York’s Anzac Exhibition

by Pamela Statham Drew

Tuesday 24th April, the day before Anzac Day, saw a large group of York people from all walks of life assemble in the space between the Shire Library and the Town Hall.  The occasion was the launch of York’s Anzac Exhibition which Robert Mitchell, EO of Museums Galleries Australia, said was the third largest in the State, coming in after the Army Museum in Fremantle and the magnificent National Anzac Centre in Albany.  David Wallace, Shire President, welcomed guests and introduced Kevin Fitzgerald, a local Nyoongar whose family served in the first world war, to give the Welcome to Country. This was done simply and sincerely, with a hope for the growth of mutual respect in our increasingly multicultural Society.
President of the local RSL, Kevin Trent, explained  that this exhibition grew out of the State–wide Remembering Themproject was a collaboration between Museums Australia WA/WA Museum/Lotterywest/ Royal Historical Society of WA.   As a Regional Partner, York’s Residency Museum took on the project for the Shire of York, promising that it would be the most significant ANZC exhibition to be shown in the Wheatbelt; and it had well and truly lived up to its promise.
Over 674 soldiers were traced as coming from the York Region including eleven indigenous soldiers and one nurse.  100 people were selected to feature in the display, partly based on the amount of information available, but also to represent a cross section of the community of York during 1914-18, therefore they include women, not just servicemen.  The people of York helped enormously in preparing the display, lending personal items and never-before seen pictures and diaries. Some families, like the Duperouzels, had been delighted to see material shown them by researchers which they had never seen before.

The Hon. Christian Porter, Federal MP for the District, launched the Exhibition saying how proud York must be to have played such a large part in WA’s contribution to the first world war. Throughout Australia country towns had provided the biggest sacrifice in terms of both their numbers, and the after-shock. With their men gone, a whole generation of women had to take on responsibilities their parents would never have dreamed of them assuming.  These women, of modest education, pulled Australia through the hardest of times- two wars and a depression.  Porter said he had been glad to see the role of women featured in the exhibition – though with the two curators being female he should not have been surprised.

After thanking a large number of people, Carole Littlefair, Shire Heritage Officer, and Katie Benfield, Curator of the Residency Museum led their VIP’s (the children of those featured in the exhibition) into the Town Hall.
Once the doors opened one was met by a sea of life-sized silhouettes crowding the floor of the large York Town Hall.  Around the walls were display boards telling the story of the first world war and Australia’s part in it. Alongside were cabinets with war memorabilia belonging to individual York soldiers. These men were featured in the life-sized silhouettes throughout the hall – some with the faces, body and uniform of a serviceman or woman and others side with art work drawn by primary school children, after hearing their stories. Each man was named together with his period of service if known. It was quite eerie and hard-hitting to come eye to eye with a young soldier, and then to see the vivid colours used by children in their perceptions of the war stories.
A corner of the vast hall had been set up as a small theatre to show a small collection of photos taken by York’s Chemist, Lionel Sargent.  Smuggled home in a tobacco tin the tiny black and white images show what life was actually like at Gallipoli, having a haircut, washing clothes smoking, playing cards, etc. These priceless pieces of history can tell us more than 1000’s of words and we are so lucky that this privately owned collection has been lent to the Shire for the Exhibition.
There was something in the Hall for everyone.  Like Albany, visitors were encouraged to take a small booklet and follow a particular soldier but the curator told me the following morning they had almost all been taken, people thinking they were free, not just available to borrow. Nevertheless it showed real interest so she was not really over-perturbed.
This is a must to see. Do tell your friends and gather a group to go to York to see the Exhibition which is open daily 9.30 am to 3.30 pm until 25th July. Unlike other exhibitions which charge an arm and a leg this one is FREE.  There is an activity table at the back for kids – and chairs for tired grandparents too. Don’t miss it!