Nelson's WWI Red Cross Flag
At 2.5m long and almost 1.5m high, an enormous flag - roughly the size of a king-sized sheet – was created during WWI to raise money for Nelson troops posted overseas.
The autographed flag is crowded with individual signatures and vividly illustrates people’s desire to be involved with the constant fundraising carried out during the war years.
In early May 1916, the Mayoress Janet Harley initiated this fundraising effort. Based out of the Helping Hand Shop, the fund was set up by local Nelson women to raise money for the Red Cross. Mayoress Harley donated a large piece of cloth which was spread out for two days in the shop. People paid a shilling to sign the flag. People could also post their signature in on a piece of paper to be traced onto the fabric. The inked names were then embroidered in red silk.
The beautiful, careful needlework was carried out almost wholly by Miss Isabella Ewart, who was in her early 60s at the time. Her obituary in the Colonist three years later describes her as an “indefatigable worker in patriotic organisations” and “one of the foremost of [the] Red Cross Workers” during the war years.
Around 1800 people and business participated, raising almost ₤100.
A year passed but the war still raged on. During the last week of April 1917, the flag was auctioned as part of an intense fundraising effort “to raise additional funds for Red Cross work in view of heavier casualties on the Western Front” (Colonist, 25 April 1917). The ‘Red Cross Fete’ involved a bazaar, an apple day, a flower show at the Suter Art Gallery, a masked ball, side-shows, and a parade of decorated motor vehicles and bicycles through Nelson. The grounds of the Provincial Buildings were specially lit by electric light for the occasion. The flag was auctioned during a special evening concert in the Provincial Hall and was purchased by Miss Marsden for ₤110. This was a substantial amount of money in 1917, the equivalent today would be approximately $4000.
The Nelson Provincial Museum welcomed the flag into its collection in 2002, when it was donated by the Nelson Returned and Services Association (Inc). The flag is stored in a climate-controlled storage room, at the Museum’s Research Facility, rolled onto a large padded tube to minimise stress on the fragile fibres.
The Museum opened its commemorative exhibition exhibition ‘WW1 – Their Stories – Our History’ in August 2014. This spectacular flag was considered for display, but as it is extremely fragile and the coloured embroidery silk susceptible to fading with prolonged exposure to light, displaying it would be unwise. Instead it was decided to create a reproduction.
Creating a reproduction of an object this large posed an exciting challenge for Museum staff. The photographer positioned a fixed tripod on the mezzanine level of the Research Facility’s library to get the extra height needed to capture the outsized object. The flag was slowly unrolled far below and photographed in sections. Four individual digital images were then painstakingly ‘stitched’ together using Photoshop® to create a single image. This image was sent to a local printing company, The Darkroom, to print onto fabric. A museum volunteer then hemmed the reproduction, which now hangs in the ‘Community Hall’ in the Museum’s upper gallery.
After careful searching the author has been unable to spot the name of the embroiderer, Isabella Ewart, on the flag. Despite the many hours she must have spent embroidering other people’s names, did she not embroider her own?
2014 (first published in Nelson Provincial Museum's e-news)
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Further sources - Nelson's WWI Red Cross Flag
- Evans, R. & A. (1999) The family of John and Janet Kerr of Nelson : sero sed serio. Ongaonga, N.Z. : Evagean Pub
- Autographed red cross flag (1916, May 1) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4
- Colonist, Volume LVIII, Issue 14396, 25 April 1917, Page 4
- Colonist, Volume LXII, Issue 15353, 17 April 1920, Page 4
- Our history. New Zealand Red Cross. Retrieved 30 August, 2014: