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War orphan smuggled to Australia in a sack

He was only 5 years old when his French soldier father was killed during the Great War. Not too long after that his mother died when the family home was shelled by the Germans near Lille in 1914.

With no apparent relatives to take him in, the little boy would attach himself to different British units. Then on Christmas Day, 1918 just as the No. 4 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps were sitting down to a dinner of poultry, roast beef and pudding, the little guy walked in, attracted by the smell of the food. He soon became the guest of honour and something of a mascot to them. He was immediately given the nickname of Young Digger.

Henri Tovell in his uniform. Photo: AWM

Air mechanic Tim Tovell and his brother Ted took the young lad under their wing, even making a uniform for him, out of some 'borrowed' army greatcoats. They weren't sure of his first name, so he was given the name Henri Tovell.

Tim and his wife Gertie lived in Jandowae, on the Darling Downs. They already had a daughter Nancy and son Timmy, but Tim had no hesitation in writing to Gertie about Henri.

He wrote that he would try to find Henri's family, but if he was unable to find any of his relatives, he would bring him home.

"One more in the family won't matter," he wrote.

Tim didn't know it but he had chosen to adopt Henri on the same day his own son, Timmy had died. He had yet to receive the news.

Getting Henri back to Australia was going to be the problem. A kitbag was not big enough, so Tim and Ted fitted the boy into an oat sack for the journey to Le Havre and Southampton.

Hiding Henri in a sack. Photo: AWM

To be able to undertake the long journey back to Australia, the Tovells put Henri in a wicker basket marked "Sporting Goods". Tim describes what happened next:

“We fitted him into the basket and got him aboard. At the top of the gangway the embarkation officer asked, ‘What’s in that basket?’ An Australian officer replied, ‘Only boxing gloves.’ The basket was passed by the embarkation officer and stowed below. Three days after the ship sailed the lad was produced, to the amazement of the majority of the troops.”

Tom Ryan, the Queensland premier who was on board, discovered Henri off the Australian coast and asked immigration authorities to let him stay in Australia.

Henri was raised by the Tovells, became an apprentice fitter and turner with the RAAF in Victoria, but died in a road crash in 1928. He was probably about 18 years old.

He had written in his citizenship application that he considered Christmas Day, the day he was adopted by Australians, as his birthday.

Henri is buried in Fawkner Cemetery in Victoria with a headstone showing a little orphan boy statue.

The last resting place of Henri Tovell, the French orphan smuggled to Australia. Photo: The Argus, Melbourne


  • Source: Australian War Memorial and adapted from “Kidnapped to Australia with love”, The Age, 31/8/2002.

  • 'French orphan: Smuggled to Australia', The Northern Herald, Wednesday 6 August, 1919, Page 41

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