Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Women to the Front: the Extraordinary Australian Women Doctors of the Great War


Discovering stories about forgotten or marginalised women from history continues to be one of my passions. For the last ten years or so, this blog has attempted to bring some of them to light, and so it is always an enormous pleasure to see others publishing such enlightening books that will reach wider audiences.

Although many people are still surprised to learn that there were women doctors who served during World War I, this was something I’d always known from an early age, due to the fact that my late aunt had been a nursing VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and she told me that she had worked with female doctors in hospitals on the island of Malta and on the Eastern Front at Salonika in 1917-1918. [See Note below.]

This book focusses on just twenty-four Australian women doctors who defied the prejudices and policies of the military establishment and made their own invaluable contribution to the war effort. Between them, they displayed extraordinary grit, determination and courage and saved untold numbers of lives yet their achievements remain shadowy at best. And when they returned home many had their experiences negated due to the attitudes of the time.

As the authors Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee state, neither the British nor the Australian National Archives carry any official service records for these women. They have had to rely on small collections of letters, diaries and other materials and it is impossible to know for sure how many Australian women doctors went to war. “The paucity of official records for the women … and the lack of sources generally, has meant that while some women’s experiences are relatively well documented, of others there are very few traces.”

The book is eminently readable as it weaves the experiences of these women within the timeline of the War at both the Western and Eastern Fronts, in the Mediterranean and Middle East as well as England and Scotland. Its last third contains more detailed biographical details of each doctor listed. With the aid of the index, this will be an invaluable resource for anyone researching a woman in particular to find out where and when she served.

This is a most important and worthy addition to the history of women in World War I and is highly recommended.

Note: Follow this link for extracts of letters written by Sgt. R.A. Hennel in which he mentions the “Lady Doctors” of Malta. 

Also see my earlier review of “Isabella and the String of Beads” by Katrina Kirkwood about another British woman doctor, Dr. Isabella Stenhouse. This book mentions Dr. Helen Greene who was a friend of both my aunt and Sgt. Hennel.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A Life at the Edge of the World (Book Review)

Elizabeth Macarthur: a Life at the Edge of the World
Michelle Scott Tucker
Text Publishing
 (the cover shows the young Elizabeth and in the background Elizabeth Farm around 1826)

Those who are interested in early colonial Australian history will be familiar with the name of John Macarthur, who is credited with establishing the wool industry with stock descended from Spanish merino sheep. He is equally known for being a leader in the infamous Rum Rebellion in which he deposed Captain William Bligh (of “Bounty” fame) as the Governor. Macarthur also passed through the pockets of millions of Australia when the first $2 bill came out with his image imprinted on it.

Of his wife, Elizabeth, less is known, although she has given her name to the NSW Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute and a high school, and Elizabeth Farm is one of Australia’s oldest buildings open to the public.

For years at a time, John Macarthur was absent from the family’s properties around Parramatta and left Elizabeth to hold the reins. This book tells her side of the story.

Married in 1788 (the year the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales) 22 year-old new bride Elizabeth and her arrogant, but almost penniless, army officer husband John followed three years later and began to build their own empire “at the edge of the world”. 

Although she often longed to see her beloved Devon countryside again, Elizabeth would never return to England and devoted the rest of her life dealing with the many hazards and challenges of a tough and strange environment. Family issues had to be negotiated alongside pragmatic business ones. In her husband's absence, she had to manage both the household and business matters, attend to the employment of convicts. She personally oversaw the processes of wool production, including washing, baling and transport, as well as a breeding program to produce the best flocks.

With her cautious diplomacy, Elizabeth negotiated the inevitable feuds and jealousies common to all small insular societies. She endured booms and busts and tragic personal losses.  Yet through it all she continued to love a husband who was notorious for his recalcitrance and irascibility, and willingly deputised for him at a time when women of her genteel background were expected to be little more than decorations.

Elizabeth bore nine children, and progressively lost several of them before she herself died aged 83.  One of her sons was sent to England at the age of seven and died thirty years later without ever seeing his mother again. A daughter suffered from what might have been polio and needed constant care for many years. There would be no quiet retirement for Elizabeth, however, as John Macarthur increasingly suffered from insanity, finally being institutionalised. Through it all, Elizabeth persevered in her steady and competent way.

This biography is a fine and most fitting tribute to one remarkable woman.

Elizabeth Macarthur, c. 1845

Elizabeth Farm as it is today, sydney.com

More here:

(Several photographs of Elizabeth Farm through the years)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Two girls in a lifeboat

When World War II broke out, there was a shift in the criteria for receiving a Lloyd’s Medal that was formerly “For Saving Life at Sea” and was changed to “For Bravery at Sea”. Only a handful of women received them.*

In 1942, the Blue Star vessel SS Avila Star was en route from Buenos Aires to England when she was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Azores in the North Atlantic. Those passengers who survived the initial explosions took to the lifeboats. Tragically, only one lifeboat was rescued after its passengers endured nearly three weeks at sea. The number of saved passengers was 29, although several more died in Lisbon in following days.

Among those few survivors were two young women, Mary/Maria Elizabeth (nicknamed “Johnnie”) Ferguson and Patricia Maud Traunter, born in 1923 and 1924 respectively. Both were daughters of Englishmen who lived and worked in South America and both were heading to England to sign up for the WRENs (Women’s Royal Naval Service) or the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force).

Mary Ferguson was to receive accolades for her actions and bestowed with the BEM (British Empire Medal) as well as the Lloyd’s Medal for Bravery at Sea while Patricia did not receive any similar recognition although she went through the same ordeal.

Mary's exploits were told in a book published years later in 1963,  A Girl Called Johnnie: Three Weeks in an Open Boat by John Frayn Turner. Unfortunately it is very scarce and unavailable to me at present, but some of what it probably contains can be read online in Chapter 16 of another book by the same author, Fight for the Sea: Naval Adventures from the Second World War.

The preview does not include the full chapter, but it is astonishing that nowhere in the available pages is there any reference to the second woman, Patricia Traunter, being in the lifeboat as well!

Nor is there any mention of her in this detail from the Imperial War museum attached to an item that belonged to Mary Ferguson, although in her obituary in The Times of 8 July 2006, there is passing reference to Patricia Traunter, that the two women were as one when they “refused to accept any positive discrimination in their direction” and when offered more water than the men “stoutly declined it”.

Copyright London Times

This amazing struggle between life and death is dramatic in itself but one has to wonder as to what went on between the two female survivors to result in rather different stories in the newspapers.

This following article from the Daily Mirror of 15 November 1942 casts quite a different spin on the bravery of Mary Ferguson and in fact even goes so far as to make her look like the weak ninny of the pair. The newspaper image is difficult to read and the text too long to reproduce in full here but the two opening paragraphs display all the titillation for which the DM is famous:-

Two girls in a lifeboat … men dying, men going mad … alone on the vast Atlantic …

Patricia was in her slinkiest dance frock when the torpedo struck. That, a brassiere and panties, was all she was wearing when they dragged her, dazed and oil-smothered into one of the lifeboats.”

Being the DM, there are further references to how they were wedged close to men with their “flimsy frocks clinging wetly to their bodies” and how they had to slip over the side at certain times to discreetly attend to personal matters.

Mary Ferguson plays a subservient role to Patricia throughout the DM article in which Patricia is the nurse in charge. It looks as if she might have told the reporter that her female compatriot certainly didn't deserve any medals:-  

Johnnie Ferguson would sit all day staring into space and Pat Traunter had to slap her to keep her awake.” 

The last line though hints that Patricia’s state of mind was understandably shaky and perhaps her retelling of the traumatic adventure couldn't be relied on:-

She [Pat] is being treated for a strange, though temporary, mental affliction.” 

Clearly it is the surviving men who would have reported back to the authorities that it was “Johnnie” who demonstrated extreme bravery in the circumstances and deserved the medals. What they thought of Patricia, who knows. She may have done her bit too. It would take guts for anyone to survive three weeks in a lifeboat with diminishing fresh water and food supplies plus dealing with daily death and madness around you.

Other factors may have been at play as well, including the intractable British class system. Mary Ferguson had a posh Chelsea address whereas the Traunter family hailed from the working classes of Sheffield, Yorkshire. Even during the war, such social subtleties could make a big difference in who got recognition for their efforts.

As in The Times obituary, Mary Ferguson died in Rutland, UK, in 2006, apparently unmarried. However, an announcement in that same newspaper back on 14 February 1945 is for her engagement to Lieut. P E Marsh, RNVR, son of Rev Sidney Marsh of Ryde. For whatever reason the marriage did not eventuate. The obituary also states that Mary went on to become a personal secretary after the War and concludes: “She remained steadfastly reticent about her wartime exploit.”

An engagement notice also appears in some newspapers late in 1942 that Patricia was to marry a Welshman, Henry Griffith, who was serving in the Merchant Navy, but there was no subsequent marriage reported for this either, and instead she was married in 1944 to Lieut. Michael Timothy Hickie, destined later to become a Lieut. Commander in the Royal Australian Navy. 

From the records, it appears that Patricia had at least two children, but did not make the headlines again. She also died in 2006, her last address being in Australia - Kalaru, near Bega, New South Wales. 

Her husband Michael recently self-published a story of his life and access to this might verify some more facts about his wife’s role in the famous lifeboat event. 

Ferguson's WRNS uniform jacket, bearing her medal ribbons, is now an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum 

There is a plot here for an amazing drama of survival including possible rivalry and if anyone reading this can tell me more about the lives of either or both of the young women who survived the SS Avila Star, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

* See my earlier blog post on Victoria Drummond, another WW2 recipient of the Lloyds Medal 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Death and Duty. Eugenie Matelot

The second woman to receive a Lloyd’s Medal for saving life at sea was a Frenchwoman, Eugenie Matelot (nee Bedex), born in 1884. Her husband Alexandre Matelot was the lighthouse keeper at Kerdonis, on Belle Ile en Mer off the Brittany coast.

On 18 April 1911, he had been cleaning the automated mechanism that turned the light but before he could put it back together correctly, he suddenly became unwell (appendicitis) and took to his bed in great pain. The nearest doctor was several miles away and his wife dared not leave his side, plus she also had four children to look after. Two other older children were away, one in hospital, another at sea.

Her husband died later that day. With dusk approaching, she kept vigil with her husband's body but it was also vital the light was lit and kept turning. Although Eugene could not put the mechanism back together, she knew enough about the timing of the light and, with the help of her older children, aged 8 and 10, she managed to light the lamp, and then manually push it around, keeping it going all night. If the light had remained unlit, who knows how many vessels may have come to grief in those dangerous waters off the coast of Brittany.

In spite of her bravery, Eugenie Matelot was not entitled to immediately receive her husband’s wages nor was she eligible for any pension as his widow, meaning she and her children were left destitute. A local man, a tax collector, was so outraged by this that he wrote a letter to the French newspaper Le Figaro to ask for help for the family and the story spread like wildfire.

Newspapers tell the story with variations and it seems that an amount of money equivalent today to around 60,000 Euros was raised. This was definitely a case where getting the media involved created justice for Eugenie and her family.

On 3 September 1911, the British Consul and a representative of Lloyd's attended on Mme. Matelot and presented her with a Lloyd's Medal for Saving Life at Sea.

Although perhaps still remembered in Brittany, Eugenie Matelot is another woman forgotten to history elsewhere even though she went on to be keeper in her own right at other lighthouses in the region at Kernevel and Keroman in Lorient. She died in 1935. 

One English version of her story can be read via TROVE in the Adelaide Evening Journal of 22 July 1911.

These French websites give more details (Google translate will help) and all images are from them.


Lighthouse much the same today.Copyright

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Bravery at Sea. Stewardess Kate Gilmour

There’s been recent discussion in the media about the appalling behaviour of passengers in air crashes, some of them holding up swift escape because they insist on retrieving their carry-on luggage. Why, when your very life is on the line, would you worry about your stuff?

On the positive side, all credit must go to those cabin crew who have to handle such situations without “losing it” themselves. While some individuals behave in strange and irrational ways in life and death situations, others manage to rise to the best they can be.

This is the first in a series of posts about women who have remained cool in crisis situations - especially forgotten heroines of the sea - and whose stories have slipped out of history. Most don’t even warrant a Wikipedia entry so often there is no definite starting point for research into them other than a few lines in the newspaper archives.

Stewardess Kate Gilmour was the first ever female recipient of the Lloyd’s Medal for Saving Life at Sea in an incident sometimes known as Malta’s Titanic, the disastrous end to the SS Sardinia(The best website giving comprehensive details of this tragedy is that of The Malta Independent - click here to read in full.)

Sample of the medal from the National Maritime Museum

Born in Edinburgh around 1861, nothing can be found on Kate’s early life but by her thirties she was single and living in Liverpool. As she may have always been away from the country at the times of the Census Returns, only one that can be confirmed is that from 1891, when a Kate [Gilmore], occupation “Seas Stewardess”, was a boarder with the Murray family at 34 Samuel Street, Liverpool.

She appears in a number of Crew Lists as Stewardess, and among the vessels she served on were SS Rameses, SS Cretic and SS Orotova, not always giving the same age, however, and she seems to have stayed 38 for quite a number of years! Her address in England was always the same, i.e. 128 Belmont Road, Liverpool.

Khedivial Mail Line, SS Rameses at Malta

Kate was the sole female member of the crew of the Ellerman and Papayanni Line SS Sardinia when it set sail from Liverpool in November 1908 with 25 first class, 6 second class passengers and general cargo, bound for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ports. Twelve of the original passengers were still on board when the vessel left Malta for Alexandria in Egypt and Jeddah, the port for Mecca. In Malta, the number of passengers increased to around 200, consisting of a large group of Arabs on pilgrimage. Without cabins, they simply pitched tents on the upper deck for shelter during the short passage.

About one mile out of Grand Harbour, Malta, at 11 am on  25 November 1908, the steamer caught fire in the forward hold - it was believed to have originated in a quantity of naphtha but the inquiry found that it may have been through the carelessness of the pilgrims.

The fire was witnessed from Malta and all kinds of rescue vessels set out, but the fierce wind blowing made it difficult to assist. Captain Charles Littler did everything he could to save his ship but he had to abandon the wheel and the vessel circled helplessly close to the shore. Then came repeated explosions with dense smoke and flames 200 feet high. Hatches blew off, killing all in the vicinity. All in the engine room were trapped and perished. Eventually the ship foundered on the Riscasoli Rocks.

General panic ensued. Some individuals including a number of crew members, immediately jumped overboard, while others remained and strove heroically to try and save the ship and its passengers in an orderly fashion with the use of lifebelts. 

One of these was Kate Gilmour who kept her nerve and did everything she could to ensure that the passengers - women and children in particular - were safely off before leaving the  ship herself.

A survivor wrote:
“We left Liverpool with a full cargo of machinery and Manchester goods for Alexandria. Our bunkers had been supplied with enough coal at Liverpool to last us until our return to Malta.The Sardinia left Malta at 9.45 this morning.We had just got outside the harbour, and the crew were engaged in securing the port anchors, when suddenly a cry of ‘Fire’ was heard and fumes were seen to issue from a ventilator on the port side. A hose was promptly turned on and a stream of water was poured down the ventilator. This, however, did no good, as in a few minutes flames started out of the other ventilators and in less than 10 minutes the whole vessel amidships was enveloped in flames. The Arab passengers - 140 Moorish pilgrims, going to Mecca –were told to leave the hatch, to which they clung desperately, but they declined to move. All of those who remained forward perished, except some of those who jumped overboard”.


So near yet so far ... the rescue in progress
The final death toll was two European passengers - one of them being Douglas, four-year-old child of James Gordon and Jessie Grant - 16 crew members - including the Captain, First Mate, R. Frew, Chief Engineer, J. Niel, and 2nd Engineer D. Hislop, and more than 100 Arab passengers - although only 23 bodies were ever recovered. All the Arab pilgrims that were found were buried in the Turkish cemetery on Malta.

British and international newspapers carried the story - this from the Aberdeen Press and Journal
How Young Grant was Lost
The remains of Captain Littler of the Ellerman Liner, Sardinia, destroyed by fire at Malta were to-day taken from the Venetian at Liverpool and removed to Birkenhead for the funeral tomorrow.
Survivors of the crew with the exception of five still in hospital at Malta, also returned by the Venetian, and affecting scenes were witnessed on the quayside.
Survivors, who had evidently been cautioned not to make statements, refused to say anything when questioned about the disaster. They were escorted to cabs and rapidly driven away with friends.
Miss Kate Gilmour, stewardess of the Sardinia, who remained on the Venetian, spoke feelingly of the loss of Mr and Mrs Grant’s little boy. He was a great favourite on board, she said, passengers calling him the fourth mate. A brave effort to save him was made by the second officer, who strapped the lad on his back and jumped into the sea, but the boy was washed away.

A month later, the newspaper reported: -


 The Committee of Lloyd’s have decided to bestow the silver medal of the society upon Miss Kate Gilmour, stewardess of the steamer Sardinia, which was destroyed by fire off Malta on November 25, as honorary acknowledgement of her extraordinary exertions in contributing saving life that Miss Gilmour, her coolness and courageous conduct greatly contributed to saving many lives, as she remained aboard encouraging panic-stricken Arabs to avail themselves of the only means of escape, and it was not till the women and children were rescued that she was persuaded to board a boat.
This is the first occasion which Lloyd’s medal for saving life at sea has been bestowed upon a woman.

And in July of the following year: -


The King [Edward VII] held an investiture at Buckingham Palace yesterday, at which he personally bestowed the insignia of various honours conferred on the occasion of His Majesty’s birthday. Subsequently His Majesty received a number of men, a boy, and a lady, and bestowed upon them awards for gallantry in saving or attempting to save life by land and sea. Miss Kate Gilmour received a silver medal for gallantry on the occasion of the burning of the Sardinia in Malta Harbour. Miss Gilmour who is the first lady thus decorated, was stewardess of the Sardinia and was almost the last to leave the ship after being instrumental in saving many lives by her coolness and courage.

After being awarded the Medal, Kate promptly disappears from the records and she does not appear to have continued with her career as ship’s stewardess.

What happened to her? Did she emigrate? Did she marry? Or did she simply change her name in order to escape her brief moments of fame? 

Research is ongoing. If anyone reading this knows anything else about Kate Gilmour, please do contact me.

The story of the brave stewardess Kate Gilmour was told many years later in the Melbourne Argus 3 September 1936

Friday, January 25, 2019

Matthew and Ann, a love story

The recent announcement of the discovery of the grave of Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) during the excavations at Euston Station brings to mind the romantic and poignant love story of him and his wife, Ann Chappelle, from whom he was separated for most of their married life. (There is also some irony that the archaeological skills used to find and identify his body will owe much to the methodology established by Flinders’ famous grandson, the archaeologist William Flinders Petrie.)

Ann Flinders (right) with her half-sister Isabella Tyler (left)
standing is her daughter Anne (later Petrie)
(Copyright unknown)

Ann Chappelle was a little older than Matthew, being born on 21 November 1772. Her father John Chappelle had been a merchant navy captain who died of illness in the Dutch East Indies in 1776 and as a result Ann had been reluctant to tie herself to another mariner. But her love for Matthew won out and they were married by Ann's step-father, the Rev. Wiliam Tyler in St Nicholas Church at Partney, Lincolnshire, on 17 April 1801. Just three months later Matthew sailed on HMS Investigator to commence his famous circumnavigation of Australia.

Extract from Parish Records for St Nicholas Church, Partney, Lincs.

Matthew had wanted Ann to sail with him and brought her onto the ship but the Admiralty was furious and wouldn’t permit her to remain on board. She would not see her husband again for nine years, for six of which he was held prisoner of the French in Mauritius.

He returned to England in 1810 and they lived in a number of rented houses in London while he prepared his Voyage to Terra Australis for publication, and their only child, Anne, was born in 1812 (baptised St. Giles, Middlesex, on 1st April), when her mother was forty years old.

The Design & Art Australia website states that Ann was apparently blind in one eye “by lancing due to smallpox” but she had “above average mental powers, considered clever, with a sweet and perfect temper, beloved by all who knew her, witty, generous, nervous, with aptitudes for poetry, literature, singing, verse, and painting flowers from nature”. The DAAO also mentions that her watercolours of flowers have been shown in exhibitions, although none of these appear to be available on the internet.

Matthew named Mount Chappell/Chappelle in Bass Strait after Ann.

After Matthew’s death, Ann lived on for almost another forty years and would have seen many changes in that time. When she died in February 1852, the once remote continent of Australia was booming with an influx of settlers and gold-seekers. Her husband Matthew’s charts of the route around the coast continued to be used until well into the 20th Century.

There is a box of sentimental mementoes belonging to Ann in the State Library of New South Wales. It contains locks of hair from family members and pressed flowers from their grave sites.

State Library of New South Wales

Discover more about the romantic love story between Ann Chappelle and Matthew Flinders in the historical novel My Love Must Wait by Ernestine Hill and Letters to Ann by Catherine Retter and Shirley Sinclair.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Inspiration for "Brave New World"?

As this blog has a focus on historical women who have not been properly acknowledged for their achievements or contributions, this recent article from The Guardian captured my interest:-
 "forgotten feminist dystopian novel, a story of eugenics and newspaper manipulation that is believed to have influenced Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, is coming back into print for the first time in a century, complete with pages that were suppressed in 1918." (Read article in full here.)
Rose Macaulay may not be as well-known today as she once was, and her arcane writing style can be dense and difficult for modern readers.

Still, if her themes did influence some of the most famous dystopian novels written by men, then it is good to know that she is now being given her due.

The Towers of Trebizond is considered her masterpiece but I have lost count of the number of times I have picked it up and then persevered to a certain point where it defeats me because I have lost patience with its privileged characters and/or their religious arguments. Clearly, I’m too much of a philistine to truly appreciate Macaulay - and thus hover around a B- in her A to C Ministry of Brains - but many others do appreciate and enjoy her work.

The new version of What Not has now been published by Handheld Press.