Monday, September 12, 2016

Recognition for Australian women doctors of WW1

I was delighted to see on TV news last night that some of the Australian women doctors who served in World War I are getting recognition by way of a memorial plaque in Melbourne's Welsh Church.

Imperial War Museum 

Follow these links for more information:

Channel 7

The Conversation

Looking for Evidence blog

ANZAC Uni Melb

And for anyone interested in this little-known aspect of WW1, I thoroughly recommend the recent book by Katrina Kirkwood about her grandmother, Dr Isabella Stenhouse. 

Read my review here.

Add caption

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sarah Selina Cooke

Following on from my previous post about my admiration for 19th Century women and what they often had to endure, the story of Sarah Selina Cooke, as described in my companion blog is just one example.

Not only did she lose two, and maybe more, children as babies, she had long separations from her husband and had to try and make a life for herself in a strange country that was often unhealthy and unstable and subject to the violent turmoil of invasion.

To cap it off, she was the victim of two ship mutinies, during the second of which her husband was murdered and her own life hung in the balance, yet she seems to have dealt with it in a practical manner according to the subsequent reports. I would love to find out more about Sarah but, like so many other women from history, after her few minutes of fame she simply disappears.

Read about the mutiny on the "Amelia" here, and the second post giving some brief details about Sarah's background here.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Remembering Women Pioneers of the Land

An early memory of mine from the 1950s is making a petrol stop in a small town (or dorp) in the Transvaal in South Africa en route from Rhodesia to the beaches of Natal for a summer holiday with my parents. From my seat in the back of the car I could see across the road to where there was an open wagon drawn by horses. Sitting up at the front were a couple of women dressed in such a strange way that I asked my mother if they were nuns. She explained that they were Afrikaans women, that they probably lived on a farm and didn't like modern things and still lived and dressed as people had a hundred years ago. That image clearly resonated with me and was probably the beginning of my fascination with all women of the 19th Century, especially those who were pioneers of the land.

The women were dressed similar to this
Dingaansfeeste, c. 1917

In most dictionaries the primary meaning of the word “pioneer” is: 
a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others”.
and its secondary definition:
“one who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise or progress”.
The second definition is now more commonly used, and pioneers of the first definition, or “land pioneers” , have fallen somewhat out of favour as our world grows ever smaller and land occupation and development have acquired more controversial connotations in the wake of issues such as indigenous rights and concerns for the environment.

A Pioneer Settler, c. 1900, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Historic pioneering women of the land still deserve our respect, even if their aspirations and enterprises have little meaning for modern generations. They often travelled great distances, endured tragedies and hardship and were among the first people to settle a new country or district under tough and difficult circumstances.

Finding their stories is not always as easy as one might think. Unless they had time to keep diaries or journals that were passed on to subsequent generations who have reproduced them in some accessible format, most of these personal histories are lost.

The endurance, strength and ingenuity of women who struggled in hostile environments and forged nations in the process should never be forgotten. While there are many museums dedicated to settlers in general, or feminism and female achievements in wider fields, there are only a handful that put special focus on land or rural women pioneers.

Some of the best resources are likely to be found in smaller local museums or historical societies.  If anyone knows of any others to add to this list, do please contact me. (A good site for finding museums around the world dedicated to women only is via is the International Association of Womens Museums.)


Pioneer Womens Hut, Tumbarumba (Note: at time of posting the link is not working, but there is some information here)

United States

 Pioneer Mother, 1925 (cast 1927).
Alexander Phimister Proctor (American, born Canada, 1860–1950)Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Regina in TV doco

Regina was delighted to find her story featured on TV recently in Episode 2 of Mary Beard's fabulous series,"Rome: Empire Without Limit - Pax Romana". In it, Mary travels to Arbeia and discusses Regina and her tombstone.

Currently available in Australia at SBS On Demand here.

Also on YouTube here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Olive Edis, photographer in the light

Doing the rounds on Twitter at present is this link to the Imperial War Museum showing photographs taken by Olive Edis in 1919 of the work still being done by women in France and Belgium after the end of the Great War. While the Internet is awash with images taken during the War itself, the post-conflict ones are often just as moving in their stark reminders of what happened in Europe and also those women who also gave their service and even their lives.

Read all about Olive at the end of this post or in this excellent blog, the Olive Edis Project curated by the Cromer Museum, and where you can browse many more of her other photographs. She was known for her ability to put her subjects at ease and for her use of natural light and also took studio portraits of well-known individuals including the royal family.

No words needed (National Post, Canada)

(National Post, Canada)

Champ de Tir, Brussels. Stone marks spot where Nurse Edith Cavell was executed
(Imperial War Museum)

Unnamed river and ruins (

The grave at Etaples of Betty Stevenson who received the Croix de Guerre is tended by a WAAC
(Imperial War Museum)

(Read about Betty here)

Not all doom and gloom - members of QMAAC getting their hair done
(Imperial War Museum)
And here are two images of Edis herself as a pensive young woman and her older self reflecting an ability to still find sheer joy in life.

Olive's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography:

Edis [married name Galsworthy], (Mary) Olive (1876–1955), photographer, was born on 3 September 1876 at 22 Wimpole Street, London, the home of her parents, Mary, née Murray (1853–1931), from Aberdeen, and Arthur Wellesley Edis FRCP (1840–1893), obstetrician and gynaecologist. In 1880 her twin sisters, Emmeline and Katherine, were born, and these three girls completed the family. Olive went to Baker Street high school, London; the Cliff boarding-school, Eastbourne; and King's College, London. However, when she was seventeen her father died unexpectedly and she had to earn her own living. Her aunt Caroline, daughter of Surgeon-General John Murray (1809–1898), a well-known photographer in India, had already given her a camera and she had photographed Caroline successfully. It was, as she wrote on the back ‘My very first attempt at a portrait which turned my fate in 1900’.

Self-taught and determined, Olive made a studio at the top of 34 Colville Terrace, Notting Hill, a large flat on three floors to which she, her mother, and her sisters had moved. By 1905 she also had, with Katherine, a smaller studio—again with living space—in Church Street, Sheringham, a popular middle-class seaside resort in Norfolk. Other studios appeared briefly, in Cromer and in Farnham, Surrey, but Sheringham and Colville Terrace were Olive Edis's work places for almost all her working life, and long after Katherine's marriage and departure in 1907. In Sheringham she started with local postcard views but soon turned to portraits, both studio and ‘at home’, of local and visiting celebrities, and also of the photogenic but notoriously camera-shy Norfolk fishermen. This latter achievement highlights her persuasive persistence, but sometimes she overpainted the images with oils. In London she took mainly portraits, pursuing well-known people to sit for her. She commuted regularly between the two studios in her tiny car, burdened with heavy glass plates and often with punctures. In Sheringham two local women assisted with processing.

By 1912 Olive Edis had become one of the first women to use autochromes (introduced in 1907), responding sensitively to their rich colours and inventing her own viewer. She won a medal with an autochrome, Portrait Study, at the Royal Photographic Society's 1913 exhibition, became a fellow of the society the next year, and exhibited regularly for many years. In 1918 the Imperial War Museum commissioned her to record war work by the British women's services in France and Flanders. As the only official woman photographer, and with a specially designed uniform, she travelled 2000 wintry miles in March 1919, testing her stamina, ingenuity, and three cameras to the limit, and brought back unique and poignant pictures. Many are still in the museum's collection with the diary that she kept. One shows six WAACs at Étaples in 1919, tending rows of war graves bearing temporary numbered wooden crosses, a bleak, snow-covered and wooded hill in the background. In 1920 she was commissioned to make ‘colour plates … of the Rockies’ for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and she extended her travels to visit Washington, DC, and to learn to film. The commissioned photographs were exhibited in London later, but sadly none has been traced.

On 27 June 1928 Olive married Edwin Henry Galsworthy, solicitor, a cousin of the writer John Galsworthy. Now she became known as Olive Edis-Galsworthy, and Edwin moved into the Colville Terrace flat. After her mother's death Olive and her husband moved to 32 Ladbroke Square. She gave up the Church Street studio in Sheringham and moved to South Street, where she built a replica studio in the garden, although after her marriage she carried out fewer commissions. Following her husband's death in 1948 she annotated some of her best portraits and presented them to the National Portrait Gallery. She also made a scrapbook ‘to hold some autographs and some notes of interesting days’ (Edis, MS scrapbook, priv. coll.). Her exhibition in Cambridge in February 1920 included a representative sample of her work: portraits of six members of the royal family, various generals, bishops, university dignitaries, politicians, and titled people that were reasonably flattering and reassuringly conventional representations. Her style, with or without colour, showed great naturalism and changed very little over the years; her favourite medium was the 10 inch by 8 inch platinotype, with its velvety, deep-brown effect, used with natural light wherever possible.

Olive Edis-Galsworthy died on 28 December 1955 at her Ladbroke Square flat. She was cremated at Golders Green on 2 January 1956 and her ashes interred in the Weybourne Road cemetery, Sheringham, beside her husband, on 5 January.

Shirley Neale

Friday, May 20, 2016

So much more than "a splendid chatelaine"

In June 1936, British newspapers reported the death of Alice Blanche Balfour at the age of 86, and described her variously as either “a splendid chatelaine” or perfect sister”.

As can be seen from this version from The Gloucester Citizen, it would seem she was mainly remembered for her housekeeper duties for her bachelor brother, former British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour *, and even that she was a sister-in-law to Henry Sidgwick.

At least the obituary in The Times was more forthcoming and touched on Alice’s accomplishments in her own right; being an author, artist, prolific letter-writer and contributor to magazines. She had wide interests that included entomology, archaeology and even early genetics.

When Miss Balfour first became mistress of her brothers house in 1876, she could not foresee that she was committing herself to a life-time of the duties which usually devolve upon the wife of a statesman. Arthur Balfour had up to that time shown no special political promise. He was young, rich, and popular. It was not likely that a sister would long be his companion. But the unlikely happened, and he did not marry.
As the duties of her position increased, Miss Balfour allowed herself less and less time to develop the real bent of her talents, which were pre-eminently artistic and scientific.

Alice made the gardens at the family home of Wittingehame in Scotland famous for their colour and plant groupings but ... the deepest of her intellectual interests was always for natural science ... and she had ... the making of a true researcher: passionate love of truth, detachment from prejudice, and fine powers of observation and deduction.

It was inevitable that Alice had an interest in politics, being involved in the Primrose League and under her auspices the Young Conservatists Union was established. She was also involved in education and advancement of women, such as the Swanley Women’s Agricultural College which trained women in gardening, dairy, poultry and bee-keeping and other skills considered practical for women who had no choice but to earn their own living both at home and further afield in the Empire. Alice also founded the East Lothian Benefit Nursing Association. She was interested in archaeology and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Her book Twelve Hundred Miles in a Waggon published in 1895 tells of her challenging travels in often primitive and dangerous conditions with members of the Grey family (including Albert Grey a future Governor-General of Canada) through South Africa, Rhodesia and East Africa to Zanzibar. Her descriptions of this pioneering trip are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the colonial history of this part of the world.

Cover of later facsimile edition

After Arthur died in 1930, Alice retreated to her home at Wittingehame where she often made expeditions across the moors or to the seashore collecting insects. Her collections of butterflies and moths were bequeathed to the Edinburgh Natural History Museum.

Before her sight faded, she did many paintings of flowers and local landscapes. There is also a report that she enjoyed doing fantasy drawings of dragons for her nieces and nephews.

So where are Alices paintings today? Apart from those reproduced in Twelve Hundred Miles, the only ones to be found are in a series of stamps from the 1970s for Rhodesia just prior to it becoming Zimbabwe, such as these below.

Also as is too often the case with self-effacing women like Alice who lived their lives catering to the needs of prominent men, finding a decent image of her is a problem. If she ever had a formal portrait done, it is probably still in private hands as none is listed in the major galleries. This is the only one accessible online but in spite of the net covering her face, she looks to be a lively and approachable woman.

The Times obituary ends with this tribute:

Injustice she abhorred, and she was never unjust except, unfortunately, to herself. Some notion of the independence of mind she persistently underrated may be gathered from this story. An American diplomatist, after visiting her and her brother, recorded in his published letters that Lord Balfours sister was herself capable of governing the country. I never did think much of that mans brains,’ was Miss Balfours only comment.

* Perhaps now best remembered for the Balfour Declaration regarding the creation of a Jewish homeland. The Balfour home at Whittinghame became a school for Jewish refugee children during World War II and for some time afterwards. Alice is sure to have approved. Read about it here.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"The only bright spot in camp life"

Much has been written about what are often called the first concentration camps, being those set up by Lord Kitchener during the Boer War in South Africa and into which were herded many thousands of Afrikaner women and children after the land was laid waste through his scorched earth policy.

Emily Hobhouse, whose ashes are buried at the foot of this memorial, is especially famous for bringing to light this shameful practice: appallingly run camps riddled with diseases, little shelter, inadequate water, food and clothing. The mortality statistics are that nearly 28,000 Afrikaners died in these camps between 1899-1902 with more than three-quarters of them aged less than sixteen.

Outrage erupted in Britain. Kitchener argued the camps were essential to stop the women supporting their men out in the field by way of supplies and intelligence, while politicians tried to soften matters by saying they were necessary to save the helpless families of the enemy who had been abandoned and left to starve by their men, leaving them easy prey to marauding black Africans.

In an attempt to placate the furore, the British Government appointed a ladies committee headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett to report on the camps. Although she corroborated most of what Hobhouse had reported, her report had a harsher tone as she felt much blame fell on the women themselves because they had chosen to involve themselves in the war and were often more violently opposed to British domination than their men so they had to expect the consequences, also that they contributed to the deaths of their own children through ignorance and superstition.

To reinforce the policy that incarceration in the camps was purely for the safety of the women and children, the British Government initiated a program of education. This is covered in some detail by Eliza Reidi in an article, Teaching Empire: British and Dominions Women Teachers in the South African War Concentration Camps. *
“The picture of dead and dying children drawn by Hobhouse and backed by the mortality statistics was replaced by one of happy schoolchildren, bright, pretty, and keen to learn.
But there was more politics at play here than altruism. The British Government wanted to crush the backward-looking culture of the Afrikaner people, force them towards a modern Imperial future and to make them speak English. And so the daughters of England and the Empire were recruited to carry out this important task.

Shields Gazette, 6 November, 1901.
Ladies ... may be sure of a courteous reception from the parents
and every provision will be made for their comfort.

A salary of 100 pounds a year and a return passage, plus food and accommodation included made this an attractive proposition for many. Some applicants would have been passionate do-gooders or die-hard British Imperialists or feminists, some were governesses, others simply wanted out of a restrictive life or a thirst for adventure (and possibly a husband), or they could be struggling single women or widows fallen on hard times.

Reidi’s article gives an overview of the recruitment processes and its challenges, with brief summaries of some of the women from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who travelled to South Africa. Some remained there, some died before their contracts were up, but most seem to have just disappeared from the records. Perhaps some will be found through judicious genealogical searching, but most resources available on these teachers are scarce or non-existent. Although there were between 300-400 of them, they are just more of the frustrating will o the wisps of female history. Given that these were often well-educated and literate women, where are the diaries or journals or biographies that would throw greater light on their experiences? 

Only one seems to have been rediscovered. Canadian E. Maud Graham published a book in 1905, and this has been recently been re-published and edited in a new edition by the University of Alberta Press, but the book is a little expensive and is not universally available in libraries. (Unfortunately, the original 1905 version has not as yet found its way onto the treasures at Internet Archive.) Another Canadian was writer Florence H. Randal Livesay who manages to score a few lines here and there on Canadian websites but not much else.
Find it on

An Australian contingent departed in the SS Medic from Melbourne on 31 July 1902, and their story is briefly detailed at the bottom of page 22 of this educational publication of the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs - but without specific names.

Australian teachers before departing for South Africa, 1902

The February 2015 newsletter for National Boer War Memorial Association (pages 9-10), lists several of these Australian women and puts out a request:  
We encourage anyone with knowledge of these women, especially descendants, to let us know what happened to them.
Ida Robertson was just one example. The daughter of a solicitor from Deniliquin, New South Wales, she had been inspired to travel to South Africa after the death of her brother. Much detail about his service and death can be found in this newsletter of the Hay Historical Society, but what happened to Ida eventually is not known.

Twenty women sailed from New Zealand and the caption attached to this photograph on the NZ History website lists the names of all of them. Interestingly, the accompanying article has this to say:
Once the camps were dismantled the teachers found jobs working at schools in the towns or countryside. Most decided to remain in South Africa after finishing the term of their appointment. Only six of the 20 teachers returned to New Zealand and those that did found that their lives had been forever changed by their experiences in South Africa.
The 'Learned Eleventh' from New Zealand

As world attitudes change, not only have these stories slipped into the usual fog of women’s history, they are at risk of disappearing permanently as the old “white” South Africa fades from modern consciousness with new emphasis on previously neglected black history. ^ 

Still, for taking on the challenge and doing what they thought was the right thing within the parameters of their time and place, these women remain worthy of recognition. They provided what Emily Hobhouse said was the only bright spot in the horrors of concentration camp life. Here, you can read the memoir of an Afrikaner child, Hester Johanna Maria Uys, who had fond memories of a Miss O’Brien teaching her English and knitting. 

There are a number of books by and about Emily Hobhouse. She even had a South African naval ship named after her during the apartheid era.

An extensive collection of images on this Pinterest page.

You may be lucky to find specific womens names by searching for reports on lady teachers for South Africa via various newspaper archives online, including British Newspapers or TROVE.

* The English Historical Review
Vol. 120, No. 489 (Dec., 2005), pp. 1316-1347
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL:

^ The equally horrendous black concentration camps of this war are now starting to be researched and written about.