Featured Image: Clive and Annie Purcell, Studio Portrait, Sandhill Camp, England, June 1918
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 2 February 2022
Also see the article about Annie’s brother Clive Purcell WWI soldier.
Auntie Nam, Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell, WWI Nurse (1887-1941)
My mother called her Auntie Nam. She liked and admired her greatly. She was the sister of my mother’s father William Clive Purcell. Both Annie and Clive died relatively young. My mother adored her father.
The companion article to this is about Clive Purcell as a WWI soldier and covers the Great War and the AIF Australian involvement in more detail.
(My mother Anne-Enid Frances Stewart (née Purcell) and related family, including her father Clive, were remembered by my sister in one chapter of Our Mothers by Robbie Henderson, Austin Macauley London, 29 October 2021.)
Auntie Nam was born Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell in Yea, Victoria, Australia on 3 April 1887.
I am republishing a lightly edited version of the research undertaken by Janet Scarfe on behalf of the East Melbourne Historical Society (a link to the original is provided). The photographs are from a collection of family photographs.
Scarfe’s depiction of my maternal grandfather Clive Purcell’s war record is slightly unfair (from a 21st century feminine perspective) but I will deal with this in a separate article about him and his First World War (WWI) experience.
Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell
Annie Purcell is commemorated on the honour board of nurses associated with St Peter’s Eastern Hill, East Melbourne who served in the Great War of 1914–18. She served in Egypt and England as well as on ships transporting troops to and from Australia. After the war, she became a well-known figure in Victoria’s baby health movement and was later matron at the junior school of Geelong Grammar. She died in Hobart in 1941.
Before the War
Annie (1887–1941) was the eldest of the six children (3 of each) born to William Purcell (1861–1914) and his wife Ann Emina (née Richards) (1865–1925). Her names honoured female forebears on both sides.
William and Emina married in Victoria in 1886. William Purcell was of Irish stock, his father James and mother Ann having moved from County Cork to Van Diemen’s Land in 1854. They had three sons and two daughters with them.
James Purcell was variously a police constable and farmer in the Macquarie Plains area slightly north of Hobart. More children, including William, were born in the colony.
One son, Eaton Stannard Purcell (b 1845) moved to Victoria about 1861 and was subsequently followed by William and at least one other sibling. They eventually settled in and around Yea.
Eaton Stannard Purcell was the more prominent local identity in the family. He owned E S Purcell & Co, in which William was a manager, and was active in local affairs. Eaton was also distinguished by having a son Frederick a career soldier who had served with distinction in the South African (Boer) War and the army.
William and his wife Emina (daughter of farmer William Thomas and Elizabeth Richards) had six children in the decade from 1887 to 1897: Annie (b 1887), William Clive (b 1889) — known as Clive, Eaton Austin Stannard (b 1891), James Osmond (b 1893) known as Jim, Flora Mary (b 1894; died age 11) and Sarah Clark (b 1896). Little is known of their education or upbringing, except the boys pre-war compulsory training – James in the naval cadets and Clive in the senior cadets.
In late 1909, aged 22, Annie Purcell began training as a nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. She completed the three-year course in December 1912 and the registration requirements for the Victorian Trained Nurses Association in 1913. She spent a year on the staff of the Children’s Hospital, much of it in charge of wards. Purcell also had experience in private nursing, probably in 1914-15.
Australia joined the hostilities in August 1914. Annie Purcell joined the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in May 1915. She was the third member of her immediate family to enlist. Youngest brother James had enlisted in February, followed by Clive in April. Both were assigned to the 23rd Battalion, which had been raised in Victoria to provide reinforcements for the Gallipoli campaign. The brothers left Melbourne for Egypt on 10 May.
Ten days later Annie signed the enrolment form for the AANS. She embarked with a group of nurses to reinforce 1 Australian General Hospital on 17 June 1915. Among them was Muriel Thompson, a friend and fellow parishioner of St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill.
By mid July, the three Purcell siblings were in Egypt. The 23rd Battalion spent weeks training in camp before embarking on 30 August for the Gallipoli peninsula. The brothers met up with their sister for what would prove to be their final time together. Writing home ‘on the blue waters of the Mediterranean’ en route to ‘the firing line in Gallipoli’, the brothers told their mother of their last Sunday afternoon in Egypt with their sister. She was, they said, ‘a picture of health and happiness, and … very enthusiastic about everything about the great struggle’.
The 23rd Battalion endured severe Turkish fire at Lone Pine and Browns Dip for weeks, and James was killed in action on 6 November 1915. Clive wrote to Annie, ‘poor dear Jim, who was more than a brother to me, was killed by a bomb on Saturday evening inst. at about 7 o’clock … killed almost instantly … God alone knows how I miss him’
Clive was evacuated with the Australian forces in December 1915. After three months in Egypt, during which time he would have met Annie again and certainly corresponded with her, he was sent to France. Despite a chequered disciplinary history, he survived the slaughter on the Western Front. He and Annie met several times again in Egypt and Europe during the war.
Annie’s service record has little detail her period in Egypt. While sent as reinforcements for 1 AGH, the nurses were rotated around the various Australian and British hospitals in Cairo according to need.
No 1AGH was located in the magnificent Heliopolis Palace Hotel, and had been in operation since April. Within months, the sheer force of numbers of sick and wounded troops from the Gallipoli peninsula necessitated use of auxiliary sites, including Luna Park, the racecourse casino and a sporting club. Nurses were housed in Prince Ibrahim Khalim’s Palace and Gordon House (Jan Bassett). By September there were about 230 AANS members at 1AGH. Purcell’s time there coincided with the ‘bitter battle’ between Matron Jane Bell and the hospital’s commanding officer, Lt Col Ramsay Smith (Jan Bassett).
According to the sparse details in Purcell’s service record, in March 1916 she was stricken with influenza, described as mild in severity but serious enough to notify her next of kin in Australia. She appears to have been nursing at No 4 Australian Auxiliary Hospital when she became ill. Located in the Napoleonic military barracks at Abbassia, 4AAH treated infectious diseases such as measles, mumps, cerebral meningitis and scarlet fever. Such diseases, potentially serious and even fatal, were rife among the troops in the crowded and unhygienic conditions at the front and in camps. She also nursed at Choubra Infectious Diseases Hospital, just outside Cairo.
In March 1916, Purcell returned to Australia on transport duty. She was run down in health, still grieving her brother James and deeply concerned about her mother. For all the dangers of enemy attack at sea, transport duty was a mechanism for providing respite and a return to Australia. She arrived in Melbourne on the Demosthenes on 19 April 1916, with a shipload of wounded and invalided officers and men repatriated back to Australia.
Purcell spent three and a half months in Melbourne, undoubtedly reconnecting with her mother and other siblings. During this time she nursed at the No 5 Australian General Hospital on St Kilda Rd.
On 1 August, Purcell embarked for overseas again, this time on the Militiades, which was carrying reinforcements for the Western Front. She arrived in England on 26 September and was quickly attached to No 2 Australian Auxiliary Hospital Southall. Located in two schools, 2AAH had started as a clearing hospital but quickly specialised in fitting artificial limbs, mainly legs. With nearly 500 beds it was busy, admitting nearly 9000 patients and performing 600 operations in its first year (2AAH, War Diary, AWM).
After two months at 2AAH, Purcell was transferred to 14AGH in Egypt. No 14AGH has replaced 3AGH in Abbassia near Cairo, as many hospital units in Egypt relocated to the main fighting arena on the Western Front. Its nursing staff comprised Matron Rose Creal and 29 sisters and staff nurses (14 AGH, War Diary, AWM). The hospital functioned in part as a clearing hospital, the number of patients rising with military activity and falling as patients returned to their units or were boarded back to Australia. The nurses’ accommodation was comfortable and few succumbed to illness despite the very trying heat.
Two months later, in January 1917, Purcell returned to Australia again on transport duty, with sick and wounded troops repatriated from Egypt.
It was a year before Purcell returned overseas again. Her service record, concerned only with her periods of active service abroad, has no details, but it can be assumed that she continued nursing on ‘home service’, looking after repatriated officers and men in 5AGH (St Kilda Rd) and/or 11 AGH (Caulfield).
On 28 February 1918, Purcell left Australia for the third time, now attached to the No 8 Sea Transport Section. The Sea Transport sections comprised a medical officer, matron and six sisters and staff nurses (AG Butler). Sea Transport Sections were raised in Australia and made round trips to England, nursing troops for the front as required on the way there and caring for repatriated sick and wounded troops on the return voyage. In between, the staff were posted temporarily to one of the Australian Auxiliary Hospitals, where the repatriations were organised. While by 1918 the work was not necessarily onerous, it could be dangerous with the fear of attacks by enemy ships and submarines persistent. Sick and wounded, nurses and medical officers had been lost at sea on transport duty.
Purcell reached England after seven weeks at sea on 20 April 1918. She was attached for duty at 2AAH at Southall while the return voyage was being organised. Three weeks after arriving, she sailed again for Australia on the Gaika, arriving in July.
Her last voyage was on the Wyreema, a coastal steamer abruptly requisitioned by the Australian Government to the chagrin of North Queenslanders who protested at lost services (Brisbane Courier, 4.10.1918 p 8). There were 700 troops and 46 nurses aboard, most of the latter intended as reinforcements for hospitals in Salonika. The ship and its contingent left Sydney with great fanfare, perhaps a sign of optimism that hostilities would shortly cease (Sydney Morning Herald, 15.10.18, p 6). (Two other East Melbourne connected nurses, Edith Cecil and Erica Edgcumbe, were also aboard.)
The magazine from part of the voyage survives, The Wyreemian : the magazine of the ship’s company of H.M.A.T. Wyreema, Nov. 7th, 1918 (NLA, accessed online). A compilation of serious, poignant and funny pieces, it conveys something of the ship’s diverse company and a myriad of activities on board including boat drill, boxing competitions, concerts and a topical debate (‘Terms of Peace as Embodied in President Wilson’s 14 Points’). In a reflective piece entitled ‘Why we came late’, an anonymous contributor considered an unspoken accusation that they were latecomers to a conflict now on the verge of ending. From the ages of the men aboard (predominantly under 20 or middle aged family men), he concluded they were by no means lacking in patriotism: ’95 per cent of those here have come at the earliest possible moment that could be managed’ (Wyreemian, p12).
There were several brief references to the nurses. Their presence had a positive effect, the commanding officer enthused, contributing to the voyage being a ‘a cheerful one’ (Wyreemian, p2).
The Wyreemian was printed in Capetown, ‘the first suitable port of call’. Ingenious methods may have been used as officially, Capetown was off limits to troops landing because of the influenza epidemic. Presumably supplies were loaded and some business conducted.
The ship returned to Australia and reached Albany, WA in mid December. Some of the nurses aboard were posted to care for influenza-stricken troops at Woodman’s Point. After a period of quarantine, Wyreema sailed on to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney where the troops and passengers disembarked at their respective ports.
Annie Purcell disembarked on 21 December 1918, and was discharged from the AANS from 4 January 1919.
After the War
Annie Purcell was discharged from the AANS in Melbourne on 4 January 1919. Her surviving brother in the AIF, Clive, returned on the troopship Kashmir the following April. Their returns were noted in the St Peter’s Eastern Hill magazine Ecclesia (Ecclesia, 1.1.1919)
Unlike many AANS members who returned to Australia and spent the remainder of their professional lives nursing sick and wounded men in repatriation hospitals, Purcell looked elsewhere for permanent work. She was briefly a ward sister at 11 Australian General Hospital (Caulfield Military Hospital) but she was ready to travel and nurse overseas again (Mercury, 5.3.1941, 4). Towards the end of 1920, she headed for India to work with the South Indian Nursing Association and the Lady Ampthill Nursing Service in Madras (Chennai). The Edith Cavell Trust Fund provided £15 towards her expenses (Purcell, Annie, Application, Edith Cavell Trust Fund, Box M291 [NAA]). This was not missionary work among the poor but nursing the British colonial rulers and wealthy Indians. Something of her character can be seen in the impact she made on the Prince of Wales on his visit to Madras: she
was at once recognised by him as a nurse whom he had greeted at the Caulfield Military Hospital. Some people have the knack of making an impression on their fellows (Ecclesia, 1.7.1922)
Purcell had been one of the 800 patients and medical staff whose hands he shook on his visit to the hospital in May 1920 (Age, 1.6.1920, p8).
Purcell returned to Victoria in 1922 and moved into the burgeoning field of infant health. She was sister at the Camberwell Baby Health Centre in 1923, but in 1924 embarked on midwifery training at the Launceston General Hospital, drawn there perhaps by the hospital’s reputation and Purcell family connections. Nurses were not paid during this training, and the Edith Cavell Trust Fund granted her £15 (Purcell, Annie, Application, Edith Cavell Trust Fund, Box M291 [NAA]). She returned to become a formidable force in the Victorian baby health movement.
Purcell was appointed matron of the Victorian Baby Health Training Centre in South Melbourne (later in Camberwell), in charge of 120 nurses in Melbourne and 50 in country areas. She threw herself into the work with passion. She did further training in Sydney, met Dr Truby King (regarded as the leader in the field), lobbied determinedly for the cause, gave innumerable talks to mothers of new babies and dispensed advise on every imaginable aspect of baby care through newspaper columns and on local radio.
In 1929 Purcell resigned. A local paper noted that, notwithstanding her extraordinary contribution, good may come of her departure: ‘There is always a danger that a very efficient executive officer may lead to a condition of too great dependence on him or her …’ (Record, 21.9.1929, p6). Contrary to rumours she was going to do missionary work in India, she became a partner in the Ulverston Private Hospital in Brighton (Melbourne), a venture that was part residential mothercraft home and part private baby health centre (Argus, 15.10.1929, p10). The timing was disastrous, the depression cutting a swathe through any prospect of financial success for the hospital. Three times in less than a year (February 1930 to January 1931) she again turned to the Edith Cavell Trust Fund because of debts in connection with the facility. The Fund granted her £55.
Purcell moved to the relatively secure position as matron of the junior school of prestigious Geelong Grammar (UNA, XXX(6), 1.6.1932, p170) where she spent much of the 1930s. Health problems began to dog her – a bout of diphtheria in 1934, hypertension in 1936 and 1938, labyrinthitis in 1940. Again the Edith Cavell Trust Fund provided her with some assistance.
In 1938 she gave a stirring address to the Tasmanian maternal welfare conference in Burnie, Tasmania (Advocate, 9.9.1938, p6). Billed as Sister Purcell from the Child Welfare Association in Victoria, she reflected on the progress, challenges and strategies adopted by the Victorian movement over two decades. It was a striking analysis and, as usual, full of tips for the Tasmanian audience: educate all mothers, co-operate completely with the medical profession and lobby the government.
In 1939, she took leave from Geelong Grammar, returning to Tasmania for six months to restructure the Church of England home for children in Hobart, Claremont – not only an important but also an ‘arduous duty’ (UNA, XXXVII, 1.4.1939, p115).
Late the following year, 1940, she was appointed matron/housekeeper of the Friends’ School in Hobart.
Annie Purcell died unexpectedly at the School on Sunday, 2 March 1941 (Mercury, 5 March 1941, p4). She was buried with military ceremonial in the Cornelian Bay Cemetery.
Both Annie and Clive died relatively young and suddenly. Annie in 1941 at age 54 and Clive in 1948 at age 59 both of heart failure. Annie never married nor to my knowledge had any male attachment. This does not mean she was a lesbian. For her era, nursing was one of the few respectable professions available to women. Had she married, she would have had to give up her professional life. Annie had an excellent professional life and a good life. She was perhaps at risk of disease and other illnesses during the Great War because of nursing sick soldiers. She had a life-threatening bout of influenza in 1916, but otherwise did not suffer other afflictions during the war or in the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic (nor did Clive).
I suspect her two years at Madras in India from 1920 to 1922 were a very pleasant and sociable break after the war. I have read accounts of India in the upper levels of society in the 1920s and I am sure that Annie with her outgoing personality enjoyed the experience. Back in Australia her dedication to mothercraft and baby health provided an excellent and passionate career for her, in which she excelled. The beginning of the great depression caused a major stumble, but did not hold her back for long. She is a relative of whom I am proud, even though she died before I was born.
Coincidentally, we shared our weekly gym experiences with Rodanthe Lipsett (1922-2019) in the last decade of her life. Rodanthe’s career trajectory was very similar to that of Annie Purcell though beginning over twenty years later. Rodanthe was a similarly passionate advocate for midwifery and better baby care in the first months of life. She received recognition of her achievements in the field including an Order of Australia in 1992 and an honorary doctorate in her 90s. Had Annie Purcell lived longer she might have received similar awards and had more recognition for her work.
Although this is primarily Janet Scarfe’s work, any added recognition this article might give to Annie is my tribute to her.
Key Words: Annie Purcell, Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell, William Clive Purcell, Clive Purcell, James Osmond Purcell, Yea, E S Purcell & Co, Our Mothers, Robbie Henderson, St Peter’s Eastern Hill, East Melbourne, World War I, Great War, AIF, Australian Army Nursing Service, AANS, Egypt, 23rd Battalion AIF, Gallipoli, Lone Pine, Browns Dip, 1AGH, Heliopolis Palace Hotel, Matron Jane Bell, Lt Col Ramsay Smith, France, Western Front, Demosthenes, Militiades, Gaika, Wyreema, Matron Rose Creal, Edith Cecil, Erica Edgcumbe, Kashmir, South Indian Nursing Association, Lady Ampthill Nursing Service, Madras, The Edith Cavell Trust, Camberwell Baby Health Centre, Launceston General Hospital, Victorian baby health movement, Victorian Baby Health Training Centre, Dr Truby King, Ulverston Private Hospital, Geelong Grammar, Child Welfare Association Victoria, Church of England home for children Hobart, Friends’ School Hobart, Rodanthe Lipsett
Janet Scarfe Biographical Notes: Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell (1887-1941) East Melbourne Historical Society.
Harvey Blanks, The Story of Yea: A 150 Year History of the Shire, 1993, p92; Yea Chronicle, 23.4.1914, p3 (moving to Yea); Yea Chronicle, 4.11.1915, p3 (parting of the 3 siblings in Cairo).
WWI Service Records
Anne Purcell, Service Record, National Archives of Australia (NAA) (nursing record 1914-15)
James Purcell, Service Record, NAA.
William Clive Purcell, Service Record, NAA.
These and the records of all WWI personnel are available online from the National Archives of Australia. To download a complete record is not immediately obvious. Go to View Digital Record and click on the page/arrow symbol at the bottom of the page on the right to get a PDF.
Clive’s Letters donated by the family to the Australian War Memorial: Purcell Papers, PR84/096
Jan Bassett, Guns and Brooches, Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War, 1992, (p.34ff; p.37ff)
AG Butler, Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914-1918, Vol III, Ch 14, ‘Sea Transport of Australian Soldiers’
References to newspaper articles and some other material left in text.
Wikipedia on Rodanthe Lipsett
No ‘One Right Way’ – a handbook for parents. Nurturing your baby in the first three months of life, Sea Change Publishing, Sydney 2004.
Baby Care: Nurturing your baby your way, Finch Publishing, Lane Cove, 2012.
The two books are virtually the same: an update. Both have had immense success. Denise over the time we knew Rodanthe bought copies for every friend she knew was pregnant. Several of them found the book a lifesaver.
posted in Canberra, hopefully at the end of the Omicron surge