Simpson Prize 2023 – Canberra – Tuesday 28 March 2023

28 MARCH 2023  


Fred Porter was a milkman. 

He was also responsible for one of the greatest feats of bravery at Villers-Bretonneux. 

He singlehandedly took on a group of 10 German soldiers.  Despite breaking his wrist in the fight, he killed seven of them and forced the rest to flee. 

For his bravery he won a Distinguished Conduct Medal.  He survived the Western Front. 

But he never made it home. He died of influenza on the ship back to Australia. 

He was buried at sea on the 10th of November 1918.  The day before the war ended. 

Private Frederick Porter is one of 54 Australians whose names are on a memorial that sits on the northern hill at Bankstown Oval, not far from where I live. 

54 Bankstown boys who never came home. 

That memorial was put there more than 100 years ago. 

Over the years it was moved, and eventually it was put into storage in the local Council depot. 

The Bankstown Historical Society told me about this about 10 years ago. Our history locked away in a council depot. 

A big shed. 

It’s not there anymore. I spoke to the Council and now it’s back at Bankstown Oval. Back where it belongs.

Things like that matter.

Remembering men like Fred Porter matters. 

Learning what they did matters. 

That’s why this prize matters. 

This year the question you all answered was all about the Western Front, where Fred and so many like him fought and where so many gave their lives. 

A place beyond our worst imagination. 

A place of awful inhumanity. 

And a place of incredible bravery. 

A place more like a meatgrinder than a battlefield. 

This is the place that you were transported back to. That you all retold. And interpreted for us. Estelle, Murphy, Orm, Thomas, Charlotte, Samuel, Jingyi and Emily – and all the runners-up here today.   

I am a bit of a history nerd. 

I love reading it. Watching it. Listening to podcasts about it. 

And I get the feeling you love it too. 

But history isn’t just something for passive reflection. It is more than that.  

As Henry Glassie describes it, the study of history gives us… 

“…a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveller.” 

Without that map, we are in the dark. 

What happened on the Western Front didn’t end there. It ricocheted through time – from that day forward till now. 

The war that ended on the Western Front gave rise to the Nazis, the Second World War and the Holocaust. 

And if you have ever needed a reminder of how important knowing history is, we got it a few weeks ago. 

When a bunch of people stood out the front of the Victorian Parliament proclaiming themselves as Nazis. 

The people who imprisoned my grandfather in a POW camp. 

The same people that thousands of other Australians died fighting. 

The same people the world came together to defeat. 

The same people responsible for the worst atrocity in human history. 

And some people want to be like that. 

No map. No clue. 

That alone should remind all of us why history matters. 

I want to congratulate you and all 809 students who entered this year’s Simpson Prize. 300 more than last year. 

I want this to keep growing. 

It is an important thing we are doing. 

And I hope that you will pass on what you have learnt here to others. 

And that you never lose your passion for the past.