The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Sister Beatrice Huston

Beatrice Huston, the girl from the small town of Clermont (just north of Emerald in Queensland), the first Queensland Sister to the Boer War.

Beatrice Huston was born in Claremont in 1979, the daughter of Robert and Bessie Huston. She was not yet 21 when she became the first Queensland nurse to go to the Boer War. In the records and contemporary news reports considerable confusion seems to have existed around the correct spelling of her surname with both HOUSTON and HEUSTON common and in one case HUXTON.

She went because her brothers intended going as well as many of the young men of the town. Her brothers William John Huston lance corporal in the 3 ACH and Robert Ernest Huston, a Farrier Sergeant 4th Queensland Imperial Bushmen. As she said later time, 'You know I thought it was too bad not to have a representative at all from Queensland in South Africa, so I determined to play my own expenses over there and offer my services to the authorities.'

Sister Huston resigned her post at Clermont Hospital and announced her intention of paying her own way to South Africa.

She received letters of introduction from the Queensland Premier, Robert Philp. On 2 March 1900 she received a large farewell at the kiosk in the Botanical gardens in Brisbane. Another farewell apparently was organised by the Clermont boys in the military camp nearby.

She travelled to Sydney and sailed on the SS Salamis. The ship picked up the New Zealand nursing contingent in Melbourne and the Western Australian contingent at Albany in Western Australia.

Sister Huston describes the condition of the passage from Albany on the Salamis.

'Owing to the full passenger list all of the nurses were compelled to travel first class. I slept in the hold and there were three basins through 80 women and children to wash in. Food was often sail, the bread mouldy and the meat often very bad.'

Her cheeks became hollow and her eyes sunken and she apparently lost 10 kilos in weight in a fortnight which may have contributed to her later problem with exhaustion.

The SS Salamis arrived in Durban 6 April 1900. She began work at No 3 General Hospital Rhondebosch on 14 April 1900, as a civilian employed nurse. There were 23 nursing staff mainly British but also four Canadians and several Australians including Huston. She described her uniform as a blue dress with the Red Cross on her arm, a white hat with a Red Cross and remarked that they all wore Florence Nightingale caps to dinner and night duty.

A serious problem had arisen in that the Boer prisoner of war camp at Greenpoint had no medical facilities and prisoners were dying. To solve the problem two nursing sisters including Huston were transported from Rhondebosch to the prisoner of war camp at Greenpoint. She and her companion, Sister Paul (appears to have been Sister L Paul PCANSR) were given just two hours to pack and be on the way to Greenpoint.

Sister Huston often had up to 45 Boers to look after. They were difficult and generally refused to wash or undress. She describes bedsores as large as saucers, and sores also on their faces through neglect. They were often climbed into bed with their boots on. She seems to have been working at least sixteen hours per day. There was no on-site accommodation initially and she had to commute on foot from the New Somerset Hospital this was a 15 minute walk.

'We had to go from tent to tent with a lantern on night duty, and many are fall we got over the ropes and in the little gullies. There are sentries all around us, and the track where the Boer prisoners are enclosed is quite near, 1800 of them, the iron fence around them, and a barbed wire at the top and every 10 metres around there are sentries on high stands. At night they had to call out every half an hour the number, and if all well, and the sentries around the tents callout 'halt' in a loud voice to everyone that passes. Many a time on a foggy night, he called out to us and we had the answer 'friend'. It rains very often here, and many a night we have walked about in water, and been very wet until morning.'

The conditions were cold and wet and Huston had to buy additional warm clothes. She was very concerned about the conditions that she would come down with illness or pneumonia.

After three weeks Huston collapsed with exhaustion and was herself hospitalised at the New Somerset Hospital for a week. On recovery she was assigned light duties. This meant only day duty running 12 wards with the 45 patients with the help four orderlies. Her patients now were British soldiers as a new section of Greenpoint was opened for them. Her working day was 7 am to 9:30 pm. She mentions four Boer prisoners shot dead trying to escape. Boers in the camp ranged in age from 9 to 84. Eventually tin huts were built for nurses to live in. She attempted to go forward with the Queensland Imperial Bushman that the authorities refused to allow the move as danger still existed in the Bloemfontein area. She continued to express the hope that once the railway was operational she could go forward to Bloemfontein and join the Queensland Bushmen. In the event she eventually was transferred to Pretoria.

Early in 1901 at Pretoria she contracted enteric fever from the patients. This time she was hospitalised for nine weeks. She was sent to the UK to recuperate.

Whilst delayed in Johannesburg due to enemy action she remembers fondly the care and attention extended to her by Nellie Gould (NSW). Gould also apparently had come up to Pretoria to check on her condition while she was hospitalised. (Not all Australian nurses seem to have such fond memories of Nellie Gould, who could be difficult).

It was in an eventful trip. At Naauwpoort in Cape Colony the train was again held up. A goods train had been sent forward online clearance duties and was blown up and destroyed by the Boers. Four of the crew were killed including three Africans. She records the security precautions that followed:

'We were allowed no lights on the train, we could not travel and we had a very heavy guard on all around us. Next day we had an armoured train in front and one behind, but we arrived safely in Cape Town.'

She went to England on the SS Kildonan Castle as a nurse on sea transport duty. She arrived in Southampton 18 May 1901.

Whilst recuperating in England she was taken under the wing of Lady Dudley the wife of the former Governor of South Australia. Lady Dudley took a personal interest in the welfare of any Australian nurses sent to England. Huston was given tickets to many London attractions and later sent to recuperate at Bridlington, a seaside resort in Yorkshire, before a tour of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

As she had nursed at Greenpoint, where one of the awards was sponsored by the British actors and actresses society, the society ensured that she had tickets to many London shows.

She was particularly taken with the Scottish scenery and the wildflowers in English countryside. She spent a day in a channel trip to Boulogne in France and another on another occasion visited Stratford on Avon.

She was presented with her Queens South African Medal by King Edward VII at Marlborough house. One hundred and 20 nurses took part in the medal ceremony marching from St James's Palace to Marlborough house.

'I wore my badge on my breast, which consisted of the words, "Queensland, Australia", in silver letters.'

Noticing that she came from Queensland, Australia, Lord Roberts personally presented her to the young Prince Edward (the future Edward VIII) who discussed the fact that his parents were currently in Australia.

Returning to South Africa she travelled on the SS Orcana which had been fitted out as a hospital ship. The SS Orcana called at Las Palmas in the Canaries. On return to South Africa she was posted to No11 Field Hospital in Kimberley and six months later was transferred to Vryburg. She was there in February 1902 when they were turned out suddenly at night in the expectation of receiving major casualties from an action that day. Huston and two other sisters worked all night preparing bandages, but only about 20 wounded were eventually brought to the hospital. It turned out to be the fight with Delarey, where Lord Methuen and was wounded and taken prisoner. On another occasion she would watch a small skirmish between the Boers and British forces.

She departed South Africa on the SS Athenic to Sydney, 31 August 1902. In Sydney she transshipped to the coastal steamer SS Arawatta for the trip to Brisbane, arriving on 18 September 1902. She was a fellow passenger back to Australia with Sister Chatfield also from Queensland.

She received a hero's welcome on arrival but indicated that even then, that she was considering a return to South Africa.

Huston's brother Robert had remained in South Africa after the war, her father was deceased and the family decided in late 1902 to join Robert in Africa where he was employed in stock Department of the Transvaal government. Beatrice Huston, her mother and brother WJ Huston left Claremont on 18 October 1902 to migrate to the Transvaal. It is believed that she married there and is buried in South Africa, possibly Johannesburg.

Beatrice Huston received both the Queens South Africa and the Kings South Africa medals. She is commemorated on the Boer War Memorial at Clermont and on a special plaque in the same area.

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