The possible whereabouts of the remains of Adolf Hitler have been frequently debated and analysed ever since the Fuhrer’s death in a Berlin bunker 75 years ago. Were they destroyed amongst the ruins of Berlin? Are they locked away in a secret Soviet era Russian vault? Or are they stored in an inconspicuous railway building inside a New Zealand Army Camp?
Whilst the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa can indeed claim to have Hitler’s coffin amongst its amazing collection, the item in question comes from much humbler origins. This small wooden coffin was built by Mr James Alexander (Alec) Shute as part of his fundraising efforts in New Zealand during World War II. Alec Shute lived in the small South Canterbury town of Farlie where he owned a bicycle and lawnmower store. Alec was unable to serve in the military due to a prior medical condition and so instead contributed to the war effort through various fundraising efforts. Alec and his wife Nancy started their own music hall band and performed in various fundraising concerts across the McKenzie Country. Alongside this, Alec also built this small coffin, complete with the (not yet) deceased Nazi leader lying inside. Alec took the coffin with him around the McKenzie Country and South Canterbury regions where he invited people to come pay a penny towards the war effort and literally “put a nail in Hitler’s coffin”.
In 1947 Alec and Nancy Shute moved to Timaru where Alec became a type and ink setter for the Timaru Herald. Whilst working for the Herald Alec also drew cartoons, many of which were later published in the paper during the 1950s. Sadly Alec passed away in Timaru after a prolonged illness in March 1961 aged only 56. Alec’s widow Nancy however, continued to live in Timaru and it was here in 1986 that the coffin came into the possession of her neighbour.
Nancy’s neighbour (then aged 13) had come across this peculiar item whilst helping Nancy clean out an old caravan on her property. Seeing that the boy was fascinated by it, Nancy told him the whole story of the coffin and about her and Alec’s fundraising efforts during the war. As Alec and Nancy didn’t have any children, Nancy decided to pass it on to her young neighbour. Nancy Shute passed away four years later in October 1990.
The coffin was purchased 25 years later from Nancy’s neighbour by the National Army Museum. And so it is here in Waiouru that this unique object, which tells a special story of community strength and support during wartime, now rests in peace.
By Brenden Shirley, Curator of Accoutrements, Social History and Medical