One hundred years ago this month the youngest of the British orders of knighthood, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, came into being. Established by Letters Patent of 4 June 1917, the new honour became part of the complex system of orders and medals by which worthy service and extraordinary achievement were to be recognised in Britain and its empire. The new order was made up of five classes—Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight/Dame Commander (KBE/DBE), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE)—and had an associated medal. The top two classes were to confer a title on their recipients (‘Sir’ for men, ‘Dame’ for women). It would go on to become a centrepiece of the British honours system, and a familiar part of Australian life, too.
Behind the decision to institute a new honour lay the horror of the First World War. Vast numbers of people had been mobilised for war since 1914, and Britain’s existing system of honours was much too restricted to be able to recognise them. Although it too could only cater for a fraction of those who had contributed to the war effort, the Order of the British Empire was thus established on a much larger scale than any of the country’s previously existing orders of knighthood. Some, indeed, would consider it too widely available, and deride it as the ‘Order for Britain’s Everybody’.
Noteworthy too was the decision to admit women to the order on equal terms. Only twenty years previously, Queen Victoria had refused to allow women to be members of the Royal Victorian Order when it was created in 1896, and—excepting royal women and those given special awards—only one woman had previously been appointed to an official order (Florence Nightingale, who in 1907 received the Order of Merit). Despite some wrangling over the appropriate title to give to women who were appointed to the upper grades of the order, this development seems never to have been in doubt, for women too had contributed to the war effort in a multitude of ways.
Because Australia participated in the British system of honours at this time, Australia’s prime minister, Billy Hughes, was invited early in 1917 to nominate Australian names for the first awards to be made within the order. Such selections were not an easy task, and Hughes, preoccupied with an election, among other things, delayed for some time before sending any recommendations to London. Eventually, however, the process of making and checking lists got underway, and among the earliest awards appeared Jock Anderson, a doctor who was assistant director of the Medical Corps and who received the CBE; Guillaume Daniel Delprat, who had played a key role in the establishment of the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd steelworks in Newcastle (opened in 1915), and who was likewise appointed CBE; and opera singer Nellie Melba, who became a dame for her ‘patriotic work’.
Following the war, the Order of the British Empire was reorganised and continued during peacetime, and it soon became the major instrument by which Australians were honoured. It continued to be so for nearly six decades, at least when non-Labor governments were in power, as the ending of recommendations for imperial honours was a plank of the federal Labor platform from 1918, and Labor governments generally (though not uniformly) declined to make recommendations for them.
In 1975, the Labor government of Gough Whitlam introduced the Order of Australia to replace the British system of honours. After Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser took office late that year, the new Australian order survived, but British honours were also reinstituted alongside it. The last appointments of Australians to the Order of the British Empire took place in 1989, before British honours were finally discontinued both federally and at the State level in 1992.
The Order of the British Empire, now a century old, remains alive and well in Britain, despite periodic calls for changes both to it and the wider honours system. Recent recipients include Olympic rower Katherine Grainger, singer Vera Lynn, and professor of neurology Douglass Turnbull. Its story is told in Peter Galloway’s The Order of the British Empire (Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, 1996).
Dr Karen Fox is a Research Fellow in the National Centre of Biography, School of History, and a Research Editor for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. She is currently researching the history of the honours system in Australia.