Era: 1914 - 1918 Cultural background: German Collection: Berrima Theme:Berrima Gaol Folk Art Gaol German Internment Internment Prisoners of War WW1
Serviette rings, 1916. Photograph Stephen Thompson
Berrima District Museum, Berrima, Australia.
The two serviette rings are made from turned wood, possible from the bough of a local tree. The two rings were made by Berrima German internees for Joseph Williams of the 23rd Berrima Guard. Serviette Ring A is in good condition. Dimensions: 45mm high x 47mm in diameter. It is inscribed ‘Nellie. Berrima’ on the front and “1916″ on the back. Serviette Ring B is in good condition. Dimensions: 43mm high x 46mm in diameter. It is inscribed ‘Baby. Berrima’ on the front and ’1916′ on the back.
Berrima Camp internees’ gathering c.1915. Paul Dubotzki Collection
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 themselves 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
The internees like those at Trial Bay Gaol and Holsworthy formed craft groups to make toys for children at other internment camp 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 Berrima serviette rings are historically significant as evidence of a cultural tradition that migrated with the German communities to Australia in the 1840s. The serviette rings is evidence of the strong artistic and intellectual traditions of the German internees at Berrima, Trial Bay and Holsworthy.
The Berrima serviette rings 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 Berrima serviette rings provides 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 serviette rings 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 Berrima serviette rings have an intangible significance to 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 it. 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 Berrima serviette rings provenance is strong. The serviette rings, now on display in the Berrima Museum, were donated to the Berrima District Museum by Mrs Nellie Gane, daughter of Joseph Williams.
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 internment camp history.
The Berrima serviette rings represent the culture and traditions of the German internees. They bear similarities with the musical instruments of the internees of the Trial Bay camp. The objects show a strong eye for accuracy and detail and a represent a symbol of German internee’s patriotism and defiance as prisoners. The serviette rings, as part of a larger collection represent the German experience in Australia during World War 1 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 war time. The Collection represents a time when Australia still looked to Britain for foreign policy and held deep suspicions of non British immigrants.
The Berrima serviette rings importance lies in their potential to interpret the place as a site associated with 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 Gaol and those who were deported after the War only to return as migrants and become successful members of the Australian community despite their experiences.
Simons, J 1999, Prisoners in Arcady, Bowral.
Fischer, G W & Helmi, N 2006, Internment at Trial Bay during World War I, Migration Heritage Centre & Dept Environment & Conservation.
Fischer, G W 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.
Migration Heritage Centre
June 2006 – updated 2011
Edited by Bob Williams- Hon Curator
Berrima District Museum
Crown copyright 2006©
The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.
Berrima Disctrict Historical and Family History Society