Imagining Centaur

In this entry, 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow, Dr Madonna Grehan, discusses an exhibition which draws on the collection of the State Library of Queensland.

The sinking of the 2/3 Australian Hospital Ship Centaur occurred 77 years ago last May. Centaur was torpedoed by enemy fire, around 100kms from the coast of south east Queensland. The vessel was on its way from Sydney to New Guinea with 332 personnel aboard when it was struck. Only 64 survived the incident.

Photograph of 2/3rd Australian Hospital Ship Centaur, 1943, OMEG/80 Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image OMEG-0080-0001 

It was one of the most brutal crimes committed in the Second World War. The circumstances surrounding the attack on the vessel are discussed by Christopher Milligan and John Foley in Australian Hospital Ship Centaur: The Myth of Immunity.

Those on board Centaur were non-combatants. Along with the ship’s staff of doctors and nurses and their support staff, Centaur carried members of the 2/12 Field Ambulance made up of doctors, dentists, field officers, and support staff of the unit. There was a representative of the Australian Red Cross and a staff of Merchant Seamen. The ship bore the correct signage and lighting, as was compulsory for hospital ships operating in a war zone. At the time, the attack on the ship and the deaths of its talented and skilled personnel were hard to fathom. In retrospect, it remains difficult to fathom.

A new exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne revisits the sinking of the Centaur, and reflects on how we memorialise such events. Titled Imagining Centaur the exhibition centres on a series of naïve works by Victorian artist, Dean Bowen. These works are complemented by artefacts, ephemera, and displays incorporating light, sound, and visual elements.

A short film reflects on the sinking, using sound and animation. It features extracts of poetry by Paul Sherman performed by actor and former State Library of Queensland Q ANZAC Fellow Elaine Acworth and incorporates ABC archival film footage of a 1943 interview with Sister Ellen Savage GM, the only nurse to survive the sinking.

Among the ephemera are items from the collection of the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses held by State Library of Queensland, such as programmes, posters, and photographs.

Centaur Memorial Fund Poster, March 1948, OMEG/111 Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image OMEG-0111-0001

Military uniforms of an Australian Army Nursing Service Nurse and a Field Ambulance Officer evoke the period of service. We’re delighted to be showing the service medals of Sister Ellen Savage GM. Savage was awarded the George Medal for attending to her fellow survivors while they waited rescue on rafts in the Pacific Ocean, despite being seriously injured herself.

Photographs of guests at the Centaur Commemorative Concert held at Brisbane City Hall, Sister Ellen Savage GM, second from left, 12 May 1949. Centaur House Records, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image OMEG-0056-0001. 

An unusual item, loaned by the Centaur Memorial Fund for display, is a stained glass maquette (model) of Concord Repatriation General Hospital’s stunning Centaur Memorial Window. The 2/3 AHS Centaur Association has loaned its replica plaque, the original of which was placed at the wreck site after its discovery in 2009.

The exhibition has been a collaborative process between a team of Shrine curators, artists, and historians. The curators hope that their Imagining Centaur exhibition recalls the extraordinary service of Australians during the Second World War. COVID-19’s endurance in Victoria in 2020 has delayed an exhibition launch which we hope will proceed in 2021.

Livestream event

Please join two of the exhibition’s curators as they discuss the exhibition and developing it in a year that is COVID-19-affected. Meet the Curators will be live-streamed via the Shrine’s Facebook platform on Thursday 22 October at 12MD (AEDT). A recording of the talk will be available later via the Shrine’s YouTube channel.

Dr Madonna Grehan

Dr Madonna Grehan was the 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow. Her previous research on the Centaur Memorial Fund can be found here:

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

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