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Littlefair's lamp
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Harry Littlefair's Lamp

In 1891 in the pleasant beach side Newcastle suburb of Merewether NSW a child was born to Joseph and Sarah Littlefair. He was christened Joseph Henry but was to be known most of his life as ‘Harry’.
Harry’s schooling must have been much like all other Aussie kids of the time. There would have been a map of the world on the wall with lots and lots of ‘Red’ bits. “Rule Britannia” would have been one of the songs he sang on at least a weekly basis. His school would have been enthusiastically involved in pageants and plays marking ‘Empire Day’ and even performing pre-Christian pagan fertility rituals such as dancing around ‘Maypoles.’ Empire Day was first introduced in 1905 to promote loyalty among the dominion countries of the British Empire. Celebrated on 24 May, Queen Victoria's birthday, it was directed especially at school children.

In 1909, the School Journal likened colonials to swallows leaving their nest, flying overseas and then returning. That swallows were northern, rather than southern hemisphere creatures did not worry Journal editors; dormice and other foreign critters infested their magazine. Older children got a less homely homily. In 1912 Classes V and VI were warned that if 'citizens of the British Empire lose their simple and hardy ways of living, and become lovers of ease, the Empire will pass away'.


So, it is not surprising that in 1914 with War very much in mind the youth of Australia were lining up to enlist to fight for ‘King and Country’. Nor is there much surprise in the fact that of a population of 300 the town of Neath sent 72 of her sons to fight the war in Europe.

Coal mining was rapidly developing in the rich seams of the Hunter valley.
The Neath Colliery coal lease was acquired by the Wickham and Bullock Island Coal Company during 1903. The seams here were very thick. One bore sunk by the Wickham and Bullock Island Coal Company struck coal on Tuesday 3rd October 1905 at a depth of 286 feet. This coal seam was 27 feet 10 inches in thickness.
A settlement developed at Neath. It was described as a "calico" mining village. Between 1910 to 1915 the mining employees totalled some 300 people. Tents and bag "humpies" housed the miners and their families. The tents and temporary dwellings were soon converted to rough sawn timber houses with corrugated galvanised iron roofs. Alongside the mining village was a football field, and a boxing gymnasium.

In contrast to the ‘Calico’ village work began early in the century on the ‘Neath Hotel’. A substantial three storey building even today with steel floor joists provided by the same Scottish company who supplied materials for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It also boasts, as do most of the hotels in the valley, the ‘Iron Lace’ balustrading which was shipped as ballast from foundries in England and Scotland.

The Littlefair family had moved from Merewether to Weston, a settlement near Neath and Harry took employment in the mines. The advent of War and the tragedy of Gallipoli generated great patriotic zeal and Harry attempted to enlist not once, but five times. Disappointed at being rejected, he never gave up hope.
On Monday, August 30th. 1915, he was one of the many volunteers who turned up at Maitland's Drill Hall and were successfully enlisted. He was in!

A small but very important part of the miners' equipment is a small oil wick lamp, usually worn on the cap or hat to provide personal underground illumination. Against the day of his return, Harry chose to leave his lamp together with a small brass fuel container in the care of Edwin Anstey, the proprietor of the Neath Hotel which had become his favourite ‘watering hole’.

In the words of Winston Churchill, Harry was ‘sent to the wire’ in France where he sustained a major injury to the chest from a large piece of shrapnel. After convalescence in England he was left with a hole in his chest into which “ a man could place his fist”. He was declared ‘ Unfit for active service’, and was to be sent home. But, he had a lot of mates still fighting in France! Displaying the same determination and tenacity that he had in enlistment and because the Generals at this stage of the war were running out of fit combatants, Harry was allowed to rejoin his battalion in France.
Back in the field he was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal and found that his Battalion and Division, like all the Australian Divisions, were being used as spearhead troops and were sent to many areas where the fíercest fighting was occurring. During the German advance in April 1918 the Ist Division, of which the 3rd Battalion was a part, was rushed in to turn the tide of the British retreat.

On Thursday 11 April 1918, The now infamous General D. Haig F.M wrote this famous memo:
“ To All Ranks of the British Forces in France.”

Three weeks ago today the Enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a 50 mile front. His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel ports and destroy the British Army.
Despite of throwing already 106 Divisions into the battle and enduring the most reckless sacrifice of human life, he has as yet made little progress towards his goals.
We owe this to the determined fighting & self sacrifice of our troops. Words fail me to express the admiration which I feel for the splendid resistance offered by all ranks of our Army under the most trying circumstances.
Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that Victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French army is moving rapidly & in great force to our support - - - - -

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our Homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.

D. Haig F.M.

During the Battle of Lys, near the village of Strazeele, L/Cpl Littlefair was killed in action on the 15th April, 1918, when he was hit in the head by a German machine gun bullet.
Harry’s name is inscribed on the Australian National Memorial at Villers–Bretonneux
He has no Grave. Perhaps the most appropriate and fitting memorial to Harry Littlefair is that little blackened miner’s lamp still sitting on the top shelf of the Bar at the Neath Hotel.

John Woods May 2003