Wait, Weep & Be Worthy - a photo essay

By Lada Dedic


Researching the new work for the upcoming exhibition at the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery (see here) my first port of call was The Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, even though they don't have an archival collection that was suitable for my research, Brad Manera the Senior Historian and Curator pointed me in the right direction and suggested resources which proved invaluable. He emailed me this anecdote:

"When I was working in the north in my youth my grandmother used to make cakes and post them to me the way she had done with her husband, my grandfather, during the war. She would fit them into a tin and stitch the tin shut with calico writing my name and address in indelible (purple) pencil on the outside.

This came up in conversation last week when I met with a 98-year-old widow of a decorated Australian naval veteran. It was something she hadn't thought about for 75 years and was delighted at the recollection. It inspired several hours of very pleasant reminiscences."

 The team at the State Library of NSW were also fantastic with numerous Librarians phoning and investigating which of their collections would be of most use. I also received assistance from the research centre of the Australian War Memorial who sent links to their digitised collection saving me a trip to Canberra.

 First rough sketch for the installation.

First rough sketch for the installation.

The piece will explore the role of women sending letters and care packages to loved ones serving overseas.

 A little light reading. 

A little light reading. 

Preliminary research for the new work.  Looking forward to is getting my grubby (but gloved) fingers on three crates of papers, pictorial materials and relics from the 'Special & Restricted Collections' of the State Library of NSW.

 State Library of NSW

State Library of NSW

Having spent many hours in grand and hidden reading rooms of the State Library of Victoria, this was my first foray in the Mitchell Library Reading Room, Special Collections area of the State Library of NSW.

 Australian Stamps 1916

Australian Stamps 1916

I felt as though I were discovering long lost treasure, see below for a list of some of items I came across in my research.

 Mitchell Library Reading Room, Special Collections Area, State Library of NSW

Mitchell Library Reading Room, Special Collections Area, State Library of NSW

Cordoned off with a glass wall, the special collections area was not the dark, lamp lit, back-rooms I remembered from Victoria. It is however much more practical, well lit with power points for laptops and large wide desks for spreading out my treasures. The Librarians were so very helpful, dragging out the crates I had ordered from offsite. "Oooh, that's a heavy one, be careful lifting that" 

 Letters from Frederick Stobo Phillips, 31 January 1915-26 October 1916, Collection: Series 01 Part 01: Irene Victoria Read WWI papers, 1914-1918

Letters from Frederick Stobo Phillips, 31 January 1915-26 October 1916, Collection: Series 01 Part 01: Irene Victoria Read WWI papers, 1914-1918

At first I found each authors handwriting arduous, being a child of the digital age, cursive script is not something I come across often (even in my work with the 'pen pals' at the Liberation Prison Project). There was no email trail in 1915.

As I settled in to a pile of letters, I'd slowly get to know the script and the author. You can learn a lot about somebody by their personal letters, particularly considering that they wouldn't have imagined them being read 100 years later by an artist in a Library reading room. Each writer has a style and a language, a sense of humour and in wartime oh so much heartache. Much of the story is told between the lines.

I'd often find myself reading years of letters in the space of a few hours. Sometimes these letters would STOP abruptly.  I'd then find myself scrambling through records only to find the dreaded 'Missing in Action' telegram or list of casualties. Heart. Broken.

Some of the treasures I discovered:

  • A passport from 1916 with space for a photograph of the 'Passport Holder' and another for the 'Passport Holder's Wife'.
  • Green Envelopes, known colloquially as 'greenies'. A privilege given to soldiers once a month allowing them a letter home which was not subject to censorship. The following is printed on the envelope:  
         NOTE:
         Correspondence in this envelope need not be censored Regimentally. The contents are liable to examination at the Base.
         The following Certificate must be signed by the writer:
         I certify on my honour that the contents of this envelope refer to nothing but private and family matters.
         Signature (Name only)
  • Xmas, I don't know why I thought it was a modern abbreviation, I only saw the formal term 'Christmas' a handful of times during my research. On further investigation the term Xmas has been in use since the 16th century.
  • Carbon copies. As letters would regularly get lost in the post during wartime, some service personnel would send multiple copies of the same letter home. Envelopes were often scarce so it would have been quite an investment to do so.
  • Lists from the Australian Comforts Fund, which was formed at a grass roots level by women to provide 'comforts' and little luxuries to Australians serving abroad. Lists of items included: tobacco, cakes, puddings, condensed milk, sugar, biscuits, newspapers, socks, pyjamas (for the injured), games, pianos (for hospitals) and other 'luxury' items to supplement the Australian soldier's army rations.
  • Although numerous collections are available from nurses serving abroad there is a distinct lack of the female voice from the home front, therefore only half of the story is often told. Understandably, letters from home would have been challenging for the soldiers to keep (although some do mention that they kept all letters).