Four opticians that became ANZACs in WW1 – one survived

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An outdoor portrait of the 9th Training Battalion at Perham Downs, Wiltshire. Victorian optician Gordon Heathcote from Kew is seated on the far left, sporting his new Corporal stripes he earned in England.

Cpl Gordon Roy Heathcote, 24th Company Australian Machine Gun Corps.

Cpl Gordon Roy Heathcote was an optician of Kew in Victoria. Single, twenty-three years old and living with his parents comfortably in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs, he enlisted in August and set sail from Melbourne on 20 October 1916. Seated on the left above, the machine gun is not just a prop for the photo – this optician had landed as a non-commissioned officer in an Australian Army Machine Gun Corps. Single, living with his parents comfortably in Melbourne’s suburbs. he enlisted in August and left Melbourne on 20 October 1916. In was promoted to Corporal while in England and completed his physical and bayonet training courses there before landing in France in September 1917. He was killed in action just short of a year after leaving his in Melbourne, dying on 16 October 1917 in Belgium. The soldier standing behind Gordon with his arm reached onto his shoulder is, Frederick Benedict (Ted) Alsop, who died the next day on the 17 October 1917.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P08299.007

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2nd Lt George Stanley McIlroy, 24th Battalion, of South Melbourne.

2nd Lt George Stanley McIlroy,
24th Battalion, of South Melbourne.

An optician prior to enlistment, he was awarded the Military Cross, “for conspicuous ability and gallantry as a Company Commander throughout the operations in France from 26 March 1916. He looks well after his men and has set them a fine example of soldierly endurance under heavy shell fire at Pozieres. His Company has done excellent work throughout, and this is due in great part to the powers of leadership developed by Captain McIlroy”. Due to illness, he returned to Australia on 17 March 1917.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P05891.001

 

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Lt Arthur Douglas Hogan, 21st Battalion from Lewisham, NSW.

Lt Arthur Douglas Hogan
21st Battalion from Lewisham, NSW.

Arthur was a 29 year old jeweller/optician prior to his enlistment in 1915. After arriving in Egypt, he was repatriated back to Australia suffering from typhoid. Following his recovery, he then wounded but returned to the front and was killed in action at Passchendaele in 1917. Lt Hogan is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium with others who have no known grave.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial H0575

 

Captain John Needham, 2nd Pioneer Battalion, VIC, Australian Imperial Forces.

This is a story of a First World War (WWI) optician: mentioned in Despatches by General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France for “distinguished and gallant services, and devotion to duty” in the 2nd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces (AIF).

Born in 1882, John V Needham enlisted at age 19 in the Victorian (Mounted Rifles) Contingent he served in South Africa and returned in 1902. As a young Boer War Veteran, Needham then joined the Victorian Scottish Regiment and later married, having a son and training to become an optician. He was a practising optometrist/refractionist at Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne, before he enlisted as an “optician” in the AIF in late 1914.

Photo courtesy of AWM P00998.031

Seated in the front row, first left, is Captain John Valentine Needham, a Boer War Veteran, father and optometrists, who left his business in 1914 to answer the call of the AIF. One of the few “opticians” that appear in the #WW1 ANZAC records, his became a front leaders, suffered shell shock, was wounded and returned home a five years later. This is his story. Photo courtesy of AWM p00988.031

The term optician in 1914 may have equated to what we would think of as a modern-day “optometrist” including a store front and dispensary. Doing eye testing, cutting and fitting of lenses and offering a section of frames including custom-made styles, all was probably completed and dispensed to the customer at the Richmond building.

The professional organisation of Australian optometrists was is its infancy at the time and a search of the Australian War Memorial & National Archive of Australia records for opticians, optometrist or optometry reveal very few WWI enlistment records, except Captain Needham, enlisting with such an occupation.

Later wounded and of failing health, the Optician was now a front line officer in France, and worried about his business affairs at home: “He sleeps badly and worries that his business in going to ruin in Melbourne… He has insomnia and tremors of the hands…stress and strain from active service conditions.”

WW1medals&cardsHe saw service in Gallipoli and France and was promoted to captain in 1916. Wounded and ill, he was recommended for the Military Cross for his gallantry at Pozieres, but Mentioned in Despatches, his health deteriorated. A report recommended he be returned to Australia in 1916 as unsuitable for active duty, but other medical evaluations determined he was fit for duty. Sadly, it took another three years before he arrived home in Melbourne in 1919.

A broken man, he never recovered and was hospitalised because of the trauma of war. He died in Melbourne in the early 1920s. His death was considered to have been directly caused by his service.

Seated in the front row, first on the left, is Captain John Needham, the “Optician” from Melbourne, in an outdoor portrait of officers of the 2nd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces, c. 1916. His WWI awards & recommendations included:

In addition, Captain Needham received the Queen’s South Africa Medal for the Boer War, all of which are now held in the national collection of the Australian War Memorial.

JVNeedhamWW1fSoldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice received the honour of a Memorial Scroll from the King and saucer-sized bronze plaque recognising their service to the Empire. The later was often called a death penny. His widow had wrote on many occasions to receive his entitlements, for his young son, and eventually she received a Memorial Scroll from the King but added to one letter:

“P.S.  I would also like one of the Memorial Plaques – as next of kin – if this is not asking too much. A. G. N.”

Information sourced from Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia internet sites 25 April 2014. (C) Andrew McIntosh CPA

So where is that enormous vice-regal gold vase?


An illustration of the December 1853 presentation of a gold vase to Victoria’s Lt Governor, Charles J La Trobe. The Illustrated London News, June 1854

2013 is the 160th anniversary of the presentation of a ‘gold testimonial’ vase to Victoria’s first Lieutenant Governor in 1853. And while there is the La Trobe Reading Room, La Trobe Street, the University and La Trobe City, no-one seems to know what happened to this unique and valuable piece of our Colonial and State history.

Many Victorians are aware of the La Trobe testimonial candelabrum centrepiece that is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria. This spectacular silver and glass piece was manufactured in London by Stephen Smith & William Nicholson (1854-1855). This silver ‘testimonial’ was presented to Lt Governor Charles La Trobe following his return to London in 1854.

The silver candelabrum is in fact the second of two significant testimonial works presented to La Trobe.  The first testimonial, an enormous gold cup, was presented at a ‘grand ball’ in Melbourne on the stormy evening of Wednesday, 28th of December, 1853.   Controversy surrounded the gold cup even then, with the Argus reporting that while only a small objection was taken to the ball, some “indignation” was felt about the golden cup being presented and that it was no less than an “outrage” that such a man should receive the cup.

Despite the local debate about La Trobe’s competency and how unpopular some felt he was, the Illustrated London News reported details of the grand farewell from the last Australian mail, six months later in June, 1854.  “Highly popular throughout the Colony,” with nearly 2000 people attending, the gold cup was presented at the grand farewell in Melbourne.

The gold cup could contain one and half bottles of wine, or “about the same in table beer, “ and was no doubt used for this purpose at the ball:  there were toasts “drunk with loyal enthusiasm” and with a band number 100 performers, the “enjoyments of the ball were prolonged until about five o’clock the next morning.”

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Close examination of The Illustrated London News illustration shown not just a glamorous Colonial Ball, but perhaps more importantly, what could be the only remaining visual representation from the period of the gold cup.

With the discovery of gold only a few years earlier in 1851, goldsmiths in the Colony were still in their professional infancy by 1853.  Important works of the time would often have Victorian gold shipped back to Britain for use by reputable London goldsmiths.  La Trobe’s golden testimonial was reported as being 170 ounces of native Victorian gold and, importantly, manufactured by native talent, Victorian goldsmiths Bond and Tofield under the supervision of the retailer, Mr Drew.  For these reasons alone, the gold cup is significant for Victorian State history.

The cup was 16 inches in height, with the inscription on the front and the arms of the Colony of the back.  It was decorated with solid figures of a digger (representing La Trobe’s friend Captain Brown) and a ‘native’ throwing a spear as well as an emu, kangaroo, sheep and gold nuggets.

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The Illustrated London News, June 1854

While controversy surrounding the gold cup in 1853, in the 160th anniversary of its manufacture (which reputably took only two weeks), very little else is know about this golden piece of Victorian Colonial history.  Mystery now remains about the fate of the cup, as it seems to have vanished without trace.

While hypothesis abound on its fate – was melted down or does it remains in the dusty vaults of a European museum or an American private collection or was it shipped to a great exhibition and sold – it is hoped that renewed interest in La Trobe and Victoria’s golden past will uncover more information on the ultimate resting place of this unique piece of Victorian history.

If you have any information on the whereabouts or fate of the ‘gold’ testimonial, please contact the Andrew McIntosh from museumandhistory.com at andrew@optimizesbiz.com or via the comment section below.

References

  • The Illustrated London News (London), 17 June 1854
  • The Argus (Melbourne, Vic), 28 December 1853
  • Czernis-Ryl, Eva (ed.), 2011, Brilliant: Australian Gold and Silver 1851-1950, Powerhouse Publishing
  • Hawkins, John, 2001, Australian Goldsmiths’ Work 1834-1950, The World of Antiques & Art December 2000 – June 2001 60th Edition
  • Wellington Independent, Rōrahi IX, Putanga 867, 1 Huitanguru 1854, Page 4, download 3 November 2011, National Library of New Zealand, paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Adapted from ‘La Trobe’s Golden Testimonial’, first published in the La Trobeana (journal of The C J La Trobe Society, Inc. Australia), Vol 10, No 3, November 2011, 48-49.