Swinging the Lead

In the lead-up to Christmas 1917 Annie Wheeler had a breakdown.  She had been unwell in July and this was similar but lasted much longer.  When she recovered she told Mary Trotman, her Rockhampton Deputy, she had been “swinging the lead”, a military term for malingering. But Annie was no malingerer. The responsibility of looking after so many boys had taken a toll on her health and she was forced to spend five weeks in Eastbourne with her sister-in-law, recuperating and resting.  Since October, the number of boys on their books had increased from 900 to over 1500 amazing Annie’s daughter, Portia, at how immense and suddenly the operation had grown.  But demand for their services was now so great they had to limit their reach and Portia requested Mary Trotman publish a note in the local Queensland papers explaining they could only accept money, parcels and letters for boys from central and western Queensland.

Christmas was particularly busy because families wanted to send parcels to their boys.  The unreliability of the postal service meant most families sent mail and parcels via Annie who had much greater success in tracking the intended recipient.  Annie requested parcels weigh less than seven pounds because heavy parcels were difficult and expensive to forward.  As an iced Christmas cake often weighed slightly more than seven pounds families transferred money to Annie so she could buy Christmas parcels in England.  But in 1917 this created more problems for Annie, and with Annie out of action, Portia, because most food was terribly scarce.  It was impossible for civilians to buy even enough for their own consumption.  Butter and margarine was impossible to buy and meat was dreadfully expensive.  As the army canteens were stocked with luxuries that civilians couldn’t buy at any price Portia solved the problem by sending the cash to the boys explaining the purpose of the money and who it was from.  What Portia needed for her parcels were socks and lots of them.  The demand for socks, scarves and helmets over winter was tremendous and everything the women of central Queensland could knit was sent to a grateful soldier.

Portia’s management of the operation during Annie’s illness was exemplary.  When Annie returned in mid-January she told Mary Trotman, “Portia has got the work on a more businesslike footing than when I had it, and it ought to be easier to manage”.  During Annie’s absence Portia used a large donation from Mrs Donaldson to rent two additional rooms in the building they lived, Westminster Gardens, to be used as offices.  The staff moved all the work out of their personal residence and into the offices.  Portia also hired more staff; Peggy Sugden, her father was a doctor in Bundaberg, was taken on permanently.   Portia also transferred all their records from journals to the index card system and ensured it was kept up to date.  Each soldier had his own index card with his details on the front and their family’s details on the back.  By the end of the war there were more than 2300 boys on their books, 2300 cards crammed inside three red boxes.  Portia’s diligence preserved the index boxes and all the stories they contain.  One hundred years later these boxes are in the State Library of Queensland.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove.

Annie’s collection of letters and papers and the red index boxes are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection.


Moving Day

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were on the move again.

They’d started their operation in Eastbourne but by May 1915 the commute to London was too time consuming.  When they stayed for short periods at the Strand Hotel in Westminster they achieved so much more and decided to move closer to London.   A lovely house in the new suburb of Pollard Hill, just opposite a large recreation ground and looking out towards Epsom Downs, worked for a short time but as the number of soldiers arriving from Australia increased and the wounded flooded hospitals in London, Annie and Portia’s daily workload grew.

Next stop, a boarding house owned by a Brisbane woman at Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park.  Initially the residence was ideal and the short bus ride to AIF Headquarters on Horseferry Road made the work manageable.  But by February 1917 when Annie was receiving 65 letters from soldiers each week, in addition to letters, cables and parcels from home, all needing to be actioned in some way, travelling back and forth from Lancaster Gate, sometimes several times a day, was inefficient.

When a flat became available at Westminster Gardens, Artillery Row, just off Victoria Street Annie was delighted.  She wrote to Mary Stewart Trotman on the 22nd February telling her “we are moving tomorrow into a flat in Victoria Street.  It will be much nearer Headquarters, Anzac Buffet, the Red Cross and the cable office and of course nearer for the boys.  They have been very good in coming out so far to see us.”

Annie’s typical day at the end of February 1917 centred around these organisations.

Annie received a letter from Stephen Joyce, a prisoner of war in Germany, requesting a uniform from the Red Cross.  Annie went to see “Miss Chomley, she looks after the prisoner of war department and Corporal Joyce’s uniform has been sent.”

Mary Trotman cabled Annie wanting information about Sergeant J McDonald.  His family had been told he was wounded but didn’t know what hospital he was in.  Annie found his number was entered wrongly in the hospital records and had to go to headquarters to sort it out.  She found him at Wisbech V.A.D Hospital and sent him a letter.

Private Case had been hospitalised and asked Annie to find his brother.  “On inquiring at headquarters, I found that Private Reginald Case disembarked at Plymouth in 10th January and is now at Codford.”

The Anzac Buffet (see my previous post  Annie’s Little Dug-Out ) was a major meeting place.  On February 22nd Annie and Portia saw Max Turnbull, Private Moore and Jack Atherton and could report on their movements.

Parcels of socks and gloves also arrived from home and Annie was busy sending them to the boys of the front.  February was bitterly cold and many were suffering from trench feet and frost bite.  The boys rarely complained, instead telling Annie about the upside of the cold weather.  “The shell-holes and pools are frozen and they have been skating.  The nails and clouts in their boots act as skates.”

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

Annie’s Little Dug-Out

At the beginning of February 1917, 9 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park was Annie Wheeler’s “little dug-out”.  Annie and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Portia, moved to Lancaster Gate in May 1916.  Central Queenslander soldiers passed on her address and visited Annie and Portia when they were in London on leave or recuperating.  Fred Fox was there almost every day when he was on leave in January 1917 (see December 16th post, December 1916 – Portia falls in love). It was bitterly cold at the end of January, beginning of February 1917.  Thick snow stayed frozen on the ground for several days and the coal shortage was so bad even the coal-dust in the cellars was diligently scraped and burnt.  At night the Lancaster Gate residents piled blankets, eiderdowns, rugs off the floor then coats on top of their beds to get a comfortable night’s sleep.  They told themselves not to grumble; imagine how much worse it was for the boys in the trenches.

As cold as it was, there was one upside.  Skating.  The Serpentine and the Round Pond at Kensington Gardens were frozen solid and skating was in full swing.  Portia taught Fred to skate; a pastime impossible to do or even imagine in Rockhampton, a city winter rarely visited.  Portia had finished her education in England and loved skating and the half-hour walk to Kensington Gardens followed by slipping, sliding and falling on the ice was the perfect way to forget about the war, laugh and get to know each other.

Several other Queenslanders also lived at 9 Lancaster Gate; Belle Glasgow stayed when she arrived in London in 1916 to be closer to her husband, Brigadier General William Glasgow (see January 4th post, January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow). The residence, a boarding house owned by a Brisbane woman Mrs Grimley, was quite near Hyde Park and only about two minutes’ walk to the bus which took Annie and Portia to Horseferry Road and the AIF military offices.  Annie moved to London to be close to the AIF because of the frustration she experienced trying to gather information about her boys using mail and telephone.  She wanted to be able to talk to a person face-to-face and receive an immediate response.  She was a regular visitor to Horseferry Road and the photo at the top of this post was taken in the AIF offices.  While the women in the photo aren’t Annie and Portia this is the office they visited.

Horseferry Road had also been home to the Anzac Buffet where other Australians living at Lancaster Gate worked.  The Anzac Buffet or the Buffet as it was known was established by the London branch of the Australian Natives Association, a group of ex-pats, and was opened in 1915 to provide free meals and entertainment to Australian servicemen in London.  In 1916 it was relocated around the corner to Victoria Street because the AIF said they needed the space, however Annie and the women who volunteered at the Buffet felt it was because the military didn’t want competition for their newly established Australian Soldiers’ Club which charged for meals and other comforts.  The Buffet was open seven days a week from 6am – 10.30pm and as well as providing meals there were rooms kitted out for billiards, reading and music.  Annie and Portia were regular volunteers at the Buffet and dropped in at least once a day even if they weren’t working, to see who was there and stay in touch with their network of central Queensland soldiers.

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s wartime letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove. trove.nla.gov.au

Belle Glasgow’s wartime letters to her daughters Joan and Beth have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available on their website. slq.qld.gov.au

The Australian War Memorial for more pictures and information about the AIF offices and the ANZAC Buffet. awm.gov.au

No ringing in the 1917 new year

The mood in London was sombre as the new year approached.  No grand public celebrations were planned, indeed ‘no bells were rung, no sirens sounded on the river, no cheering.  Few wishes were exchanged.  The few that were took the form of “a happier year” or “a better year”.[1] There is no mention of new year celebrations in Annie Wheeler’s or her daughter Portia’s letters.  It is business as usual; visiting injured soldiers, writing to families, sending parcels, hassling the war office for information about missing soldiers, volunteering at the Anzac Buffet and raising money to fund their work.

The new year was business as usual for the soldiers too; the job of killing Germans and being killed continued. Soldiers who had witnessed the horrors of the Somme and Verdun were no longer the romantics who had signed up for king and country but hardened veterans who ridiculed patriotic talk and were more likely to despise their incompetent commanders than the Germans they fought.  Paul Ham, in his new book on the battle of Passchendaele, describes soldiers marking the 1917 new year by singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ but changing the lyrics to reflect their state of mind.

‘We’re here because we’re here,

Because we’re here, because we’re here

We’re here because we’re here

because we’re here because we’re here’[2]

The English public was also unable to escape the realities of a war entering its third year.  Badly wounded and disfigured men filled the streets of London and these men, scarred and missing limbs, were the lucky ones as the number of dead and those languishing in  hospitals continued to climb.

At the end of December 1916 Annie wrote “At last I have found Don and Calder Mowat.  The former is at Brankesmere Hospital, Southsea and Calder is at the Third Western General Hospital, Cardiff.  Don is suffering from trench feet but is able to get out sometimes in a bath chair.” Don’s feet were so bad he wasn’t able to re-join his unit until April 1917.  He suffered gunshot wounds in 1917 and again in 1918 and then re-fractured his arm in a fall.  This injury precipitated an inquiry as there was some doubt as to whether it was caused by an accident or self-inflicted.  The inquiry concluded it was accidental and Don survived the war.  His younger brother Calder did not survive.  Calder was killed in action in France in April 1918.  He was only 21.

Annie had also been looking for George Phillips and on the 29th December 1916 received a letter from his brother, Arthur, telling her George was in Southmead Hospital, Bristol.  George who was only 19 when he enlisted was wounded at Gallipoli and caught rheumatic fever, from which he never really recovered.  He was discharged as medically unfit citing shell shock and rheumatic fever.  His older brother Arthur also suffered shell shock after being wounded in action in France.  Not long before he wrote to Annie he went AWOL for several days and when he returned he was fined ten days pay.  Reading their files (digital copies are available on the NAA website) it is clear both brothers were deeply traumatised by their experiences and spent the war in and out of hospital.  Neither brother married.

Further Reading 

Ham, P. (2016). Passchendaele – Requiem for Doomed Youth. Sydney: William Heinemann.

White, J. (2014). Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War. London: Vintage Books.



[1] (White, 2014)

[2] (Ham, 2016)

December 1916 – Miss Kitty Moir visits Annie and Portia.

“Where am I to begin to tell you about everything that has taken place since I wrote last? Kitty Moir was writing to her mother Mrs T. Moir not long after arriving at Girton College Cambridge in 1916.  The letter was published in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin in January 1917 and is available on Trove.  The city of Rockhampton was very proud of Kitty and the newspaper had written many stories about her academic successes over the years.  Kitty was the first Rockhampton woman to be awarded a Masters of Arts by the University of Sydney and the first Australian woman to graduate with first-class honours and receive the University medal for modern languages.  Kitty then became the first woman to win the James King Travelling Scholarship and in 1917 began her studies at Cambridge.

When Kitty arrived at Plymouth from Australia there was a letter from Annie Wheeler – Annie would meet her at Paddington Station in London.  Kitty had a little trouble clearing customs because of a tin of wattle Mary Trotman had sent Annie.  When they opened the tin the wattle had gone mouldy and Kitty begged to let it through.  She must have realised how much it would mean to Annie.  When Annie wrote to Mary she told her “it was with sorrow I have to tell you the wattle and bottle brush was all mildewed when it arrived; but I was able to get two or three little sprays out of the centre.”  She went on to say she had “no words to express her gratitude to the dear people who gathered it and packed it.  Home seemed very near to me when I saw it.”

When Kitty arrived at Paddington Station it was almost nine o’clock at night and the station was so crowded she didn’t think she would be able to find Annie Wheeler but as she was waiting for her luggage Annie found her and took her in the waiting cab to Lancaster Gate.  After a welcome night sleep in a comfortable bed on dry land Annie wasted no time and took Kitty to meet Sir Thomas Robinson, the Queensland Agent General who told her to consider him her “English Godfather”.  Annie helped Kitty set up her bank account and transfer the money she would need for university.

Everything in London was new to Kitty and she found the underground so different and the London buses wonderful.  She was struck by the fact they were two storied and you had to climb the stairs while they were moving and was even more struck by the fact they have girls as conductors.  She enjoyed being in London and seeing Annie’s work and was there when a number of soldiers stopped by to visit.  Kitty told her mother “Now that I have seen the grand work that Mrs Wheeler does, I do not feel that people have been nearly grateful enough to her.”

A few days later when it was time to leave for Girton College, Portia took Kitty to the station in a taxi because Annie had a meeting at the Agent General’s office.  The Christmas work was not yet done.

December 1916 – Portia falls in love.

In December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were busy seeing the many Queensland soldiers who were on leave or furlough in London. Their letters are filled with the names of soldiers they’ve seen. “Wilfred McLaughlin had lunch with us the same day.  He is on furlough.  Bill Orrock was here last week.  Jack Atherton came on his way to flying school. Noel Trotman came down from Grantham for four days leave.  He had tea and dinner with us today.”

In the middle of December Fred Fox came in and had tea with them. For Portia, something about Fred set him apart from the other soldiers; her heart quickened and butterflies filled her stomach.

Fred joined the army on the 4th September 1914 and on the morning of the 25th April 1915 was one of the first to step onto the beach at Gallipoli.  He was part of all the Australian efforts there until he was hospitalised on Lemnos with fever a few weeks before the evacuation.   Fred’s brother Norman was also at Gallipoli and they were sent to different parts of Egypt at the end of 1915.  Norman was badly wounded in a training exercise and Fred desperately wanted to see him.  Denied leave, Fred talked to his superiors and they agreed to turn a blind eye to his absence.  According to his son Norman (presumably named after his brother) who has written an extensive family history available online,  (www.foxfamilyhistory.com) Fred walked for a night and day across the desert but was unable to reach Norman before he died.

Fred’s son believed Portia and Fred met during the war, probably earlier in 1916.  Annie first mentions Fred in a letter to Mary Trotman which was published in the “Capricornian” in June 1916.  Apparently Annie had had a letter from H.J. Wallace.  “He said he had seen Fred Fox so we know he is in France, and we hope to see Fred and Peter Stuart soon.”  Between June and September 1916, Fred was with the 49th Battalion in France.  The Battalion “moved into the trenches of the Western Front for the first time on 21 June. It fought in its first major battle at Mouquet Farm in August and suffered heavily, particularly in the assault launched on 3 September”(awm.gov.au/unit/U51489/).  On 23 September Fred was sent back to England for further training.

By Christmas 1916 Fred had been part of the horrors of Gallipoli and Pozieres.  The official war correspondent Charles Bean was also at Mouquet Farm and in his official history describes “the flayed land, shell–hole bordering shell–hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell–holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured” (ww1westernfront.gov.au/pozieres-windmill/aif-memorial-mouquet-farm/mouquet-farm.php).

Fred had seen all this and it was this man Portia was falling in love with. After the war Portia and Fred married and Annie walked her daughter down the aisle.






7 December 1916

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.