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Shrine Stories: The Charlton Window

A stained glass window in the panels. The centre panel has a helmet and sword in the centre, in front of a large, round, yellow shield. There are floral embellishments at the top and bottom of this window. The other windows feature a diamond yellow and white feature.
Boer War (South Africa) (1899-1902)

How does a window go from being boxed up in a shed to on display at the Shrine? 

In this episode of Shrine Stories, you'll learn the story of the John Charlton Memorial Window, and it's rather tumultuous journey over the last century. 

Listen as art historian and author Dr Bronwyn Hughes OAM unpacks the window's history, significance and journey to the Shrine. 

Special thanks to the generous support of The Copland Foundation towards the design and installation of the window.


Across the Line - Lone Canyon 


LAURA THOMAS: Welcome to the Shrine Stories podcast – a place where we explore the stories behind the objects on our gallery floor.  My name is Laura Thomas, and in this episode, we’re going to look at how one Boer-war era stained glass window went from a church, to a shed, to another shed, to more sheds, back into a church and then finally, on display at the Shrine of Remembrance. I’m talking about the John Charlton Memorial Window, and joining me to unpack its turbulent history is art historian and author, Dr Bronwyn Hughes OAM. Thanks for joining me Bronwyn.

BRONWYN HUGHES: Thank you. It's lovely to be here.

LAURA THOMAS: Now let's start in 1903. So more than 120 years ago, when this window was installed in a church Euroa. Who was dedicated to?

BRONWYN HUGHES: It was an unusual occurrence really, it was to one young Trooper John Charlton, who was a member of the Euroa Rifle Club and then the Victoria Mounted Rifles, and a good marksman, a lovely young farmer, eldest son of a large family of nine who farmed at Castle Creek. He departed from Melbourne 15th of February 1901, with the fifth contingent, and they had an interesting time, going back and forth across vast areas of South Africa, skirmishing with the enemy and engaging in some major battles. But in 1901, the same year, only six months after he gets there, he's reported as being dangerously ill with enteric fever, and he fails to recover and dies in Pretoria. It was a fate that many of the young men suffered from, in fact more died from fevers and illnesses then in the war itself. 

LAURA THOMAS: So why was the stained glass window chosen as the way to commemorate John Charlton?

BRONWYN HUGHES: I think it was undoubtedly the Reverend Frederick Wray, who was the incumbent at Euroa at the time, he was building a new chancel. He was also a chaplain to, to the troops in South Africa. And so he had an affinity with Charlton and probably knew the Charlton family because they were members of his congregation. And he decided, I think, to enhance this new chancel he was building with a stained glass window. It was very common for churches to be built in stages. And this had always had a temporary sort of east end to it. So it was just coincidental that this happened at that time.

LAURA THOMAS: And what does the window depict? Can you describe it for those who might have never seen it before? 

BRONWYN HUGHES: Well, if they haven't seen it, they should definitely come to the Shrine and see it in all its glory these days. But it's an unusual window because it doesn't have the figure of a saint in it. And although it alludes to St. Paul, it is really about the whole armour of God. The central part of the window is the most beautiful, radiant red, around the helmet and shield. This is the shield of faith, which in Paul's letter to the Ephesians says, 'where with ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit', which are the other parts of that central image. It's a beautiful blend of those three elements. And it focuses you right onto that. There's a lot of other background, but that's just extraneous. It's allowing a lot of light into the church. And everyone is focused very much on this representation, can I say, of St. Paul, but not really St. Paul. This is fairly unusual that this would be the case. But I suspect this wasn't a very affluent community at Euroa. There was some money, but they were putting it all into their chancel, not into their window. So raising the money must have taken a bit of doing. And so it was those symbols of St. Paul, and of the warrior saint, and of John Charlton himself in many ways that brings that together in that window. It took a couple of years to raise the money. So it suggests to me that the symbols were a good way of doing it. 

LAURA THOMAS: And it's not a small window, by any means. 


LAURA THOMAS: Do you know how long it took to make and who it was made by it?

BRONWYN HUGHES: It probably didn't take very long. It was made by Brooks Robinson and Company in Melbourne. And they were very experienced at making windows. Unlike today, if someone makes a stained glass window, they're usually a sole practitioner or a small studio. And the one man or woman draws the cartoon, cuts the glass, leads it up and puts it in. At Brooks Robinson, they had teams of people to do this. So the glass would be cut to the cartoon, it would go to the glass painter who would paint the various parts of the glass that needed that, then it goes on to different other departments to be completed. So it probably only took about a month or so to make.

LAURA THOMAS: Which is surprising. Again, if you want to come into the Shrine and look at it when you see it because it's a floor to ceiling, stunning, quite detailed window. Is there any significance behind the colours that were used for the window at all?

BRONWYN HUGHES: They were very popular at the time, those rich reds, particularly. The interesting part about that window is that it uses Art Nouveau motifs in the decorative areas. I probably should have explained that it's only that central window that has those particular emblems in it. The outer windows are just, and the top and bottom of the main window, are all just diamond quarries. But the decorative arches and the bases are all in an Art Nouveau style, which was so up to date, and rarely used in church glass. So it was it was absolutely of its time in 1903. 

LAURA THOMAS: What was the reaction to the window when it was eventually unveiled? 

BRONWYN HUGHES: I don't have a lot of detail of that. I think it was totally accepted, though. And people came from everywhere for the great unveiling. I think they dedicated the chancel in the morning and the window in the afternoon. And it was obviously the family of the Charlton's who were most keen to see it happen. But it became very much something that the whole Strathbogie area could relate to as part of their contribution to the Boer War.

LAURA THOMAS: I found in some research that the Euroa advertiser, the newspaper, described the memorial 'as far superior to the general run of such work'. And what you mentioned was that Art Nouveau style kind of being very up to date. 

BRONWYN HUGHES: Yes, they were spot on, I think and it was very well accepted. The only problem with it was, and we can see this in contemporary photographs, it faces north and in the summer, it blazes that window. And so they had to install blinds on the outside so they could shut down the light.

LAURA THOMAS: Right? Because it was too hot. Too bright. 

BRONWYN HUGHES: It was too much in those very hot central Victorian days, it it might have been a bit difficult going to church on Sunday. 

LAURA THOMAS: I bet, those Victorian summers are something else, that's for sure. Now, the church underwent some renovations in the late '20s. So what happened to the window then?

BRONWYN HUGHES: Yes, the late '20s saw another change and addition to the chancel area, so the window was removed. And windows are not made in one big piece. It looks like that when one looks at them of course but but they're actually panels that are about 600 mil high. And they were dismantled and put in a crate. They weren't thrown away, which was quite encouraging. They were crated and put under the new chancel floor where everyone probably forgot about them for donkey's years, decades and decades. The new edition was by the architect, Louis Williams, and he did not like East windows. He probably had some of the congregation with him here because of that northerly sun. So he felt that the focus should be on the holy table. And if there was any light coming in there at all, it should come from the sides of the chancel or up very high. He did not think that gazing at a beautiful stained glass window should detract from the services going on in the church itself.

LAURA THOMAS: Right. Are you surprised that it was forgotten about because we've kind of spoken about John Charlton came from a large local family. Obviously, it was a big deal, the unveiling. So do you think it just kind of fell by the wayside? Or would have there been some kind of uproar that it was stored in crates underneath? That's just the bit that kind of gets me I think.

BRONWYN HUGHES: It's hard to know, I think the fact that they crated it, maybe they thought there was another use for it somewhere further down the track. It is odd, but I think by this stage, the Charlton family had actually moved away. They had other tragedies in their family when another son, John was the eldest, but then Robert was killed in the First World War. And it was the 20s that we're talking about, the late 20s, when there wasn't a great deal of money and we're seeing the start of the depression. It's an interesting time socially, I think. It is hard to know, and it was recorded in the minutes of the church vestry. So theoretically, it wasn't forgotten. It was just in the local knowledge that it faded out of sight. I should also say that did put another window into Charlton in the church. It's just a single light that went in, I think in 1930. And it's not to St Paul, it's to St Martin. And interestingly, they only made that window to John Charlton with exactly the same words on the window as before, when they could have included other Charlton people, but they just replaced the window with the single little light, it's a much smaller piece. 

LAURA THOMAS: So the original window, when was it rediscovered?

BRONWYN HUGHES: More work to be done on the chancel. And when floorboards were lifted, here was a crate, which, of course was intriguing. And they waited a little while,the builder didn't want to open it, waited until people gathered and they opened it up and here was the the jolly thing. All there in all its glory. And so it was again, 'What do we do with it?'. And it was simply crated up again, but noted, and it went into the care of one parishioner who promptly put it in their shed. And it went from farm shed to back shed finally back to the church to another shed. And  how much longer is this? At least another 20 years later? It ends up at Euroa's Historical and Genealogical Society.

LAURA THOMAS: And is that where you come into the story Bronwyn?

BRONWYN HUGHES: I do come into the story there. I read a little tiny piece in the Historical Society newsletter from the President looking for some funds to try to get this window restored. And Jeff Sharkey was his name and he saw the worth of this particular piece of artwork. And so he was trying to raise money. At the time I was doing a survey of Victoria's commemorative stained glass, and it just fitted beautifully. So we met up and I saw it. It was in a very sad state lying on the floor of an old stables at the back of Historical Society buildings. 

There wasn't a great deal of local enthusiasm, shall we say, for any restoration work at all. And they did get some quotes from people and everyone just threw up their hands wondering how on earth you know this would happen. The same time two Archaeologists from Latrobe University had also got wind of this Lynne Dore and Maxine Boyd, and they separately and unbeknownst to me, went up there and also saw it. When it looked like it was going to go to the tip, and this is where we all got very panicky, independently but we did, it was Maxine and Lynn who organised for it to be yet again, crated up and taken off to a little disused church up in the Strathbogies that Maxine found. And they laid it out, they got it cleaned, they did the very minimum of cleaning. And while Maxine and Lynne were doing that Lynne was also organising a small committee together. She's a great organiser, Lynne. And so she got me involved at that point to come and assess the window after its cleaning. It was just a rough clean, but it was it was good enough for us to be able to see. 

And so people from the various successor organisations to the VMR, local RSL people from Broadford, and myself and others got together, and we agreed we would try to get some funding to do this. We had no idea what we were going to do with it when it was done. But we really recognise that there are so few Boer War windows around in the whole of the country, that this would be a sad loss if it didn't get to be conserved. So we brought Bruce Hutton and Phil Davis in from Almond Glassworks, who have had a lot of experience and they agreed to take it on if we got the money. 

LAURA THOMAS: Skipping to the good part, you did get the money

BRONWYN HUGHES: We did get the money from the Victoria Remembers grant system. It was a huge breakthrough. And so the window was removed to Almond Glassworks in Oakley and the work started. 

LAURA THOMAS: And how big of a job was it, you mentioned that it wasn't in a great state, what did that restoration involve?

BRONWYN HUGHES: Well, some parts could just be virtually cleaned. But other parts, particularly someone had managed to carve a small square out of the middle of the helmet. And matching that glass was a huge task. So other parts of that window were taken apart entirely and re-leaded. But Brooks Robinson, we have to say we're very good crafts people. They were craftsmen, let's be honest, there weren't any women working at that stage in the in the process. But they had put it together extremely well. So it was well cut, and well manufactured. So it took time. And that's the main thing with conservation, taking time and making huge decisions sometimes. And one of those huge decisions was what do we do with the inscription at the base? Because that was missing. That was the only missing piece really, apart from little tiny bits. But that was the only missing piece. I would love to know what happened to it. But no idea.

LAURA THOMAS: What did you do with that part of the glass?

BRONWYN HUGHES: Well, in the end, we debated it in the group, we debated it quite fiercely, because some people felt we should just leave it blank. We should not add anything in proper conservation style and protocols. We shouldn't add anything. But we felt it then if it didn't make any mention of John Charlton at all in the window, it lost a lot of the window's meaning. So the decision was made to reproduce the wording and the style of the whole inscription piece. If people get down and look at it closely, they will see that it says on it that 'this piece was reproduced by Almond Glassworks'. And I think the dates there as well. But we felt that that was important for the reading of the window.

LAURA THOMAS: How does it feel to be part of the team that got it from being in crates hidden away in farm houses and all this kind of thing, to then having it on display at the Shrine of Remembrance?

BRONWYN HUGHES: It feels fabulous, really. I'm just so pleased to have been involved. Because I do think it's a treasure and just the fact that it is loved by people who come to the Shrine and they read the story and students today at schools, kids at schools don't get the Boer War story at all. And it's a great, a great story of war service and sacrifice.

LAURA THOMAS: So beyond this window into the First and Second World War and into modern conflicts, has stained glass continue to be used as a commemorative method?

BRONWYN HUGHES: Yes, it has. It really came into its own in the First World War. Before that, and before the Boer War, tablets in marble, and stone and even timber were much more common in churches than stained glass commemorative windows. But the First World War, really started in Melbourne anyway, with windows in 1915. People think it wouldn't have happened until after the war finished. But no, there were young men who went and fought with their fathers regiments with the British, with the Irish. And so we do see families wanting to commemorate the deaths of their men from very, very early on. 

I have no idea how many stained glass windows were installed during the First World War. But it would have to be probably in the thousands across Australia. I document some of them in my book, Lights Everlasting, but impossible to even know them all. Unless we do a very, very good inventory, which won't be happening. 

During the Second World War, stained glass companies and artists were almost saved because it wasn't a popular medium at that point. But it did give companies like Brooks Robinson that were really failing to move with the times, it gave them a chance to rejuvenate their business. And they made a lot of Second World War windows as well. The artists who moved forwards who embraced modernism at that time tended to do quite well with the new churches and burgeoning suburbs after the Second World War. There's so much building going on in Melbourne once again, in the 1950s and 1960s, even into the 1970s. 

When we get to more modern conflicts, there's really very little. Church going for start has changed in Australia. And we now see so many of these lovely old churches being sold, and windows getting lost or forgotten. Maybe put under floorboards once again, and forgotten for many years. But there are still some being done. Bruce Hutton, for instance did a beautiful window for a battalion organisation at St. Mark's Camberwell. And he gives this image of men looking down from the top of one of the mountains into the valleys of Papua New Guinea. But that's rarer these days, even though it's still happening occasionally. 

LAURA THOMAS: Bronwyn, obviously in this podcast, we talk about just one of the many items that we have on display here at the Shrine. Why do you think that people should add this particular item on their vital to-see list when they're visiting us here? 

BRONWYN HUGHES: Well, I think some of that I've already talked about, of course, but I think it's because it now doesn't just represent John Charlton Trooper at the Boer War at all, nor does it any longer represent those men from the Strathbogie district in central Victoria who went to war, but it represents all Victorians being in the Shrine, it represents all Victorians who fought and died in the First World War.

LAURA THOMAS: Bronwyn, thank you so much for coming in today and sharing the story, the quiet magnificent, remarkable story behind this window. And as I said, if you haven't seen it before, I strongly recommend you come into this Shrine and take a look at it for yourself. 

BRONWYN HUGHES: Thank you very much, Laura. 

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this episode of Shrine Stories. To keep up to date on all our new episodes, make sure you hit subscribe wherever you listen.