1916 – 1918 Trial Bay Soldiers and Internees Buttons

Era: Cultural background: , , Collection: Theme:Archaeology Gaol German Internment Internment Prisoners of War Trial Bay Gaol WW1

Soldiers and Internees buttons, circa 1916 - 1918
Soldiers and Internees buttons, c.1916-1918. Photograph Stephen Thompson

Trial Bay Gaol, South West Rocks, Australia.

Object Name
Soldiers and Internees Buttons.

Object/Collection Description
The Buttons are made from pressed metal. They have combination two hole and four hole stitching holes. They are 20 – 30mm in diameter. The have inscriptions such as ‘Commonwealth’, ‘B. Grimm & Co Singapore’, ‘Best Solid Ring’, ‘IJ Campbell & Co Singapore’. Ah Foon Singapore’, ‘Our Own Make’, ‘Campbell & Co Penang’, Leong Cheong & Co Singapore’, Whiteway Laidlow & Co Ltd’.

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). The internees at Trial Bay Gaol created their own management committees that organised entertainment, sport, culture and arts activities. The internees spent nearly two years at the camps and the object they left behind reveal something about their lives. These buttons reflect that they detained from all over South East Asia, the Pacific and Australia.

The Buttons are historically significant as evidence of the wide and diverse groups from Australia and South East Asia of people working and interred there.

The Buttons have aesthetic significance in the design and manufacture of clothing items for Australian Soldiers Uniforms and garment makers from South East Asia and Europe.

The Buttons 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 Trial Bay Collection reveals of the diverse skills and backgrounds of the people interned there, including their educational and cultural background. Members of the Trial Bay internee community included wealthy industrialists, doctors, academics, publishers, professionals and entrepreneurs from Australia and South East Asia as well as Australian guards and Soldiers.

The Buttons have an intangible significance to German Australian Community as internees and guards families have a common link to the place and many people of German heritage 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 South West Rocks community. The place is a focal point for both Australians of Germans decent and visiting German nationals. The Photograph Printing Frames is a part of a collection that has strong links to the community. It is part of a group of objects that holds pride of place in the Trial Bay Museum as an inherently German object from World War I.

The Buttons are exceptionally well provenanced to the site. They were excavated from the drains of the Trial Bay Gaol during restoration work in the 1980s.

The button are 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 Trial Bay and World War I Australian internment camp history. The Buttons represents cosmopolitan nature and diversity of the background of the people interned there.

The Buttons, as part of a larger collection represents 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. This is evidenced in the concentration camp nature of the internment, the isolation of the place, the boredom that resulted in the detailed and precise immaculate Buttons and toy furniture.

The importance of the Buttons lies their potential to interpret the place 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 interred at Trial Bay and those who were deported after the War only to return as migrants and become successful members of the Australian community despite their experiences.


Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Was it only Yesterday? Australia in the Twentieth Century World, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Davies, P 2000, Trial Bay Gaol Conservation Management & Cultural Tourism Plan, Dept Environment & Conservation.

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.

Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
2006 – updated 2011

Crown copyright 2006©

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