The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra


The "Drayton Grange" Royal Commission

On 10 August 1902 SS Drayton Grange steamed into Sydney Harbour carrying 782 troops from the Boer War. Conditions on board and the loss of life outraged the public and a Royal Commission was established.

Australia contributed 23,000 men and women from a population of just over 3½ million. Four thousand troops leaving Australia after Federation saw no fighting but patrolled the concentration camps established by Lord Kitchener to hold Boer women and children. The Treaty of Vereeniging ending the war was signed on 31 May 1902 and Kitchener sailed soon after for Southampton. Troopers equally keen to leave heard rumours that SS Drayton Grange was the last ship bound for Australia and they swarmed her. Those without uniforms borrowed them to embark, others became stowaways.

The war was over, but fighting in the Press had only begun. Letter to The Argus, 22 August 1902:

I see that Colonel Lyster in his evidence says that in his opinion I acted in a "nervous and timid" way as Principal Medical Officer on board. Colonel Lyster has excellent reasons for judging me so. So dilatory was Colonel Lyster in attending to urgent requests by me as Principal Medical Officer in matters touching the health and lives of the troops that I soon found it necessary, if I wished for any satisfaction to absolutely frighten this gallant officer into giving his immediate attention to the matter. After waiting impatiently to see a daily verbal request carried out, I used to find it necessary to send a memo in black and white to the effect, that unless by a certain hour of the day my requisition was attended to "I would not hold myself responsible for anything that might happen."
I am etc.,
Douglas A. Shields, MD

Reply to D.A.G. Military Forces of the Commonwealth 25 August 1902:

I have the honour to draw your attention to a letter over the signature of Captain Shields AMS [Army Medical Service] which appeared in the Argus of the 22nd instant. His action in writing to the Press is contrary to the King's Regulations and his comments which refer to myself, his superior officer, are subversive of discipline. If considered advisable I will frame and submit charges against Captain Shields. I now request that he may be placed in arrest if the result of your investigation demands such a course.
I have the honour to be Sir,
your most obedient servant
J. Sanders M. Lyster, Colonel.

SS Drayton Grange, a 6,591 tonne four-masted twin-screw British vessel, was chartered to carry 1,500 troops to Australia, at a cost of 13 guineas per private and 30 guineas per officer, troops to be fed as third-class passengers "on a liberal scale", officers as first-class saloon passengers. However, Admiralty Transport authorities in Cape Town received permission for 41 officers and 2,002 NCOs and men to embark on 10-11 July and sail from Durban.

Estimates varied, but overcrowding was considerable. The men were not highly trained troops being rushed to the front, but from different states, different corps, mostly non- professional soldiers and un-used to cramped conditions. Most had seen little fighting and were bored. As well, fresh from patrolling the camps, many brought measles, influenza, chest infections, tonsillitis, dysentery and enteric fever with them.

There was no isolation hospital and no disinfecting apparatus, and as more men fell ill, hospital beds took up space encroaching on healthy troops' quarters, resulting in more unhealthy overcrowding.

No sea kits were issued so clothing was inadequate and blankets, two per man were soon vermin infested. The men were issued with hammocks stored in communal bins, making it impossible to retain one's own hammock throughout. Sleeping quarters doubled for living and eating with overcrowding hammocks slung over mess tables.

The weather was continually wet and cold; the ship's log reporting heavy seas causing rolling and pitching. Strong gales and dangerous seas were noted on sixteen of the nineteen-day trip. To shorten the voyage the captain sailed south 39 degrees 55 minutes, which meant troops exercised on a freezing iron deck with heavy seas. The thin planking over iron sheets in troop quarters was absorbent and not dirt resistant. Ventilators were kept closed for warmth and with no spittoons as laid down in Regulations for His Majesty's Transport Service, men "expectorated" onto the floor.

Scuppers and shower-baths were used as urinals and constantly overflowed when the ship rolled. Latrines although officially adequate proved insufficient for gastric conditions and despite plenty of water, showers were in the open so most preferred not to wash. Sick parades were held twice daily, with up to 150 men standing on an iron deck, their feet wet from the urinals.

Food was good, although bags of flour and salt were found on wet decks and meat on dirty decks and refuse not being removed left a smell of rotting vegetables in the hold.

The Press took up cudgels. Excerpt from The Herald, Melbourne 22 August 1902:


It appears to us that Dr. D.A.S. Shields, MD, Principal Medical Officer on the ill-starred troopship Drayton Grange has the better of it in the controversy which has arisen between him and Colonel Lyster, the Officer in Command of the returning troops on board the vessel."

The Royal Commission spread the blame evenly. The embarkation authorities were held responsible for overcrowding, lack of hospital accommodation and defective deck-sheathing.

Lax discipline was the fault of Lieutenent Colonel Lyster, Officer Commanding Troops. Disorder was sometimes induced by drunkenness; beer costing1d a pint per man daily. Some obtained others' rations or illicit spirits from the stewards. Had Colonel Lyster maintained stronger discipline, with three watches of four hours on deck and eight below in every twelve, conditions might have improved.

Lyster maintained exposure to night air would only have increased the risk of colds but the commissioners claimed he accepted conditions without improving them and, as a long-serving officer of Imperial and Colonial Forces, he was not inexperienced.

Dr. Shields, as PMO, did not spare himself when other MOs were underworked and could have relieved matters. Dr Shields being the youngest MO on board may have been diffident in exercising full authority.

Colonel Lyster asked to land sick troops at Albany but W.A. authorities claimed a lack of medical and nursing attendants, the health officer Dr Everad adding, "None of the ladies of my acquaintance would have nursed those filthy dirty Tommies." The difficulty of landing sick troops in bad weather was also cited and healthy troops requested instead. No absolute refusal was given but the response was taken as such. Sick troops were landed in Port Phillip Bay under greater difficulties, with more exposure and further from the Quarantine Station and although only seventeen died, most from bronchial pneumonia, there were no deaths until after Albany.

Many men were careless with personal hygiene and their surroundings, thereby endangering theirs and others' health.

In summing up - responsibility for "failure to improve, and the unnecessary aggravation of the undesirable conditions in the vessel," was blamed on OC Troops and MO in Charge.

Major-General Sir Edward Hutton, General Officer Commanding Commonwealth Military Forces, wrote to the Minister of Defence supporting both men, saying Col. Lyster could not be blamed for the extraordinary conditions and Dr Shields, being inexperienced, should be dealt with leniently. However, "There can, however, be no excuse for the attitude assumed by Captain Shields towards Lieutenant Colonel Lyster, his senior officer, in the very improper communication made by him in the public Press." Behaviour unbefitting an officer and a gentleman?

The Drayton Grange is rarely mentioned now. My interest started because my grandmother's brother returned on her. Because of the publicity, when he arrived home his mother insisted his lice-infested uniform be burnt and that he take a bath (with Lysol) before stepping inside the house!

Vashti Farrer
January 2011


National Archives of Australia

Trove digital newspapers link and link

Michael Tyquin's article Health and History vol. 3, no. 2, 2001, pp. 94-103

Personal story of John Hanna, a victim of the Drayton Grange voyage home

Price, The tragic voyage of the troopship Drayton Grange [Record of disease and death occurring in Australian troops returning from the Boer War in 1902]. Sabretache v34 no.2, Apr/June 1993 pp 29-33.

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