‘In the Lamplight’ – background #2 – Harefield and early inspiration

What were the first seeds of inspiration?

After years of researching and writing, it’s interesting to look back at how a book started. The idea for In the Lamplight began with research for its partner titles, Lighthouse Girl and Light Horse Boy. Then around 2012, I heard about the Gilgandra Coo-ee March. After heavy losses at Gallipoli, WWI recruiting drives occurred across Australia (Men from Snowy River, March of the Dungarees). Gilgandra was the first.

In October 1915 two brothers gathered a group of 26 men. They set out from Gilgandra on a march to Sydney (320 miles). By the time they arrived, the number of recruits had grown to 263. One of the brothers, Bill Hitchen (plumber and captain of the Gilgandra rifle club),  died at Harefield in September 1916. Bill’s story inspired me and I was curious to learn more.

Fast forward to 2013 when I accompanied my husband on a trip to Albany’s sister city, Pèronne for Remembrance Day. Before flying home we had a day in London. While Pete walked around Westminster, I caught a train and bus to Harefield village, on the outskirts of London to visit Bill’s grave. A kind local helped me with directions. We began chatting and she walked with me to St Mary’s Anzac Cemetery, the resting place of Bill, 111 of his fellow soldiers and Sister Ruby Dickinson. I found Bill’s grave and then visited the Anzac Wing of Harefield Hospital, learning how in 1914 the Billyard-Leake family (expat Australians) donated their home, Harefield House for recuperating Australian soldiers to use for the duration of the war.

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at the grave of Bill Hitchens (Gilgandra Cooee

The Anzac wing also held photographs; evocative WWI images of recuperating patients and nurses. One photo captured my attention. It was a photograph of a nurse stroking a wallaby mascot. I’ve since found another AWM image of the wallaby, ‘Jimmy’ (sometimes named Jimony) being fed by the same nurse, who I discovered is Nancy Birdwood, daughter of General Birdwood (commander of the Australian Imperial troops). Nancy volunteered at Harefield Hospital and later married a West Australian airmen, but that’s another story…

Some readers know my fascination with WWI animal mascots. This began during the creation of Light Horse Boy and has continued to grow. I suspected that Nancy’s wallaby could be the same fellow that stands proudly to attention in the AWM photograph below (I love this photo). I wanted to find out more about the wallaby’s story and will post more about Jimmy in a future blog.

Harefield House became the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital, sometimes treating up to 1000 patients. The first nurses, led by the very capable Matron Ethel Gray, arrived in May 1915. As casualties increased, life in the small village of Harefield changed forever. The village green was filled with homesick soldiers in their distinctive slouch hats. Kind-hearted villagers did all they could to help the young men so far from home. They read to patients, taught them handicrafts and French, took the men for automobile outings and organised concerts and sporting matches.

Deciding which WWI images to include in my book was a challenge. There were so many great photos. My favourites include patients skating around the frozen lake with the support of chairs, Jimmy posing with the brass band, as well as one moving photograph of a one-legged lad playing cricket with laughing nurses fielding. The lad looks so young.

More sombre photographs are also included; of funeral parades and shell-shocked amputees. During WWI over 50,000 Australian soldiers were treated at Harefield Hospital. Towards the end of the war, when Spanish Influenza ravaged Europe, there were deaths most weeks. Strong lads who’d survived months in the trenches, sometimes died within a day from this terrible illness as their lungs filled with fluid.

Harefield villagers lined the streets to honour funeral parades from the hospital to St Mary’s cemetery. The first death was in February 1916. As Private Robert Wake’s coffin passed the Junior School, headmaster Jeffrey ran inside, pulled a flag from the classroom wall and draped it over the bare coffin. This flag was used in subsequent funeral processions and still exists today (more on that next week). Connections between Harefield and Australia remain strong and I’m grateful to Harefield residents for their historical advice; particularly Lorraine Piercy and Andy Harris. Each Anzac Day, local schoolchildren lay flowers against the headstones for the Australians who died in their village.

Lest we forget.

Next week I’ll share two stories linked to In the Lamplight; the Anzac quilt and the Harefield flag. I am grateful for funding support from the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

2 thoughts on “‘In the Lamplight’ – background #2 – Harefield and early inspiration

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