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Australian Women and Imperial Honours:
Imperial Honours - History

The Australian Women's Archives Project is pleased to present this special exhibition on women recipients of Imperial Honours in Australia from 1901-1989. The research has been funded by the Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women.

The Imperial System of Honours and Awards is a scheme of honours bestowed on citizens or foreigners by the British monarch. This system has a long history, rooted in Roman traditions of awards for military service.[1] Over the twentieth century the honours system has gradually evolved to recognise civilian service and other achievements.

Until 1975, the British Imperial system was the only system for recognition of the service of Australian citizens to Australia. Today, the Imperial system has been largely replaced by the Australian system, established in 1975. Imperial Honours continued to be awarded to Australians on the recommendation of some States until 1989. The Queen still confers some honours in exercise of the 'Royal Prerogative'; for example, Dame Joan Sutherland was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1991.

Brief history of the Imperial System of Honours and Awards in Australia

In 1800s England, the Imperial system of honours consisted of a ‘handful’ of awards available to ‘high-ranking males.’[2] There was a gradual increase in diversity of awards and recipients during the twentieth century, both through changes in the British system and the establishment of the Australian system. The first award of an Imperial Honour to an Australian was made in 1793; the last recommendation from within Australia was made in 1989.[3] There were a large number of awards to Australians for service during the first and second world wars. The establishment of the Order of the British Empire in 1917 allowed for a rise in the number of awards for non-military service. This date also saw the start of a gradual increase in the number of women receiving honours. Women have largely been honoured for civilian service, although women nurses and other female military personnel have been recognized with military awards.

Context of other states in the Commonwealth

Viewed in the context of honours systems in the other states of the Commonwealth, Australia was quite late to develop an autonomous scheme. Canada resolved in 1919 that no Imperial honours should be awarded to Canadians. It introduced its own system of honours in 1967.[4] South Africa largely rejected the award of honours by Britain in 1925 and started developing its own system in the 1950s.[5] India used the British system of honours while under British rule, and Britain instituted several specific Indian Orders. After Independence (1947), conferment of these Orders ceased and India introduced its own system of honours.[6] By contrast, New Zealand has retained much of the British system, although it has recently moved towards replacing most of these with more New Zealand-based awards.[7]

How were Imperial Honours awarded?

Imperial Honours to Australians were based on recommendations made to the Colonial Office in London by the Australian States and Commonwealth. The British Secretary of State made the final decision, often using the advice of the Governor-General of Australia. The number of awards made was restricted for each category, with a maximum of about seven per year being made to Australians between 1901 and 1917. The short supply of awards was due to the demands from the various colonies of the British Empire. Some alleviation of this problem came when the Order of the British Empire was established in June 1917. This new Order permitted the additional annual conferral of approximately 40 honours. This number grew over the decades to a peak of around 650 KBEs, CBEs, OBEs and MBEs per year in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[8]

From 1911, it was customary to announce Imperial Honours Lists twice a year - on New Year's Day and on the Sovereign's Birthday in June, as well as on incidental special occasions.[9] Since 1976, under the Australian Honours system, the January Honours List has been announced on 'Australia Day' (26 January) instead of New Year's Day.

About Honours

In general, recipients of Honours are given a medal; some recipients are also permitted to use a title (eg, Sir, Dame) and/or attach a 'post-nominal' to their name (eg. LG, OBE, CH).

Method of wearing

Medals are worn only on certain occasions, and according to rules about the method and order of wearing. In general, both men and women wear medals on the left breast. However, in several orders and awards the method of wearing depends on gender. In these cases women wear the medal on the left shoulder.[10]

Order of wearing

Honours are arranged into an Order of Precedence or Order of Wearing, reflecting the hierarchy of importance in which they are regarded. This dictates the order in which medals are worn if a person has more than one honour. The Order of Precedence has been continually updated over the years to incorporate new honours and remove discontinued honours. This exhibition has compiled information from several historical Orders of Precedence, alongside the Australian Style manual for authors, editors and printers, in order to create as complete as possible a list of Imperial Honours awarded to Australians from 1901-1989. The Imperial Honours browse list compiled for this exhibition has been listed in the Order of Wearing.

The current Order of Wearing Australian Honours and Awards (4 April 2002) is an integrated scheme that ranks the Imperial and the Australian awards available to or currently held by Australians in relation to each other.

Australian Honours since 1975

Australia introduced its own system of honours in 1975, and by 1992, all States had decided no longer to seek the conferment of Imperial Honours. Tasmania and Queensland were the last States to award Imperial honours (June 1989 list).[11] As well as being autonomous of the British system, the establishment of the Australian system allows Australia to recognize the service of a foreign citizen to Australia.[12]

The attitude of Australian governments to the award has largely been shaped along party lines. The Liberal Party traditionally embraced the Imperial system, while from 1918 onwards the Labor party opposed the practice of recommending Australians for Imperial honours. According to Maton,

Imperial awards were seen as much as a political tool as a straight reward for service rendered to the community and there can be no doubt that the system was exploited with politicians, public servants, the legal profession and other individuals close to the seat of power, receiving awards ahead of those serving the community at a much lower level.[13]

Genesis of the change

In 1967, Gough Whitlam, then a Member of Parliament in opposition, suggested Australia go down the Canadian path of creating its own honours system.[14] He pursued this after becoming Prime Minister in 1972. The Australian system is modeled on the Canadian system but differs in several respects. Notably, Canadian awards are ranked above all British awards, whereas in the Australian Order of Precedence, some British awards are ranked above Australian Awards and some below.[15]

New method of nomination

An important difference between the Imperial System of Honours and that now adopted by Australia is the method of selecting recipients.[16] Nominations to the Order of Australia have been opened up so that any person or organisation may nominate an individual for an award. Previously this privilege had been reserved for politicians, who were also able to recommend recipients directly.[17] Today, the nominations are considered by the Australian Decorations Advisory Committee, which advises the Governor-General.[18] This modification aimed to ensure the award system was merit-based and non-political.

Persistence of elitism

Despite the changes made to the structure of the awards scheme, criticism of the system persists to some degree.[19] Indeed, in 1994 the government initiated a review of the honours system in response to community sentiment that the system was elitist, awarded few women and was also biased against more recent migrants and poor people, both male and female.[20] The review recommended the retention of the honours system, but stressed the need for on-going scrutiny and community input into the ‘development and operation’ of the awards system.[21]

The Australian Women's Archives Project has identified more than 4000 Australian women recipients of Imperial Honours[22] and offers further sources of information about a selection of them. These sources include archival and published material, and are accompanied by brief biographical notes. This selection includes most of the recipients of the highest orders as well as several recipients from each of the lower ranks and orders. We have endeavoured to select women from each State and Territory. Sources relating to the Imperial Honours System are also available.

Of the more than 4000 women recipients identified, a large proportion fell within three classes of honour or award. Nearly 3000 were appointed to the lowest rank of the Order of the British Empire (Member), or received the British Empire Medal or equivalent. More than 600 women received the Imperial Service medal, and more than 350 received the Royal Red Cross (5 classes). The activities for which women received recognition in the form of Imperial Honours can be guessed at from their citations; more than 700 women had citations relating to nursing; more than 1000 had citations relating to community. Other major areas of recognition included arts, charities, welfare, education and service in the interests of women and children. About 70 received recognition for scientific pursuits, while three received honours for work relating to archives.

Clare Land (Project Worker)

1. Frederick Kirkland (1996), Order of Australia, 1975-1995, p 10; Michael Maton (1996), Imperial honours and awards to Australians 1901-1992, pp.10-11. [Return to text]
2. A Matter of Honour: the Report of the Review of Australian Honours and Awards (1995), Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, p.1. [Return to text]
3. Kirkland, Order of Australia, p.11; In 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating announced that the Queen had agreed no further recommendations for Imperial Honours were to be made by Federal and State Governments. However, the Queen retains the right to honour Australians with certain awards from the Imperial system which are her gift (Maton, Imperial honours, p.11; A Matter of Honour, p.21). [Return to text]
4. A Matter of Honour, pp.2-3. [Return to text]
5. ibid, p.3. [Return to text]
6. ibid, p.3. [Return to text]
7. ibid, p.5. [Return to text]
8. Maton, Imperial honours, pp.24-25. [Return to text]
9. ibid, p.27. [Return to text]
10. ibid, p.15. [Return to text]
11. ibid, p.28. However, the Sovereign (Queen) may still bestow certain Imperial Honours on Australians. [Return to text]
12. Kirkland, Order of Australia, p.11. [Return to text]
13. Maton, Imperial honours, p.25. [Return to text]
14. A Matter of Honour, p.14. [Return to text]
15. ibid, p.19. [Return to text]
16. Whitlam, G. ‘Honours’ in Kirkland, F. Order of Australia, p.16. [Return to text]
17. ibid, p.16. [Return to text]
18. Maton, Imperial honours, p.28. [Return to text]
19. ibid, p.26. [Return to text]
20. A Matter of Honour, p. xvii. [Return to text]
21. ibid, pp xviii-xix. [Return to text]
22. Its an Honour. Please note, some duplicates exist in this data and in some cases the gender of the recipients was not available. [Return to text]
References cited
  • Kirkland, F. Order of Australia, 1975-1995, 2nd ed. (1996).
  • Maton, M. Imperial honours and awards to Australians 1901-1992 (1996).
  • A Matter of Honour: the Report of the Review of Australian Honours and Awards, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra (1995).
  • Style manual for authors, editors and printers, revised by Snooks & Co. (Milton, Qld.: John Wiley & Sons, 2002).
  • Whitlam, G. 'Honours' in Kirkland, F. Order of Australia, 1975-1995, 2nd ed. (1996).