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Marking a 100-year love affair between Brightlingsea and its Anzacs

PUBLISHED: 13:32 23 May 2016 | UPDATED: 13:32 23 May 2016

Brightlingsea Museum's First World War exhibition commemorating the arrival of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the town.
Marriage of Sapper Gordon Henderson to Kitty Fieldgate on 1st August 1917.

Brightlingsea Museum's First World War exhibition commemorating the arrival of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the town. Marriage of Sapper Gordon Henderson to Kitty Fieldgate on 1st August 1917.

During the First World War, the Anzacs arrived in Britain, to live, work, prepare for war, and, in some cases, marry. Sheena Grant finds out how Brightlingsea took the Anzacs to its heart

The marriage of Sapper Stan Stevens to Bertha Sellens on February 23, 1920The marriage of Sapper Stan Stevens to Bertha Sellens on February 23, 1920

One hundred years ago in the small, coastal town of Brightlingsea, life was about to get a lot more interesting.

Two years after the start of the First World War, the local population of just 4,500 was swollen by the arrival of the troops from the other side of the world.

These taller, broader, suntanned men, dressed differently and spoke with strange accents. They must have seemed exotic, fascinating and a little bit bewildering to the locals, many of whom would have never travelled outside their home county.

But the people of Brightlingsea took the Anzac - Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - men to their hearts, both figuratively and, in some cases, quite literally.

Margaret Stone (left) and Ann Berry at Brightlingsea Museum, which is commemorating the centenary of the arrival of Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the town.Margaret Stone (left) and Ann Berry at Brightlingsea Museum, which is commemorating the centenary of the arrival of Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the town.

Less than a year later, the first marriage took place between a local girl and a visiting antipodean. It was one of more than 30 weddings that cemented links down the years between Brightlingsea, Australia and New Zealand.

Some of the Anzac brides moved Down Under with their new husbands but some stayed locally with their new spouses, becoming part of the Brightlingsea community with their families.

The people of Brightlingsea have never forgotten the part played in their history by the Anzacs and this year, to mark the centenary of their arrival, an exhibition is being held at the town’s museum with events planned over the June 17-19 weekend.

Ann Berry, of the Friends of Brightlingsea Musuem, has been trying to trace the descendants of those cross-continent marriages from a list of 29 Australians and three New Zealanders who married local women. And, she says, it’s impossible to over-estimate the impact the men had on the town.

Medal presentation in Brightlingsea during the First World WarMedal presentation in Brightlingsea during the First World War

Brightlingsea was the only base on the east coast for training Anzac troops for the First World War. They learned bridge-building and trench-digging in the soft mud and tidal creeks that made the area such a perfect training ground for the conditions they were likely to encounter on the Western Front.

The troops soon outnumbered the depleted local male population (many were already away, fighting) and frequented local pubs, where they were apparently renowned for their drinking and games.

“There were up to 10,000 soldiers from Australia and New Zealand,” says Ann. “The Australians stayed the longest and had the biggest impact. They came here because in this part of Essex, the terrain was considered compatible with some parts of the frontline. They were not frontline soldiers but behind-the-lines men, although they often ended up in the line of fire.”

A small British military training depot was set up in the town at the start of the war but it wasn’t until the Australian Engineers Training Depot was established in 1916 that things really began to change.

Some Australians were battle-hardened troops, often from Gallopoli, acting as instructors and some were brand new recruits but all were volunteers. At the end of the course, the men were deployed on active service overseas and more Anzacs arrived to be trained.

“The ones coming from Australia came to England via Portsmouth or Southampton before arriving here by train,” says Ann. “They came for a two to three-month course before being sent to Western Front. There were probably hundreds here at any one time with batches of 500-600 coming and going. There was a summer encampment on the recreation ground with up to 1500. In the winter months, when it was too cold to be under canvas, they were billeted in people’s homes.

“There was an impact both ways. Many of the townspeople did not know what to expect. These guys turned up, bronzed, fit and healthy from the colonies with unusual accents. All had to be accepted in people’s houses. It wasn’t long before both sides were pretty chuffed with each other. When summer came they didn’t want to be chucked out on to the recreation ground with army cooking when they had been enjoying home-cooked food. Local people didn’t want them to go either - if you had a soldier billeted with you, the army gave you an allowance and you could take food from army stores.”

Of course, in those circumstances, it wasn’t long before romances developed between local girls and the exotic guests.

“There were 30-plus marriages,” says Ann. “The earliest was in 1917 and they went on up to 1920, with some of the men remaining, clearing up after the war.”

Not all of the romances ended happily and there are stories of several babies being born to unmarried mothers, a social taboo.

“There was undoubtedly suffering for some,” says Ann. “The story goes that the army at the end of the war sent a horse-drawn wagon round houses to collect things and a couple of babies were offered up - there were several born out of wedlock. That’s been heard by word of mouth. We don’t really know what happened to them.”

And even though the Anzacs were not frontline soldiers, some still lost their lives in the Great War.

“One of the three New Zealanders who married a local girl died two months after on the Western Front,” says Ann. “His wife remarried and I have heard from the family of the second marriage as part of the research I’ve done for the centenary.

“One New Zealander stayed here and we are in touch with his grand daughter. The third went back to New Zealand and we’ve had emails from his family there.

“There are no reports of any of the Australians (who married local girls) being killed. We’ve been in touch with 10 families. Seven have been in touch from Australia and the others are here in England.”

The research has been a big part of Ann’s life for the last few months - she’s even been on Australian radio five times. “I’ve taken it as my personal challenge to try and trace as many descendants as I can,” she says. “It’s an addictive, long-term project. I may never complete it.”

From her research - which is still ongoing - she’s been putting together “mini-biographies” to keep in the museum’s archives and preserve the history of the antipodean link with Brightlingsea.

“Nearly half a million of them signed up to help the war effort,” she says. “All volunteers. They came to help what they felt was their mother country, for a bit of fun and adventure or whatever. Their contribution was enormous.

“It’s important to commemorate because it is just about on the edge of living memory. Already there is nobody alive who was actually there. Very few of the children are still around and they are the last remaining link with that time.”

Margaret Stone, museum curator and trustee, is excited by some of the finds in the exhibition, including three autograph books.

“Some soliders even wrote poems and there are drawings, some of which we are getting enlarged,” she says. “The response has been amazing. A lot of these things have been kept by families for the last 100 years and sometimes they don’t realise the significance of it.

“We’ve got a Christmas card that had been in a family for many years. It was addressed to a little girl who used to sit at her window and watch the soldiers march to the training ground. She was probably only about three and used to wave and smile at them. They gave her one of their regimental Christmas cards and a gold bracelet. We’ve got both. There is an amazing link to a Brightlingsea man, who died in the Great War. While he was away, he used to send his daughter postcards. It was the same little girl.”

Despite the big impact the men had on the town, there are few physical symbols, apart from a weather vane with a kangaroo, erected to mark an earlier anniversary. “Things were different then,” says Margaret. “People didn’t want to talk about things the way they do now. But it must have been a very exciting time for the town. The men were very outgoing - they had sports days, carnivals and musical events, they wanted partners for dancing and women to play female roles in productions that were staged.”

One hundred years may have passed but feelings remain strong. As it says on the centenary website: “They lived in our houses, walked on our roads and married in our churches. We shall not forget them.”

Brightlingsea Museum is holding an exhibition to mark the centenary. On June 17, there will be a ticketed reception at the Bayard Recreation Ground. On June 18, there will be an Anzac-themed carnival procession and fete and on June 19, a service of commemoration and wreath-laying at the town’s war memorial in Victoria Place followed by a cricket match between Brightlingsea Cricket Club and Australia House Cricket Club team.

Visit www.brightlingseaanzaccentenary.org for more about these and other centenary events or to pass on information about Anzac soldiers and their Brightlingsea brides.

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