The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Boer War Nurse remembered - Sister Penelope Frater

Penelope was born 26 January 1869, the daughter of Alexander and Penelope (nee Hay) Frater at Merrylong Park on the Liverpool Plains, in the New England area of NSW. She was 31 and single when she enlisted on 19 January 1900 in the NSW Nursing Sisters Reserve to serve in South Africa. As a fully qualified and experienced nurse she was given the honorary rank of Lieutenant.

Penelope's parents' lives were a great early settler's tale. They arrived from Scotland as assisted migrants in June 1851. Her father, Alexander, worked as a shepherd in the farming areas on the outskirts of Sydney until 1869, then took up "Merrylong" (where Penelope was born) until 1911, finally settling on his own property "Millfield" as a Grazier, at Deep Creek near Narrabri. Frater family history records that he was keen on horse racing in and around the New England area and particularly at the Narrabri races. It is pure speculation that as part of his successful farming he may have supplied some of the estimated 25,000 horses to leave Australia for South Africa during the Boer War. The Fraters had ten children, seven boys, three girls: Penelope was the eighth, and the second daughter. The youngest child, Fergus Stewart Frater, also served in the Boer War as No. 26, Trooper, NSW Citizens Bushmen.

Training to be a nurse was not available in Narrabri. Leaving the family home Penelope travelled to Sydney late in 1891, and, staying with one of her brothers who ran the Sans Souci Hotel, she was accepted as a Probationer at the Sydney Hospital in November. Here the two-year nurse training program was along the lines developed by Florence Nightingale and brought to Australia by her protégé, Lady Superintendent Lucy Osburn, some 30 years earlier, after the success of the Nightingale approach to military nursing in the Crimean War. Student nurses' records of progress were carefully maintained for both the theoretical - eg "Anatomy and Physiology passed at viva voce" and practical - eg "On day duty in ABC Female Surgical Ward. Proved good, conscientious, and painstaking". Later in her training Penelope's duties had her working in both the Men's Medical and Surgical wards.

The NSW Nursing Sisters, raised in 1898, was the first female army unit in any Australian colony, and was commanded by Lady Superintendent (Matron) Ellen (Nellie) Gould who had been in charge of Penelope's nurse training at Sydney Hospital. Immediately before her own enlistment Nellie Gould was the Matron of Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane, and as one wag later put it, 'quite suitable preparation for nursing in South Africa'. In all probability most of the recruits that Nellie accepted had trained under her at Sydney Hospital.

Their uniforms were modelled on the English ones; grey with chocolate facings (faced and braided for lady superintendents, chocolate cuffs for matrons and cuffs with two chocolate stripes for nursing sisters) and red cape, cap with veil.

Supt Gould, Sr Frater and Supt BlighIn the photo Lady Superintendent Nellie Gould is wearing her chatelaine, the nurse's toolkit containing the emergency instruments: thermometer, scissors, probes, spatulas, syringe and forceps, as well as the keys to both the wards and the medicine cupboards.

The nurses left Sydney as part of the second NSW contingent to go to the Boer War, only two months after the first. All 14 nurses were officially included in the 108 -strong NSW Army Medical Corps Team commanded by Lt-Col. R V Kelly, sailing from Sydney in the SS Moravian on 17 January 1900. The other elements were 405 officers and men of the NSW Mounted Rifles/1st NSW Mounted Rifles, also sailing on 17 January 1900 in the Southern Cross, and 175 gunners of A Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, which had already left, on 30 December 1899, on the Warrigal.

As the nurses were preparing to board ship in Sydney the British Army was having a string of serious military reversals in South Africa. The Press quickly dubbed the period 10-15 December 1899 as "Black Week", to describe the outright defeats at the battles at Colenso, Stormberg and Magesfontein while at the same time Boer forces had besieged British troops inside the towns of Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley. Despite these losses, the British War Office announced that colonial nurses going to South Africa would not be treating Regular Army soldiers (meaning those from Great Britain), reserving this duty to British-trained Army nurses. Neither would colonial nurses be attached to marching columns in the field ambulance role, nor would they be posted to field hospitals just behind the lines.

The British commanders on the ground took little notice of these instructions. Penelope Frater's group was to be dispersed to various British hospitals, nursing all who were sent, including captured Boers. When Nellie Gould led her 13 down the SS Moravian's gangplank at the Cape Town docks in early February 1900 her orders from the British army medical service were to despatch six nurses just a short distance south to the British General Hospital at Wynberg, and four to the No.2 Stationary Hospital 800 kms on the other side of the Cape on the coast at East London. Nellie Gould, her deputy Julia Bligh Johnston, Penelope Frater and one other were posted to a temporary Stationary Hospital at Sterkstroom, a small inland town on the eastern side of South Africa, about 250 km north west of East London, to serve with the NSW Army Medical Corps. So much for the British War Office's instructions!

As the tide of the war turned, in March 1900, with the capture of Bloomfontein, NSW nurses were sent to the No. 3 British General Hospital at Kroonstad and No. 2 at Johannesburg. In August four nurses were posted to No.17 Stationary Hospital in the eastern Transvaal at Middelburg and No.6 General at Johannesburg. They were transferred again in September 1901 to No. 25 Stationary at Johannesburg where they stayed until February 1902 when they were posted even further forward, at No. 31 Stationary at Ermelo, a bare hillside at the end of the line of British forts in the Transvaal. The surgical wards were filled with the wounded and victims of accidents, mostly from working with horses and wagons. The larger medical wards were overflowing with patients suffering from typhoid (called enteric fever) and related problems of dysentery. Yellow jaundice and sunburn were perennial, then in 1901 nurses had to treat an enormous number of both soldiers and civilians who had caught measles that raged through the population.

Other nurses were needed in various repatriation hospitals and were also sent on trains and ships accompanying the sick and wounded.

One of these 14 NSW nurses, Sister A D M (Bessie) Pocock, was Mentioned in Dispatches.

Although Peace was declared on 31 May 1902 Penelope and her fellow nurses did not return until August. All nurses who served the full war were awarded both the Queen's [Victoria] South Africa Medal and the King's [Edward VII] South Africa Medal.

Back in Sydney, Lady Superintendent Nellie Gould and her friend, Superintendent Julia Bligh Johnston, opened a private hospital at Newtown, Sydney, calling it "Ermelo" after their last front-line posting in South Africa. It is probable that Penelope Frater joined them in that venture. Nellie Gould was appointed from 1 January 1901 - Federation - to run the Commonwealth Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve in New South Wales and was appointed principal matron of the 2nd Military District. Penelope Frater's record shows that she continued as "efficient" in this peacetime Army unit. After "Ermelo" was sold in 1912, both Nellie Gould and Julia Johnston joined the Public Health Department.

When WW1 broke out Sister Frater, giving her address care of her sister and her mother at Oatlands in the Sutherland Shire, enlisted on 27 September 1914 to join the Army Nursing Service of the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force to serve overseas. Penelope sailed on the Braemar Castle from Alexandria to Marseilles to be part of the British Expeditionary Force at the 3rd Australian General Hospital and in January 1917 she was appointed Head Sister, returning to Australia in October 1918.

Penelope Frater died 12 Dec 1939, aged 70, only a few months after World War 2 began on 3 September.

 Bibliography go to top of page

Murray page 14 The "Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa", compiled and edited for the Department of Defence by Lt.-Col. P. L. Murray RAA (Ret.), Government Printer Melbourne, 1911.

R L Wallace "The Australians at War", and his later book "Elands River Siege 1900"

Craig Wilcox's "Australia's Boer War"

Jan Bassett. 1992 Guns and Brooches - Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War. Oxford Univ Press Australia

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