The War Heritage Roadshow launches in North Melbourne

April 17 / 192

It can be reasonably argued that Australia's experience of war, especially in the First and Second World Wars, helped shape our sense of ourselves as a nation, and as a community with a distinctive ethos and way of life.

To provide opportunities for future generations to understand, investigate and value these experiences, the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation is working to make sure significant material relating to Australia's war heritage is preserved, not just in official national and state institutions, but also in personal, family and community collections.

Last month, in partnership with the Department of Premier and Cabinet – Veterans Branch, the Grimwade Centre staff and students launched the first event of the inaugural War Heritage Roadshow at the Public Record Office of Victoria, providing 45 individual consultations to members of the community on their war heritage objects. 

In addition to individual consultations, experts and students were on hand to provide information about caring for their objects, donating to collections, and how to research family military history. 

Dr Sue Olney, a University of Melbourne staff member, brought in a ‘Sister Susie Shirt’ wash bag, made at school by her grandmother, Joyce Cairns when she was only ten years old.

The ‘Sister Susie Shirts’ were given to First World War diggers to store their socks and soap, with the sleeves and bottoms of the shirt sewn up to make a wash bag. 

“I've always thought it was sweet but I didn't know the story behind the bags themselves”, Dr Olney said. “There aren't many left in Australia, so I feel very lucky to have it.”

The shirts also doubled as a sewing kit to mend uniforms, with the buttons on the shirt providing spares to replace lost ones, as well as needles, thread and even a homemade tape measure in the pocket!

The Sister Susie Shirts entered into folklore with the popular wartime song, Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers, written by RP Weston, composed by Hermann e Darewski. 

In a version sung by American crooner Al Jonson, the tongue-twisting lyrics speed up, causing soldiers who are singing (and drinking!) to slur their words.  

Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers,

Such skill at sewing shirts our shy young sister Susie shows!

Some soldiers send epistles, say they’d rather sleep in thistles

Than the saucy soft short shirts for soldiers sister Susie sews.

Dr Olney doesn’t know why her bag wasn’t sent to the front line, “perhaps my grandmother's sewing wasn't up to scratch! But I love the thought of these little bags made by children bringing some comfort and a sense of home to men living through terrible circumstances.”

The series continues on April 26 and 27 in Ballarat and April 28 and 29 in Bendigo, with more locations and dates around Victoria to be announced soon. 

The roadshow events are free but bookings are essential via the website.

Story by the Grimwade Centre's Felicity Strong.

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