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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Briggs, John Ernest (1914–1994)

by Helen J. Cox

This article was published online in 2019

John Ernest Briggs (1914–1994), Salvation Army officer, welfare representative, and military chaplain, was born on 11 January 1914 at Swan Hill, Victoria, elder child of John Briggs and his wife Cecilia Jane, née Millgate, both Victorian-born Salvation Army officers. His parents’ work entailed frequent moves across Victoria and New South Wales. He was affectionately known as Ernie, or Ernest. Owing to his mother’s ill health, Ernest’s parents resigned from Salvation Army officership in November 1928. The family had settled in the Melbourne suburb of Moreland. He was employed as a textile worker before, at age twenty-two, he entered the Melbourne Salvation Army Training Garrison in 1936. He was commissioned as a Salvation Army officer in 1937, taking up his first appointment the following year at Eaglehawk. On 9 March 1940 he married a fellow officer, South Australian-born Doris Mary Button, at the Moreland Salvation Army Citadel. The couple would serve together in several country Victorian and suburban appointments.

On 11 January 1941 Briggs was accredited as a Salvation Army welfare representative with the Australian Military Forces. Immediately prior to this, he and Doris had assumed charge of the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Hostel in Launceston, Tasmania. The hostel provided servicemen with weekend and casual accommodation, meals, and support. Briggs also operated a mobile unit and visited military training camps. By mid-1942 he had been relocated to Queensland with the 10th Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force, whilst Doris returned to Melbourne. From November 1942 to February 1943, Briggs served as a welfare officer attached to the 20th Infantry Brigade in the Middle East. Witty and gregarious, he gained esteem for organising entertainment aboard troop-ships, and he became affectionately known as the ‘P.K. Kid’ due to his penchant for handing out chewing gum, both at home and on active service.

In July 1943 Briggs was sent with the brigade to New Guinea. He recalled, during a period of night training, serving the men one thousand cups of coffee within forty minutes. On one occasion he came under Japanese sniper fire; he wrote of the experience, ‘I continued to praise the Lord and pass the P.K.’s’ (War Cry 1943, 4). Another instance saw Briggs so eager to get ahead of the troops, to provide refreshments after one taxing jungle hike, that he inadvertently set up a coffee stand a short distance from a Japanese position. He was repatriated in February 1944, and his army accreditation was terminated the next month. In 1951 he was appointed as a chaplain in the Reserve of Officers, Citizen Military Forces (CMF).

Despite health concerns, Briggs had resumed his Salvation Army evangelical work. In 1952 he and Doris transferred to New Zealand, serving in Christchurch, Gisborne, and Auckland. He was assigned to the Salvation Army’s Melbourne-based Social Service Centre in 1960. Following the advent of the Vietnam War, he was appointed (1962) from the army reserve to be a chaplain in the CMF. He concurrently took on Salvation Army roles, including chief commissioner for Red Shield War Services (1966–68). He visited troops in South-East Asia, including a trip to Vietnam on behalf of the Australian government to evaluate welfare services. In 1966 he negotiated with electrical suppliers to make tape-playback facilities available to soldiers’ families who had been sent recorded messages. He also arranged toy shipments for Vietnamese war orphans, and assisted servicemen to send flowers to loved ones at home.

In 1964 Briggs had helped to establish the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia Red Shield sub-branch (secretary, 1964–68). With Doris, he organised for members of the Red Shield auxiliary to visit veterans at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg. From 1968 he served as a full-time chaplain at the Broadmeadows military camp. After suffering health complications from malaria, he retired in November 1969 with the military rank of chaplain, 3rd Class. For many years he continued to visit veterans and work part time with the Salvation Army. He died on 16 August 1994 in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and was cremated. His wife, and their son and two daughters, survived him.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Briggs, Ernest. In Camps and Trenches: A Talk Delivered to the Salvation Army Historical Society, 19 May 1994. Box R68, folder 59. Salvation Army Heritage Centre, Melbourne
  • Briggs, Ernest. Officer Career Card. Personnel file D150380. Salvation Army Heritage Centre, Melbourne
  • Briggs, Mrs Brigadier Doris. Interview by Leonora Bor, 6 June 1996. Transcript. Red Shield History Project. Salvation Army Heritage Centre, Melbourne
  • Herald Sun. ‘Ernest Briggs: A Man Who Offered Jesus in the Coffee.’ 24 August 1994, 81
  • Natonal Archives of Australia. B4717, Briggs/Ernest John
  • War Cry. ‘The Last of his Kind: Brigadier Ernest Briggs (R) Promoted to Glory.’ 24 September 1994, 4
  • War Cry. ‘A Sniper's Dislike.’ 3 October 1943, 4
  • War Cry. ‘Versatile Officers Retire.’ 7 February 1970, 6

Additional Resources

Citation details

Helen J. Cox, 'Briggs, John Ernest (1914–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/briggs-john-ernest-27615/text35030, published online 2019, accessed online 30 October 2020.

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