Lost at sea, my uncle John Messenger – ERA HMAS AE1

John Messenger - Photo Courtesy Vera Ryan

Photo – courtesy Vera Ryan

My uncle John Messenger, known as Jack, was born in Ballarat, Victoria. He became a fitter and turner and studied to be a draughtsman. He was the eldest son, with six siblings. My father Albert was the second youngest. Jack was 20 when he was born.

Jack moved to Melbourne and enlisted in the Royal Navy as a crew member on the Australian Station in 1909.

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Fashions on the harbour: Fox furs and cloche hats

Woman posing on board HNLMS Java
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

Object of the week has taken a different direction this week – it’s all about vintage fashion. The museum’s Samuel J Hood collection has been a pleasure to investigate and research. So I found myself mesmerised when I came across these beautiful photographs, shot during the Japanese, Dutch and Chilean naval visits to Sydney Harbour in 1924, 1930 and 1931. Placed within the context of newspaper reports, these stylish ladies symbolise the excitement and attraction that surrounded foreign visits to Australia. They form a part of the vibrant social and cultural fabric of 1920s and 1930s Sydney and display the elements that made the harbour the tourist destination it is today.

Tennis party at Victoria Barracks
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

In 1924, Sydneysiders flocked to the harbour to welcome three armoured cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Naval Squadron, IJN Iwate, Asama and Yakumo. Led by Admiral Makoto Saito, Japanese sailors visited an array of local attractions including Taronga Zoo and the University of Sydney. A Japanese naval officer and two unidentified women are pictured here at a tennis party, which was held on the morning of 26 January at Victoria Barracks in Paddington. Other social events were held at Government House and historic Rowe Street, the bohemian, avant-garde centre of Sydney. The Sydney Morning Herald provided detailed fashion reports, of a ‘three-piece suit of beige silk crepe’, the ‘frock of mole cashmere de soie’ and ‘golden brown lace…embroidered with tortoise-shell beads’.

The visit of the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1930 attracted similar public interest. The light cruisers HNLMS Java, Eversten and De Ruyter moored at West Circular Quay amidst the excitement of the nearly completed Sydney Harbour Bridge. Officers and ratings were granted free transport on Sydney trams and ferries and free entry to theatres. Luncheons and dinners were hosted in their honour, again in Rowe Street’s trendy clubs and function rooms. As with the Japanese navy, Hood was where the action was and often focussed on the social elements of the visit. He shot a series of photographs of women posing on board the Dutch vessels and took spectacular night views of the ships moored at the wharf.

Mrs Elsa Evans on the deck of HNLMS Java
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

In July 1931, the Armada de Chile visited Sydney in its corvette, General Baquedano. Commanded by Captain Luis Alvarez, his crew consisted of seventeen officers, three sub-officers and 292 men. The ship moored at East Circular Quay and, like the Japanese and Dutch visits, the Chileans attracted significant public interest and their daily activities were reported in the SMH. The crew placed a wreath at the Martin Place cenotaph and opened their vessel to the public. The squadron’s eventual departure from Sydney Harbour two weeks later was quite a dramatic event, with one rating attempting to desert ship and swim ashore! He was eventually returned to the vessel in a rowing boat before it left Sydney for New Zealand.

On board General Baquedano at Circular Quay
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

These photographs, and the newspaper reports of the time, highlight the attention and excitement that surrounded foreign naval visits to Sydney’s shores. They also demonstrate how Hood’s status as a brilliant photojournalist rested in his aesthetic sensibility and artistic vision. He clearly had an eye for detail, but these images are more than just pretty snapshots of fashion-savvy ladies. They inspire the viewer with a sense of nostalgic wonder; and though it’s a romantic view, they encourage us to contemplate the stories behind these faces. These images visually express how Sydney society was shaped by these visits and defined by its irresistible harbourside charm.

Next week, my colleague Penny Hyde will bring you another fashion-focussed post, so watch this space.

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

Members annual tour of Spectacle Island

Our ANMM Members visited Spectacle Island on 22 July for their annual tour of the island with the Director Naval Heritage Collection, Commander Shane Moore, CSM, RAN.

Commander Moore with Members

Commander Moore with Members on Spectacle Island

Spectacle Island lies in the main channel of the western harbour off Drummoyne and is significant as Australia’s oldest naval explosives manufacturing and storage complex.

The Royal Navy Australian Squadron selected Spectacle Island in 1860 as a storage site for the colonial government’s gunpowder. The buildings were mainly built of sandstone and had slate roofs. The shape of the island began changing as well, the area of the island had been increased by about a hectare through reclamation works utilising spoil from the old Balmain coalmine.

Cockatoo Island (rear) and Spectacle Island (front)

Cockatoo Island (rear) and Spectacle Island (front)

In 1884 Spectacle Island became the naval armament depot and the colonial government’s explosives were removed. Existing buildings were altered and new ones were constructed to suit the new military needs, and the completed installations were at the forefront of munitions handling and storage technology at the time.

The RAN took over Spectacle from the Royal Navy in 1913 and in its more recent years was used as a repository for naval objects and archival material.

Royal Navy book dated 1802

Royal Navy book dated 1802

Ships bells stored at Spectacle Island

Ships bells stored at Spectacle Island

Today you explore the remnants of this industrial and naval history as you wander around the island and see some of the remaining relics, artifacts, archival material and naval memorabilia housed in the buildings and the grounds.  It is a treasure trove for a maritime and naval enthusiast and members were lucky enough to see some extraordinarily rare objects – a huge array of ships models, collections of ships bells, a salvaged life boat from the HMAS Voyager disaster, Nelsons Nights Orders written the day preceding the battle of Trafalgar, signal mast from HMAS Sydney I, rare book collection and much much more…

Spectacle Island is not open for public visitation as it is still an operational navy base, so be sure you don’t miss the next annual tour next year. Special thanks to the Navy and to Commander Moore for allowing the Museum Members to tour the island.

For more photos from the annual Members tour of Spectacle Island, click here to see our Members Flickr Page.

If you’re interested in taking part in future exclusive events, see our Members page on the ANMM website (or drop into the museum) for more information on how you can become a valuable member of the National Maritime Museum.