Inside the Collection

World War One Soldier Portraits- a sense of being Australian, slouch hats and emu plumes

Photographic negative, studio portrait of William Grant Green
Photographic negative, studio portrait of William Grant Green, World War One, Gunner, 9 Field Artillery Brigade (33rd Battery), glass / silver / gelatin, The Warren, Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, March-April 1916. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

As we approach the centenary of World War One commemorative activities will be taking place across the world by all the countries involved in World War One. Australia’s responses will include exhibitions, publications and re-enactments of recruitment drives like the Coo-ee and Kangaroo marches in 1916 .

The Museum has been researching its collections linked to the war. We have discovered our very own ‘Lost Diggers’ collection, though on a smaller scale. A collection of 404 World War One soldier portraits are part of the Museum’s extensive Tyrrell Photographic Collection.

The Tyrrell collection has over 8000 photographic negatives acquired in the 1920s or 1930s by Sydney bookseller James Tyrrell. They include collections from commercial photography studios run by Charles Kerry and Henry King. The entire collection changed hands from Tyrrell to Consolidated Press before being donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1981.

These soldier portraits were uncovered and scanned in 2013 though not all of the soldiers in these portraits are identified. Research has begun with curatorial volunteer Simon Blue in the hope that these images can be properly identified and catalogued.

Simon notes “this research process has uncovered some interesting findings and stories”.

One interesting finding from these images is the prevalence of Australian artillerymen wearing slouch hats, often adorned with a plume of emu feathers.

The history of the slouch hat with the emu plume- an iconic Australian symbol- is an interesting one. Emu feathers began to accompany slouch hats during the Great Shearers’ Strike in 1891. During the strike, local troops were bought in to ensure a peaceful resolution to the strike. The first troops to be credited for wearing the emu feather plume, the Gympie Squadron of the Queensland Mounted Infantry, would chase down emus for sport, adopting their feathers as trophies.

Photographic negative, studio portrait of Thomas Baker
85/1286-983 Photographic negative, studio portrait of Thomas Baker, World War One, Shoeing Smith, 9 Field Artillery Brigade (34th Battery), glass / silver / gelatin, The Warren, Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, March-April 1916 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Throughout my research I noted that many of the soldiers sitting for their portraits decided to wear the slouch hat with an emu plume. Originally I thought that these soldiers were from the Light Horse, as they also wore riding breeches and a Bandelier with 5 pouches on the front. However further study of the pictures indicated that these soldiers were not from the Light Horse but were from the Australian Field Artillery. For instance, the above portrait of Thomas Baker shows clear insignia on his left shoulder indicating service in 3 Field Artillery Brigade.

Furthermore, the soldiers that posed with the emu plumed slouch hat for their portraits were drawn from Queensland. These soldiers were generally sourced for service in 9 Field Artillery Brigade or 21 Howitzer Brigade. The early soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), drawn in 1914 were under direction that the plain felt hat “was chosen for universal wear by all units” except for Queensland mounted troops. By adopting the emu feather plume these portraits show that these artillerymen were proud of the military heritage of Queensland.

So why were AIF artillerymen allowed to wear the emu feather plume?

It is important to remember that during World War One artillery was horse-drawn, this is why the soldiers in these portraits are dressed with riding boots, leggings and are occasionally holding riding crops. Artillerymen were classified as “other mounted arms” by Bean and from these images we can conclude that Queensland based artillery units were able to wear the emu feather plumes along with their counterparts in the Light Horse.

These portraits were taken in March and April 1916. By this date Australian ‘diggers’ were willing to separate themselves from looking exactly like British ‘tommies’. By March 1916 Australian soldiers had seen action in German New Guinea and Turkey and were beginning to arrive en masse at the Western Front. With this action, the AIF continued to develop its own military conventions. The emu plumed slouch hat seen in these portraits is an example of this.”


Bean, C.E.W. Anzac to Amiens. Melbourne: Penguin Group, 2014.Originally published, Canberra: The Australian War Memorial, 1946.

Aitken, P. ‘‘Kangaroo Feathers’ and the Mystique of the Light Horse’. Wartime 14, 50-53.

Discovery of 400 World War One Photographic Portraits

Simon Blue
Curatorial Volunteer

3 responses to “World War One Soldier Portraits- a sense of being Australian, slouch hats and emu plumes

  • How is the identification process going?
    I have a relative I am researching who fits the time line of the photos.
    David Thomas Rankin enlisted at Longreach, Qld National Archives of Australia: B2455, RANKIN DAVID THOMAS
    Certificate of Medical Examination 1/4/16 The Warren Marrickville
    Embarked 11/5/16 Argyllshire
    34th Field Artillery Battery
    I have no photo of him although perhaps there is at
    George Thomas Edward Rankin – (I am not a member)
    I would appreciate any help, Is there some way to access these photos?
    Regards Nancy

  • Further to previous comment David Thomas Rankin – kia
    Second candidate Leslie Wilson Rankin (brother of first candidate) naa barcode 8026167
    Enlisted Bundaberg Qld
    Attestation 1/4/16 The Warren Marrickville 34th Field Battery 9th Field Artillery Brigade
    Embarkation 11/5/16 at sydney on HMAAT Argyllshire
    so same relevant dates as first candidate.

  • Re David Thomas Rankin and Leslie Wilson Rankin. They were my fathers uncles and I am also looking for details of them. Nancy Edwards if you would like to contact me I live in Brisbane and am on Facebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *