Alastair Kennedy from the Australian
Demographic and Social Research Institute at Canberra's ANU, has
unearthed a handful of unusual war brides from the First World War.
Alastair writes about the brides he has found...
Contrary to official policy, both Chinese-Australians and Aboriginal
Australians enlisted in the 1st AIF to fight alongside their fellow
countrymen of European parentage. The story of the 400 or so Aboriginal
diggers has been well documented but that of the Chinese-Australians
and their British war brides has, with a few exceptions, passed
unnoticed, unrecorded and, in family histories, conveniently forgotten
because of the taint of ‘mixed blood’.
Australia's early Chinese population
The 1911 Federal Census recorded some 23,000 full-blooded and
half-caste Chinese males in Australia. Of these only 2,300 were born in
Australia and thus, if between the ages of 18 and 45, eligible to
enlist provided they could persuade the Recruiting Officer they were
‘of sufficiently European parentage or descent’. Morag Loh estimates
the numbers eligible were very small, perhaps no more than 800 to
1,000. I have identified 197 from the Service records held by the
National Archives of Australia , the Australian War Memorial, ADFA, La
Trobe University, the Chinese museums in Cairns, Bendigo and Melbourne,
and various family histories.
Some 15,400 war brides sailed for Australia in 1919 to be reunited with
their Australian Digger husband or fiancées. On examining AIF Service
Records I found that 5 Chinese-Australians had married British girls
whilst in the UK and that 3 had joined their husbands in Australia
after the war, with one more coming out as a fiancée and marrying her
soldier in Sydney.
The Assassin of Gallipoli
The one soldier who did not bring his war bride back was William Edward
Sing DCM, Belgian Croix de Guerre, the famous sniper from Queensland,
nicknamed The Assassin of Gallipoli. In 1917, whilst in Edinburgh, he
met and married Elizabeth Stewart, the daughter of a Royal Navy cook
and a restaurant waitress by employment. She appears in his Service
Record as his next of kin and, according to one source Sing
successfully applied in December 1918 to the Australian High Commission
in London for a free passage for his wife from Scotland to Queensland.
But nothing seems to have happened. In August 1919 Sing wrote to the
Repatriation Office in Brisbane saying that his wife, in her most
recent letter of 28 May, had not received any instructions about her
passage to Australia. Thereafter there is silence. Elizabeth never
arrived in Clermont and probably never took ship to Australia.
but speculate about the reason for her non-appearance. Perhaps a clue
lies in two of the pages of Billy Sing’s medical records. He married
Elizabeth in late June 1917 and then returned to his unit in France. On
the medical records dated in early December 1917 there are two entries
relating to his admission to the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing
Station and 39 General Hospital at Le Havre, firstly with a diagnosis
of VD and then syphilis. He was away from his unit for a total of 60
days. Perhaps Elizabeth came to hear of this and decided he was not the
best choice for a husband?
Henry Gee married 18-year-old Gwendoline Reid
By contrast, Henry Frederick Ah Gee, born in Bowen in 1894, enlisted in
1915, was sent first to Gallipoli and then to the Western Front and
England. There, he met and later married Gwendoline Eva (nee Reid) in
Grantham on 12 March 1917. She was just 18 years old, a spinster and
the daughter of Walter Harold Reid (deceased), a builder, of 17 Norton
She came out to Australia and settled with him in
Bowen where he became a Sanitary Inspector. According to the Bowen
Electoral Rolls of 1925 and 1930 they lived in Gregory Street, but
later moved to Brisbane. When the Second World War came he re-enlisted
under the name of Gee and served from late 1940 to late 1941 with the
rank of Warrant Officer. He was still alive in 1968, writing letters to
Central Army Records in Melbourne complaining about his missing ANZAC
medal for service at Gallipoli in 1915.
Did James Foo go AWOl to marry Marion Ralphs?
James Foo, born in Auchenflower, Brisbane, in 1894, enlisted in
November 1915 and trained at Enoggera Camp. He was Catholic, a carter
by trade and his father Charles Foo is described as a farmer. He became
a driver in 41 Bn with whom he served in France. After the Armistice he
worked with No 3 Group HQ in England, possibly in the London area. In
June 1919 he was Absent without Leave (AWOL) for some 24 hours and
forfeited a day’s pay. Perhaps this is connected with his marriage on
13 August 1919 in St Aloysius’s Roman Catholic Chapel near Euston
Station, London, to Marion Ralphs (formerly Nolan), aged 26, a widow,
whose father Michael Nolan (deceased) was described as a ‘Linen Card
They later embarked together with one child on SS
Benalla, arrived in Brisbane on 29 November 1919 and went to the house
in Lang Parade, Auchenflower, in which his widowed mother Bridget
lived. He was eventually discharged from the Army in late January 1920.
James returned to his trade as a carter, with Marion shown as
performing ‘household duties’ on the Electoral Rolls of Toowong Sub
District, Brisbane, at the same address in 1921 and 1936.
George Gook, left behind a girlfriend and married Lilian Bence
George Edward Gook, born in Mysia, Victoria, in 1895, enlisted in
September 1914 at the very start of the War. He was a labourer, like
his father and many of his family who lived around Inglewood. On his
enlistment papers he wrote “In the event of Edith Pretty giving birth
to a child before July 1915 I agree to allot one fifth of my pay to the
child”! He was wounded at Gallipoli and on the Western Front in France.
His military record is patchy; he made Sergeant but was also
court-martialled in the field for absence and sentenced to 5 years
penal servitude, later reduced because of his ‘good character and
service record’. When in England, probably at Codford Training Camp,
near Warminster, Wiltshire, he met Lilian May Bence, also aged 24, and
they married at Trowbridge Parish Church, Wiltshire, on 17 February
1919. She sailed with him back to Australia on SS Dunvegan Castle,
arriving in Melbourne on 23 August 1919. He was discharged from the
Army in September and he took her to Inglewood where they settled in
Sullivan Street near his extended family. He returned to being a
labourer and they appear on the Inglewood Electoral Rolls in 1919,
1924, 1931 and 1936. By 1938 they had moved to Powlett Road, Inglewood,
and he applied to Army Records for a copy of his Army discharge papers
lost in a fire some 12 years earlier.
James Sam and Harriet Hill
The Sam brothers – James Francis and Henry Herbert – from West Wyalong
in New South Wales, enlisted in 1915 and served first in Gallipoli and
then in France. At least 3 if not 4 of their other brothers also
enlisted – the family story is shown in Morag Loh’s book as an
example of how the local press praised such a patriotic family, even if
they were of Chinese descent (but with a white Australian mother,
formerly Miss Jane Bennet).
James Francis met Harriet Hill either
during his stay at the Perham Down camp in 1917 or after the war had
ended when in London on leave; she came out by boat as his fiancée in
1920 and they married in Sydney later that year. They stayed on in
Sydney, James Francis changed the family name from ‘Sam’ to ‘Sams’, he
became a grocer and they lived firstly at 37c Rose Street, Glebe, (1930
Electoral Roll) and later at 193 Botany Road, Mascot (1936).
Henry Herbert and Ethel Kirby arrived with a baby
Herbert met Ethel Kirby in Birmingham where they were married at St
Mathias Parish Church on 19 February 1917. In September 1919 she
accompanied him and one child on the SS Prinz Ludwig to Australia. They
settled in Sydney, also changing the family surname from ‘Sam’ to
‘Sams’, and Henry Herbert became a grocer, appearing on the 1930 and
1936 Electoral Rolls at 45 Royal Street, Maroubra.
I wonder what reception these English war brides had on their arrival
in Australia? Given the death of some 60,000 Australian males in the
Great War, new females from Britain (and elsewhere) were seen as
unwelcome competition for Australian girls, and many of the war bride
troop ships were met at the docks by hostile crowds of local females.
Although intermarriage between Chinese-Australians and white European
women had occurred since the days of the gold rushes, the status of
such women in a predominantly white and racially intolerant Australia
was somewhat precarious. There may be some accounts in their letters
home to their parents in Britain of what the Mrs Ah Gee, Gook and Sam
experienced but, sadly, if these once existed, they are not in the
The book by Morah Loh is Dinky-Di: the contributions of Chinese immigrants and Australians of Chinese descent to Australia's defence forces and war efforts 1899-1906. Published by the Australian Government Publishing Service, 1989.
If you know of a war bride of a Chinese-Australian Alastair would love to hear from you. He is also very keen to find some pictures of these couples.