Honours systems are used to reward service to the nation or great achievement. In Australia, the federal government website about honours says that honours ‘help define, encourage and reinforce national aspirations, ideals and standards by identifying role models’. Honours, it says, are given ‘to recognise, celebrate and say thank you to those who make a difference, those who achieve their best and those who serve others’. Australia’s honours system, like those of other Commonwealth countries, is derived from that of Britain. Until 1975, Australians received honours entirely through the British honours system. At the top of that system, just below peerages, were the titular honours of knight and dame. These awards bestowed a title on the recipient, usually Sir or Dame. This article examines the shifting place of knighthoods and damehoods in the honours system in Australia, the eventual removal of titles from the honours system, and the changing patterns in the award of titles, as official recognitions of great service or achievement.
Honours in Australia: A Changing Institution
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the British honours system that was used in the Australian colonies consisted almost entirely of a small number of highly exclusive orders. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, honours were given largely to colonial officials who had been born in Britain, rather than to those born in the colonies. Over the second half of the century, the range and number of awards grew, and those resident in the colonies began to receive honours more frequently. Orders began to include several classes of award, usually with the two highest classes bestowing a title on the recipient. The previously small Order of the Bath had, for example, by 1847 expanded to include a military and a civil division, both with three classes of award. The Royal Victorian Order, instituted by Queen Victoria in 1896, was created with five classes of award, as well as an associated medal. This gradual expansion of honours meant that larger numbers of people could receive awards than had been the case in the past. By World War One, honours were bestowed for a range of public services, including work in science, art, commerce or philanthropy, and were no longer only given to the aristocracy.
The Order of the British Empire was established in 1917, on a significantly larger scale than any previously existing order. This new order was created to recognise the large numbers of people who had been mobilised for war between 1914 and 1918, particularly in non-combatant work. After the war, it was reorganised for peacetime, and from December 1918 had both military and civil divisions. Besides its large scale, which caused some to deride it as the ‘Order for Britain’s Everybody’, the new order was unusual in that women were included among its recipients. Before 1917, other than royal women and those given special awards, only one woman had been appointed to an official order: Florence Nightingale, who received the Order of Merit in 1907. With five classes of award and an associated medal, the Order of the British Empire quickly became the major instrument for honouring Australians.
During the twentieth century, the character of honours continued to change. Gradually, other awards were opened to women, and honours began to be bestowed for an increasingly broad range of service or achievement. Like other former colonies, Australia began to develop a national honours system to replace imperial honours. A major force in this shift was the Australian Labor Party (ALP). As early as 1918, the ALP’s federal platform included the ending of recommendations for British honours. The first attempt to establish a new national system occurred in October 1949, when a federal committee of Ministers recommended that a system of Australian awards be created. Ben Chifley’s Labor Government approved this recommendation, and a Cabinet sub-committee formed to consider the matter. The idea was dropped after an election removed Labor from power. A little over two decades later, the newly elected Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam also sought to create a uniquely Australian honours system. Whitlam was drawn to the model adopted in Canada, the key element of which was a new national order, the Order of Canada. In Australia, the central component of the new system was the Order of Australia, established in 1975. Awarded to ‘extraordinary Australians’ for their ‘outstanding achievements and contributions’, the Order of Australia is intended to recognise those ‘whose service and contributions have had the effect of making a significant difference to Australian life or, more broadly, to humanity at large’. As in Canada, the desire for a uniquely national system of honours was at least partly driven by concerns that the honours system should reflect a journey towards independent nationhood, and an imagined egalitarian national identity.
Disengaging from the imperial honours system was a gradual process. When the Order of Australia was established in 1975, Australians remained eligible for British honours as well, and federal and state governments recommended Australian citizens for both British and Australian awards. In 1983, shortly after coming to power, Bob Hawke’s Labor Government declared that the federal government would no longer recommend anyone for a British award. Some state governments continued to make recommendations for British honours after this, but all had ceased to do so by the end of the decade. Finally, in 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating announced that no more recommendations for British awards would be made. Australian citizens, however, remained eligible for honours in the personal gift of the Sovereign, such as the Royal Victorian Order or the Order of the Garter.
As Australia moved away from the British honours system, a question arose over the future of awards which bestowed a title. Both state and federal Labor governments had for some time declined to make recommendations for knighthoods and damehoods. When William McKell accepted a knighthood in 1951, during his term as Governor-General, some of his erstwhile colleagues in the Labor Party condemned him for doing so, considering that he had betrayed his Labor principles. In 1971, the ALP Federal Conference decided that titles should not be bestowed, although some other suitable recognition should be available for those who had given outstanding service. Like the Order of Canada, the Order of Australia was created with three levels, none of which bestowed a title on recipients. Yet almost immediately, under the newly elected Liberal Government of Malcolm Fraser, an upper level of knights and dames was added. This was a controversial change. Four early recipients of awards in the Order of Australia – economist and public servant Herbert Cole (“Nugget”) Coombs, author Patrick White, community organisations director David Scott and educator Jean Blackburn – responded to the creation of knights and dames within the order by resigning from it. A decade later, in 1986, the titles of Knight and Dame were removed from the order again, although those who had already received the titles continued to hold them. Outside of Australia, the continued existence of titles has also been debated. In New Zealand, titles were removed from the New Zealand Order of Merit by Helen Clark’s Labour Government in 2000, only to be reinstated by the National Government of John Key in 2009. In the United Kingdom too, a 2004 select committee review recommended the removal of titles from the honours system.
Titles in Australia
Knighthoods were awarded more often for service and achievement in some areas of endeavour than in others. An overwhelming proportion of men who became knights received their titles for public or political services, legal or judicial work, or commercial or industrial enterprise. Of these, public and political services were by far the most frequently recognised. Between a third and a half of all knighthoods conferred after 1901 were given at least in part to reward public or political service, at either state or federal level. Governors-General, Prime Ministers, Premiers, diplomats, politicians, public servants and mayors appeared regularly in the lists of those awarded titles. Edmund Barton, the first Prime Minister of Australia, who had refused a knighthood three times before, finally accepted one in 1902; Keith Officer, who had held numerous diplomatic posts, including in Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and the Hague, received a knighthood in 1950; and Thomas Groom, twice elected Lord Mayor of Brisbane, was knighted in 1961. The first Australian-born Governor-General, Isaac Isaacs, received three titular honours over the course of his career: one in 1928 when a senior puisne judge of the High Court, one in 1932 while Governor-General, and one in 1937 after his term as Governor-General had ended. The pattern of rewarding public and political service with knighthoods was remarkably consistent throughout the years in which titles were awarded. Indeed, some honours were expressly intended for recognising public service. The Order of St Michael and St George was reinvented in 1868 to be a reward for service throughout the British empire, particularly in the civil service or in high office connected with the colonies, and later for services in foreign affairs and military service overseas. Among the recipients of knighthoods in this order after 1901 were seven governors-general, twenty-three state governors or lieutenant-governors, four federal prime ministers and twenty-six state premiers, as well as a number of politicians, ministers of the Crown and chief justices.
Many knighthoods were also granted for work in professions traditionally the preserve of the upper and middle classes, and this too remained a common pattern throughout the twentieth century. Services to the law, academia, medicine, the church and other professions appeared in the citations for nearly a quarter of the knighthoods awarded after 1901. John Ramsay, who in 1906 was the first in Australia to use massage to successfully resuscitate a patient’s heart, was knighted for his services to surgery in 1939. Keith Hancock, who had already been knighted while working in Britain, received a further titular honour in 1965, this time on the recommendation of the Australian government; he was then professor of history at the Australian National University and chair of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. James Duhig, long-serving and popular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Queensland, became a knight in 1959. Most frequently rewarded of the professions was the law, as judges commonly received a knighthood. William Cullen, who became Chief Justice of New South Wales in 1910 and who also held the post of Lieutenant-Governor, received two titular honours in quick succession, in 1911 and 1912.
A large number of knights were also created among industrialists and businessmen. Of the knighthoods awarded after 1901, slightly more than one in ten included commercial, industrial or entrepreneurial work in the citation for the award. One such award went to Leslie Joseph Hooker, the founder of the successful real estate company L. J. Hooker Ltd, in 1973. Agricultural activities, including the pastoral, dairy and meat industries, produced a number of knights in Australia, as did the mining and natural resource industries. John Angas was knighted in 1952 for his service to the pastoral industry, while Laurence Brodie-Hall received a title in 1982 for his service to the mining industry in Western Australia.
A smaller number of men were given knighthoods for their military service, particularly during and immediately after the two World Wars. These awards were usually made in the military divisions of the various orders. Sydney Rowell was knighted in 1953 while Chief of the General Staff, as were a number of other men who held that position. John Monash received a knighthood in 1918 for his service in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War. His wife, now Lady Monash, wrote to him: ‘I don’t think that I have anything left to wish for as a title and to dine at Government House were both my greatest ambitions’. Monash responded: ‘I think I can say quite truthfully that my pleasure at the event has been far more on your behalf than on my own’. A larger number of awards relating to military service or civilian contributions to the war effort were made at the time of the establishment of the Order of the British Empire, in 1917, in line with the order’s expressed purpose of rewarding services to the war effort. Real estate developer Arthur Rickard received a knighthood in the civil division of the order in 1920 for ‘Services during the War’, having been a strong supporter of the war bond campaigns.
A relatively small number of men received the title for their community or philanthropic services. Less than ten percent of knighthoods awarded after 1901 included such services in the citation for the award. John Lavington Bonython, a company director and city council member who held the position of Lord Mayor of Adelaide between 1928 and 1930, was knighted in 1935 for his services to philanthropy. Among other public and charitable activities, he was a member of the board of Minda Home, a home for children with intellectual disabilities, for sixty-two years, including twenty-six years as president. Often, such services were combined with commercial or public services in these citations. When Gordon Jackson was made a knight in the Order of Australia in 1983, his citation read ‘For service to industry and the community’.
Despite the remarkable consistencies in which types of services were the most frequently rewarded, there were some changes in the balance between the types of service being rewarded during the twentieth century. The majority of those whose citations mentioned community or philanthropic services received their honour after 1950, for instance. Similarly, achievements in the arts and sport both became more frequently rewarded with knighthoods in the second half of the twentieth century, although remaining a minority of awards made. Before 1950, Don Bradman was the only sportsman to have received a knighthood, while artist Arthur Streeton was one of few men to have received a title for his services to the arts.
Some distinct patterns are evident in the types of work and achievement which were rewarded with a damehood, often in marked contrast to those observed in the award of knighthoods. One significant pattern is that substantially more titles were given to women to recognise community service than for any other type of work, whereas community service appeared comparatively less frequently in the citations for titles given to men. Community and philanthropic services were cited in almost 42 percent of all awards of titles to women, and unlike many citations for knighthoods given to community-minded men, these citations did not also mention commercial or industrial achievement. Mary Daly, who was involved in a range of charitable organisations, and whose voluntary work included supporting the war effort during the Second World War, received a damehood in 1951 for her services to social welfare; Mabel Brookes, who likewise served in various hospital and charitable committees and organisations, received one in 1955 for her services to charitable and social welfare services; and Eadith Walker, a wealthy woman who supported a variety of charities and gave significant philanthropic donations, including towards the war effort during World War One, was made a dame in 1928 for her philanthropic and charitable services. Likewise, proportionally more women received a title for their achievements in the arts and sport than did men, most of these in the arts. Among these were opera singers Joan Hammond and Joan Sutherland, who received the title in 1974 and 1978 respectively; poet, writer and essayist Mary Gilmore, whose prominent part in the New Australia movement was also acknowledged in the citation for her award in 1937; and actress Frances Anderson, better known as Judith, who was made a dame in 1960.
As for men given knighthoods, though, public service also accounted for a significant proportion of the titles bestowed on women. Just over a quarter of dames received their title at least in part for public or political services, a pattern which underlines the historical development of honours as a way to reward state service. Among the women to receive a title for work in this field were Ivy Wedgwood, the third woman to be elected to the senate, who received her title in 1967 for ‘Services to Parliament’, and Edith Bolte, the wife of the Premier of Victoria, Henry Bolte, whose citation for her award in 1973 read ‘Public service to Victoria’. Like several other recipients of a damehood, she received her award at least in part for her role as the helpmate and consort of a successful and honoured man; in this sense, her title was not so different to that received by the wives of men who were knighted (Lady). Others to receive the title of ‘Dame’ for their work as the wives of prominent men included Edith Anderson, the wife of New South Wales Governor Sir David Murray Anderson; Gertrude Cosgrove, the wife of Sir Robert Cosgrove, the premier of Tasmania; and Mary Hughes, the wife of Prime Minister Billy Hughes. This is not is to suggest that these women were not worthy of the honour they received. Indeed, they had often done valuable work deserving of recognition. Yet it is a notable pattern, since like the women who were honoured for their charitable or community services, or those given awards for their achievements in the arts, these women were honoured for work traditionally considered appropriate for women – in this case, as the helpmates and hostesses of prominent public men.
Women and Titles
Historically, far fewer women than men received titles. In Australia, 1,518 titles were awarded after 1901, only slightly over four percent of those being given to women. No women received titular honours before 1917, as until the creation of the Order of the British Empire no such awards were open to women. The first of these damehoods was awarded to Nellie Melba, in 1918. The citation was ‘Patriotic work during the war’, not the reference to her operatic career that might be expected. This citation reflected the original purpose of the Order of the British Empire – honouring war work – and Melba’s fundraising for the war effort. Melba received a second titular honour in 1927, this time, presumably, in recognition of her operatic achievements, although the citation read simply ‘Services to Australia’. By the time recommendations for titles ceased in 1986, sixty-seven damehoods had been awarded, creating sixty-five dames. Two women – Melba and Enid Lyons – had each received two titular honours.
This numerical inequality in the award of titles was amplified by the continuing exclusion of women from some awards, particularly that of Knight Bachelor. While other honours were gradually opened to women during the twentieth century, the honour of Knight Bachelor was held to exclude women by definition. Since Knight Bachelor was one of the two most commonly awarded titular honours, this was a significant exclusion. In Britain, proposals for an equivalent title for women were made at various times, but none were successful. A title of ‘Lady of Grace’ was proposed for the purpose in the 1930s, but it was never established. When Elizabeth Lane became the first female High Court judge in 1965, the issue arose again, as High Court judges customarily received the honour of Knight Bachelor. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner, wanted her to receive a knighthood and the title of ‘Lady’, but was advised that there was ‘no precedent’ for this, and that giving her a knighthood would ‘arouse ill-feeling among a number of distinguished ladies who have been created Dames of the Victorian and British Empire Orders’. Instead, she was made a dame in the Order of the British Empire, as were other women appointed High Court judges in later years. A decade later, the need for an equivalent title was noted again, but still no solution could be found. There could be no title ‘less attractive than… a Dame Spinster’, wrote Kenneth Stowe, then principal private secretary to the Prime Minister, and the suggestion of a new title of ‘Dame Bachelor’ was neither made nor received with any enthusiasm. In a review of the honours system in Britain in 2004, Sir Hayden Phillips claimed that the exclusion of women from the honour of Knight Bachelor was ‘discriminatory in form’ but not ‘discriminatory in impact’. However, it seems clear that as long as men could receive this award as well as titles in other orders, the gender imbalance in the number of titles awarded was not likely to be altered.
As we might expect, women’s position in relation to the honours system shifted considerably during the twentieth century. First, other orders were gradually opened to women, increasing the range of honours available. Last to be opened to women were the oldest and most prestigious orders. As shown in the table below, the most recently created order, the Order of the British Empire, was available to women from its inception. The Royal Victorian Order, the next most recently established, was opened to women in 1936; the Order of St Michael and St George was opened to women in 1965; and the Order of the Bath followed in 1971. The Order of the Garter, the highest order in terms of precedence, restricted to twenty-four living members at any time, was instituted in 1348 and not opened to female membership until 1987. The exception to this pattern is Knight Bachelor, which has never been opened to women but is the lowest of the titular honours in terms of rank. However, it does fit the pattern in that it is the oldest of the honours bestowing knighthood.
|Precedence (high to low)||Date established||Date opened to women|
|Order of the Garter||1348||1987|
|Order of the Bath||1725*||1971|
|Order of St Michael and St George||1868**||1965|
|Royal Victorian Order||1896||1936|
|Order of the British Empire||1917||1917/1918|
|Knight Bachelor||13th century, at least||Never|
* date when constituted as an order
** date when re-ordered as a general colonial honour
It is worth asking how these changes may have been related to the dramatic changes in the circumstances and experiences of women that occurred over the twentieth century, and to the ebb and flow of the feminist movement. First wave feminism, largely a liberal feminism focusing on natural equality and individual civil liberties, centred on the women’s suffrage movement. While suffrage was secured significantly before the establishment of the Order of the British Empire in Australia, it was not achieved in the United Kingdom until a year later, in 1918, and then only partially. In 1921, the author(s) of a handbook to the Order observed that women’s entry to it coincided with their being enfranchised. Women’s contributions in the First World War were praised, and the importance of this war work in their having been included in the honour was noted: ‘The womanhood of the country was marshalled and mobilised as never before, and showed an equal courage and an equal endurance with the men, and that great outstanding fact was not forgotten by those who framed the Statutes of the Order of the British Empire’. A similar link has been made by some historians in relation to the success of the suffrage movement in Britain, the argument being that women’s move away from militancy during the war encouraged the granting of the suffrage. Thus, while women’s contribution to the war effort might have been recognised by inclusion in the Order even without the context of the first wave feminist movement, the demand for equality it signified may have helped to produce an environment in which it was more likely that women’s contribution would be recognised in honours.
Most dames, however, were not created until much later. While only sixteen women had received the title before 1960, fourteen received it in the following decade, and twenty-five received it in the 1970s. Many women who became dames received the title after the emergence of the second wave of feminism from the late 1960s. This second wave of feminist activity saw the formation of women’s liberation groups in Australia, espousing a more radical form of feminism and addressing a wide variety of issues, including equal pay, abortion rights, the availability of child-care centres and, more widely, women’s role in society. Alongside protest aimed at achieving specific goals, consciousness-raising groups and events such as International Women’s Year and the United Nations Decade for Women emphasised the value of women’s contributions and abilities, both within and apart from a domestic setting. The significant increase in the number of women being made dames from the 1960s suggests that the second wave of feminism, and the changes in women’s status occurring at that time, made an impact upon the honours system. Although the strength of the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s did not immediately bring about large increases in the numbers of titles awarded to women, it seems likely that the visibility of the movement, and the changes occurring in women’s social and political status, created a climate in which there was an increased awareness of women’s contributions.
Indigenous People and Titles
By the time titles were removed from the Order of Australia in 1986, no Aboriginal women had become dames, and only one Aboriginal man a knight – Doug Nicholls. Nicholls received two titular honours. Made a Knight Bachelor in 1972 for ‘Advancement of the Aboriginal people’, he also received a title within the Royal Victorian Order in 1977, as Governor of South Australia. When he received the first of these honours in 1972, the Age reported that he considered the award had recognised Aboriginal people, and he was quoted remarking ‘I hope being called “Sir” will make officialdom listen more closely to me’. Nicholls was also quoted as having said that ‘I only hope it will encourage others of my people to strive to make something of themselves in the Australian community’. Reporting on his investiture in London, the Sydney Morning Herald emphasised that he was the first Aboriginal man to become a knight, and quoted him describing the ceremony as a ‘very exciting experience’, a ‘very moving ceremony’ and ‘quite informal’. The sharp imbalance in the number of titles awarded to Aboriginal people compared to non-Aboriginal people reflects not only the comparatively larger size of the non-Aboriginal population, but also the limited opportunities Aboriginal people had to rise to the positions where such awards were often given.
The history of honours in Australia, as in Britain, is a history of profound change alongside enduring tradition. The history of titles illustrates this well. Vast changes took place over the period in which titles were awarded in Australia. Women were admitted gradually to almost all awards bestowing a title, from the time when their work was first recognised with admittance to the Order of the British Empire in 1917. Though Aboriginal knights and dames were for the most part conspicuous by their absence, two titular honours were bestowed on an Aboriginal man in the 1970s, by which time an energetic and vocal Aboriginal rights movement was active across Australia. Perhaps the most fundamental change of all was that titles were themselves abolished, although unevenly and over time rather than in one decisive action. Yet there was also much continuity in the award of titles. While titles were increasingly given for work in areas such as community service, the arts or sport, public and political services were not displaced from their position as the type of activity most frequently rewarded with a title. This balance between change and continuity, adaptation and tradition, is central to honours systems. As they gain in years, they gain in prestige and value, yet at the same time, an honours system must change with the society it is part of, if honours are truly to reflect and shape the society and its values.
 P. Galloway, The Order of the British Empire (London: Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, 1996), pp 1-2, 19-20; A. W. Thorpe, ed., Handbook to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Containing Biographies, and a Full List of Persons Appointed to the Order, Showing Their Relative Precedence, facsimile ed. (London: The London Stamp Exchange, 1988), pp 9-10
 Order of Australia nomination form, available from http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/nominating/forms/oa_nomination_form.pdf, accessed 1 March 2012
 Review of Australian Honours and Awards, A Matter of Honour, pp 21-22; ‘History’, It’s an Honour website, updated 11 April 2007, available from: http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/our _honours/history.cfm, accessed 1 March 2012
 Review of Australian Honours and Awards, A Matter of Honour, p. 23; ‘Our Honours System’, It’s an Honour website, updated 24 May 2006, available from: http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/our _honours/index.cfm, accessed 1 March 2012
 Public Administration Select Committee, Fifth Report: A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System, HC 212-I (United Kingdom Parliament, 7 July 2004), available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmpubadm/212/212.pdf, accessed 1 March 2012
 Cabinet Office, Ceremonial Branch, H 13, Kenneth Stowe to Norman Warner, 24 June 1975, quoted in Galloway, The Order of the British Empire, p. 56; Galloway, The Order of the British Empire, pp 56-57
 Andrew Rosen has shown, for example, that some former opponents of female suffrage, such as Asquith, alluded to the importance of women’s war work, as well as to a desire to avoid renewed militancy, in changing their stance to one of acceptance of at least limited enfranchisement. A. Rosen, Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1914 (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), pp 256-265
 Several Australian women received a title in the new order for their war work during the First World War. Like Melba, Alice Chisholm received the honour for her service to the war effort. She was made a dame in 1920, in recognition of her work organising canteens for the troops in the Middle East
 R. Dalziel, ‘Political Organisations’, in Women Together: A History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand: Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, ed. A. Else (Wellington: Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs and Daphne Brasell, 1993), p 66
Karen Fox, 'Knights and Dames in Australia', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/essay/2/text25787, originally published 5 March 2012, accessed 29 March 2017.