After Albert I King of the Belgians refused safe passage to Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops to attack France, Germany invaded neutral Belgium on 4 August 1914. Britain, bound by an 1839 treaty to support Belgium’s neutrality, declared war on Germany the same day. Australian Prime Minister Joseph Cook offered his government’s support to the British Empire.

The invaders captured much of Belgium including the capital Brussels. King Albert, as Commander of the Army, rallied the nation and delayed the German advance so Britain and France could marshal troops for several battles in September-October 1914. The Belgian Army retreated northwards, fighting a battle of attrition for four more years. King Albert fought alongside his men while Queen Elizabeth served as a nurse.

Ordinary Australians wanted to help the beleaguered Belgians. For the gallant king’s 40th birthday on 8 April 1915, citizens of Melbourne sold roses to raise money. Beechworth held a ‘grand patriotic concert’ for the King’s birthday. Belgian Relief Fund appeals by The Argus newspaper and the Lord Mayor raised over £270 000 (perhaps $30 million today). By this time, Australian troops of the AIF were in Egypt, preparing for the Gallipoli landing; they did not deploy on the Western Front in France and Belgium until 1916.

A committee of Victorians proposed a more personal and distinctively Australian gift, if somewhat impractical in wartime. By subscribing £1 each to sign a ‘birthday book’, they hoped to raise funds ‘as a birthday gift to King Albert for the help and relief of his starving people. Sheets for the book could be signed at all the banks, the Commercial Travellers’ Club, Whitehead’s and Mullen’s.

Professor T.G. Tucker drafted an address, which was to be ‘beautifully illuminated, and bound with all the sheets of signatures into a handsome volume and enclosed in a casket, of Australian woods elaborately carved’.3 When completed in late July 1915, the casket was shown in the windows of Allan’s and picture-framers D. Bernard & Co. in Collins Street. The Leader described the carving

The top panel of the casket represents a weeping wattle (Acacia Saligna), designed to express sympathy and sorrow. In the side panels, of which there are four, are eucalyptus leaves, seed pods, buds and blossoms, the front panel having a ribbon entwined among the leaves, and bearing the words, “The leaves of the trees for the healing of the nation.” The casket was designed and carved by Mr. John K. Blogg, of Surrey Hills, and the cabinet work was executed by Mr. H. Goldman, both gentlemen giving their services gratuitously, and sparing neither time nor cost in producing what must be acknowledged as the most beautiful casket ever seen in Australia.

Well known cabinetmaker Harry Goldman had been born in Bristol, came to Australia as a youth and established his furniture manufactory H. Goldman and Co at 394– 400 Latrobe Street about 1912.5 In 1914, Lady Denman, wife of the Governor General, visited his workshop ‘to inspect the Victorian fancy timbers in which the firm is specialising,’6 receiving a jewel box as a gift.

Goldman was7 a pioneer of the use of Australian native timbers in high grade furniture, he made several cabinets and other articles of furniture from native woods for presentation to the King and Queen, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and other members of the Royal family by Australian organisations.

Vigorously active in trade, business and training organisations, in 1915, he unsuccessfully sued the Herald and Weekly Times for libel, after it reported that the military had carried out a raid on his premises under the Trading with the Enemy Act – unsuccessfully seeking evidence that Goldman was German or that he had bought goods from Germany. Chief Justice Madden was scathing of the military’s refusal to cooperate with the court.

Eventually, the address attracted 809 signatures. L. Byron Morres, honorary secretary of King Albert’s Birthday Book, sent the casket in November via RMS Medina through the Agent General to the ‘Belgian Consulate’ in London. He sent a bank draft for £809 to King Albert, asking ‘that the amount be handed to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, for the benefit of wounded soldiers at the base hospital at Furnes, in which, it is known, she takes a great personal interest.


Ovens & Murray Advertiser (Beechworth) 31 Mar 1915 p 2.

Argus 9 Apr 1915 p 6.

Argus 17 Apr 1915 p 18.

Leader (Melb) 31 Jul 1915 p 35, illustrated; also Herald (Melb) 28 Jul 1915 p 1.

K. Fahy & A. Simpson Australian Furniture p 55f.

Leader (Melb) 18 Apr 1914 p 51

Herald (Melb) 25 Nov 1939 p 12.

Argus 4 Nov 1915 p 5. The Belgian Army GHQ was in Furnes [Veurne] in 1914–15.

Article courtesy Australiana Magazine

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