The Chimney Sweep and the Gong: J. Brixley
When I was nine or ten, we used to have typing lessons on a set of old computers that someone had donated to my school. Having already mastered the typing tutor program that the school used, I indulged myself by typing rapidly and giving myself airs in the login screen of the program. I recall specifically my teacher being amused (and, I hope, a little disgusted) by my appending the letters ‘OBE’ after my name on one machine.
Presumably I had picked up on the status that those letters conferred – while I did not know much about the Order of the British Empire, I intuited that ‘OBE’ conferred distinction, even a few years after New Zealand had adopted its own honours system, and was thus in the process of discarding the Order of the British Empire
OBE stands for ‘Officer of the British Empire’, which is the fourth (of five) ranks in the Order of the British Empire. Of course, this means that there has been and continues to be a great deal of confusion about the acronym. Many, perhaps most, people assume that OBE stands for the Order in general, when in fact those in the order can be MBEs, OBEs, CBEs, KBEs, DBEs or GBEs (Members, Officers, Commanders, Knights and Dames, or Knights/Dames Grand Cross).
When the Order was first founded in 1917, these ranks corresponded pretty much directly with the social class of the person honoured. Even today, you can pretty much predict what kind of honour someone will get by their profession and background. In 1917, junior officers, nurses and clerks who had done some valuable service could expect a MBE, while GBEs were reserved for wives of senior Ambassadors, or very prominent and famous statesmen, and so on. Working-class people were outside of this system. In order to accommodate them, the founders of the Order created a medal, which, while not actually conferring membership in the Order, was known as the Medal of the Order of the British Empire or, later, the British Empire Medal.
As a result, munitions workers, firemen, junior nurses and other worthy recipients who did not meet the level of social advancement required to become MBEs received a flood of BEMs in the post, along with citations from the King, in the closing years of the Great War. The problem, as you can probably tell, is that the terminology and the acronyms here were fundamentally confusing. Many people who were not as immersed in the arcane and complex details of the honours system, with all its hierarchies and implications for social precedence, were put in the position where they could easily misunderstand the nature of their honour.
One such man was J. Brixley, a chimney sweep in London in the 1920s, who had served with some kind of distinction as a fireman in the war. He received the BEM, and valued it greatly, saving the certificate that told him that he had received a medal in the ‘Order of the British Empire’. He also observed all around him various middle-class worthies who had been made Officers of the Order using the letters ‘OBE’ after their names – on the letterhead of a lawyer, perhaps, or the chair of the local rotary club – and thought that, perhaps, he too was in the Order of the British Empire, and thus entitled to use the postnominal letters. He thus put them next to his name on his cart.
This mistake did not go unnoticed. A newspaper article called attention to the ‘Sweep OBE’ and some anonymous defender of the social honour of the OBE sent the clipped article into the Treasury, who administered the honours system. Instead of dismissing this anonymous sneak as a triviality, the Treasury sent the local police inspector around to ask Brixley to remove the letters, since he was plainly not entitled to them.
Brixley obediently did so, explaining that he did not realize that he was not entitled to them. And the matter was settled, although similar cases cropped up throughout the 1920s and 30s. All were dealt with promptly and in a similar manner by the treasury and the police. It was not until the early 1940s that holders of the BEM could use postnominal letters at all, and even then it was BEM rather than OBE.
Fortunately the Treasury didn’t take my unwitting, arrogant little gestures on our school computers, over seventy years later, quite so seriously.
Source: Treasury Records, National Archives (UK)