Australian War Memorial artefacts melted for medals in English boat race

by Jommy Tee | Apr 15, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

How the Governor-General’s man, army generals, a former MP and a rowing promoter worked to get artefacts from the Australian War Memorial to melt down for trophies at the Henley Regatta. A Jommy Tee investigation.

Culturally significant artefacts from the Australian War Memorial (AWM), including a sample bronze plate from the revered Roll of Honour – which records and commemorates Australia’s war dead – were melted down to make a trophy and medals for a military rowing extravaganza.

The rowing event, the 2019 King’s Cup was held at the Henley Royal Regatta in the UK. The event was the centennial commemoration of a past military rowing race, the 1919 Peace Regatta.

FOI documents, sourced by Jommy Tee and commentator Ronni Salt, reveal it was only after a discussion between the defence force’s top brass, General Angus Campbell, and head of the Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, the AWM decided to give the bronze plate from the Roll of Honour to the organiser of the King’s Cup event, Chris Hartley.

Hartley, better known as the man-about-town who convinced the Governor-General and his office to prod Scott Morrison into granting $18 million to a mysterious foundation Hartley established – the Australian Future Leaders Foundation. After pressure from the independents and cross-bench, the Albanese government rescinded the largesse.

The FOI documents show the original 1941 metal door fittings from when the AWM first opened were also handed over to Hartley to convert metal into rowing medals.

Dr Nelson made a particular note of the inherent cultural and heritage value of the items telling a representative of Rowing Australia, who was acting as Hartley’s collection agent – “both these items are of course significant”.

Those of a generous disposition would view the melting down of the War Memorial’s artefacts into military rowing medals as a symbolic “circle of life” tale.

The FOI documents, instead show Hartley’s previously undisclosed circle of influence and high powered military and rowing connections.

Reticence to handover metals for medals

When it came time to decide what artefacts were to become freebies for Hartley, the AWM collections staff were particularly reticent in handing over the sample Roll of Honour bronze plate. The bronze was an important reference used by the AWM’s foundry “to match the patina of the panels that they make”.

A collections staffer commented: “They will give it to us, I was just leaving it as a last resort to not cause ourselves issues in the future. I will contact them and have them send it up. Hopefully it will be big enough to keep a piece for future manufacture”.

The AWM advised us their contribution to the King’s Cup came “from non-collection items”, describing those items as “a sample of a bronze panel and old brass locks removed from the Memorial building during renovations”. A description far removed from the more glowing historical summary Nelson provided to the Rowing Australia representative that collected the items.

Dr Nelson saw fit to consult General Campbell prior to finalising which artefacts were to be handed over but did not raise it with the AWM’s governing Council.

We understand there is no obligation to refer the disposal of “non-collection” items to the AWM’s council for approval.

No acknowledgement of the gift can be found in the AWM’s relevant annual reports and social media.

The military two step

The FOI documents reveal Hartley first approached Nelson in March 2018. In his letter to Dr Nelson, Hartley quickly invoked his connections to high level UK military and rowing establishment writing:

“I have just returned from UK meetings with the MOD [Ministry of Defence], Department of Sports, Media and Culture (WW1 commemorations), Sir Steve Redgrave and the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta on the centennial of the 1919 Royal Henley Peace Regatta”.

Hartley, like a contemporary Indiana Jones, was on a mission to source items of historical and cultural significance from not just Australia but from all the King’s Cup competing nations – Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Based on the FOI documentation Hartley appears to be strongly acquainted with military top brass, including the CDF, the Governor-General, and members of Rowing Australia.

A few weeks after he made contact with Nelson, Hartley hosted a dinner at the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron for the 200th Anniversary of the famous British rowing club, the Leander Club.

The knees up was attended by a who’s who of military representatives including Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, AM, RAN, Commander of the Australian Fleet representing the Chief of Defence Force. The captains and presidents of various Australian rowing clubs were also in attendance.

The then Governor of NSW, David Hurley,- a keen rowing supporter – was also present, and according to a promo for the event was to be brought to the event by a “Police launch at speed”.

According to Hartley, NSW Governor Hurley made the announcement at the dinner that Australia would be sending a team to the King’s Cup.

Spring has sprung

After the initial solicitation things went cold until September 2018 when Hartley again contacted the AWM. Hartley informed them he had commissioned a Royal warranted foundry to produce participant medals.

At one point Hartley suggested the Memorial should take the lead and organise the seven other national institutions’ contribution to supplying “material” to the UK foundry Hartley had selected to mint the medals.

Dr Nelson politely told him to get stuffed, “….I am not prepared to commit this institution to coordinating the other countries’ museums involved. We have more than enough on here without taking this on”.

The FOI documents show the original items the AWM was considering to offer were of no cultural importance to the Memorial.

These items according included:

“female relative badges, silver war badges, aluminium or tin items like mess tins, as well as medals or next of kin [NOK] plaques. I’m aware that we have declined medals and NOK plaques in the past that have been destroyed.”

The connected and the confected

Hartley shamelessly dropped the names of the Royal family and senior military figures from several countries into his communications with Nelson.

Nelson was even offered an invitation to dine with the Australian CDF (General Campbell) and UK and Canadian top military brass at a King’s Cup dinner Hartley was hosting.

A week before Christmas, Hartley emailed Dr Nelson and advised him what the Canadians, New Zealanders, and Germans were giving him, but he had yet to hear what the “Palace would contribute”.

The email pointedly mentioned that Hartley had written to then Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and informed jim of previous correspondence between Hartley and the War Memorial.

Whether the letter was neutral in its assessment, or whether it was critical of the AWM’s efforts to contribute cultural artefacts is not known. From the FOI material it appears Dr Nelson was not copied into the letter Hartley sent to the Governor-General.

The new year and the pressure is on

This sparked a flurry of activity in January and February 2019, but not everyone at the War Memorial was on the same page.

An internal email, in early January 2019, shows that the staff of the Memorial were of the view that the “issue was complete”.

The email was clear that they advised: “do not provide collection material for the purposes of melting it down but these kinds of things [WW1 shells] are readily available in France and simple to collect. Pozieres was provided as a starting point as it was a battlefield where Australians fought.”

By the end of January, another internal email shows metal for medals had re-emerged.

“The proposal to provide something from the Memorial to be melted down for Kings Cup medals has re-emerged” and “a part of a Beaufort bomber” identified for disposal to put to one side for this purpose”.

The February blitz

On February 12, 2019, Dr Nelson advised his staff that they need to “get on with this. They need this by the end of the month”.

The officer responsible for sourcing the Memorial’s materiel responded to Dr Nelson: “We have enough old brass door handles and locks from the original building to meet whatever requirement the Kings Cup people have in terms of weight of metal. This will make it much more manageable rather than involving the RoH [Roll of Honour] foundry as a third party. Are you happy to offer only the original door knobs and locks?”

Within half an hour Dr Nelson then consulted the CDF (Chief of Defence Force) – General Campbell.

After that discussion, Nelson then advised his staff that he now wanted to add a piece of the Roll Of Honour bronze plate into the mix of goodies.

After General Campbell and Dr Nelson agreed to hand over the artefacts, Nelson informed Alison Creagh, a former Brigadier in the Australian Army and former member of the War Memorial council (2015 – 2018), how the various items could be collected.

Creagh was acting on behalf of Rowing Australia. A spokesperson for the AWM has confirmed “Rowing Australia was acting on behalf of Mr Hartley and his organising committee to collect the donated material”.

Creagh was also the team manager of the Australian Defence Force King’s Cup team and would later become a director of Rowing Australia and president of Rowing ACT.

The 2019 Rowing Australia annual report has a two page spread on the King’s Cup race and the Australian Defence Force team.

The report praises the support of the Governor-General and the War Memorial and its director, Dr Nelson. There was no mention of the Memorial gifting the historical artefacts with heritage value for melting down into a trophy and medals.

War memorial artefacts

Image supplied via FOI request

The pomp and ceremony didn’t end

After the AWM had handed over the artefacts, its role in the King’s Cup didn’t end.

The announcement of the ADF team took place on 13 April 2019 at the AWM with a special Last Post Ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the King’s Cup.

Then on 7 May 2019 at an event at the AWM, the ADF King’s Cup team met with representatives of the Defence Forces of the seven other nations who would send crews to participate in the Henley Royal Regatta. Mr Hartley gave an address to the gathered.

Then Defence minister, Linda Reynolds, together with General Campbell and Dr Nelson, farewelled the Australian team on 12 June 2019. Minister Reynolds presented the team with their competitor badges – badges presumably made from the artefacts of not only the AWM but from the other participating countries as well.

General Campbell’s photo, posing with the original 1919 King’s Cup was also used by the race organiser, Mr Hartley, for promotional purposes on the event’s website.

It appears everyone from Mr Hartley, the ADF’s top brass, the War Memorial and the Defence minister were now heavily invested in the project.

For the ADF’s part the investment was enough to hire, via limited tender, both a well known rowing coach for six months at price of $38,500 and to spend $16,500 on uniforms for the event. The uniforms were sourced by a company that is listed as an official partner of Rowing Australia.

Detailed questions were put to Mr Hartley, the Defence department and Rowing Australia, but no response was received.

Kings Cup medal

Image courtesy

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Jommy Tee is a long-time career public servant, having worked in the policy development field for 25+ years as well as an independent researcher interested in politics, current affairs, and Nordic noir.

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