The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Sister Janet Toshack

Sister Janet Toshack, a Humanitarian Worker in the Boer Concentration Camps

Sister Janet Toshack was born to John and Agnes Toshack on 18 February 1857 in Garland, a small locality south of Carcoar, NSW. She was often referred to in the family as ‘Jessie’. She trained to become a nurse at Prince Alfred Hospital now known as RPA completing her course in 1885. She was a contemporary of Nellie Gould whilst at RPA. She remained nursing at RPA following her training.

It is not clear how or why she decided to go to South Africa. It does not seem to be chance that brought her to nurse in the civilian concentration camps. Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that she is honoured in a memorial window in St Stephens, Macquarie St, Sydney. Many of the protestant churches took an active interest in the welfare of Boer civilians once the horrors of the camps had been exposed.

The camps had been established to cope with Boer civilians made homeless by the British policy of clearing potential Boer supporters from their land. The British had a quaint notion that if these people could look after themselves without support in the back blocks of the Transvaal they ought to be able to do so when collocated into vast tent cities. Add to that negligence and probably corruption within the supply system and the stage was set for a disaster. The camp population had no immunity to many diseases such as measles and hygiene problems spiraled out of control. Initially the British Government acted with hostility to any suggestion that it was not taking appropriate measures to deal with the problem. Press reports (including by the Australian Edith Dickenson) followed by a scathing report from British activist Emily Hobhouse and an equally scathing report by the Fawcett committee set up to report into the allegations, forced action to be taken by the end of 1901. Over 27000 white civilians (estimates show the deaths of Africans in camps to be about 20000) died in the camps, a death rate of about twenty percent plus. Figures show that once additional care was put in place by November 1901 the death rate fell significantly. Janet Toshack and other Australian doctors and nurses were part of the build up of health support for the camps.

She left on the maiden voyage of the White Star steamer Suevic which had been commissioned in August 1901. Suevic departed Circular Quay for Cape Town, Plymouth and London via Melbourne on 27. 11. 1901. The Sydney Morning Herald of 27. 11. 1901 reported Miss Toshack as one of the passengers who were departing for Cape Town. She appears to have paid her own way. Janet kept a diary and photograph album from the period she spent in South Africa which are still held by family members. She worked at Camp Irene, a concentration camp in the Transvaal on the railway near Pretoria in 1902. This was a camp for Boer civilian internees. She was employed as a civilian enrolled nurse although it is not clear whether it was the British Government who paid her salary.

A number of Australians were present in the camp unfortunately not all can be positively identified any longer as Australians. Many of these had come over for humanitarian reasons. Her special friends mentioned in her diary were Miriam Pickburn (nicknamed ‘Picky’, a nurse and the daughter of a Sydney judge) and perhaps Hamilton and Cottal (actually A Cottle) (these two can not be positively identified as Australians). One of the medical officers in the camp was Captain Alfred Sturdee MID, (the father of Vernon Sturdee) formerly the RMO of the 4VIB and nominally posted to the roll of 5VMR.


It was here that she recorded in her diary, the assembly of a large British force perhaps moving out to conduct one of the last sweeps or drives of the war just after dark. With the war over, on 6 June 1902 she was transferred to one of the hospitals near Johannesburg probably when Camp Irene was abandoned or winding down. This came about as families began the slow move back to rebuild their farms. This was most probably the Burgher Hospital which was designed specifically to cater to the returning Afrikaaner population. All the hospitals were tented accommodation. She is believed to have remained in this location until sometime in 1903.

For her services in the Boer War she received the Queens South African medal.

After this Janet traveled to England as there are photographs the taken there in 1903. On returning to Sydney in 1904, Janet with three doctors, ran a nurses home in Darlinghurst Road, King's Cross at which they trained nurses who were called ‘specials’, these nurses were sent out on jobs to care for patients. The home was also a residential home for these ladies. Later they moved to Woolcott Street King's Cross.

In January 1911, she was one of the senior nurses in Sydney who met at Sydney Hospital with a view to forming a trained nurses club and was on the committee of the Australasian Trained Nurses Association (ATNA) in 1913.

Janet died suddenly at Darlinghurst on 1 June 1915 at the age of 58 years and is buried in the Waverley Cemetery Sydney. There is a memorial window erected to her memory in St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney.
 


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