teacher and nurse
We are grateful to Myrtle Edward’s great nieces for access to these letters written by a Western Australian teacher and volunteer nurse at a British military hospital during WW1. Myrtle’s earliest letters reveal her excitement serving in a hospital, her yearning for home and family at Christmas, her impish humour, her love for her soldier ‘Jock’ and the grief, shared by women across the world, when the fateful message arrives that he is dead. The joy is gone from her letters and all she wants now is to come home.
Myrtle Edwards returned to the classroom and a generation of students, drawn from Claremont, Cottesloe, Peppermint Grove and Mosman Park, attended Claremont High School in Bay View Terrace where, for twenty-eight years, she was the senior female teacher.
Myrtle was born in Queensland on 27th December 1888, one of five children to Charles and Margaret Edwards. The family resided at 87 Lewington St Lamington, Kalgoorlie in 1905 when Myrtle entered the Education Department as a teaching monitor at a Kalgoorlie school. Four years later, she enrolled at Claremont Teacher’s College where she was described by Principal William Rooney as, ‘A very good type. Believe she could manage a large class in a big school. Earnest as a student, vigorous and thoughtful as a teacher and should prove a capital asset in any school.’ Her first appointments were close to home; at North Kalgoorlie in 1910 and teaching at Boulder Infants in 1915 when her brother Harry was at Gallipolli. She was at South Kalgoorlie School the following year, when she was granted leave without pay until three months after the end of the war to take up nursing at military hospital in England. Grateful patients thanked her with a military badge to add to her collection. Back in Western Australia, she accepted a class at Kalgoorlie, perhaps to live at home with her family. In 1921 she was appointed first assistant at Claremont High School and continued here until her retirement in 1949.
Myrtle loved only two soldiers; one was killed in action and the other died of cholera. ‘Myrt’ passed away on 10 August 1976 and amongst her possessions was a collection of military service badges and a memorial medallion, referred to as the dead man’s penny, engraved with the name, William Rutherford Douglas. The medallion would have been sent to his mother who passed it on t for her to remember Jock forever. His name was not found on the Australian War Memorial Honour Roll so he may have served in the British Army. Myrtle Edwards never married.
Myrtle’s great niece Susan Kelsey wrote that, ‘Myrt trained with the St John’s Ambulance Brigade in Australia (Kalgoorlie, I think). In 1916 she travelled third class on the RMS Osterley, leaving Fremantle in October (1916) stopping at Durban and Cape Town and arriving at Tilbury Docks, London on 10th November. She travelled to U.K. on the same boat as a group of Red Cross trained young women, but she didn’t mix with them on the voyage because they were travelling second class. She was not met on arrival as she expected and her luggage was lost when she took the train to Fenchurch Street which meant she could not check into the hotel she was supposed to. She traced her luggage to St Pancras Station and on 15 November returned to London to collect it. After much confusion, she was assigned to the Royal Herbert Hospital, Woolwich and stayed at Government House. The Royal Herbert was a military hospital and Myrtle wrote home, ‘It’s quite unusual for a girl with no training to come to the Royal Herbert; most of the girls have their stripes for 13 months service, so I’m fortunate.’ She and her fellow nurses were all trying to get posted to the front-line. At the Royal Herbert she was known by her fellow nurses as ‘Teddie’, from ‘Edwards’, as they were all addressed by their surnames. Myrtle returned to Australia on the S.S. Miltiades in 1919.
The following letters to her parents were previously published in Neville Green, Western Australian Teachers of World War 1 1914-1918 (2009, pp. 62-67)
24 December 1916.
‘Dear Mother and Dad, I can only write a little. I am very tired and besides I only have this sheet of paper and as my ‘stable companion’ is out on her half day I can’t borrow hers. We have had a trying few days just past – in fact all the week. There is so much to do for Xmas – our ward looks really lovely. All our lights are done with red paper lamp shades and the ward is done with holly, mistletoe and other greens. When we get our flowers and Pot plants in tomorrow it will be just sweet. I do wish you could have a peep. I feel so terribly aching for home tonight. I would like to have a cry – I nearly did when we all sang hymns in the ward tonight. I went and stood next to the bed of the only Australian in the ward. Poor chap he also is ‘pippy’ and that made me be braver. I would just love to run home for tonight and tomorrow and back here for Boxing Day. I wonder what you are all doing – probably getting up and about at this exact time (but I don’t know whether it is today or tomorrow there, Dad. We never decided that.) I suppose Saturday night you all went to town and tonight you went to church. Tomorrow, Xmas night, Ivy and Jack will be up to tea and little Jack and you will all be there. Will Harry be there too? And you will all have cold fowl and ham and salad (lettuce and fruit) and cake galore and a beautiful sandwich. Tomorrow, the 25th, we don’t even come to quarters for meals. We eat scrap meals in the ward bunk (little room, half office half dressing room for sisters and nurses). Our housekeeper is going to make sandwiches and then bring them to the Hospital and round the wards. We are to have a big dinner at quarters on the night of 26th. Our time on Xmas and Boxing Day is to be quite given up to the men. Poor beggars, they deserve it. Goodnight now all of you. I shall think of you every moment tomorrow. I’m such a long, long way away for just this time. I wish you all a very very Merry Xmas and a brighter and more prosperous New Year. Kiss Marjie for me and little Jack. Goodnight to you all and sweet be your sleep. From your lonely daughter, Myrtle.
21 February 1917
Collins, one of our patients, must have a bit of money I think, although he is a private. Anyway he has a beautiful six-cylinder Buick car; it’s not here worse luck. Yesterday afternoon he had been out and came back at 4 and presented me with a little doll about 3 inches high, thought I might like something to nurse when he had gone. I laughed. He’s only got an abscess on his wrist and is quite healthy otherwise. Then I caught sight of a camera on his locker and said ‘Oh Collins is that a new camera?’ He said ‘yes’, pulled the trigger and out flew a yellow snake about 12 inches long. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. For the next hour he followed me about begging for it. He waited on me and helped me in everything I did. He even helped me carry the bowls for the bed patients to wash themselves, a job the men don’t like much. I persisted in the fact that I had drowned the beastie in the bathroom and thrown it into the refuse buckets. He went and turned the rubbish out to look for it. Before I went off duty I put the thing in the bottom of his bed, and told Sister the joke. He finally tried to bribe me by saying he’d give me the whole lot tomorrow, if I’d only let him have the snake for a joke with the boys. Of course he found it when he got into bed and I believe had a good joke with the night orderly. This morning he confessed that I had got my own back.
8 September 1917
From right now I’m out after happiness in life and I’m going to have it, fully and absolutely. If I don’t get it, I’m not going to waste time in living unhappily. After the war (magic words) if we are not all happy together, after all we’ve been through and all the unhappy separation we’ll divorce each other on ‘incompatibility of temper’. Into the bargain you’ll have me home after the war for 12 months at least and 2 years at maximum because I’m going to be married. I haven’t any idea to whom yet, but someone will turn up. I’m not telling them, but it will be the one out of three who sticks the longest. They don’t know, poor beggars, the fate that awaits them. If two stick longest it will be the one who can keep me best: if three I’ll have a harem. But one thing I’ve decided – I won’t get married till I’ve been home a while and thrown a little into the family moneybags. That’s the only thing that keeps me from having a war wedding with someone or other – I want to make up for these lean years when I haven’t helped.
25 November 1917
My dear Mother, It is an infinitely sadder daughter who writes tonight. I told you in a former letter that I had just had word that my Jock, Jock Douglas was dangerously ill. I later had word that he was still dangerously ill with cholera. On the night of the 23rd I was out, when I came to bed there was a letter from Mrs Douglas on my bed. Jock had died on November 12th – just twelve months from the time I got here. Mother it is too cruel. To think that I should come all this way to meet, know and love Jock, only to have him hurled by Fate halfway across the world again, to die there alone and in such dreadful pain as cholera. You know what his Mother will feel.
I sent you Jock’s photo. Please keep it for me. It is as precious as can be, and when I come home I shall have it. Please Mother (I always seem to be asking you not to tell our friends something, but this hurts so much) don’t let them know Jock. I will come home and no one will know this part of my life. And I don’t want letters that tell me of sympathy of friends. It’s hard but I’d hate it. You know I never was very reticent. I chatted and laughed over all my little love affairs. I told all the girls heaps about Jack Bailey and I told you all I think, about Grant the Canadian. But I never told you much about Jock. I said a bit at first but when I grew to care, our love seemed too sweet a thing to chat about. I wrote about him but not as freely as I felt I could. I wanted when I wrote of him to fill pages. I do wish I had you here. I want to put my head on someone’s lap and cry like a wee child. I had often thought of signing on here for as long as required and of having a tramp through England afterwards. The spirit of adventure was in me and I was going to see the land till Jock came for me. But now just as soon as there is peace I want home, to peace and my sunny boundless Australia.
Your broken hearted girl, Myrtle.