17 Apr 2015

Alton's unique WWI ritual

10:42 am on 17 April 2015

A unique piece of Anzac history will be revealed to a wider audience in an exhibition about Taranaki's involvement in World War I.

The War to End All Wars: Our Anzac 2015 Interactive

The Alton penny board has spent most of the past 100 years in the tiny South Taranaki village's hotel.

It has recently been restored, and will be part of the Bringing It Home exhibition which opens on Friday at the Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth

Local resident Jacq Dwyer has been collating Alton's history since the hotel closed about four years ago.

She believes the penny board is unique to the settlement which is nestled three kilometres off the highway between Hawera and Patea.

Ms Dwyer said the board was created as part of a ritual when young men said their farewells before heading off to fight.

"They would have left the penny on the bar when they went off to war. The publican stamped their initials into it and you can see quite clearly on most of them the initials are still there.

"And they have been quite well rubbed over the years because this was the top of the bar so the people touched them over the years to say 'there's Jimmy Gibbs' penny."

Twenty of the most worn pennies are from some of the 40 Alton men who served in World War I.

Fourteen did not return. Three died at Gallipoli.

Ms Dwyer said the penny board was a tangible, tactile reminder of the sacrifices the men had made.

"You can see there are crosses by some of them, those are the men who were killed. We've got Tim Hurley there, Roy Jones, I think it is, and their names are on our Alton War Memorial.

"There's 96 pennies there and it is a very sacred object for us. We're very proud to have it here it Alton."

Acknowledging the sacrifice

Harvey Gibbs is chairman of the Alton Coronation Hall committee, where the penny board is now on permanent display.

The board has a personal significance for Mr Gibbs.

The initials of his father, James Gibbs, who served during World War II, are stamped on one of the pennies.

A navigator and bombardier on a Lancaster bomber, James Gibbs' war was short-lived but eventful.

"He went into action during the liberation of Calais (in northern France) which was in September 1944, quite late on in the war," said Mr Gibbs.

"It was their first mission ... they only flew one mission and were shot down and he was the sole survivor out of that aircraft, and never talked about it, of course."

Mr Gibbs said it was important that people recognised the sacrifice made by the men who served, both those who died and those that returned.

"You have the people who perished but you also have the people who survived and came back but were never the same because of what they had been through and what they had experienced.

"So their sacrifice, all of them, was very important and it is important that we acknowledge it and keep acknowledging it always."

Puke Ariki Museum's heritage manager Andrew Moffat is curating the Bringing It Home: Taranaki and World War One exhibition.

Mr Moffat said according to his research the Alton penny board appears to be a one of a kind.

"It seems to be unique, as far as we know, anyway, at the moment, so it is a really fascinating one, because obviously it's not organised by a military board, by military district, or even an official committee.

"It just seemed to have been whoever had passed through the pub at the time, which makes it a particularly poignant thing I think."

Pam Hall was the Alton Hotel publican when it closed in 2011 and still lives in the historic pub today.

She couldn't be happier that the penny board has found a new home, not more than 50 metres away from the hotel.

"It means a lot because it belongs to the community.

"You know, it's not mine - it's the community's thing.

"When the pub shut, that was another era gone, so going to the hall meant a lot to me, because that's where it belongs."

The story of the Alton penny board will feature in the Bringing It Home: Taranaki and World War One exhibition which opens at the Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth on Friday and runs until 26 July.