1915 Berrima Dolls House

Era: Cultural background: Collection: Theme:Berrima Gaol Folk Art Gaol German Internment Internment Prisoners of War Toys WW1
Dolls House circa 1915- 19
Dolls House, c.1915-1919. Photograph by Stephen Thompson

Berrima District Museum, Berrima, Australia.

Object Name
Dolls House.

Object/Collection Description
The dolls house was made and carved by an internee at Berrima between 1915 and 1919. The box is made from fine grained, light weight timber. It comprises three sections with hand made hinges. Each section contains models of kitchen utensils. The section on the left contains a bucket on a pulley for drawing water from a well. The centre section contains barrels and utensils. The section on the right contains tiny drawers. Good condition. The object was found in pieces and was reconstructed by Bernard Kornfeld and Karen Fuller. Dimensions: 190mm long x 145mm wide x 30mm deep.

The outbreak of fighting in Europe in August 1914 immediately brought Australia into the ‘Great War’. Within one week of the declaration of war all German subjects in Australia were declared ‘enemy aliens’ and were required to report and notify the Government of their address. In February 1915 enemy aliens were interned either voluntarily or on an enforced basis. In New South Wales the principal place of internment was the Holsworthy Military Camp where between 4,000 and 5,000 men were detained. Women and children of German and Austrian descent detained by the British in Asia were interned at Bourke and later Molonglo near Canberra. Former jails were also used. Men were interned at Berrima gaol (constructed 1840s) and Trial Bay gaol (constructed 1889). At these camps the internees organised them selves in to arts & craft societies and organised large German events and festivals to pass their time and to retain a sense of identity.

The internees were allowed a large degree of freedom and self organisation by the Camp authorities. The majority of the internees were German Merchant Seamen, mainly Engineers, Officers and NCOs from the German warship SMS Emden sunk off the west Australian coast by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney in 1914. The regimented and structured nature of Navy culture resulted in the Berrima internees being largely self regulating and self managing.

The internees also found a welcoming community as some of the families in the area were descended from German settlers who came to the district in the 1840s. Despite the anti German diatribes from mainstream media the Berrima residents warmed to the internees who purchased bread, meat from local shops and rented houses for their private use, thus bolstering the local economy. In turn the internees helped local residents to rescue animals, fight bush fires and deal with unwanted snakes in their houses. The local residents helped the internees to gain everyday items like bread and meat but commodities such as newspapers were banned. Given the biased nature of the Australian media the internees preferred to get their newspapers from neutral countries. Simmons notes that “there were certainly guardsmen who… came to respect the industry and abilities of their charges and to be friendly towards them”. The daughter of Sergeant Bennetts, a private in the Berrima Guard, tells that a ‘Sincere respect existed” between guard and internee and on occasions he had to escort an internee to his home for a serious crisis that without exception the guard was made welcome in the home of the internee’s family. 1

Berrima Camp internees gathering, c.1915. Paul Dubotzki Collection
Berrima Camp internees gathering, c.1915. Paul Dubotzki Collection

The internees like those at Trial Bay Gaol and Holsworthy formed craft groups to make toys for children at other internment camps such as Molonglo. Like the internees of Trial Bay this activity provided a distraction to camp life and reinforced a sense of their own cultural identity. But unlike the Internees at Trial Bay, who considered themselves among the top 500 of the German elite in New South Wales, the Berrima internees were seamen, some of whom who had served time on the windjammer clippers and were used to long periods away from home and music was very much a group activity appreciated by them.

The Dolls House is historically significant as evidence of the experience of the German internee’s life at Berrima Gaol during World War I. The models and toys are evidence of a cultural tradition that has migrated with the German migrant communities Australia since the 1840s. The dolls house is evidence of the strong artistic and intellectual traditions of the German internees at Berrima, Trial Bay and Holsworthy.

The Dolls House has aesthetic significance in the design and manufacture of folk art. The internees were educated and cultured in the traditions of German seafarers where carving and model making was valued skill.

The Dolls House a research tool for historians to explore the First World War chapter of Australian history and give the story a wider meaning in the context of the History of migration & settlement of Australia. The material culture of the Berrima Internee Collection reveals the diverse skills and backgrounds of the people interned there, including their educational and cultural background. Members of the Berrima internee community included Ships Officers, engineers, navigators and seamen. The objects they produced and used that remain in the collection reflect this diversity. An object such as the dolls house also displays the level of expertise of the internees and also the amount of time they invested in to cultural and artistic activities to keep themselves occupied and in good spirits. It appears that unlike Trial Bay and Holsworthy the internees at Berrima were, generally, cheerful and optimistic. This could be explained by the mercantile background of the internee’s background and the traditionally long periods spent away from home.

The Dolls House has intangible significance to the Berrima and the German Australian community as internees and guard’s families have a common link to the place and many local residents have developed a strong attachment to the place. Many local residents are collectors and amateur historians carrying out many years of research and documenting the history of the site and the Collection. A lot of information still resides in the memories of the Berrima community. The place is a focal point for both Australians of German descent and visiting German nationals.

The Dolls House’s provenance is strong. This dolls house, now on display in the Berrima Museum, was bought by the donor’s father while on a visit to Berrima date unknown. It was donated to the by Ms W Henderson to Berrima District Historical & Family Historical Society on the 12 October 1969.

The Dolls House and the Berrima Internee Collection is rare in that it relates specifically to the German internee occupation of the site and it is associated with those particular people who emerge as significant participants at the Berrima Internee Camp and World War I German internment camp history.

The Dolls House represents the culture and traditions of the German internees. It bears similarities to the toys and wood working of the internees of the Trial Bay camp. This object shows a strong eye for accuracy and detail and a represent a symbol of German internee’s patriotism and defiance as prisoners. The dolls house, as part of a larger collection represents the German experience in Australia during World War one and Australia’s strong historic links to Britain and the adherence to British foreign policy after Federation. The Collection represents Australia’s fear of subversion during the war and racial antagonism to cultural minorities in wartime. The Collection represents a time when Australia still looked to Britain for foreign policy and held deep suspicions of non British immigrants.

The Dolls House’s importance lies in its potential to interpret the place as a site associated to internment, the internment camp itself and the experience of German communities. The Collection presents the opportunity to interpret the stories of various individuals who were interned at Berrima.


1 Simons, J. Prisoners in Arcady, Bowral, 1999. p.44.


Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1999, Was it only Yesterday? Australia in the Twentieth Century World, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Simons, J 1992, Prisoners in Arcady, Bowral.

Fischer, G W & Helmi, N 2004, Internment at Trial Bay during World War I, unpublished thematic history, Migration Heritage Centre  & Dept Environment & Conservation.

Fischer, G W 1989,  Enemy Aliens, Queensland University Press.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.

Related exhibitions

The History of Berrima

Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
June 2006 – updated 2011

Edited by Bob Williams- Hon Curator
Berrima District Museum
June 2006

Crown copyright 2006©

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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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Regional Services at the Powerhouse Museum is supported by Movable Heritage, NSW funding from the NSW Ministry for the Arts.

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