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Capella Origins of the Emu Feathers in the Australian Light Horse Hats Capella Origins of the Emu Feathers in the Australian Light Horse Hats

The Great Shearers’ Strike started north of Capella on 6th January, 1891, at the time of the Logan Downs roll call for around 200 unionised shearers and roustabouts. Logan Downs was owned by the Fairbairn family. Sir David Fairbairn (3/3/17 - 1/6/94 and the Member for the Federal seat of Farrer for 26 years prior to his retirement in 1975) writes of this time in a 1983 paper on the Fairbairn family.

“As well as Peak Downs they [the Fairbairn family] also owned such well-known properties as Logan Downs, Barcaldine, Bimerah, Lansdowne, Magenta and a number of others whose names I cannot recall. My grandfather [George Fairbairn] also owned the Lakes Creek meat works at Rockhampton together with his cousin Charles Armytage. They killed mainly on commission and could kill a sheep and transport it frozen to London at a cost of two pence a pound."

“In 1891 there was the Great Shearers’ Strike. I still have a picture at home of troops transporting the free shearers on Peak Downs. This was the period when they shot emus and put the emu plumes in their hats which later were to become the insignia of the Australian Light Horse. As one of the leaders of the graziers, my grandfather had a few close shaves but was lucky to get off without the house or the woolshed burnt down, which happened to a number of other graziers."

Sir David verbally corroborated this oral family history to members of the Capella Pioneer Village Committee when attending the Capella Centenary celebrations in 1983. The committee wrote in their History of the Peak Downs Homestead publication:

“Sir David Fairbairn, grandson of George Fairbairn who now lives in Canberra, believes that the first time Australian troopers wore emu feathers in their slouch hats was at Peak Downs. The story goes that a detachment of Mounted Infantry troopers guarding a gang of ‘non-union’ shearers during the great shearers strike of 1891 rode down to the creek one day when things were quiet and shot an emu. Each took a handful of feathers and placed them in the band of his hat. From then on it became tradition for troopers to wear the emu feathers."

At that time, 1891, officers of the Queensland Mounted Infantry units wore green cock plumes in their felt hats, but the ‘other ranks’ had no plume. By 1894 however, all non-commissioned officers and men of all mounted Queensland units wore the emu plume, and, by 1897 they had replaced the officers’ cock plume.

The Queensland Mounted Troops took great pride in their plumes and seemed to gain great strength of spirit from them during the Boer War (1899 – 1902). Indeed, when Major General Edward Hutton ordered the wearing of helmets in place of the plumed slouch hat, he faced much pressure including that from strongly lobbied Federal Members of Parliament. This led to some individuality being retained when he renamed all mounted Australian troops the Australian Light Horse. The new Queensland based units became the 13th, 14th and 15th Australian Light Horse (Queensland Mounted Infantry). They retained their name and the right to wear the emu plumes as part of their uniform right through Commonwealth Forces uniform revisions up until 1912.

With the outbreak of WW1 (1914 – 1918), Lieutenant Colonel R.M. Stodart, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Light Horse, campaigned all the way up to Prime Minister Fisher to successfully have the emu plumes reinstated as part of the Queensland Mounted Infantry uniform. He maintained the plumes were essential to the regimental corp spirit. The Queenslanders’ plumes were the envy of all other regiments until 1915, when the non-Queensland 3rd Light Horse Brigade arrived in Egypt wearing them.

The Queenslanders vigorously protested. A conference of Light Horse Brigadiers could not settle the matter so it was referred back to the Australian Government, which eventually ruled that all Light Horse Regiments could wear the plumes, provided there was no expense to the public purse. It can be argued that the emu plumes bolstered all Australian Light Horse corps spirits, as they had the Queensland Mounted Infantry.

The emu plumes are still worn by Armoured Units of the Australian Army today.

The Capella Parklands feature an illuminated Light Horse monument which recognises the origins of the Australian Light Horse emu plume with Capella.