Princes Pier – an ugly anomaly in 2021

Around the world statues are toppling, names of institutions are being changed and apologies for historic wrongs proffered.

But in Port Melbourne an ugly anomaly exists. It’s Princes Pier. The Pier is now a sort of pier its past length only obvious by rows of old wooden pylons which once supported most of the pier stretching out into Port Phillip Bay.

There is a small apron left. It’s popular with skateboarders and roller skaters and an old tally house now occupied by Albert Park College. It is a particular resonance for many locals as the site of the 1928 waterfront lockout and the shooting by police, and subsequent death of, Gallipoli veteran Allan Whittaker. A memorial plaque honours his memory and the victims of the 1928 waterfront lock-out.

The land the Pier is on is that of the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung.

It was originally known as the New Railway Pier but in 1920 was renamed after the Prince of Wales following his visit to Melbourne. He subsequently became King Edward VIII before abdicating and becoming the Duke of Windsor.

While in Australia, he said of Indigenous Australians: “…they showed us some of the native aborigines (sic) at a wayside plain yesterday afternoon; thought they were the most revolting form of living creatures I had ever seen.”

An indication of his character and history was given by David Pegg (The Guardian October 8) reviewing The Secret Royals by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac about Edward and his wife.

“Nobody emerges from the book in a more unflattering light than Edward VIII. He is grasping, lazy, greedy, dishonest, unreliable, antisemitic, unbelievably self-pitying, treasonous and so untrustworthy that at one point his own father has him placed under surveillance” he wrote.

“The German ambassador relays Edward’s encouragement of the blitz, describing his ‘certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace’. As war spreads across Europe the couple hedge their bets in dogged pursuit of whatever might best suit their own fortunes: socialising seemingly exclusively with Nazi sympathisers, issuing naked endorsements of American neutrality, and even setting themselves up as replacement monarchs in the event of a successful German invasion of England. Those who know the Windsors only as the high society fops of The Crown will get a thorough insight into what a determinedly nasty pair the two of them were,” Pegg  said.

Another new book, The Traitor King, by Andrew Lownie has even more damning evidence.

Lownie gives a great deal of detail of the Duke’s relationships with the Nazis. After his abdication and before the outbreak of war he had visited Germany, met Adolph Hitler, inspected an SS Guard and gave the full Nazi salute. When he met Hitler they exchanged Nazi salutes. Hitler said after the visit: “His abdication was a severe loss for us.”

In exile in France, immediately prior to the outbreak of war, the Duke travelled around researching French military preparations. The son of the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff recounted after the war that his father had told him that “the Duke was a serious security leak. He was giving the Duchess a great deal of information that was classified in the matter of the defences of France and Belgium” which was passed on to the Germans.

The Duke also had a very close relationship with Prince Phillip of Hesse a leading Nazi Party figure in Prussia. Through him the Duke formed a close business relationship with Fern Bedaux who helped him with money-laundering schemes. Later Bedaux was in Paris organising the Nazi confiscation of Jewish businesses.

After the German invasion of France, the Duke was extracted from France, went to Madrid initially where German embassy staff and officials close to Franco passed information about his thinking back to Berlin. He then went on to Lisbon.

In Madrid it was reported by Russian agents that the Duke had been discussing with the Germans the formation of a new government and the conclusion of a peace with Germany contingent on a military alliance against the USSR.

While in Lisbon the British Embassy first secretary reported that the Duke thought: “the age of constitutional monarchs has passed, evidently believing that an age of fuhrers such as Petain, Franco and Salazar had opened up.”

For a while it appeared the Duke would go back to Britain but when he was told that if he did he would have to pay income tax he cooled on the idea. The King, Churchill and others were also opposed and it was finally decided to pack him off to the Bahamas as Governor.

He initially opposed the idea until Churchill reminded him that “he had held military rank and refusal to obey direct orders of a competent military authority would create a serious situation.” By this time his once close friend Churchill said: “His inclinations are well known to be pro-Nazi.”

The Germans were, nevertheless, still trying to entice him back to Madrid and have him call for peace and make arrangements with the Nazis. Meanwhile he was constantly delaying the move to Jamaica and trying to get to the US where the British feared he would spread anti-British propaganda.

At the same time the Germans were informing him that should he not go back to Britain or France they would ensure all his property in France would be protected under the direction of the Nazi head of the occupation forces Otto Abetz. They also claimed British intelligence was planning to have him murdered.

Under enormous British pressure he finally agreed to go to the Bahamas but secretly agreed with the Germans to communicate by code and be ready to be called back if necessary. What neither he nor the Germans knew – the British had cracked the Abwehr codes and were reading the messages.

Immediately he arrived he decided the Governor’s Residence was not good enough; lived elsewhere for a while; and, insisted on spending tens of thousands of pounds  to have to completely renovated – spending which amounted to the cost of several Spitfires. The RAF would probably have given these priority rather than the Duke and his wife’s demand for luxury.

His time in the Bahamas and his attitudes are probably best summed up in a report he sent as Governor to Churchill: “those with experience of regions where the population is predominately coloured realise that negroes in the mass are still children both mentally and morally and that while those liberal and socialistic ideas of freedom and equality regardless of race or colour may sound fine theoretically the forcing of these theories are to my way of thinking both premature and dangerous.”

After the war The British became aware that there was a huge archive of Nazi documents in the Harz mountains. Ironically the Palace chose Anthony Blunt, the Russian spy, to bring back the documents but Lownie argues his real mission was to obtain a massive ‘Windsor file’ which was at the home of a German Nazi aristocrat.

The files were obtained but when an historian examined them later all the files relating to the Duke’s meeting with Hitler had disappeared.

Lownie says: “everyone from Churchill and the Royal Household to the Intelligence Services believed the Duke to be a traitor rather than a fool, hence the desperate efforts to cover up, delay and minimise the publication of the captured German communications.”

The author, in his capacity as Whittaker Memorial Committee secretary recently asked the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society if it would consider a submission including all this new information about the Duke and re-consider the Princes Pier naming which the Society had rejected once before.

The reply: “We discussed your proposal to prepare a submission to change the name of Princes Pier at our Exec meeting this week. It was again unanimously agreed that it was not necessary to change the name because the pier was named in honour of the Prince’s visit which was met with great community enthusiasm in the 1920s.”

However enthusiastic the community was in 1920 it is totally inappropriate in 2021 to honour a man who was a racist, anti-Semitic, Nazi sympathiser who supported the bombing of England and schemed to become a puppet king if the Nazis invaded Britain.