On the first weekend in December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were in Eastbourne having a well-earned break before starting on the Christmas work. Annie’s husband, Henry Wheeler’s family lived in Eastbourne and Annie was very friendly with her sister-in-law Portia. Henry died of complications from a horse-riding accident in 1903 and Annie and her daughter Portia were in England because Henry wanted young Portia to finish her education in England. Eastbourne was a Victorian seaside resort town in Sussex and about an hour and a half by train from Victoria Station.
When they returned to Lancaster Gate they started their Christmas work. Annie had received twenty-five letters from Queensland mothers and needed to write to each of their sons. Many of the letters asked Annie to send cakes or socks or warm vests to their sons and contained money or details about how the money would be transferred. Parcels to the front from Australia often went missing and mothers knew Annie’s parcels had a better chance of getting to the boys. Not only did Annie and Portia have to answer each of these letters but they had to buy the supplies, make and send the parcels.
On Monday 4th December 1916 Annie went to Mrs Hall’s tea party. Mrs Hall entertained eight boys from the Australian Hospital in Southall every Monday afternoon. After they had tea, sandwiches, bread, cake and homemade soda, a friend would sing, play and recite for them. Annie would ply the soldiers with questions asking who they had seen, whether they’d heard anything about so and so? Annie used this information to follow up requests from families who were desperately looking for their sons and brothers. Some hadn’t heard anything for months or in some cases years.
In Annie’s index card boxes, which are part of the State Library of Queensland collection, there is a card for Percy Augustus Hiron. Mrs Hiron wrote looking for word about her son Percy. She hadn’t heard from him and heard rumours he was shell shocked or injured. She believed she hadn’t heard from him because “he was no scholar.” There is correspondence between Mrs Hiron and the military in Percy’s war records digitised by the National Archive of Australia. Percy was wounded at some stage and did recover but perhaps more interestingly and something they didn’t tell Mrs Hiron was Percy was court-martialled and trialled in 1917. It seems he and another soldier were escorting two prisoners who escaped. Percy and the other man (Baker) were not carrying their rifles and were unable to do anything to stop the escape. Not carrying their riffles was an offence and the reason they were court-martialled. They elected to be tried together and at their trial they were acquitted and returned to their unit. Percy survived the war.
Also on this day 100 years ago Lloyd George became prime minister and in December 1916 Belle Glasgow (wife of Major General William Glasgow) who was staying at the same boarding house as Annie and Portia, wrote to her daughters, who were in Gympie, telling them London was so dirty she had to wash her hair once a week. Belle’s letters are part of the SLQ collection.