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Centaur Day Commemorations 14 May

By JOL Admin | 14 May 2020

The date of 14 May marks the loss of the 2/3 Australian Hospital ship Centaur in 1943, 100 kms off the Queensland coast, directly out from the suburb of Strathpine. In this post, Dr Madonna Grehan, 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow, looks at Queensland’s history of commemorating this wartime incident.

Five years after the sinking of the Centaur by enemy fire, in 1948 the Centaur Memorial Fund declared 14 May to be Centaur Day, a day of commemoration for the 268 lives lost in the incident. That year, sombre ceremonies were held all over Queensland. In Brisbane, dignitaries, service personnel, nurses and the public gathered at the steps of the General Post Office in Queen Street where a ceremony included the planting of Red Roses of Remembrance in the letters C E N T A U R into a large wooden frame.

Crepe paper red roses

Crepe Paper Red Roses, made by Janette Garrad, State Library of Queensland, October 2015. Photo courtesy of Dr Madonna Grehan

Advertisement for Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses Advertising, 1948

Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses Advertising Negative, 1948. (John Oxley Library collection)

On 17 October 1948, another commemoration was held at the Shrine of Remembrance. It marked the launch of Centaur Cycling Week, an event of seven days organised by the Queensland Amateur Cyclists’ Union to raise money for the Centaur Memorial Fund. Amateur and professional racing cyclists, male and female, paraded as the Union’s President, Mr N. Gailey, placed a wreath at the Shrine, acknowledging all cyclists who lost their lives in the war.

Newspaper clipping about the Queensland Amateur Cyclists' Union

Newspaper clipping from the Queen of the Nurses Scrapbook, 15 January 1948-3 September 1949. (John Oxley Library collection)

Official Centaur Day commemorations in 1949 moved to the Shrine where Centaur survivors, Sister Ellen Savage G.M. and Vince McCosker, placed a basket of red paper roses in remembrance of their colleagues. For the next thirteen years, the Shrine remained the centre of the ceremony until 1963 when proceedings moved indoors to the Hall of Memories. The Fund’s then Executive felt that the location added to the solemnity of proceedings.

The Fund tended to observe the conventions of military commemorations. Personnel from the Navy provided a Catafalque Party. The RAAF did fly overs, dropping wreaths over the sea at the Centaur’s last known location. Over the years, various units provided music, among them the Northern Command Military Band and the Salvation Army Band. Hymns such as Eternal Father or Nearer my God to thee were followed by the Last Post, a minute’s silence, Reveille and the national anthem. The placing of floral wreaths has also formed part of the ceremony. In the 1950s, with around 300 people attending the annual event, numbers of wreaths were placed by relatives and friends of Centaur personnel, ex-servicemen’s and women’s organisations, the War Widow’s Guild, Legacy, the Seamen’s Union and nursing organisations.

These modest services were conducted by a range of ministers of religion: Brigadier W. Flockton, a former Red Shield padre; Rev W.B. Ward, Rev G. Wells; and Padre Ganley. Media covered the proceedings, including the Courier Mail, Telegraph, and radio stations. By the 1960s, television station ABQ2 filmed the event for its news magazine section. But with numbers dwindling by that time, the Fund decided to discontinue the service after the 25th anniversary in 1968. The RSL’s Returned Sisters Sub-branch expressed its disappointment and asked for a reinstatement.

In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Centaur’s sinking in 1993, the idea of memorialising was rekindled and a service held in Brisbane at St Paul's Presbyterian Church. Also that year, State Library of Queensland staged a Centaur seminar, open to the public, discussing the history of the sinking and considering reports of the wreck’s finding. The seminar is referred to in an epic poem called Hospital Ship Centaur by Paul Sherman, a well-known Brisbane teacher, actor and poet. Sherman’s poem was awarded highly commended in the 1993 Warana Festival Premier’s Poetry Competition. A longer version was published in Sherman’s Faces in Water: poems of island, sea & shore, in 1993.

The annual Centaur Memorial Service was revived in 1997 held at Albert Street Uniting Church, with music supplied by Brisbane Girls Grammar School and the Brisbane Boys College Pipe Band. In recent years, the TS Centaur Australian Navy Cadets from Maleny have formed the Catafalque Party. The finding of the shipwreck in 2009 generated more expressions of commemoration as renowned conductor Patrick Thomas and composer Colin Brumby created Centaur: the Australian Hospital Ship in two versions for soprano and baritone voice with piano.

This year, 2020, the challenge of COVID-19 has necessitated another pause for this commemorative service which the Fund hopes will only be this year. Miss Hazel Johnson, the energetic nurse member of the Fund’s Executive, appealed to Queenslanders in 1948 to remember the Centaur’s deceased because ‘Once a tragic incident is passed, how many of us think of it again, except those who sorrow for their loved ones?’.

The Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses website contains a short video to remind us of some of those lost.

Lest we forget.

Dr Madonna Grehan - historian and 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow

Dr Madonna Grehan talks about her year as the 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow.


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