The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Sister (Lieutenant) (Later Matron (Major) RRC MID) Mary Pocock

Sister (Later Matron) Mary Anne (Bessie) Pocock, Nursing sister in two wars

Mary Anne (Bessie) Pocock was born on 20 July 1863 at Dalby, Queensland, eldest of eight children of George Pocock, blacksmith, who had migrated from England in 1850, and his Irish wife, Mary Ann, née O'Toole. She often went by the pet name of 'Bessie' even though that was not one of her christened names. In 1868 the family moved to Lower Coldstream River, New South Wales, and eventually settled on a small acreage at The Punchbowl, near Grafton, in 1876. George Pocock worked as a blacksmith at Copmanhurst, walking in on Mondays and returning home on Saturdays.

Mary Anne ('Bessie') Pocock was educated at Almura and Copmanhurst Public schools. Her childhood was not easy as she had to help her mother to run the small farm and rear her brothers and sisters. Leaving home at an early age, she entered domestic service at Grafton and there, three weeks before she was due to marry, her fiancé died of tetanus. Perhaps because of this, she then began general nursing training at Sydney Hospital in November 1890 and continued on the staff as a sister after graduation.

In early 1899, she became one of the original nurses to join the New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve. She was one of the 14 nurses of the NSWANSR selected to accompany the New South Wales second contingent to the Boer War.

She wrote: "I am so anxious to go to the front. I want to be in the thick of the excitement".

She departed Sydney on 17 January 1900 on the SS Moravian, she disembarked at Cape Town and was posted to the 2nd Stationary Hospital, East London, from February to June. It was housed in an old Agricultural Show building where conditions were primitive. In her diary, Pocock wrote: Just 3 huge rooms, 2 with boards on the floor ...We had about 500 patients in a very little time ... It was very hot here, the building all covered with corrugated iron, flies very bad, everyone required mosquito nets.

Dysentery and enteric fever were rife and conditions were primitive. She wrote home to friends of her experiences:

"Since landing here in February I have had charge of the Military Hospital with, on an average of, 300 patients, nearly all typhoid and dysentery. The poor fellows seem to have no strength left, after so many hard-ships and privations, that it takes one all her time in trying to save them. We have saved several who had been delirious and unconscious for 10 days at a time. There have been comparatively few deaths; about 20 in three months. This seems rather a healthy place for them. At Bloemfontein, two days journey from here, the average per day for a time was 40 deaths-one day 60 funerals-so you can see from this how dreadful these diseases have been; much more serious and fatal than the wounded.

We have had very few wounded down here, it being a good distance from the front. The Base Hospital gets few wounded, and they soon recover; but the poor medical cases lie for weeks in misery. It is so sad to see such numbers of poor men and boys, many from 16 to 19 years old, away from home and people, and it makes one work doubly hard, knowing they have come here for honour and glory. But how few get it? Rather, all the privations and hardships following war. Yet, when they get well, they are anxious to be back at the front again. One could not imagine half the miseries and sorrow war brings with it unless you saw a little. The water here is bad and scarce, and there is no green vegetation at all. The worst year they have had for many years, the people say. It is not safe to drink water or milk unless thoroughly boiled.

I am afraid it will be a long time before we get home again-there seems to be so much sickness; still I am by no means tired of being in South Africa. We are not settled long in one place. As a rule, when the army moves, so the different hospitals move also. But we have been quite a long time stationed here, owing to being a seaport town. East London is a very pretty place, and in a good wet season would be lovely and green, and plenty of water."

In July-August she was transferred to Johannesburg, and then moved to the 17th Stationary Hospital, Middleburg, Transvaal, where she was Sister-in-Charge, where she remained until the end of the war in May 1902.

Dr T Fiaschi of the NSW Army Medical Corps stated publically on return that he thought highly of the nursing staff and that Sister Bessie Pocock and Sister Emily Hoadley behaved excellently. They were two nurses from the Sydney Hospital, and they were fortunate in getting farther to the front than any other nurses. They would have gone on the field and have willingly exposed themselves to fire but they were not allowed.

An Australian soldier serving with the New South Wales Army Medical Services detached to Gen Hutton's brigade wrote the following:

"In Middelburg for the first time since Bloemfontein we met up with the New South Wales Army Nursing Reserves, sisters Bessie Pocock and Emily Hoadley. Their are untiring efforts to relieve the numerous sufferers in their charge, the intelligent way with which they manage their wards, and their exemplary conduct gained them the admiration of our officers. Judging from these two samples, New South Wales can be proud of her Army Nursing Service Reserve."

After contracting enteric fever she was invalided to England in May 1902. She attended the coronation procession in London on 9 August 1902, returning to Sydney next April. For her war service she was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Queen and King's South Africa medals.

She returned to Sydney Hospital in June 1903, then was matron of hospitals for the insane at Newcastle in 1907-11 and Gladesville in 1911-14. Sister Pocock was one of the Boer War nurses who joined the Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve (AANSR) in the lead-up to the First World War.

On 15 October 1914 Sister Pocock enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force first with 1 Field Artillery Brigade (FAB), departing with them on the SS Argyllshire on 18 October 1914 to provide nursing support. She then took up duty as senior sister of the 2nd Australian General Hospital, Cairo, Egypt, in December. Two months detachment in charge of a temporary hospital for the wounded at Ismailia followed, then from July 1915 to January 1916 she was matron of the Hospital Ship Assaye which carried patients on round trips from Alexandria to Gallipoli - Cape Helles - Suvla Bay to Malta and England. The wounded arrived on board straight from the trenches, their muddy, filthy clothing frozen on them, suffering from frostbite, gangrene, dysentery and typhoid. Though it was a heartbreaking experience Pocock recorded that it was 'a privilege to have nursed these magnificent men'. On 30 January 1916 she was appointed temporary matron and took charge of the Mena (Egypt) Convalescent Depot. She received a mention in dispatches for her work in medical administration in each. From April to July 1916 she served at Marseilles and Wimereux, France, with the 2nd AGH as senior sister, then detached as matron at the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station, Trois Arbres near Steenwerck, Belgium, until April 1917; she rejoined the 2nd A.G.H. at Boulogne before taking charge of an Australian convalescent hospital, Cobham Hall,(Lady Darnley's home for Australian officers.) Kent, England, in October. Her final appointment was matron of the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Dartford, from January 1918 to February 1919. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross, 2nd class (ARRC) May 1916, and was twice mentioned in dispatches. She returned home as a nursing sister in charge of the SS Zealandia in May of 1919. Matron Pocock's AIF appointment ended in Sydney on 30 October 1919 and Grafton welcomed her home with a presentation of  'a handsome tea-set and a time-piece'.

In December she resumed her position as matron at Gladesville and in 1924 she established a convalescent hospital which she called Ismailia at Chatswood. She was a member of Women's Justices of New South Wales in 1923. On retirement in the late 1930s she returned to The Punchbowl, where her nieces looked after her. She died there on 16 July 1946 and was buried in Grafton cemetery with Anglican rites.

Neat and ladylike, Pocock was an exceptional administrator and organizer. Though compassionate, she was a strict disciplinarian with staff. She was a life member of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association and of the Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve.

Perditta M. McCarthy, 'Pocock, Mary Anne (Bessie) (1863-1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, with material from the Australian War Memorial edited and added to by David Deasey.


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