The not-so-green South African man

His eyes tell of history. With yellow moss tucked under one brow and an orange spider nesting by his nose, he stares impassively. I’d like to say we locked gazes, but closer examination reveals that his pupils are off kilter. Neither eye looks directly at me. They offer no window into his soul, although they are a good entry into his story.

With a face pock-marked by rust, he is the picture of steadfastness in decay. His mouth is slackly open, sporting a mechanism which makes him look intubated but is in fact a fountain’s spout. It is dry and he is unmistakably old.

In suggestive “green man” style, a decorative frill frames his face in an echo of the murky past between pagan antiquity and a chivalric middle age. But he is not quite so ancient. Instead, he is obviously Victorian or Edwardian, if dead monarchs are the measure, and – decorating a small corner of New Norfolk, near the Derwent Valley Council Chambers – he is a long way from the forests of Europe.

This not-so-green man is, in fact, New Norfolk’s first war memorial.

Many towns in Australia have a memorial to the South African War of 1899-1902, and they are a minor obsession of mine. I collect them as I travel. They are curiosities, which become moments of distraction, objects of photography, and stories to ponder and tell.

My hometown in country New South Wales had a locally-cast cannon, for instance, which was named “Bobs” after the popular British commander Lord Roberts. In a burst of misjudged timing Bobs was cast in anticipation of the war’s conclusion, although that took an embarrassingly long time to come and Bobs had to wait longer than the townspeople hoped. Eventually Bobs got to sit in pride of place at a major intersection, until a larger memorial to a bigger war displaced him.

The New Norfolk fountain has that same look of monumental dislocation. It is now only a few metres from the town’s main war memorial, but the way the John Warner & Sons maker’s mark at the fountain’s base is partly obscured by concrete suggests this is at least its second home. The fountain’s situation is too odd to be its place of origin, that act of concrete obfuscation a relic of a time when the manufacturer no longer mattered.

Not unlike my New South Welsh forebears, the good folk of New Norfolk showed interest in memorialising the war well before it ended. As early as June 1900 local victory celebrations were being planned. Early suggestions included a public bonfire, fireworks, and the raising of “a permanent memorial”. One fellow suggested a clock on a church tower, another objected. Someone said something about planting trees. This idea was carried at that meeting but seemingly forgotten over the many months which it took the war to finish.

I’m fascinated by Australia’s memorialisation of the South African War because each one tells us so much about the way that successive wars fed into and were displaced by the myths and memories of the next. There is no escaping the fact that the Anzac legends – whatever they are – have the occasional not-so-green man in the preceding chapters. South Africa cast a long shadow over Australia which, in hindsight, obviously pointed the way to Gallipoli and Kokoda and other legendary theatres.

Luminous metaphors are appropriate here, because before there was a fountain in New Norfolk there were two lamps. At least, there were plans for two lamps. With clock and trees seemingly forgotten, the town’s Returned Troopers Reception Committee proposed the idea of installing street lamps as memorials for the local troopers who had gone to war. Within a few years this was still only an idea, although it had been refined down to a single lamp by 1906.

Then, when all seemed ready, the town squabbled as only small towns can. In 1907 much controversy arose about the proposed memorial. Bar room and dinner table arguments remain unrecorded, but various folk from New Norfolk corresponded to newspapers airing concerns which preserve a little taste of historic animus. Complaining that too little was being expended, questioning proposed sites, and wondering whether hospital cots weren’t a better option, the arguments reveal something significant: the flipside of warrior memorialisation was practical civic improvement.
Drinking water won out over electricity and medicine, so a fountain was chosen. It almost certainly came from Hobart, where pump and plumbing suppliers advertised stock from “John Warner and Sons Celebrated English Make”, which had a nice imperial connection suited to a war memorial that had to be flash, but not quite so expensive as to be custom built.

Around the turn of the decade the decorative fountain was installed near the corner of High and Stephen Streets in Arthur Square. There, with a long-gone mug and chain, it served the town for decades. Its original concrete base even contained a trough for sheep dogs, because drovers tended to put their sheep to the grass on Arthur Square while passing through.

Then another war came, went, and was eventually memorialised at the other end of High Street after more local argument. Meanwhile the fountain fell into decay and its original purpose largely slipped from memory as swiftly as its styling fell out of vogue.

The not-so-green man’s story was not done, however. As another war approached, the fountain’s dilapidation was pointed out in a city newspaper, the town council was shamed into action, and in early 1938 the town’s first war memorial was moved down the street to stand near its younger, larger sibling. 

It is there that I spotted him, still facing New Norfolk’s High Street with rusting eyes bearing witness to a history that is all too easily overlooked.

Nick Brodie describes himself as a professional history nerd. He has a doctorate in late medieval vagrancy law, is a leading expert on the history of poor boxes, and is the author of acclaimed popular histories Kin: A Real People's History of Our Nation and 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia's Beginnings. His latest book is The Vandemonian War: The Secret History of Britain's Tasmanian Invasion, which uses a wealth of new archival material to re-write Australia's most infamous colonial war.

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