A sailor’s heart

Photographer Samuel J Hood capturing the love of a sailor. ANMM collection <a href="http://collections.anmm.gov.au/en/objects/details/13305/man-and-woman-kissing-across-two-vessels?ctx=4531e83e-6228-4760-a471-0f1bf8c24f31&idx=0">00035634</a>.

Photographer Samuel J Hood capturing the love of a sailor. ANMM collection 00035634.

Valentine’s Day is not usually a day associated with sailors. Roses and chocolates are hard to find at sea and some would say romantic prose has no place on the decks of ships – particularly ships which do not come equipped with a cocktail bar and a pool.

For centuries, mothers warned their daughters about falling in love with a sailor. Tales of seafaring rogues and cads abound. As recorded countless times in songs and ballads, heartbreak was the only outcome for someone who caught the eye of a roving sailor. He was bound to desert the fair maiden, who would then usually die a tragic death caused by loneliness, grief or shame. Not really the stuff to make the heart swoon on Valentine’s Day. But do sailors really deserve this bad reputation? Is it true that no one can anyone really ever compete with a sailor’s real and greatest love, the sea?

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Don’t forget to honour your mother! Medals and mementoes from the collection

It is hard to imagine a situation where the bond between a mother and child is more heightened than in war. Throughout two world wars Australian mothers anxiously watched their sons depart to fight in places many had never heard of and some never returned from. Gallipoli, Ypres, Tobruk, Tarakan. In times of war and great separation, personal tokens such as jewellery provide a visual expression of pride and a comforting and constant reminder of an absent loved one.

Women marching in WW1 parade

Mothers marching in a WW1 recruitment parade. ANMM collection, gift from the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. Photographer William J Hall.

During WWI and WWII societal pressure to join the armed forces must have been the source of immense emotional conflict for Australian mothers. The natural concern to protect your children and to keep them from harm was at variance with the patriotic push for men to risk their lives in the service of their country.

Perhaps due to the absence in Australia of conscription for overseas military service, government propaganda was produced during WWI and WWII that was persuasive and passionate on the subject of enlistment – and not all of this material was aimed at men. Maternal pride was appealed to as mothers and women were called upon to encourage men to do their duty and join the forces. Slogans on posters exclaimed ‘Won’t you help and send a man to join the army to-day!’ and ‘The cry of the mothers : Australians! Enlist now!’.

With a mother’s anxiety comes pride and honour. The two world wars mobilised and united the Australian population in a way that has perhaps never been seen since. To have a son who was fighting not only evoked pride but inspired patriotism and drew Australian mothers directly into the war effort. For women, particularly in the First World War, supporting your children’s enlistment was your most important contribution.

WWI Royal Australian Navy female relative badge

WWI Royal Australian Navy female relative badge. ANMM collection, gift from Marjorie Thomson. Reg #00046509

WWII female relative badge. ANMM collection reg #00015187



During both world wars the Department of Defence issued badges and brooches to mothers and female relatives of those who were on active service to recognise this contribution. These badges contain wording such as ‘To the Women of Australia for Duty Done’, and displayed identifying bars or stars to indicate the number of male relatives on active service.

These badges would have been instantly recognisable at the time, making the wearer identifiable as having a son or relative away on active service. They were an official symbol of the important role that mothers and other female relatives played as moral supporters during wartime.

As well as these officially distributed badges, it was popular in times of war for servicemen to make and send mementoes such as badges and jewellery to their mothers and family members. These handmade keepsakes fulfilled a similar purpose with their patriotic style and were a visible symbol of loyalty and pride. On a personal level they also provided a direct link between those in service and those who were waiting for them at home. The Australian National Maritime Museum holds several examples of these handmade mementoes, including the badge below.

'RAN Mother' handmade badge

‘RAN Mother’ WWII handmade badge. ANMM collection, reg #00015184

This badge, made during WWII from mother-of-pearl, contains the words ‘RAN Mother’ in gilt wire. While the officially produced badges are registered and traceable to their original owners, this handmade badge unfortunately has no such identifying link. Made by a member of the Royal Australian Navy for perhaps the most important lady in his life, what it represents in its anonymity is a sweet reminder of the link between a mother and son who remained in each other’s thoughts during war.

Heartfelt handmade mementoes or official tokens, both were worn as medals of honour for Australian mothers during war. Separated in extreme circumstances, these tokens were symbols of the link between a mother and her child.

Penny Hyde, Curatorial assistant

RelationShips: Pincushions, sweetheart brooches and love tokens


Heart-shaped pincushion, c1915 ANMM Collection

Living in a world where loved ones are little more than just a phone call or email away, it’s hard to imagine the anguish of separation felt by those whose loved ones were oceans apart, with little or no contact. An evocative pincushion in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s collection (00006919) highlights the disconnection felt by many naval and merchant sailors in the 19th and 20th centuries from their loved ones.  Heart-shaped pincushions featuring the words ‘Think of me’ were a favourite with sailors in the British Royal Navy in the 19th century. Painstakingly hand made by sailors and then sent home to their sweethearts, the pincushions – predestined to be wounded with pins – are a potent symbol of heart-ache. This pincushion is decorated with glass beads and a postcard-photograph of the Light Cruiser HMAS Sydney (I). It is presumed to have been made by a sailor on the ship shortly after its commissioning into the newly formed Royal Australian Navy in 1913. Many Royal Naval sailors transferred from England into the new Australian force, bringing their traditions with them.

RAN sweetheart brooch

RAN sweetheart brooch, c1939 ANMM Collection

The length of separation of sailors and their loved ones increased during times of war. Also included in the museum’s collection is a Royal Australian Navy sweetheart brooch (00044564) produced by Stokes of Melbourne. It features a naval crown mounted on an anchor, with the text RAN in red, white and blue enamel. While many sweetheart brooches were handmade by resourceful sailors from materials close at hand, this brooch was mass manufactured, reflecting a new market for sweetheart souvenirs as a result of the mass displacement of service men and women across the globe. Like the pincushion, the brooches were sent home to loved ones to serve as a reminder of them while away at war.


Of course, the separation of people from their friends and family was not always by choice. This convict love token (00040473) is a reminder of the hundreds-of-thousands of men, women and children who were sentenced to transportation to Australian colonies by the British Government in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Convicts would engrave copper coins of little value with initials, poems, or images. They were either given to loved ones before being separated, or kept with the hope it would ease the pain of parting – which for most convicts, was for life. 

Convict love token
Convict love token, 1770-1820 ANMM Collection

 Powerful symbols of separation, heart-ache and home sickness, these items offer an insight into the objects produced in the hopes of keeping memories and relationships alive in the face of short-term and permanent separation.  To read more about the museum’s collection of sweetheart brooches and love tokens, you can browse our collection on-line.