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.
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