A legacy of service and remembrance

Patrick Ferry, Linda North & Rachel Cullen
Friday, 10 November 2023

Since 1923, Legacy has cared for the families of Australians who lose their lives or health through military service. Legacy's impact over the past 100 years can be seen through records held at the National Archives.

Born out of wartime camaraderie

E got 'is on Gallipoli, an' sleeps there with the best,

Not leavin' very much be'ind, excep' one small request.

'look after things', was all 'e said, when 'e was mortal 'urt,

Dead sure 'is mates – that's me, and you – would never do 'im dirt.

(Think of it in the Silence, with yer 'eads bowed low:

Do we keep the unspoke compact with the men we used to know?)

A message: Armistice Day, 1936 by C. J. Dennis

In September 1923, a small group of First World War veterans met in Melbourne. Led by Captain Stanley Savige, they wanted to maintain the wartime spirit of camaraderie and service. To do so, they formed the Melbourne Legacy Club. Initially, they drew their inspiration from the recently established Hobart Remembrance Club. This club assisted veterans returning to civilian life. Soon, Savige and his collaborators identified a greater 'legacy' to fulfil: taking care of their dead comrades' families. They regarded this as an act of both service and remembrance.

Filling the gap in family life 

The Australian Government supported war widows and children with pensions and other assistance. However, this could not fill the gap in family life caused by the loss of a husband and father. Legacy's members (known as 'Legatees') filled that gap in very practical ways. They helped widows navigate what was still largely a 'man's world'. This ranged from assistance in dealing with the Repatriation Commission, to home maintenance. Social activities enabled widows to connect with each other and overcome the isolation and loneliness many felt.

Legatees also provided fatherly advice and guidance to the children. They took an active interest in their education and personal development. They could assist with finding apprenticeships and jobs. Legatees also helped young people get their lives 'back on track' if they got themselves into trouble.

By 1941, there were 20 Legacy clubs supporting war widows and children across Australia. These included the families of veterans who had returned home but later died of war-related health problems.

Annual fund-raising appeals

The Second World War (1939-1945) significantly increased the need for Legacy’s assistance. In response, Legacy launched a war orphan’s appeal in 1942. Volunteers raised funds through the sale of Legacy buttons and badges. This was the origins of the annual 'Legacy Week' fund-raising appeals.

Countless Australians have since purchased the iconic flaming torch badge to show their support for Legacy. Legacy’s fund-raising efforts have also been supported by governments, the defence forces, schools, business, celebrities and even the royal family.

Since I heard of Legacy, my respect has turned to unbounded admiration. Here is a practical, living expression of comradeship and remembrance. 

H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh – Legacy Week broadcast, September 1952.

Radio broadcasts and newsreels in our collection from the 1950s once promoted Legacy's fundraising appeals. 

When Legacy celebrated its golden jubilee in 1973, it was assisting more than 118,000 widows and children. These included the families of Australians killed in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.

Keeping the flame burning brightly

Through its work, Legacy kept the memory of their fallen comrades burning brightly. Today, 4,000 volunteers continue Legacy’s mission across Australia, to care for the families of veterans who have died. They also care for the families of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other debilitating conditions.

Legacy volunteers are no longer exclusively ex-servicemen. Today, women and members from the general community serve as Legatees. Collectively they care for 48,000 families.

You can search for the service records of those who served Australia during the First and Second World Wars in our collection.