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11 Oct 2017

William Cook, a fallen soldier from the Royal Botanic Garden


Thursday 12th October 2017 was the 100th anniversary of the death of William Cook, a much-loved former staff member of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, killed in action at Passchendaele during World War One at the age of 30.  

The Battle of Passchendaele, as it is now known, opened on July 31, 1917 and ended on November 10. By the time it was over the ANZACS had suffered 38,000 casualties, including 12,000 dead.
William’s great nephew Martin Edwards wrote to Garden librarian Miguel Garcia recently to share memorabilia and ask if the Garden’s records held information about William from his time working as a gardener.

The memorabilia included:
  • A watch given to William on 1st July 1916 by the Royal Botanic Garden, marking the day he left his job to join the Australian Infantry (photo below)
  • A sympathy letter sent to William’s sister after his death in 1917, from Garden Director Joseph Maiden (transcribed below)
  • A postcard William sent from the HMAT Anchises, the warship that he travelled to Europe aboard in 1916 (pictured)
  • A letter William wrote to his sister from the ship he emigrated to Australia on, the SS Demosthenes (transcribed below)
Miguel found William’s name amongst the 26 staff members listed on the Garden’s Great War Roll of Honour. The Roll of Honour features waratahs and wattle hand painted by botanical illustrator Margaret Flockton. A small, circled K next to W.H. Cook indicates that he was killed.

When Miguel looked at the Garden’s 1918 Annual Report he found William mentioned:
 “Killed in Action – I have to record, with deep regret, the death of Mr. W. H. Cook, who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces for active service in May, 1016. He was killed during a heavy engagement with the enemy in France. His services in this branch commenced in May, 1914, and being a man of the highest integrity and possessing an excellent disposition, was very popular with the other members of the staff.”
Maiden, J. H. (1918). Report of the Director of the Botanic Gardens, Government Domains, Centennial Park, and Campbelltown Nursery for 1917. Sydney: William Applegate Gullick, Govt. Printer. Outer Domain, p. 12.

Martin and his family visited the Menin Gate Memorial on the anniversary to be part of the Last Post ceremony and pay respects to William and his fellow fallen soldiers.

Botanic Gardens, Sydney, N.S.W
Oct 15th 1917
Dear Madam
News has come to us that your Brother W.H. Cook, who was employed here in gardening work in the Outer Domain for several years previous to his enlistment in the A.I.F, has been killed in active service.
He was much admired here as a good workman & a good man, & I beg and offer you my respectful sympathy in your bereavement.
He has a place on our Honour Roll which will keep his memory green in Sydney.
Yours Sincerely
J. Maiden (Director, Botanic Gardens)
Feb 23rd SS Demosthenes
My dear Hettie
I am writing to you hoping it will find you in the best of health as it leaves me at the present, I shall be glad to get there & to get settled so that I may be able to have a letter from you all again, I am getting ____ ____ ____ there now, we shall reach Melbourne on the 25th & Sydney about March 2nd
We have had an excellent voyage all the way, & it has been fine nearly all the time. Has Millie been to see you I suppose she has & that she will be going out to service again very soon.
We have had dances & concerts on board & different games so that we have not been altogether dull, there are with the crew & all of us about 13 or 14 hundred on board it is like a little village you know, I suppose you are looking forward to going home in the summer. There are lots of families on board going out to look for a job & I hope that they will all have the best of luck & prosper as it is a long way to come on seas & it is about twelve thousand miles by water & we might have to go a few miles after we land to work but still that does not matter so by we can do alright & get some money.
It was very hot when we crossed over the Equator they had to put the awning up to shelter the decks from the sun. We travel at the rate of about 14 or 15 miles per hour, we are getting quite used to the water by now it is really quite nice & it will make a good many feel a bit sad to leave it.
Well dear sister I will close this now & will write to you from Sydney when we reach there & when we get settled so as to let you know where to write to & I shall be glad to hear from you.
So hoping you are well. I close this with my best love to you from your ever-loving Brother Will
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