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Think Piece – Before the Poppy: Violets for Remembrance

Friday 3 July, 2015

We cannot visit their graves to lay thereon any symbol of our loving gratitude, but we may all wear near our hearts the lowly and beautiful little flower, in proud and tender remembrance of Australia’s best and bravest.  –  Amy L. Tomkinson, Advertiser, 16 August 1916, p. 9.

These poignant words by Amy Tomkinson were not referring to the poppy that most Australians consider the floral symbol of remembrance. Amy was in fact speaking of the violet, a flower that has been symbolic in death and remembrance rituals since antiquity.

This week, South Australia will be commemorating the centenary of Violet Day; a day that performed several significant and enduring functions – public commemoration and collective remembrance of those soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War, and a vehicle through which to fundraise for the building of a permanent home for South Australia’s servicemen.

The inaugural Violet Day, held on 2 July 1915, also provided the first opportunity for South Australians to collectively remember and mourn for those who had given their lives in the Dardanelles. Thousands flocked to the service held at the National Boer War Memorial. Throughout the day, bunches of live violets and ‘In Memory’ ribbons were sold by a volunteer army of white uniformed women from the Cheer-Up Society and to whom the organisation of the annual event is attributed.

Formed in November 1914 as a response to a perceived lack of interest in the Second Contingent then training at the Morphettville Camp, and a successful publicity stunt in the local press, the Cheer-Up Society, headed by Mrs Alexandrina Seager, began their quest to provide comforts and support to the soldiers and sailors leaving for the front.

Aware that many of them would return physically or mentally wounded, the women needed funds to provide support and a safe place for the men to call their ‘home from home’. Their raison d’ être was to ensure that all soldiers would know before they left the state that what ever would happen to them, they would never be forgotten.

Violet Day was just one of the ways in which this was achieved and was a home front reaction by South Australian women to the unprecedented numbers of dead and wounded soldiers being reported in the daily newspapers. The funds raised on the first Violet Day would be sufficient to indeed provide the soldiers a place to call their own, and the Cheer-Up Hut, or ‘the Hut’ as it became known, was erected on the banks of the Torrens where the Festival Theatre now stands.

Poppy day did not ‘arrive’ in Australia until 1921 and was a fund-raising event only, whereas Violet Day was also one of memory and reflection. But somewhere in the past the significance of Violet Day has become melded into the story of the poppy. In this Anzac Centenary commemorating the sacrifices of our troops, it is my passion that the story of Violet Day and the war work of these women of the Cheer-Up Society also be reinvigorated.

Seager’s 1915 poem Violet Verses, and a later book of poetry of the same name, embraces the violet as an object of memory. The poems are emotive with promises to never forget. This poetry has now lent its name to the celebrations that this week will allow a new generation of South Australians to see, hear and experience the story of the Cheer-Ups, their work, and Violet Day beginning with Violet Verses 2015. I am hopeful that future events will allow South Australians to embrace, contemplate, question and even contribute to the story of this important group of women.

Christeen is a historical archaeologist and community historian in the final phase of her PhD examining the role of the Cheer-Up Society during the First World War. Christeen has presented the significance of the work of the society locally, interstate and internationally (Abu Dhabi, London and Buenos Aries). She was awarded South Australia’s Emerging Historian of the Year in 2014. Christeen recently re-created the spirit of the home of the Cheer-Up Society for the City of West Torrens as part of South Australia’s About Time annual history festival and has been a consultant to several other major historical archaeological projects.

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