Bobs the cannon:
an odd relic of the South African War
It sounds a little like the title of some ill-conceived picture book for children, but Bobs the cannon is not a fictional character. In Junee, in rural New South Wales, the name ‘Bobs’ is inscribed on the surface of an old cannon.
Now housed in Junee’s Broadway Museum, Bobs’ origin is much the same as that of an innocuous suburban street name, elsewhere in the same town. Pretoria Avenue runs parallel to the more identifiably significant ANZAC Avenue. Both are crossed by Kitchener Street. Yet whilst ANZAC Avenue runs up a hill towards St Joseph’s Catholic Church, a prominent Junee landmark, Pretoria Avenue sits quietly beside a park, dotted with rows of weeping willows. Local legend has it that these willows were planted to commemorate the service of Junee men in the South African War (1898-1902), although no memorial plaque is evident to attest to this service or the authenticity of this legend.
Pretoria Avenue commemorates part of the setting for that war in which at least ten men, one woman, and one police horse, all from Junee, may have found themselves. In joining Pretoria and ANZAC Avenues, Kitchener St commemorates the role of Horatio Herbert Kitchener in both wars, and serves to remind us of a shared proximity between these two conflicts that is often overlooked. But Bobs was the focal point of more immediate contemporary interest in the South African conflict.
This cannon was named for, and in honour of, Field Marshall Frederick Sleigh Roberts, known affectionately at the time as ‘Bobs’. A popular British war hero, Roberts’ march towards Pretoria in mid 1900 was followed by enthusiastic subjects of the Empire worldwide with expectations that the Boers would soon suffer defeat at the hands of the ‘British lion’, thus bringing the war to a rapid conclusion. Like Australians in similar towns and villages throughout the continent, Junee residents followed the war through cabled reports and letters sent by home-grown soldiers, often published in local papers such as the Junee Democrat and The Southern Cross. In late May 1900, the Mayor ‘called a meeting of citizens for the purpose of arranging for celebrating and rejoicing when peace is declared in South Africa’ in expectation of imminent victory.
The townsfolk may have been in a party mood. A little over a week earlier the town turned out to celebrate the relief of Mafeking. A British force had been besieged for 217 days by the Boers, before the town had been relieved. The siege had been reported worldwide, and whilst not a vitally important military centre, the besieged were reputed to have shown the very best of British pluck in the face of adversity. Whilst closely followed in Britain, perhaps the story of the siege of Mafeking held a special significance for the residents of a similarly small rural Australian town. Less of a leap of imagination may have been required than for readers in Britain.
Junee celebrated the relief of Mafeking in style. With 1,500 people reported to have been in attendance, a large parade starting at the Railway station wound throughout the town, totalling a considerable distance, before ending at the hospital. The crowd was ‘delighted and in the best of humour’, and with ‘lusty voices’ sang songs of Empire and watched a fireworks display ‘to celebrate and glorify another victory’. It may have been the most noise Junee had ever experienced. As well as speeches, the whistles of steam engines and the ‘bangers’ being exploded by boys in attendance, there was plenty of gunfire to mark the military nature of the celebration. An effigy of the Boer President, Kruger, was ‘hung on a gallows’ providing the setting for the firing of ‘10 rattling volleys’ by the Junee Reserves, two more volleys by the cadets, and the booming of ‘two improvised cannon’. After some more speechmaking and cheers the effigy of Kruger was ‘filled up with a tin of Kerosene and set on fire’. In 1933 a local resident could still recall how on that night ‘our patriotism was thoroughly stirred’ and the schoolchildren who had marched with the procession were particularly interested ‘in the cannon, which had been cast at the local foundry’.
Bobs the cannon did not participate in this party. The first time Bobs was fired was to mark the death of Queen Victoria. Yet the party provides a context though which we can begin to understand how it was that Bobs came to be. Forged locally and named in honour of a British general executing a distant war, Bobs provided an outlet for expressions of Empire, patriotism, and perhaps a little bloodlust. Roberts’ advance did not bring an immediate end to the war, which dragged on for another two years. Interest in the war waned in Junee, as elsewhere in the new nation of Australia, and whilst initially ‘cast with the intention of presenting it to the [Junee] Council on the occasion of the cessation of hostilities in South Africa’, almost a year after the Mafeking parade the end of the war seemed ‘very unlikely to occur for a while yet’. Whilst it was decided to change the inscription to record its use in commemorating Queen Victoria’s death, it still retains the original inscription noting the longed-for ‘British Victories in South Africa’.
Bobs sat for a number of years in a place of prominence in Broadway Street. It is now housed in the museum in the same street, although its original position is easily identifiable. Bobs was located in that part of the street now occupied by a more sombre memorial to later wars. Erected to commemorate the dead of the Great War, and with newer memorial inscriptions to later conflicts, the Junee Cenotaph and the services held year by year are of a much different nature from the expressions of May 1900. Yet there is a connection evident between the two memorials. It is poignant to realise that some of those schoolchildren, who marched to watch the fireworks on the hospital hill in Junee, may well have their names inscribed on the Cenotaph situated on Bobs’ previous location. Whilst Bobs’ may not have featured in that celebration, the fact of its casting, the sense of superiority its inscription presumed to suggest, the militaristic enthusiasm it represented, and the quiet removal of the cannon to the rear of the local museum, serves to remind us that Australians have yet to fully explore all of the complexities of our relationship with the South African War, past and present. Nor should we neglect that war’s relationship to the far more harrowing one that followed. We may well come to understand ANZAC Avenue better through looking at Pretoria Avenue, and in one sense, Bobs the cannon can show us the way.
N. D. Brodie
The Southern Cross
Junee Public School Centenary, 1880-1980, Wilkie Watson Publications, Tumut, 1980