The Australian Boer War Memorial
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Sister Agnes Macready

Agnes Macready, Journalist, Nurse, War Correspondent and Political Activist

Agnes MacreadyAgnes Macready was born in Rathfriland, Northern Ireland, the eldest of five children, and migrated to New South Wales with her family in 1867, aged twelve. Her mother Jane died two years later. Macready's father, Reverend Henry Macready, was elected Moderator of the NSW Presbyterian General Assembly in 1880, however Agnes Macready converted to Catholicism as an adult. From the narrow range of occupations available to her Macready chose nursing, although she was already over 25 when she began her training at Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She subsequently worked at Melbourne Hospital and then as matron of Bowral Hospital.

Under the nom de plume 'Arrah Luen', Macready began to contribute sketches and poetry to the Catholic Press. Some of her work was reprinted in American and Irish newspapers. In late nineteenth century Australia, newspapers were male-dominated workplaces and journalism was still not regarded as a reputable profession for women. Aspiring women journalists were often forced to contribute to newspapers surreptitiously, or to adopt a pseudonym to disguise their true identity and gender. She did however contribute poetry under her own name to various journals usually about social issues

Macready was the first Australian nurse to travel to South Africa after war was declared there in October 1899, arriving even before the first contingent of Australian troops (from Australia the NSW Lancer squadron arrived from England just prior to her arrival). She departed Sydney on the SS Warrnambool just after attending her father’s funeral.

SS WarrnamboolMilitary nursing in Australia was then in its infancy (NSW was the second in the world to institute an Army Nursing Service Reserve), but many women volunteered their services immediately after the war began and were declined. Prejudice against nurses in the British Army Medical Service was still strong, and the British War Office initially intended that nurses would have only a limited role in supervising hospital orderlies, rather than nursing at field or stationary hospitals. Macready was then employed as Matron of Bowral Hospital. Determined to 'get to the seat of war as soon as possible' (Barrier Miner, 18 January, 1900), Macready paid her own way, carrying letters of support from Cardinal Moran, the Premier of NSW William Lyne, and 'the leading medical men of Sydney and Melbourne' (Catholic Press, 20 January 1900). This included Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, a Melbourne surgeon with whom she had worked. (He too would become a Boer War surgeon) She was also commissioned as a special correspondent for the Catholic Press. It should be noted that even had she waited it was unlikely that she would have been selected as only members of the NSW Army Nursing Service Reserve were selected for the official NSW Nursing contingent.

On arrival at Durban, she met with a frosty reception, officialdom enforcing the War Office dictum was not impressed and she was told clearly that her services would not be required anywhere, at any time. About to depart for Capetown she was either summoned or advised by a sympathetic official to try ‘up country’ at Pietermaritzburg. There she was immediately offered a post running a ward at Fort Napier Military Hospital

Macready's experiences in South Africa 'shattered all the romance of war' for her. She worked as a nursing sister in military hospitals in Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, Wynburg, Escourt and Pretoria, and in a camp for Boer prisoners at Simon's Town. While caring for the wounded from the battles at Colenso, Spion Kop, Pieter's Hill and Vaal Kraatz, she gained a 'glimpse of the battlefield, where no woman's face is seen' (Catholic Press, 21 April, 1900). She had contact with at least one other NSW nurse, Dora Burgess from Parramatta who took her picture on ward duty

Macready should be regarded as the first Australian woman war correspondent, although there was no official system at this time for accreditation. The widely held belief that women were fit to report war only from 'the woman's angle' was echoed by Macready, who wrote in her first article from South Africa: 'Of course I see with a woman's eyes, and my point of view is limited' (Catholic Press, 20 January 1900). Despite this disclaimer, Macready does not restrict herself to domestic matters, but also interrogates the progress of the war. She is often critical of the British and sympathetic to the Boers:

'England, when she goes forth to civilise or conquer, always carries a copy of the Bible in one hand and a sword of honour in the other. The Military Power having burned to the ground the comfortable homestead where Mrs Paul Coetze resided (because Mr Paul Coetze refuses to lay down his arms), a paternal government steps in to provide Mrs Coetze and the large family of boys and girls with food and shelter' (Catholic Press, 4 May, 1901).

SS harlech castleOn her return to Australia, 14 September 1901 on the SS Harlech Castle with the returning ‘A’ Field Battery RAA, Macready continued her twin occupations of nursing and journalism, and contributed to debates about the position of women in the public sphere. She was a member of the Trained Nurses Association of NSW. She took up a position as Matron of Wyalong Hospital but resigned in 1904 citing conflict with the hospital board in particular accusing one of its members of a conflict of interests. She the became Matron at Kurri Kurri District Hospital

She was a strong advocate for education for women. In a paper given at the Second Australasian Catholic Congress of 1904 she warned that 'in ignorance lies the danger of the vote in the hands of the woman'. Girls' education, she argued, should promote both the domestic and public spheres of women's lives, in order to form women of 'disciplined brain and skilful hands', because 'upon the ideal of the woman depends the rise and fall of the home, and upon the character of that home follows the advance or retrogression of the State, for what is the State but a collection of homes?' (Proceedings of the Second Australasian Catholic Congress, 1905: 565-66).

In 1907 she was in Brisbane as a correspondent for the Catholic Press. It is not clear whether she was still nursing. It is not clear either that she was nursing still in World War 1 when she was resident in Darlinghurst. She was the involved in writing political articles supporting the anti Conscription movement and later still in the 1920s articles supporting the Labor Party

She died in 1935.

Jeannine Baker, University of Wollongong with additions by David Deasey


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