Annie Wheeler, OBE

by Ursula Cleary


Mrs Annie Wheeler c 1920.
Image courtesy of Capricornia Coast Historical Society

On Saturday 15 November 1919, thousands of people from all over Rockhampton headed for the railway station. They crowded onto the platform, spilled over into the station yard and filled the lobby. The crowd was so large, police officers were called in to create order. Moments before the train drew into the platform a double row of returned First World War soldiers formed lines from the street entrance of the station, through the gates, onto the platform and up to one of the carriage doors.

Cheers erupted as the carriage door opened and a small grey-haired woman stepped onto the platform. The cheers were so deafening they almost drowned out the Mayor’s welcome and grew even louder as Mrs Voss, on behalf of the Returned Soldiers’ Appreciation Committee, presented the woman with a large bouquet of flowers. The crowd shouted her name with enthusiasm and affection, “Mrs Wheeler, Mrs Wheeler”.

5,000 people in cars or on foot followed Mrs Wheeler and her daughter Portia to the Hotel Leichhart and resumed their cheers when she appeared on the balcony with the Mayor. The Mayor thanked the crowd on Mrs Wheeler’s behalf telling them she was “happy to be home after her long absence and thanked them for their right royal welcome”.

Why had so many people, around twenty-five percent of Rockhampton’s population, turned out to welcome Mrs Wheeler and show their appreciation? She was not royalty, simply an ordinary woman; a widow with one daughter who had been away in England for six years.

Trained as a nurse in Sydney, Annie Laurie met her husband Henry Wheeler while working at a private hospital in Rockhampton. Recovering from an operation after he was thrown from his horse, Henry was nursed by Annie during his long recuperation and they were married soon after in 1896. Henry’s family were from Eastbourne, Sussex and when he died in 1903 his will stipulated Portia attend finishing school in England. Annie moved to England in 1913 so Portia could finish her education. She chose Clovelly-Kepplestone, a private boarding school for girls in Eastbourne. Annie and her daughter planned to spend the summer of 1914 in Europe starting in Belgium but when she informed the Queensland Agent General, Sir Thomas Robinson, about her plans he urged her to reconsider because he felt the rumours of an impending war were true. When war was declared in August 1914, Annie was grateful she had followed his advice and stayed in England. Annie, determined to contribute to the war effort, volunteered as a probationer nurse.

While volunteering at the hospital near Eastbourne at the beginning of the War, Annie had an epiphany. These boys, many not much older than her daughter, so far away from home, injured and in excruciating pain, cried for their mothers. Annie realised these soldiers needed something more than nursing. They needed a mother. Annie vowed to be the link between the boys and their mothers.

One of the first things she did was to give any boy she met from Central Queensland a postcard with her address on it. She told them if they were wounded, found themselves in England or needed anything they should send the card to her and she would write to them and visit if she could. In Early May 1915, a few weeks after the landing on the beach at Gallipoli, the first Australian boys began arriving at hospitals in England and Annie’s first card arrived.

Mary Trotman, Annie’s friend from her nursing days in Rockhampton, sent her names of boys from home who had enlisted, and Annie regularly travelled from Eastbourne to London to read the lists of wounded pinned on notice boards at the Commonwealth Offices. She identified any soldiers from Rockhampton and Central Queensland, wrote to them, sent a little parcel and if possible paid them a visit. She networked with people in the Commonwealth Office and at Queensland House to identify “her boys”. She also established networks at hospitals, the Red Cross and the YMCA in London.

When the Australian Imperial Force moved their administrative headquarters to Horseferry Road, Annie became a regular visitor, identifying and making friends with as many of the clerks and officers as she could. She noticed when soldiers were released from hospital they often had no money while waiting for their pay or their families to send funds. Annie organised letters of introduction to the manager of the Commonwealth Bank who agreed to answer her enquiries and letters personally, so she could transfer money on behalf of soldiers and their families. As her list of soldiers from central Queensland grew, she bought a large journal and took it with her on her hospital visits to record details of the boys she visited.

Annie was also a member of the Australian War Contingent Association which had been formed at the beginning of the war at the insistence of the British Government. Its role was to provide comfort and special provisions such as tobacco, personal kit, chocolate, reading matter, clothing, excursions, entertainment, games and outfits for the troops. Female volunteers visited hospitals and arranged visits for soldiers. The Queensland Agent General Sir Thomas Robinson and his wife were also on the committee. The bureaucracy of the organisation, however, frustrated Annie and she found that promises made were often unfulfilled. It distressed her to promise something, especially warm clothes and blankets and then find out they had not been sent. Everything took too long. When requests were urgent they needed to be treated as such.

She also found she had greater impact when visiting and talking to soldiers. If she could tell a soldier she knew his aunt or went to school with his father or lived on a property not far from where he was born, the soldier’s spirits lifted and a bond of trust and intimacy was instantly formed. When she wrote directly to families at home and told them she had seen their son or brother, the relief and gratitude in their letters was so great she knew she was being effective. She wanted to devote her energies to her part of Australia, Central Queensland. Driven to provide a more reliable and personal form of comfort Annie started her own association, The Central Queensland Comfort Fund.

At first, Annie and Portia operated the Comfort Fund from Eastbourne but as the workload grew Annie needed to be closer to London, specifically Horseferry Road, where the AIF, Red Cross, YMCA, Anzac Buffet and the cable office were based. By 1917, they moved to Westminster Gardens, just off Victoria Street and around the corner from the AIF Headquarters on Horseferry Road. It was perfect. Towards the end 1917 they had leased two additional rooms in Westminster Gardens for offices and there was a small staff – several girls and soldiers on leave. There were more than 900 soldiers on her books and the journal system was replaced by
index cards. Each card contained details of the soldier and listed the correspondence sent and received. Details of the soldier’s family were on the back of the card.

As a thank you and fundraiser, Rockhampton woman Nellie Coar organised a 1916 Christmas present for Annie, a book, called Just the Link Between which contained a 1917 calendar where people contributed words of gratitude, a saying or a poem for each day of the year to thank Annie for everything she had done. The book also contained advertising and the funds raised were sent to Annie to use for her work. Several organisations contributed messages and there was even a message from T.J. Ryan, the Queensland Premier.

Annie was deeply touched by this gift and in February 1917, she wrote to Mary Trotman, “You will be pleased to hear Just the Link Between has arrived and I am so delighted with it and only wish I knew how to tell you the pleasure it has given me. It has been my great wish to be the link between those far-away mothers and wives and their dear one over here and when my book arrived with the title Just the Link Between you cannot imagine my delight.”

The comfort work was being overtaken by requests from families to investigate their missing sons and brothers. By the end of the war 25,000 Australian soldiers were listed as missing, presumed dead. One of the men Annie tried to find was Charles Findlay. Initially, his mother, Ann, was told he was missing but then she received news he was dead. The AIF presumed Charles was killed in the battle of Messines but nothing was ever found, no discs, no photos, no wallet no kit – nothing. Ann Findlay thought maybe there had been a mistake. It made no sense to her that there were no personal effects, and no one could tell her where Charles was buried. She wrote to Annie Wheeler seeking confirmation and if he was dead she wanted to know something about his last moments, desperate to know if he spoke about his people.

Annie did all she could to find out what happened – she wrote letters and spoke to men in the battalions. She liaised closely with the AIF, Australian Red Cross and the YMCA. The Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau was headed by a young Australian woman Vera Deakin. The bureau engaged searchers who investigated missing men, spoke to witnesses and prepared reports. They wrote to the families giving them as honest an account as they could to help families understand what had happened to their sons or brothers. They continued to look for men after the War ended, checking prisoner of war camps in Germany. They looked for Charles Findlay. His file has a statement from his friend who said Lieutenant Pott was with Charles Findlay when he died.

Murray Hartley is another example of Annie’s investigative work. In 1917 his family heard he had been wounded and they cabled Annie desperate for news. Annie wondered if there had been a mix-up; in his last letter, a couple of days before Christmas, Murray told Annie he had bronchitis and expected to be in hospital for a couple of weeks. Annie immediately rang AIF Headquarters and was told he had re-joined his unit from hospital but had been wounded on the 7th January 1917. There were no details of what had happened to him and she was unable to find out what hospital he was in. She waited two days and then rang AIF Headquarters again
only to hear Murray had died of his wounds on the 9th January at the 36th Casualty Clearing Station in France. He died just before midnight from high explosive wounds to both his legs. Annie immediately cabled his family and wrote to his brother George in case he hadn’t heard. When she saw Leslie Henderson who was in the same company a couple of days later he told her he was with Murray when he was wounded and Annie was able to write a detailed letter to his family.

Families were so grateful to receive letters from Annie with news of their sons and brothers and because the mail from Australia was so unreliable they wrote and sent parcels care of her. Annie wrote regularly to Mary Trotman who organised for the letters to be published in the local newspapers, Morning Bulletin and Capricornian.

Portia-Jean-Wheeler-c1914-1918By the end of 1917 Annie had a breakdown that extended into 1918 and Portia took over renting the additional rooms and moving the work out of their flat. When Annie was well enough to write, she
told Mary Trotman, “Portia has got work on a more businesslike footing than when I had it and it ought to be easier to manage. The card system is being kept up-to-date.”

By the end of the war Annie and Portia had more than 2,300 cards crammed into three red-cloth covered boxes which are part of the State Library of Queensland collection. Annie was also widely known. Letters addressed just to Annie Wheeler, Mother of the Anzacs would find her.

Her dedicated devotion to the young men of Central Queensland during the war was the reason the people of Rockhampton came out in force when she returned home on Saturday, 15 November 1919. They wanted to thank her in person for “mothering” their sons.

Back in Queensland Annie continued to work for returned soldiers who were unable to work because of debilitating injuries and disease. Mustard gas blinded men and scarred and damaged the throat and lungs leaving men fighting for breath long after the War ended. The effects of the gas also increased the men’s susceptibility to tuberculosis. Funds that remained in the Central Queensland Comfort Fund were handed over to a new fund to support blind and disabled soldiers. Mrs Wheeler’s Trust Fund gave money to men who were unable to work. On the 25 January, 1924, the Medical Officer from Kyoomba Sanatorium wrote to the Trust Fund confirming Ernest Victor Ohman was an inmate of the Sanitorium and “unable to carry out any occupation.” Another inmate of the Sanatorium, Hans Christian Duus corresponded regularly with Annie during the war. Duus was a miner from Mt Morgan before the war and was stationed for several months at the base in Le Havre. On 21 June 1918, he wrote to Annie to let her know he “met Lieutenant Tom Payne who looked very well and he has seen Urry, Bolton and Brisbin all from Mt Morgan and Robertson at the base awaiting a medical board”.

Annie expressed a wish to live in a house where ex-soldiers and their families could visit her if they wished when she returned. She owned some land at Emu Park and before she returned home a committee was formed to raise funds to build her a cottage. Forty-six cities and towns contributed to the fund and the home was presented to Annie in July 1920. At Emu Park, she immersed herself in the local community was a founding member of the Emu Park branch of the Queensland Country Women’s Association. She was also its first Vice President. The branch dedicated themselves to supporting women and children in need just as Annie had supported the soldiers during the war.

In 1920 Annie was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to the troops.

Sources and Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s correspondence and papers are part of the State Library of Queensland collection.
Annie’s letters were published by the Capricornian and the Morning Bulletin and have been digitised by the National Library of Australia. They are available on Trove.
Soldier’s records have been digitised by the National Archives of Australia.
O’Brien, Mary, Bevis, Mary, Remarkable People: Rutherford Armstrong, Annie Wheeler, Ernest Beaman. [Yepoon, [Qld.]: Capricorn Coast Historical Society 2009
Ursula Cleary, Discovering Annie Wheeler, SLQ Blog