The Project

This section written by Greg Hynes

Image of gas-masked solider (MB367/148954):An Australian chaplain standing in a trench, wearing a box respirator gas mask, during the Battle of Frommelles. (Lt. Ernest Brooks; Fleurbaix, Pas-de-Calais, France; June 1916). 

Minute book page (MB367/115528)
A page from the minute of a meeting of the Canterbury branch of the Victoria League New Zealand from September 25, 1918. The minutes discuss some of the work undertaken by the branch during the war.

One of the many treasures of the Macmillan Brown Library archives is a collection of 220 original First World War photographs, donated by the Canterbury branch of the Victoria League of New Zealand. In digitising this collection, the Macmillan Brown Library has allowed a wider audience to access these interesting images of one of history’s most defining and cataclysmic events. The collection also provides exciting new possibilities for students and academics of the First World War.

The main aims of the project were to discover how and why the collection was created, distributed, and used by the Victoria League in Canterbury; and to uncover what the images in the collection depict, and what they reflect about the British Empire at war. This proved to be a different type of research than that which is undertaken at undergraduate and honours level, as it entailed an investigation, with the possibility that its aims may not be able to be realized. This was made even more difficult due to earthquake damage meaning certain archival material, such as that held by the Canterbury Museum, was unavailable to consult for this project. Even more troubling was the absence of other Victoria League First World War material from the Macmillan Brown Library’s archives. From the outset, two promising bodies of sources were unavailable.

However, such items rarely arrive at archives as fully developed research tools. It was the aim of a Summer Research Scholarship during 2011-2012 to further investigate the collection of photographs and discover their origins and significance. The research was conducted by postgraduate history student Gregory Hynes, under the joint supervision of Dr. David Monger and Associate Professor Katie Pickles of the History Department, with Erin Kimber and Jeff Palmer of the Macmillan Brown Library. Through research that stretched from Canterbury, around New Zealand, to Australia, Canada, and England, the history of the collection was retraced. As a result, the story of the slides can now be retold, bringing New Zealand and Canterbury’s experience of the First World War into sharper focus.

Therefore, material from a much wider range of locations and sources were used to piece together the story of the slides. The research process was transnational, with sources from around New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, being consulted. Examples of similar collections were traced through catalogues throughout the Commonwealth. In the absence of local Victoria League material, Victoria League archives from Otago and London were consulted. British government documents from the British National Archives were analysed to uncover the official origin of the collection. And in order to discover the uses of the collection, press archives were consulted, including the Christchurch Press, and a number of New Zealand and British newspapers. Through this diverse approach, a picture of the history of the collection was pieced together.

In order to uncover what the images in the collection depicted, when, where, and by whom they were taken, the collection was analysed against thousands of First World War images from collections in throughout the Commonwealth. These searches revealed the range of subjects depicted in the collection; battles such as the Somme, and images of soldiers from New Zealand and around the British Empire.

Through this research, the aim of the Macmillan Brown Library in digitising this collection of images is complete. The images are available to a much wider range of students and researchers of the First World War. Furthermore, through these images, a piece of New Zealand and Canterbury’s experience of the war can now be told, through the story of the collection’s arrival in New Zealand.

  • Enquiries
    +64 3 364 2753 (internal ext 6753)
  • Erin Kimber
    Information Librarian,
    Macmillan Brown Library
  • Greg Hynes
    student researcher
  • Postal Address
    Macmillan Brown Library
    University of Canterbury
    Private Bag 4800
    Christchurch 8140