The work of My Silent Hero is funded by either paid services (where we are contracted to undertake a project on behalf of an individual, family or community) or through donations. All funds are used to pay researchers and to cover associated costs such as subscriptions and search fees. It costs a minimum of $300-$400 to research and prepare a report on one individual.
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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Hugh Gerner Brain


During the First World War, 27 officers of the Australian Customs Service served their country of birth, or adoption, in the military forces or in a support capacity.  
Hugh Gerner Brain  was one of them.


Sir Hugh Gerner Brain


It was Tuesday morning, July the 13th 1915 and a typical winter’s day in Melbourne, with scattered cloud and cool temperatures. Australia’s campaign at Gallipoli was in its third month and casualties were mounting. The Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, reported in its issue on that day that total Australian casualties were 2298 killed, 8097 wounded and 783 missing. The newspaper also advised that the new minimum height for new recruits was down to five foot two inches, allowing selection from a much larger pool of potential recruits.


Hugh Gerner Brain
Imagine, for a moment, a pale, almost sickly young man with a mop of brown hair, neatly combed and with grey eyes peering out from beneath thickish eyebrows. He is only slightly built, perhaps a little under  five and half feet in height with a beak-like nose hovering uncertainly in the centre of a pleasant, but plain, face.
His quiet and precise manner mistakenly suggests a degree of nervousness as he approaches the recruiting staff who had recently established a depot in downtown Melbourne.  This was not the first time he had attempted to enlist, having been previously rejected on physical grounds. On this occasion, however, he would not be turned away.


Born on the 3rd of December 1890, Hugh Gerner Brain was in his 25th year as strode into the recruiting depot. A quick medical examination, an oath, a signature or two and he marched out as a new recruit in an Australian army struggling to maintain operational viability.

Hugh had attended Armadale State School and, following the award of a scholarship, University High School, a co-educational private school.[1]  His education had been interrupted following an accident and his wish to study law was not to be fulfilled. He sat the State public service exam in 1906, commencing employment with Victorian Public Service Commission. In 1913, Hugh transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service and the new Inter-State Commission with the Department of Trade and Customs.

Hugh Brain’s abilities received early recognition, being temporarily advanced to “corporal” in early October 1915 as the new 31st Battalion was being formed. The battalion embarked for service overseas on the 5th of November aboard the “Bakara”, and arrived in Suez on the 7th of December.  The unit did not proceed to Gallipoli as the evacuation was about to commence. Any disappointment amongst the troops on having missed the action was to be dispelled, however, when the 31st Battalion was decimated in its first action at Fromelle in July 1916.
Fortunately for Hugh, however, he had been snatched up by ANZAC HQ. His advanced administrative skills were in high demand and assisted his early advance through the ranks.  


The Australian Dictionary of Biography takes up the story:


“Posted to 1 Anzac Corps headquarters in March 1916, he rose to warrant officer while serving on the Western Front and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (1917). In August 1917 he was commissioned and transferred to A.I.F. Headquarters, London, as deputy assistant adjutant general. Promoted captain in August 1918, he returned to Melbourne in June next year for duty with the business board of administration, Department of Defence. He was appointed M.B.E. (1918) and O.B.E. (1919), and placed on the Reserve of Officers on 30 September 1919.

After the war Brain took George Swinburne's advice, left the public service and joined Edward H. Shackell & Co.: the firm administered secretarial and shareholding matters for the Baillieu-engendered Collins House group of companies, based on the Broken Hill silver, lead and zinc resources, and governed from Collins Street. Shackell was the brother-in-law of W. L. Baillieu. With Aubrey Bulte, recruited from the Public Works Department, Brain worked as secretary to the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia Ltd, Metal Manufactures Ltd, Amalgamated Zinc (de Bavay's) Ltd, Minerals Separation Ltd and Hampden Cloncurry Copper Mines Ltd. On 3 June 1920 at St Mary's Anglican Church, Caulfield, he had married Monica Eva Futcher.

In 1929 Brain, Bulte, Victor Bolderman, Ellis Davies and Marsden Blackwell purchased shares in Edward H. Shackell & Co. On Edward's death in 1932, the group assumed control, with Edward's brother Harold as governing director. The company was renamed Secretariat Pty Ltd. At its peak, Secretariat administered the affairs of forty-seven firms, including over thirty gold-mining companies. The goldminers were dispensed with in the late 1930s as the company concentrated on the manufacturing firms, Electrolytic Zinc, Associated Pulp & Paper Mills Ltd, Metal Manufactures and its subsidiaries, Austral Bronze Co. Pty Ltd, Cable Makers Australia Pty Ltd and Austral Standard Cables Pty Ltd.

Members of The Australian Naval Board.
Brain is on extreme right
During World War II Brain's business talents were put to public use. He was deputy-director of hirings, Army Headquarters, Melbourne, honorary assistant-secretary, business matters, Department of Defence, and business member (1941-42 and 1944-46) of the Naval Board; he was also a member of the Naval Charter Rates Board, of the committee establishing war-damage insurance regulations and of the paper industry wartime advisory council. In addition, he performed part-time staff duties with the Volunteer Defence Corps in 1943-46.


Secretary of Gold Mines of Australia Ltd, Western Mining Corporation Ltd and Western New South Wales Electric Power Pty Ltd, Brain was a director of Austral Bronze and Cable Makers of Australia, and joint managing director of Metal Manufactures. In 1956-68 he was chairman of the Australasian Temperance & General Mutual Life Assurance Society. By 1960 Bulte, Davies and Blackwell had died. The shares of Secretariat were sold jointly to E.Z., A.P.P.M. and W.M.C. Brain retired from the company that year and established a consultancy in Lonsdale Street.

Named Victorian Father of the Year in 1959, Brain gave his £500 award to Melbourne Legacy, an organization with which he was actively associated from 1930 (president 1935). He sat on the Baillieu Education Trust from its foundation in 1935 (chairman 1941-52), and for some thirty years was a member of the Soldiers' Children's Education Board and the advisory board to the Council for Christian Education in Schools. Although not a graduate, he chaired the University of Melbourne's appointments board for twelve years and was a board-member of the summer school of business administration for fourteen; he was, as well, a councillor of Ormond College, a trustee of St Hilda's College and a fund-raiser for International House. For over thirty years he was a member of the Schools' Board and its successor, the Victorian Universities and Schools Examination Board, and chairman of its finance committee.

Among his other public positions, Brain was a trustee of the Cairnmillar Institute, a member of the advisory board of the Melbourne Young Women's Christian Association, chairman of the appeal committee of the Melbourne Lord Mayor's Fund for Hospitals and Charities, a member of committees of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria and chairman of the Anzac Fellowship of Women. He had been a special constable during the 1923 police strike and a member of a large, anti-subversion group in Melbourne during Jack Lang's turbulent premiership of New South Wales. In 1951 he was associated with Sir Edmund Herring in 'A Call to the People of Australia'. Brain was for many years a member of the finance committee of the Liberal Party, Victorian branch. In 1963 he was appointed foundation president of the Victorian Institute of Licensed Shorthand Writers. For forty-five years he was honorary secretary of Premises Ltd, the company which backed the Athenaeum Club, of which he was made an honorary life member. He was also 'moneyer' for nearly twenty years of the Beefsteak Club.

Brain was an energetic, talented and highly valued servant, rather than a leader. With a sound sense of humour, he was fond of practical jokes. As a hobby, he wrote limericks about hundreds of Legacy members. His honours, including life membership of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, culminated in a knighthood in 1972. Sir Hugh died on 31 December 1976 at Heidelberg and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his wife, son and two daughters survived him”.



[1] Frank Strahan, 'Brain, Sir Hugh Gerner (1890 - 1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, Melbourne University Press, 1993, pp 246-247.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Custom of Service - Eric William Benjafield

During the First World War, 27 officers of the Australian Customs Service served their country of birth, or adoption, in the military forces or in a support capacity. 

 Eric William Benjafield  was one of them.



29919 Gunner Eric William Benjafield
By the time Eric Benjafield enlisted in the AIF in early 1916, the sense of adventure which characterised those who joined in the early stages of the war had been replaced with a more sober realisation of what lay ahead.  The heavy casualties from the Gallipoli campaign had brought a new realism to the decision to “join up”.  Yet, when this fresh faced young man lined up for his new uniform, the full horrors of the Western Front had not yet been encountered by Australian troops.
Eric William Benjafield was born on the 7th of October 1893 at Latrobe in North West Tasmania. Life in that beautiful part of the world would have been great for a young lad.  Plenty of fresh air, good food - locally produced - and exercise aplenty all served to produce strong and healthy young men, at just the time the Empire called.
Queens College Hobart
Eric's father, Frederick Benjafield, was Postmaster at Devonport West Post Office and wished to ensure his son had every opportunity to progress through life.  It was for this reason that young Eric found himself a boarder at Queens College in Hobart, where he completed his education.
While he commenced his career as a “civil servant” in the young Commonwealth Public Service, available records do not indicate, definitively, in which Commonwealth Department Eric served.  However, the Australian Customs Department in Canberra clearly identifies a “Benjafield, EW” as one of their officers who served in the 1st World War.  Furthermore, Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia records indicate only two Eric Benjafield's as serving in that war, one of whom is an Eric William Benjafield.  Given that the other Eric is described as an orchardist or farmer from south of Hobart, it is reasonable to consider that “our” Eric was an employee of the Customs Department.
Eric appears to have relocated to Melbourne at some stage prior to his enlistment.  The evidence for this is suggested from two sources.  The first pointer to Eric's residency at this time is his pre-enlistment medical examination which was conducted, in Melbourne, on the 28th of January 1916.
The second pointer is less precise.
Voting age in those days was at 21 years, which meant Eric was too young for the election of September 1914 and, as could be expected, there is no electoral roll record of him up to that time.  However, the next election was called for the 5th of May 1917 (writs issued on the 26th of March 1917) and the Conscription Referendum was held in 1916.  Troops, both at home and abroad would have been given the opportunity to register and vote and, in any case, Eric attained his “majority” in October 1914.  The only Electoral Roll entry is of an Eric William Bengafield (note spelling) in the 1919 roll showing an address at 195 Brighton Rd Elwood Vic.  As this is the only “Bengafield” of any gender or given name in Australia on an electoral roll between 1901 and 1936, it is reasonable to assume this to be “our” Eric and representing his civilian residency in 1914-1916.
Claremont Camp near Hobart,Tasmania
Notwithstanding his whereabouts when he chose to enlist, Eric must have returned to Tasmania shortly thereafter, for family or military reasons we can guess, as his attestation papers were signed at the Claremont Camp outside Hobart on the 3rd of April 1916.  Perhaps it is as well that he did choose to visit his family at this time.  Nevertheless, he was soon back in Melbourne as part of the 120th Howitzer Battery.

Training as a Gunner, Eric Benjafield with his mates in the 120th boarded the HMAT “Aeneas” and sailed from Melbourne in early October 1916.  They arrived in Plymouth on the 19th of November and continued their training in England until their deployment to France in March 1917

On the 3rd of April, Eric transferred to the 105th Battery, operating near Bapaume, and on the 13th was severely wounded while his unit was engaged in an artillery duel. Sadly, he succumbed to his injuries and died the next day.
The Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau took an interest into the circumstances of Eric's death. In their report the following eyewitness statements were quoted:



  • At Noreuil, near Bullecourt, April 14/17 (April 14, 1917, ed), we were in action and Gnr Benjafield was wounded by a shell fragment, which caused septic poisoning.  He walked to the dressing station and was sent to the C.C.S. (3rd) (No.3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station, ed) where he died at 12 (noon) next day.  He was buried in Achill le grand Cemetery, about 2 miles from Bapaume, and I saw the grave about a month later, when I went to the same C.C.S. Wounded.  His great chum, Gnr Paton, sent his things home.” 11628 Gnr I. Robey, 105 Howitzer Bty, 28.8.17.


  • “I saw him wounded at Moriel (or Moreai, ed) Gulley – he was caught by a gas shell in the leg and arm.  I carried him to the dressing station where he died some little time after from septic poisoning.  I do not know place of burial and cannot refer to anyone for further particulars.”  2182 Gnr C M Harris, 105 Howitzer Bty, 17.9.17
Greviller British Cemetery
Eric William Benjafield was finally laid to rest at Greviller British Cemetery, Bapaume, France.


However, for those that were left this was and would never be the end of the story.  Eric's family, as with tens of thousands of other families across the nation, would live with the memory of a son, husband, father who would not return.  What's more, they would continue to receive “official” reminders of their loss from a government that, perhaps, was equally struggling with its own grief, or guilt.



So it was that Eric's family (similar to countless others) received the following “official” communications:


1 July 1917 – Certificate of Report of death;

22 October 1917 -  Package containing personal effects (a disc, metal chain, gold ring, knife, 2 keys, belt, badges, signalers badge, metal wrist watch and strap);

27 March 1920 – Photo of grave;

7 May 1921 – British War Service Medal;

28 November 1921 – Memorial Scroll and Kings Message;

11 August 1922 – Memorial Plaque;

9 April 1923 – Victory Medal.


To paraphrase King George “.....a brave life given for others in the Great War.”

A Custom of Service - An Introduction


Flag of The Australian Customs Service

The Beginning

The Australian Customs Service began its life as a consequence of a citizens referendum which bound the separate Australian states - New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and eventually Western Australia - to form a Federal Commonwealth. This Federal Commonwealth required the establishment of a Commonwealth Government, with powers agreed by the states and included in the new Australian Constitution . Section 51 of the new Constitution specified powers to be granted, in particular responsibility for trade and commerce with other countries, and among the States, bounties on the production or export of goods, lighthouses, lightships, beacons and buoys, quarantine, weights and measures, copyrights, patents of inventions and designs, and trademarks. The year was 1901.

With the passing of the Customs Act 1901, the Department of Trade and Customs and the Department of Customs and Excise were formed.


Department of Trade & Customs

The Department of Trade and Customs was established as an advisory and regulatory body and survived, more or less in its original form, until 1956. It had responsibility for social and economic research, patents and trademarks, industrial and scientific research and defence industries.


The Commonwealth Lighthouse Service became part of the Trade and Customs department shortly after its formation. Shipping in Australian waters depended heavily on the operation of lighthouses to aid safe navigation. Trade, immigration and commercial fishing were all subject to the need to operate safely in the coastal zone and functioning lighthouses were essential.


North Head Quarantine Station,
Sydney 1919
As previously mentioned, the Commonwealth was responsible for quarantine and the Commonwealth Quarantine Act of 1908 facilitated the introduction of a Federal Quarantine Service in 1909. This service was not only responsible for quarantine control of products and people from overseas, but also controlled the movement of plant and animal products between states.


The Department of Customs and Excise

Section 90 of the new Australian Constitution gave exclusive power to the Commonwealth over the imposition and collection of duties relating to customs, excise and bounties. This function was vested in the Department of Customs and Excise.

It also became obvious, due to the conflicting interests of the separate states, that a body was required to adjudicate matters relating to interstate trade. As a result, the Interstate Commissions Act was passed in 1912, with the Commission being established in 1913 under the control of the Customs and Excise departme


Those Who Served

Upon entering the Australian Customs headquarters in Constitution Avenue, Canberra, one is confronted with a memorial to all those Customs Officers who have served in times of war. On the section dedicated to officers who served during the First World War there is a list of 27 names. In researching these names many interesting stories have been unearthed. Amongst those 27 we can find a pilot in the fledgling Air Force, a future knight of the realm, at least one future general and a spelling error of some significance.

The names of these men are listed below. Their story, one by one, will be told in future episodes as the research is completed.


Listing in order of appearance on the Customs Honour Roll (the order is representative of the date of enlistment):

CR Cowling
IA Ridgway
RV Wilson
HG Ralethorpe (spelling error - should be Palethorpe)
JLR Burney
JL Lacey
DG Robertson
HG Brain
W Parkes
TR MacNee
AN Trask
GV Browning
FP McArdle
EW Benjafield
EN Lear
C Storey
WG Duffy
JR Lowe
CR McColl
W Jones
JRD O’Loughlin
WE Cremor
TAC Taylor
DR Conly
RW Thompson
EH MacDonald (YMCA)
AF Parkin (Munitions)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Project - An Introduction

My Silent Hero is offered to help YOU find the story of a family member who served Australia during the First World War (WW1).

The project is not intended to provide a full biography of these mostly forgotten people; there are many fine historians and writers who can, and do, perform that role. What we do offer, however, is an outline of a person's service history and their life before and after the war .

"My Silent Hero" had its beginnings as "The Silent Hero Project", some 5 years ago. It has evolved, very slowly, into a process to address particular groups of service men and women, as well as individuals.  Concentrating on the First World War, this project worked, initially, on a chap called John Bernard Reilly (see more) and will move to looking at some of Jack's Mates (as mentioned in his diary) when time and funding permits. A memorial in the entrance to the headquarters of Australian Customs in Canberra attracted our attention and became an assignment of its own. This is progressing slowly as very little is known of the people involved. For example, in the case of the Customs assignment, the only information available were the surname and initials of the servicemen, together with the fact that, at the time of their enlistment, they were employed by Australian Customs or one of its sub-agencies. It is entirely possible that not all personnel will be satisfactorily identified.

In the case of My Silent Hero, however, it is hoped that the involvement of family members may simplify the process of discovery through the provision of more background information.  While our work thus far has been voluntary, we have decided to charge for services to individual enquirers in order to raise funds to enable more research.  At some point we may also seek donations to further this project. There are, after all, more than a third of a million names to recognise.

Consider this, in Mudgee NSW  there is a memorial to those who served during the WW1 with the name "A Smith" engraved upon it.  The National Archives of Australia (NAA) list 5253 "Smiths" in their record of WW1 service personnel, including 383 with the initial "A". Now, a researcher is going to have serious problems with that.  On the other hand, if we knew that "A Smith" was actually,say, Athol Edward Smith, that he was born around 1885 in Hargraves NSW, that his father was Edward Smith and mother Constance Smith, then we can stand a much better chance.  If we also knew that he was a fettler on the railway and that he had a brother, George, who also enlisted, we could be much more confident of success in identifying the correct chap. (The entry on the Mudgee memorial is real, as is the NAA information. The "Smith" details are fictitious and for illustrative purposes only.)

In seeking to put together the stories of our "silent heroes", our researchers will use their knowledge of where to find the most useful publicly available material (free or otherwise). We also subscribe, at the highest level, to the best genealogy websites. All our research is conducted online in order to provide you with the best possible result at the lowest possible cost.

In his novel, The Blind Man's Garden, Nadeem Aslam begins with the sentence, "History is the third parent." At My Silent Hero, we believe that knowing our family story is vital in our understanding of who we are.  Our story has many strands and is not always perfect.  It is, however, real and by knowing it we will understand that we do, in fact, belong.