presented by the (then) Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII. This is held in safekeeping for Toc H, a worldwide peace movement of former troops emanating from WWI (if you haven’t heard of them there is an interesting website available.)
  • In front of this wall lies a bronze sculpture by Sir Cecil Thomas of Kensington London, of the Fallen Warrior – his friend Alfred Forster the younger son of Lord & Lady Forster, Governor General of Australia. Alfred was injured in 1918 serving in the Scots Greys, Cecil Thomas was wounded at the same time and lay beside his friend in hospital; Alfred died of his injuries the next year. Cecil recovered and went on to study art after the War ended. He set about casting his friend’s image in bronze and in 1924 his sculpture was installed at St Hallows in London (it was highly commended by the Royal Academy). Lord and Lady Forster presented a second casting to Toc H (a World War I peace movement) to be laid at its Australian mother Church. Interesting to note that although he was Governor General of Australia, sadly both of Lord Forster’s sons served and were killed in WWI – reflecting the Australian experience where many families grieved multiple family deaths.
  • It was Lord Forster’s specific wish that the effigy be no longer a sole personal memorial to Alfred and so it bears no name or badge – it is to represent all who died. The only inscription is from the famous words of Laurence Binvon’s poem:

    “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old, Age shall not weary them or the years condemn.”

  • In this wall is a piece of stone carved in the shape of a Canterbury cross sent by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral UK.
  • Later, a rushlight used by prisoners of war of the Imperial Japanese Forces at Changi in World War II, was presented to Toc H and also resides on the wall.

Note also the magnificent gold pieces by William Marks of Gardenvale Victoria who worked in the UK during the time of the Arts and Crafts movement and was a world renowned art enameller & goldsmith.

The women of the Diocese who had lost a husband, fiancé or son in the War donated their jewellery and this was melted down and used by William Marks to make the 18 carat “Book of Gold” (once left in the Chapel but now stored behind protective glass). The case is of chased gold and is encrusted with gemstones from the jewellery. In hand-wrought calligraphy and rich mediaeval styled illumination by local artist Mrs. EJ Dann, the names of all those lost in World War I from the Newcastle Diocese are listed on a parish by parish basis. A second book contains the names of all the 20,000 local Australians who died in active service with their rank mustering and place of death in this “war to end all wars.”

William Marks was also commissioned to make an alms dish, chalice, paten, wall cross and altar cross and candlesticks with matching vases. These irreplaceable and exquisite pieces of the goldsmith’s art are as beautiful and perfect underneath as they are on the visible surfaces.

Bronwyn Orrock


The Birdwood Flag represents one of the important cultural treasures of Australia. With the help of one of our cherished volunteers, Miss Octavia Anderson, we have digitised the entire Anglican Diocese of Newcastle file relating to the Warriors Chapel and Birdwood Flag 1924-1979.

A6137(iv)- Christ Church Cathedral – Warriors Chapel-File (30 MB PDF)


Gionni Di Gravio
University Archivist
May 2014