A Boxing Day Casualty – in memory of Private Albert Cooper (1891 – 1914)

This Boxing Day marks the centenary of the death of Private Albert George Cooper [10/380], one of New Zealand’s earliest casualties of the First World War.

Private Cooper, of Hawke’s Bay, never saw battle. Eight days after his arrival in Egypt with the NZEF he was hospitalized, suffering from pneumonia. He never recovered and died on 26 December 1914.

Albert was born in Hastings in 1891, to William and Elizabeth Cooper, of Tarapatiki, Waikaremoana. His occupation on his attestation forms is given as a painter, his last employer S. Sargent, of Wairoa. He is described on enlistment as 5ft 8 inches tall, 126lb, of dark complexion, with brown eyes and hair.

Albert enlisted with the NZEF in the 9th (Hawke’s Bay) Company of the Wellington Infantry Battalion in September 1914 and sailed with the main body on 16 October.

Photograph of Private Albert Cooper (front left), and three other unidentified soldiers take at Electric Studio, 90 Manners Street, Wellington, October 1914, prior to the departure of NZEF. collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,[75041]

Photograph of Private Albert Cooper (front left), and three other unidentified soldiers taken at Electric Studio, 90 Manners Street, Wellington, October 1914, prior to the departure of NZEF.
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,[75041]

He arrived in Alexandria, Egypt on 3 December 1914 and as a young man on his first trip abroad, would have been impatient to see the sights. The NZEF disembarked at Alexandria and most of the New Zealand force entrained immediately for their camp in Zeitoun, on the outskirts of Cairo. However, Albert, as a member of the Hawke’s Bay Company, was, along with the Taranaki Company and Battalion Headquarters given the task of staying on in Alexandria to complete unloading the transports.

O E Burton wrote in The Silent Division impressions of the arrival of the NZEF in Egypt:

The men went thronging into the city. And what a night they had! At midnight they came back to the familiar holds but not to sleep. They had seen marvels and must recount what they had seen. Excited men talked at the top of their voices. No one listened to anyone else. Everyone was too full of his own experiences—and so the babel flowed on. In one evening they had seen Aladdin’s Cave, the Forty Thieves, and the houris of the Thousand and One Nights; veiled women and others whose draperies were of the most diaphanous sort. French, Greeks, Russians, and Italians, with the brown-skinned Egyptians and black Nubians from the south—all these they had seen and the spell of Egypt had taken hold of them.

The diary of Edward P Cox, a fellow soldier in the Wellington Regiment (and who later noted Albert’s death in its pages) wrote of Alexandria:

Saturday, December 3rd
Went ashore this evening to Club de Anglais of which we have been made hon. members. The best quarter of the city is very well built and very fine at night when all lit up as I saw it tonight. But the native areas about 2 miles of which I passed in a cab going to the wharves, have narrow streets, most evil smelling, and cafés, saloons and open bars etc galore. The work of unloading horses & military stores goes on and trains for Cairo leave every hour or two.

Men of the Hawke’s Bay Company were given a half-days leave on the 5th to visit Alexandria, before departing for Cairo on the 6th.  In the museum’s collection we hold a postcard, likely written on 5 December, to his sister-in-law Alice Maud Cooper. Maud was the wife of his older brother William Edward Cooper, watchmaker of Napier. In the short note, Albert (or Albie, as he signs off) gives his love to Betty, their daughter, his three year old niece.

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [front] collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [front]
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [back] Mrs W E Cooper, of 13 Napier Terrace 9 December 1914 Dear Maud We have got as far as Alexandria.  We are going to ‘Zeetun’ outside Cairo in Monday.  We have leave here today and town is very interesting. Will write and tell you all about it.  Love to Betty.  Yours etc Albie collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [back]
Mrs W E Cooper, of 13 Napier Terrace
9 December 1914
Dear Maud
We have got as far as Alexandria. We are going to ‘Zeetun’ outside Cairo in Monday. We have leave here today and town is very interesting. Will write and tell you all about it. Love to Betty.
Yours etc
Albie
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Albert reached camp at 6pm on the 6th December after a train journey south through the heart of the Nile Delta. The regiment’s unit history recounts the difficulty of the first days in camp at Zeitoun. The camp was at first no more than a bare patch of desert, and the air described as very bracing after the stuffy conditions aboard ship. On the first night men slept on the sand wrapped in great coats and blankets. The ground was cold, and the air frosty. The author of the Wellington Regiment’s unit history wrote “those who were privileged to experience that first night’s bivouac on the sands of the Egyptian desert will long remember it as one of the coldest of their lives.” The first night’s exposure in the desert produced a mild epidemic of influenza and some twenty men were sent to hospital the first day.

The desert training regime was intense, but outside of their work, the sights of Cairo were an irresistible lure to all ranks. We do not know if Albert had the opportunity to visit Cairo, or see the wonders of ancient Egypt – the Pyramids, the Sphinx on his picture postcard home – before he succumbed to illness.

On the 10th December, five days after this postcard was sent, Albert was admitted to Abbassia Hospital, a British facility, east of Cairo, with pneumonia, along with fellow Hawke’s Bay soldier John Archibald Campbell, driver for Barry Bros of Napier. John Campbell died on the 14th, while Albert remained seriously ill in hospital, eventually passing away on the 26th. Respiratory diseases such as influenza, tuberculosis, pleurisy and pneumonia were rife in Egypt and struck many of the new arrivals from Australia and New Zealand.

We do not have a record of his funeral, but Albert’s death is noted in the diaries of other soldiers in his unit. It is possible that his next-of-kin were cabled with news of his death, and it was widely reported in the New Zealand papers from 30th December. The news must have come as a shock to the tiny East Coast community in which he grew up. His brief postcard from Alexandria, would have arrived in Napier much later and must have been a treasured remembrance of Albert, and his grand adventure, cut tragically short. Thus far, it is the only known letter of Albert’s to survive.

AG Cooper's grave, Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt Private Cooper is listed as aged 26 on his memorial, though he was actually only 23.  http://www.nzwargraves.org.nz/casualties/albert-george-cooper

AG Cooper’s grave, Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt
Private Cooper is listed as aged 26 on his memorial, though he was actually only 23.
http://www.nzwargraves.org.nz/casualties/albert-george-cooper

The museum also holds Albert’s Memorial Plaque in its collections. These were issued after the end of the war to the next-of-kin to all British and Empire service personnel who were killed as a result of the war. The full name of the dead soldier is engraved on the right hand side of the plaque, without rank, unit or decorations. They were issued in a pack with a letter from King George V and a commemorative scroll. These plaques were colloquially known as the ‘dead man’s penny’ because of their resemblance to the penny coin.

AG Cooper, Memorial Plaque collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29 gifted by Mr Noel G Cooper

AG Cooper, Memorial Plaque
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29
gifted by Mr Noel G Cooper

The First World War was the first major conflict in which the overwhelming majority of military deaths were battle-related, rather than caused by disease. Of the 16,703 New Zealanders who died during the war years, 63% were killed in action, 23% died of wounds, and 11% of disease.

Dedicated to the memory of those of the Regiment who gave their lives in the Great War;
And to our fellow soldiers of the Regiment who remain to serve the country in peace;
And to the present and future soldiers of those battalions that made the Wellington
Regiment N.Z.E.F., in whose keeping is its good name.

For us the glorious dead have striven,
They battled that we might be free.
We to their living cause are given;
We arm for men that are to be.
– Laurence Binyon

Dedication from the frontispiece of the Wellington Regiment unit history, Cunningham, Treadwell and Hanna, 1928

Albert’s story will be featured in MTG’s upcoming First World War exhibition, to open in April 2015. His service record is available online at Archives New Zealand, http://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/

Eloise Wallace, Curator Social History

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volunteering with collections

22.10.2014 Carol Portrait

Volunteers play an important role in museums and galleries and MTG Hawke’s Bay is fortunate to have a regular volunteer, Carol Dacey, who holds the honorary position, Keeper of Textiles. In the weeks prior to the opening of the current exhibition Travel in Style which features items from the wardrobe of New Zealand politician and style icon Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, Carol offered advice and assistance in mounting the garments. She was also involved with a number of projects at the time of the redevelopment and continues to provide invaluable assistance. I caught up recently with Carol to talk about her role at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

With so many organisations requiring volunteers, what appealed to you about volunteering at the museum?

I was told that the former Honorary Keeper of Textiles, Joan Maclaurin, was leaving and someone was needed who was able to sew and work with textiles. Having just retired and being a keen sewer, it fitted in well and I liked the idea of working in a museum environment. Since joining the museum I have learned many new skills and I thoroughly enjoy helping alongside the enthusiastic staff of the museum.

When did you first begin volunteering here? In 2006.

Who have you worked alongside at the museum?

I have helped in the Access/Collections and Design and Build teams and I have also worked with the Education team.

Prior to the redevelopment of the museum, what sort of projects were you involved with?

I made calico covers for the men’s suits that were hanging in racks. When the covers were made it was difficult returning them to the hanging racks because of the extra bulk from the fabric and because the space was so confined. I also made ‘sausages’ of different sizes from scraps of calico. These were put into the shoes to stop them from bending and to help prevent the leather cracking. I saw many shoes ranging from babies shoes, which had to have the sausages custom-made, to army boots which required stuffing with several sausages to hold them in shape.

I have re-covered chairs for exhibitions and before the museum closed, I helped a staff member check the accession numbers in the Textiles and Social History department, to make sure the items were correctly catalogued. This was an interesting task as I saw many items in the collection and as some of them were quite large and the accession numbers minute, it could be tricky to find where they were located.

IMG_1280

When the museum closed in 2010 were you able to continue in your voluntary role?

My main job when the museum closed was to make different sized cushions to fit inside the packing boxes.

What did this involve?

During the closure there were two or three sewing and box-making ‘bees’ where staff and volunteers sewed and stitched the cushions and assembled the packing boxes. I washed and ironed many loads of 20 metre lengths of calico, and in my sitting room which became a sewing workshop, I cut out between 750 and 800 cushions. My husband Richard patiently avoided this room for the duration of the project! I measured and cut out the calico and Dacron and marked the cushions individually so although I sewed many of them myself, some could be easily handed on to other sewers.

Was there anything else that you helped with during this time?

Prior to the re-opening of the museum I helped to mount some of the mannequins for the opening exhibitions. This was a new experience for me and I really enjoyed it. The 1870’s wedding dress required about 5 different petticoats made of tulle and calico to recreate the full style of the skirt. I also mounted a small boy’s dress which was challenging because the neckline of the dress was much wider than the small size mannequin. To overcome this, I had to extend the shoulders of the mannequin in a life-like way to support the dress. I did this with calico, Dacron and conservation card and I also made a small petticoat to support the skirt.

At the museum’s off-site store, I helped the Curator of Archives during the scanning and cataloguing of the photographic collection for the online catalogue by sorting through the photographs and identifying any duplicates. I have also helped the Collections photographer mount clothing and jewellery for photography for record purposes. Some of these were the beautiful beaded dresses in the collection. I also sew accession labels into newly acquired garments.

What has been one of the more challenging tasks you have undertaken?

The most challenging to date was preparing and mounting the garments for the current exhibition ‘Travel in Style’.

Why was this challenging and what did it involve?

A lot of people think you just put the dress on the mannequin or stitch it to shape in some way. In reality you have to make the mannequin fit the dress, using calico, Dacron, card and a lot of ingenuity! Making and attaching legs to fit inside the trousers required a lot of thought and a certain amount of dexterity, partly because of the mannequin’s supporting pole! As ironing the garments is not permitted we used a steamer needing two people to operate it – one holding the steamer and the other manoeuvring a pad underneath the garment. I made a large and small pad shaped like a table tennis bat. This help to safely apply the right amount of pressure underneath the garment as it was steamed.

Carol also volunteers as a host in the museum’s upstairs galleries where she meets and chats with visitors and answers questions or offers background information about the setting and the exhibits.

Linda Macan, Collections Assistant