1900 Berrima Concert Zither

Era: Cultural background: Collection: Theme:Berrima Gaol Folk Art Gaol German Internment Internment Music Prisoners of War WW1
Zither c.1900
Concert Zither, c.1900. Photograph Stephen Thompson

Berrima District Museum, Berrima, Australia.

Object Name
Concert Zither.

Object/Collection Description
The concert zither is made from wood, metal and cloth. It is in excellent condition with the laminated sections being in sound condition and the tuning mechanisms in working order. Dimensions: 580mm long x 300mm wide x 70mm deep.

Zither Cover c.1900
Zither Cover, c.1900. Photograph Stephen Thompson

The concert zither dust cover is made from red felt shaped to the profile of the zither. It is hand embroidered with a music stand, music book leaves and flowers with a scalloped edge. Dimensions: 525 mm long x 315mm wide.

Zither music book c.1900
Zither music book, c.1900. Photograph Stephen Thompson

The zither music book is eight pages and is written in German & English. The book has a white faded cover with the title “Zitherschule” and is inscribed in black in “To my diligent pupil Evie with my best wishes, KP Fingst”. The spine has been repaired with brown adhesive tape and there is evidence of insect attack on pp 3 -8. Dimensions: 195mm long x 285mm wide.

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 choirs and orchestras. From very early on in 1916 the choir at Berrima gave concerts and shortly after the orchestra also gave concerts. These concerts took place on the banks of the River and the internees’ canteen provided cakes and coffee. One of the camps publications Theatre News notes under the heading ‘Art & Literature’ music recitals of the viola, mandolin and zither. 2

The camp had an orchestra, a string orchestra and a brass band. Each gave concerts on a different night of the week and on weekends. This tradition is consistent with the musical tradition of the German migrant communities of South Australia and the Riverina, where bands and orchestras feature large in the cultural landscape of the place. Before World War 1 crews of German cargo steamers formed bands and gave concerts in Sydney’s parks and gardens while their vessels were in port.3

Zither players Ernst Schönfuss and Karl Pfingst rehearse at the Internees river hut <em>Alstertal Villa</em> circa 1916.
Zither players Ernst Schönfuss and Karl Pfingst rehearse at the Internees river hut Alstertal Villa, c.1916. Courtesy Berrima District Museum

A wide variety of music was played at the Camp as evidenced by the surviving programs and music. The repertoire consisted mainly of German and Austrian music with the waltzes of Strauss, von Suppe and Waldteuffel. French composes such as Massenet and Gounod were also performed.

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 zither is historically significant as evidence of a cultural tradition that migrated with the German communities to Australia in the 1840s. The zither is evidence of the strong artistic and intellectual traditions of the German internees at Berrima, Trial Bay and Holsworthy..

The Berrima Internees Orchestra circa 1916. Karl Pfingst is seated at the zither on the right.
The Berrima Internees Orchestra, c.1916. Karl Pfingst is seated at the zither on the right. Courtesy Berrima District Museum

The zither has aesthetic significance in the design and manufacture of German musical instruments. The internees were educated and cultured in the traditions of German seafarers where musicianship was valued skill. The design and manufacture of the zither reflects the wider influence of German culture and heritage in the manufacture of fine musical instruments.

The zither 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 zither also displays the level of expertise of the internees and also the amount of time they invested in to musical and artistic activities 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 zither has intangible significance to the 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 Berrima community. The place is a focal point for both Australians of German decent and visiting German nationals.

The zither’s provenance is strong. This zither, now on display in the Berrima Museum, is the one owned by Karl Pfingst an internee at Berrima and was given to Miss Alice Evelyn Welch of Berrima when his internment ended. It was purchased by the Society in 1995.

The Berrima Internment 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 in World War I Australian internment camp history.

The zither represents the culture and traditions of the German internees. It bears similarities with the musical instruments 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 zither, 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 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 zither’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 Gaol and those who returned to Germany after the War only to return as immigrants and become successful members of the Australian community despite their experiences.


1 Simons, J. Prisoners in Arcady, Bowral, 1999. p.44.
2 Ibid. p194.
3 Ibid. p194.


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

Simons, J 1999, Prisoners in Arcady, Bowral.

Fischer, G W & Helmi, N 2004,Internment at Trial Bay during World War One, 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 exhibition

The History of Berrima

Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
November 2005 – updated 2011

Edited by B Williams- Hon Curator
Berrima District Museum
February 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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