New WWI mystery unearthed

16:00, Nov 01 2013
A woman in WWI uniform
WHO IS SHE? A project to identify photographs of WWI soldiers from photographic plates has unearthed a new mystery, with pictures of women in uniform found.

A project to identify photographs of World War I soldiers from photographic plates found in a Wellington studio has unearthed a new mystery.

Among the male soldiers, a couple of women in uniform have also been discovered. Researchers at Te Papa now want to identify who they were, and why they were dressed as soldiers.

Te Papa history curator Michael Fitzgerald said it was hoped members of the public might help shed some light on their identities.

"There's a chance someone may recognise them from later in life."

Te Papa's William Berry Collection contains about 3000 glass plate negatives found in a cupboard in the 1990s by the tenants of 147 Cuba St, Wellington. It was the former premises of Berry & Co, well-known portrait photographers, established in 1897 by William Berry.

Photographs of around 170 Kiwi soldiers were found among the plates, and were labelled "The Berry Boys."


So far, more than half have been identified, using clues such as regimental badges, caps and uniforms.

Mr Fitzgerald said that on close inspection, the figures in two photographs did not look quite right.

"The hair was too long for a start. They just didn't look like soldiers."

They have been called "The Berry Girls." He said it was possible the women were engaged in some form of fundraising, or theatrical production.

It was also not unknown for women to dress in soldiers' uniforms for fun, especially early in the conflict, before the horrors of war were apparent.

"Later on it wasn't as popular."

One of the women has been tentatively identified as Edith Butler, the future wife of Private John O'Brien. The surname was etched into the plate.

Mr O'Brien survived the war, and the pair went on to lead long lives.

The other woman remains a mystery, her hand clasped on a military sword, a confident smile on her face. Her plate was inscribed "Johnson".

Mr Fitzgerald said he hoped relatives may be able to confirm the identify of the women.

The Dominion Post