Ellie Wharton Kirke: serving the cause

This next post is contributed by Dr Bart Ziino, a senior lecturer in twentieth-century Australian history at Deakin University. Bart is currently working on a history of the homefront in WWI, and his research has uncovered this very interesting Australian woman with a moving and powerful story to tell.

Ellie Wharton Kirke (1865-1945) was a celebrated figure in wartime Australia.

Not only was she a living emblem of wartime sacrifice – all four of her sons served – but she initiated the immensely successful ‘Australia Day’ fundraising effort in 1915. Mrs Kirke represented the kind of patriotic women so important to sustaining the war at home, but her experiences show that patriotism was neither blind, nor un-attuned to the costs of that commitment. As potent as her activities were in supporting the war, Ellie Wharton Kirke’s wartime activism was bound to her anxiety – and grief – surrounding her sons at the front.

Wealthy Catholics Ellie and Samuel Wharton Kirke were prominent in regional New South Wales, before moving to Manly with their five children early in the new century. The prompts to war work were intimate and personal as much as they extended pre-war charitable work. Errol Wharton Kirke’s service in New Guinea in 1914 prompted his mother’s first appeal for comforts. While impressed by her daughter’s efforts in raising funds for the Belgians, the enlistment of her sons Basil and Hunter in early 1915 affirmed her attention to the fighting front. With the Australians fighting at Gallipoli, and noting the success of ‘Belgian Day’ in May 1915, Kirke proposed an ‘Australia Day’, to be conducted throughout the country in support of the men in the trenches.

The first Australia Day

The very first ‘Australia Day’ was celebrated, not on January 26 (that was ‘Foundation Day’ until 1935), but on July 30, 1915. It captured a wave of patriotic emotion that had swelled with the fighting and the losses at Gallipoli, as well as a sense of urgency and seriousness relating to the war more generally. The public gave and gave generously, producing a fund of some £750,000. Wharton Kirke served well as a symbol of the mood and the need to give. All four of her sons were now in service (though Basil was soon discharged) including one with the Imperial garrison in the Malay Straits. Her three brothers also testified to those imperial bonds: one served with the Canadians, another with the New Zealanders, and a third with the Australians. When Proud’s jewellers produced 5000 medallions commemorating the landing at Anzac for sale on the day, they struck three more in gold– one for King George V, one for King Albert of Belgium, and one for Ellie Wharton Kirke, presented on behalf of Sydney citizens for her good work.

‘The awful strain they are enduring for you and I…’

Wharton Kirke’s further fundraising appeals increasingly emphasised the sufferings of the men at the front, who needed support ‘to stand the awful strain they are enduring for you and I, for King, Australia, and sunny New South Wales.’ In a terrible blow, in August 1916 Errol was killed at Pozieres. The pain of loss did not diminish Ellie’s belief in the cause, but it did begin to expose the emotional resources underpinning commitment, and their potential to fragment.

Though at odds with many fellow Catholics, Ellie appealed for a ‘yes’ vote in the 1916 conscription poll.

Unlike the caricatures of patriotic women appearing in pro-conscription (and indeed anti-conscription) propaganda, her main theme was alleviating the suffering of men at the front who had, she insisted, ‘for two solid years … been going through hell … without one week’s rest.’

Such were her anguished feelings that Ellie Wharton Kirke could not wait for the outcome of the vote. She had already requested that military authorities grant her remaining son leave to return to Australia, a request that they rejected. Though in May 1917 she continued to urge commitment to the war effort, privately she struggled to carry on. In April Ellie appealed again to have her son relieved. She declared that since 1914, ‘I have borne this awful strain that I feel I can no longer endure.’ Errol’s death had caused her to become ‘very ill—under Doctor’s care and do not expect I’ll ever be better’. She beseeched authorities to let her see her ‘baby son, once before I die.’ Again Ellie Wharton Kirke’s appeals were denied. When in September 1917 she joined a clamour demanding furlough for Gallipoli veterans, her distress emerged as sharp criticism of ‘shirkers’, whose failure to relieve the men at the front left ‘mothers and wives, who have borne the strain so long … physical, nervous wrecks.’

Remembrance

The end of the war provided relief from that long agony, just as it opened greater space for public expressions of grief. In 1924, Ellie and Samuel gave public form to their private grieving as they donated a stained-glass window to the Mary Immaculate Church at Manly in memory of Errol. In these communities such acts drew attention to mourners’ suffering as much as to those they mourned. Even as Anzac Day became an event in which men literally took centre stage, Wharton Kirke continued to assert the sacrifices that she and others had made alongside their men. In Melbourne on Anzac Day 1926, she distributed rosemary and carnations to men as they marched, the former in memory of the dead, and the latter for the men’s mothers.

Despite such fleeting reminders, women’s efforts during the war were far from forgotten in their own communities. In December 1926, friends honoured Ellie Wharton Kirke’s war and charity work with a cabaret evening under the title ‘Australia will be there’. In 1935 she received a Royal Jubilee medal, and on the award in 1936 of an MBE, Sydney’s Catholic Press celebrated Wharton Kirke as ‘a well-known worker in the Manly parish, [holding] the esteem of all classes and creeds.’ Directors of the Australian War Memorial, in their turn, were very pleased to receive Ellie Wharton Kirke’s donation of her gold Gallipoli medallion – an important reminder of civilian effort in its growing collection of soldiers’ testimonies.

Even as Ellie enjoyed that recognition, her health declined. For Kirke, this was a sign of her war experience. It was, she said in 1937, the ‘many major shocks thro the war’ twenty years earlier that had left her unable to bear a more recent upset, and ‘so I [have] had a very bad breakdown’. In 1941 ill health ruined her chance to attend the official opening of the Australian War Memorial.

Up until her death on 10 October 1945 Ellie Wharton Kirke placed ‘in memoriam’ notices in the Sydney Morning Herald for her son lost in 1916. They were a reminder of one life cut short, but also of another drained by the experience of committing herself to the cause.

See also Bart Ziino, “‘I feel I can no longer endure’: families and the limits of commitment in Australia, 1914-19”, in Endurance and the First World War: Experiences and Legacies in New Zealand and Australia, eds David Monger, Sarah Murray and Katie Pickles (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 103-17.

With thanks to Dr Kerry Neale, Australian War Memorial, for her assistance.

© Bart Ziino 2017

1 Comment


  1. Thank you Bart for your story of my great grandmother Mrs Ellen Wharton-Kirke. I have been researching her life, in addition to other members of the family and find myself being inspired by their passion, determination and also sad at the impact WW1 had on their lives. Would you let me where the quote ‘I have had a bad breakdown came from? I know this is true however, unaware of any correspondance. Yours sincerely Trisha Petgro

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