Sweet Kathleen: a love story for Valentine's Day

Friday, February 13, 2015
Merchant Navy sweetheart brooch,  New Zealand Maritime Museum (2007.108.3)

This Valentine’s Day we've chosen one of the most romantic objects from the Museum's collection to share with you – a Merchant Navy sweetheart brooch – and like a good Valentine’s Day card its origins are a little obscure.

This brooch is made of silver and enamel, and bears the insignia of the Merchant Navy. It has been customised with the addition of a woman’s name, ‘Kathleen’ and a pin so she could wear it proudly on her jacket for all to see. Who Kathleen was (or is) and the identity of her sweetheart is unknown, but this small token of affection still has stories to tell.

Brooches like these were especially popular in wartime, given by men serving in the armed forces to their loved ones – girlfriends, sisters and mums included – as tokens of love and remembrance. Worn with pride, (just like Mrs Balfour is doing in the photo below) these brooches were symbols of love, support and personal sacrifice. They always bore the insignia of the regiment the soldier or seaman was serving with, and were usually personalised in some way. Many, like this one, are completely unique.

Our sweetheart brooch also tells a story of the Merchant Navy – a symbolic title for the diverse collection of ships and sailors responsible for transporting men and supplies across the oceans during wartime at great personal risk.

As a civilian force, they usually didn't wear a uniform - only their ‘MN’ badge identified them. Their work took them right to the front lines of battle and many vessels and men were lost.

The bestower of this brooch may have been one of the several thousand New Zealanders who served with the Merchant Navy in World War II.  Perhaps he was among the 140 who lost their lives. The Maritime Museum hosts ‘Merchant Navy Day’ every September to celebrate their incredible contribution.

Neill Atkinson, ‘Hell or High Water: New Zealand Merchant Seafarers Remember the War’, HarperCollins, 2005

Mrs H B Balfour wearing a Merchant Navy sweetheart badge.  Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1955/1309-F.  Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22418669