The Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen buzzed overhead, but Tiny Foster of the East Surrey Regiment didn’t raise his sweaty brow. The dustman from South London had lost one of his Lewis guns in the mad fighting, so with reckless courage, he rushed forward and bombed the enemy to retrieve it. With his two guns back in action, he fearlessly took out an enemy gun crew and captured their guns, thereby allowing the advance to continue. The ground in northern France was taken that day in 1917. Tiny was awarded the Victoria Cross the highest gallantry award possible, and his local council promoted him to Dusting Inspector.
Almost a century after the First World War, Cathy sits in the back room quietly hand stitching the mounting for Tiny’s medals. It’s an impressive group. His VC, British War Medal, Victory Medal, Coronation Medal, and French Médaille Militaire. These are replicas, but they mean more than the real thing. While the originals are in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London, these two sets are destined for closer to home. One gets framed for Tiny’s grandson, the other is mounted and worn by his great-grandson now serving in the Royal Australian Air Force.
“If you’ve got a VC in the family, and you’re serving in the military…” says Greg Faux with a nod of approval, hardly needing to finish saying why the family got copies made. While the replica medal market grows by 10% annually, Greg says it spiked last year by 30% thanks to the ANZAC centenary. Everyone wants to remember their grandad.
“It’s like stepping back into a Charles Dickens novel,” Greg says of the sounds and smells of seemingly ancient looms clicking away at the Toye Kenning and Spencer factory in England. Greg visited there not so long ago. It’s one of the oldest family businesses in the world, having been run by the Toye family since 1685. They make the coloured ribbons for all British and Australian official medals. It’s where Greg sources his ribbons too. In 1942 his grandfather bought AJ Parkes medals in Brisbane. Three generations worked in the family business, at its peak employing 110 people. Greg now has his own National Medals venture at Taringa in Brisbane’s western suburbs.
He doesn’t just do replicas. Greg shows me a stunning array of original work. A Hungarian Revolution 60th Anniversary Medal for the Hungarian embassy in Canberra. The Patrons Medal for the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. The Queensland Government’s medal commemorating the birth of HRH Prince George of Cambridge. Queensland Railways 150th Anniversary Medal. And many more.
Greg reaches to the racks of medals and ribbons, above which is a collection of antique swords and helmets. Frowning down is Winston Churchill. It’s a well-known portrait of the British prime minister painted during the Second World War in 1942, the same year that Greg’s grandfather bought into the medal trade. It was printed the following year to raise funds for Clementine Churchill’s Aid to Russia Fund. Churchill speaks to me with words printed along the bottom, “We are all of us defending… a cause. The cause of freedom and justice, of the weak against the strong, law against violence, mercy and tolerance against brutality and iron bound tyranny.”
Tiny Foster, ironically at six foot two and twenty stone, in 1917 was fighting for a similar memorable cause. “I was made a dustman before the war and the VC made me an Inspector, so I’m glad I got it,” he said cheerfully. “I’m quite happy in my job, with bit o’gardening, bit o’pictures and bit o’football.”
Click here to order replica medals before Remembrance Day 11th November 2016 and get 10% discount – just say you read about it in History Out There.