Precious WW1 flag on the mend

Jigsaw: Textile conservator Skye Firth works on the historic 1917 Birdwood Flag.
Jigsaw: Textile conservator Skye Firth works on the historic 1917 Birdwood Flag.

Miracles can happen – with a little help. 

When the nation’s historic and culturally significant 1917 Birdwood Flag literally fell to pieces in Newcastle after more than six decades in use, it became almost forgotten.

Once revered, the military flag had hung above the tomb of the Fallen Soldier in St Michael’s Chapel – or the Warriors’ Chapel – inside Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral. 

By the 1980s, however, the prized relic had fallen apart, reduced to thousands of fragile pieces of coloured fabric.  Against normal tradition, the remnants instead of being disposed of were collected and stored for safekeeping, to become “a big box of confetti”.

Still flying: The replacement Australian ensign in the Warriors’ Chapel is blue, not red, like the original 1917 Birdwood Flag that later disintegrated. Photo: Mike Scanlon

Still flying: The replacement Australian ensign in the Warriors’ Chapel is blue, not red, like the original 1917 Birdwood Flag that later disintegrated. Photo: Mike Scanlon

Then the disastrous 1989 earthquake struck and, in the confusion and cathedral rebuilding, the flag was overlooked and it was feared gone forever. 

But, thanks to the dedication and skills of a group of enthusiasts, the lost treasure which is the Birdwood Flag has survived, despite the odds, to reach its centenary.

It’s a remarkable story of Newcastle locals persevering to restore a cultural icon and to make a special contribution to the World War I centenary commemorations.

The special red ensign, now nearing full restoration with a Sydney firm, is due to return in a special case to its former in-situ glory at a re-hallowing service planned for Christ Church Cathedral on July 30.

Two textile conservators in Sydney have already spent hundreds of hours stitching each flag fragment carefully back into place on new backing. Parts of the fabric, however, have been distorted by the weight of it hanging on its pole for decades.

This same flag once graced the field headquarters of General William Riddell Birdwood near Ypres, Belgium. Birdwood was the commander of Australian forces on the Western Front in World War I.

The Birdwood Flag has national historic significance and is believed to be the first officially sanctioned Australian flag created by a local community and presented in a field of war. That was on September 13, 1917. Funds for the flag’s creation came from a public Hunter appeal, topped up by the sale of flowers organised by the Newcastle Field Force Fund and its secretary, Miss Dora Sparke, whose two brothers had gone to war.

This group of patriotic Newcastle women existed to help Australian soldiers in war zones, providing items from tobacco to toothbrushes and warm clothing. 

Dora Sparke was also determined that Australian troops fighting overseas under the overall British command should be honoured with an official Australian flag to also fight under.

After the war, the flag came back to Australia. While on a visit to Australia in April 1920, General Birdwood personally returned the flag to Dora Sparke at a Newcastle civic reception. It was then later decided this Birdwood Flag, as it had now become known, should find its home in the Warriors’ Chapel when completed. However, after 60 years of exposure to sunlight, salt, smoke and humidity the flag disintegrated. That was in the 1980s.

Enter now many years later Newcastle University Fine Arts scholar Bronwyn Orrock. She was researching the various items in the collection of Christ Church Cathedral, but no one seemed to have seen the missing Birdwood Flag. A previous Cathedral Dean had fortunately put pieces of the flag aside as it fell into virtually confetti.

The present Dean of Newcastle, the Very Reverend Stephen Williams, was alerted and the flag relics were discovered in a shoebox inside a safe in early 2013.

The flag relics were discovered in a shoebox.

Finally, the Birdwood Flag Restoration Project was launched at the Cathedral on April 22, 2016. Heritage committee members include Dean Williams, Dr Rosemary Barnard, Major Roland Millbank (Retd), conservator Dr Amir Mogadam and Dr Patrica Gillard. 

As a Cathedral partner in the project, the University of  Newcastle gave strong support, especially staff, with in-kind expertise also from International Conservation Services, Sydney. Funding was provided by the Copland Foundation in Melbourne, the National Library of Australia and the NSW Department of Justice.

But the mystery still remains of who exactly was the actual flag maker 100 years ago? The flag, with its Southern Cross on a red background, was made of high-quality silk.

The Warriors’ Chapel inside Christ Church Cathedral was an appropriate place for the original Birdwood Flag. The chapel, itself rich in Anzac symbolism, was built in the 1920s as a memorial for all those who served, and especially those who died, in the Great War (1914-1918).

General Sir William Birdwood was made a Field Marshal less than a decade after World War I in recognition of his services as commander-in-chief of the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force in WWI. Field Marshal is the highest rank in the Australian Army.

The now truncated Birdwood Park in the West End is probably named after this popular WWI general.

Birdwood Heritage Committee member Major Roland Millbank (Retired) described the once lost flag as “quite unique” and very important to the people of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

“It was extremely fragile when discovered and it’s been a big job to try and conserve it and put it all back together,” he said.

“It’s made of silk and was red which might be quite surprising to many people as the replacement one now hanging in the Warrior’s Chapel is blue. This present chapel flag is from 1908.

“The stars though on the original flag being restored are not quite right, but it’s unusual in that it is hand-made, was created from public donations and is of silk. It’s unique also in that it flew over Birdwood’s headquarters in Belgium”.

The original bright colours of the newly restored 1917 flag when unveiled soon will not be recreated. But in the words of the Birdwood Heritage Committee, “enough of the flag remains to know that it was beautiful and spectacular, as befits an object created out of love”.