In 2003 Phil Smith, my great uncle’s wartime pilot, passed away. In a way, Phil’s death was a catalyst for me. I’d done some work on the topic when I was very young – indeed this is what led us initially to finding and contacting the old pilot – but I was now old enough that I could start doing some work in my own right. But where to start?

One evening I first used what has become a very useful technique. Sitting at my desk in my little granny flat at my parents’ place in the Southern Highlands of NSW, I pulled out the dusty old photos and documents that I’d found the first time around. I read through the lot, with a notebook and a pencil alongside. I wrote notes as I went.

And most importantly, I also wrote down what I didn’t know. And I wrote down what I thought might be interesting to delve further into.

The resulting list of questions gave me my place to start. But as I answered each one, more questions would arise. So, despite the work I’ve done so far, the list remains as long, if not longer, than it was in 2003. I suppose that is a good thing – it means there will always be more out there, just waiting to be discovered.

I’ve used this technique a few times since – most recently in the search for the family of Eric Hill. By going back through what I already had, I could figure out where I might go next. Knowing where Eric came from, I could contact local history groups in the area – and they found the connection to a living relative.

There is one big question that I would still like to answer:

“What was it like?”

Ultimately this is why I’m studying this story. I never had the opportunity to talk to my great uncle, to find out first-hand what his war was like. I have his logbook and I have a couple of photos, but that’s more or less it. Everything else I know about him has been inferred from other sources: letters from Phil Smith and others, official records, and talking to as many veterans as I can. I can even draw on some of my own experiences: the taxi ride in Just Jane, for example, or flying a Tiger Moth. That’s as close as I can come to experiencing something of the Bomber Command story. To try and answer that never-ending question – what was it like?

Answering that question is, for me, the best way to ensure that airmen like my great uncle Jack and his crew are remembered.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

The Thrill of the Chase

“I figured there would be a letter from someone, somewhere… I was just about to give up when I turned over a page and found it.”

-Historian Helen Harris, on the search to identify Ned Kelly’s bones

In recent days it’s been confirmed that a set of human bones exhumed from an unmarked mass grave in what used to be Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison belonged to Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, perhaps the most infamous and celebrated of the Australian bushrangers. One of the great mysteries of the Kelly legend – what actually happened to the body after his execution in 1880 – has been solved, using modern-day technology and a bit of old-fashioned sleuthing.

Which is how a post about a 19th Century bushranger finds its place on a blog about a WWII bomber crew. There was an excellent article in the weekend newspaper last week that explained exactly how the identification was made and eventually confirmed through DNA matching with one of Kelly’s descendants. But it was the quote that opens this post, from a historian engaged in the search, which caught my eye. Harris was looking for police documents that could challenge contemporary newspaper reports that said Kelly’s body had been dismembered by autopsy, a crucial piece of evidence in determining that a skull long thought to have been Kelly’s was in fact not. Harris had a theory, born out of many years studying Victoria’s early police records, that the Superintendant of the time would have tried to find out the truth or otherwise of the newspaper report in question from the governor of Melbourne Gaol. She looked in the archives and, after a methodical search, found the letter she was looking for.

This is how a good historian works. Start with a mystery, work out where the gaps are in the story and consider where the missing piece of the jigsaw might be. Then go searching for it – and there is nothing quite like the thrill of turning over an old yellowing bit of paper in an ancient file somewhere and finding exactly what you are looking for.

Of course, it takes a long while sometimes to find that elusive document. Harris has, over the course of her career, looked at 400 boxes of old Victorian police documents – and the article says there are still a few hundred left to go. There could be anything in that archive – it takes a dedicated researcher to methodically work through each one, missing nothing, to fully extract all of the details.

Though the volume of documents that I have found in my research into B for Baker and her crew will not go even one twentieth of the way towards filling 400 boxes, I’ve gathered a fair bit now. And I still have a large pile that I’m working through – among them, documents that I copied at the National Archives of Australia well over a year and a half ago. As I work through each page, I sometimes find information that adds another piece to other puzzles I’ve been trying to solve. Finding letters written by one parent to another in one archive, and the replies to those letters in another, I’ve discovered that everything really is connected.

The information is out there, somewhere. Sometimes it’s in front of our very noses, it just hasn’t been properly extracted yet.

 (c) 2011 Adam Purcell

This blog post inspired by an article by Mark Chew, A Question of Identity, The Sunday Age Good Weekend Magazine, 03SEP11


On the south side of the Yarra River in Melbourne, a mile or so from Flinders Street Station, is a large and rather imposing stone building. The Shrine of Remembrance sits on slightly elevated ground, with large Doric columns on all sides and a truncated pyramid soaring into the sky.

I went for a ride on my bicycle last month, down the Moonee Ponds Creek trail, over the Yarra at Docklands, and along St Kilda Road. I could see the Shrine in the distance. I cycled across and stopped for a visit.

Underneath the Shrine is the Crypt – a quiet space with bronze panels on the walls, regimental flags hanging from the ceiling and a sculpture in the middle. Climbing some stairs through the middle of the stone walls of the Shrine, I emerged in the Sanctuary, which is the heart of the memorial. Perhaps it may have felt more sanctuary-like had a busload of tourists not also shown up at that exact moment. It is a space reminiscent of the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, perhaps not surprising given the particular functions of both spaces. In the middle, sunk below floor level, is a slab of marble upon which is the Biblical inscription, ‘GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN’. On Remembrance Day, November 11, each year, at precisely 1100, a beam of sunlight comes in through a special hole in the roof and falls onto the stone.

Marvelling at the effort and calculations that would have been needed to make that little party trick work, I climbed some more stairs up to the Balcony level. It’s not a particularly tall building when compared with the skyscrapers across the river, but it’s still a nice outlook from the top. The view to the east reminded me a little of Greenwich in England. And to the west, a couple of miles away, I could see Albert Park and, beyond it, the bay.

A couple of years after the war ended, Fannie Johnston left her “little rose + honeysuckle covered cottage” (A01-114-001) in Dayboro, Queensland, and moved to Melbourne. In September 1949 she made the short journey from her new home in Barrett St, Albert Park, to the Shrine of Remembrance. There, she left a large floral arrangement, “in precious memory of Dale and his pals” (A05-184-004). She sent some photographs of the flowers on the steps of the memorial to the families of some of Dale’s crew mates. Copies survive in the collections of Freda Hamer, Gil Thew and Steve Butson.

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Carefully wrapped up alongside the photos in Gil’s box is a small sprig of pressed rosemary.

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As I walked back towards my bicycle, I turned and looked back at the Shrine. In my mind’s eye I could see Fannie Johnston placing her large bunch of flowers on the steps.

All I had was a small red poppy.


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Photos: Freda Hamer, Gil Thew and author

© 2011 Adam Purcell