AGNES MACREADY (1855-1935) - AUSTRALIA'S FIRST FEMALE WAR CORRESPONDENT
When the Boer War in South Africa erupted in 1899 the Australasian colonies offered to send soldiers and nurses to assist Britain. Surgical nurse Agnes Macready was not only well qualified for the task, she was also a journalist with The Rocks-based newspaper The Catholic Press, and she became Australia’s first female war correspondent. Her articles, sent in from South Africa, provided readers in Sydney with an independent view of the war, with an emphasis on the suffering of the Boers.
Agnes Macready was born in 1855 in Rathfrilan, Northern Ireland, and when she was 12 her family migrated to NSW. At 25 she commenced training as a nurse at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, completing further training in Melbourne to become a highly qualified surgical nurse.
From 1898 Agnes contributed articles and poetry to the newspaper The Catholic Press under the nom de plume ‘Arrah Luen’. The Catholic Press, while not a religious publication, had an intensely Roman Catholic tone. It was edited at St Patrick's Church in The Rocks, and printed nearby.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN (BOER) WAR, 1899–1902
War was declared in South Africa on 11 October 1899 when the Boers (predominantly farmers of Dutch descent) tried to assert their independence from the British. The Australasian colonies offered to help Britain by sending 23,000 men and 60 nurses, and the first Australian contingent, including ‘A’ Battery from Dawes Point, arrived in South Africa on 2 November 1899.
Macready had made her own way to South Africa, leaving Australia in October carrying letters from Cardinal Moran, the Premier of NSW William Lyne, and leading medical men of Sydney and Melbourne. She was also commissioned by The Catholic Press as their special correspondent, and recounted on her arrival in Durban:
… The nursing arrangements are in the hands of the British Sisters … After some trouble I succeeded in getting my papers before the PMO… . It was known that I had come from Australia and “we cannot pass over Australia, you know.” (The Catholic Press, 20 January 1900.)
At home Australia’s involvement in the Boer War was not positively accepted by all. Macready summed up this ambivalence in late 1899:
Australia is reeling like a drunken man. England has accepted our offer to help in her war of aggression, and a few hundred misguided individuals are leaving our shores to shoot down a small band of farmers who are struggling to defend their homes and their country which they have fought for and won against tremendous odds. (The Catholic Press, 4 November 1899.)
THE SIEGE AND RELIEF OF LADYSMITH
The town of Ladysmith was besieged by the Boers from 2 November 1899 to 28 February 1900. Macready worked with the Imperial Nursing Corps in a hospital just outside the town, which by mutual agreement treated the wounded from both sides.
The relief of Ladysmith by British forces consisted of a series of battles over a period of two weeks. Macready reported:
For days previously we were conscious of 'something in the air.' Then there dawned a morning when we stepped out of Dream-land to hear a voice crying outside of door and window: “All Sisters to be on duty at 6am; a train of 200 wounded expected in soon.” ….
The 'khaki' uniform is now, in many instances, a coat of many colours. It is smoke rimmed, mud stained, dust engrained, splashed and streaked with human blood …. One of the Worst cases is a young fellow of 19 shot in a peculiar way through the mouth, the bullet coming out at the back of the neck.
There has been great haemorrhage, and he lies as white, nay whiter, than the sheet on the rough bed …. And being a woman I feel that I want to cry, for it does not fall to my lot to see any of the 'glory of war'; it is mine only to look upon the maimed limbs, the ghastly wounds, the suffering, the after results of an engagement be it a victory or a defeat. (The Catholic Press, 24 February 1900.)
The siege was lifted on 28 February 1900.
Moving from hospital to hospital, wherever her services were needed, Macready cared for both British and Boer. While other papers were reporting a biased view of the war, she often expressed a critical opinion of the British and sympathetic view of the Boers.
In September 1901 Macready returned to Sydney on the HMS Harlech Castle, overseeing the nursing of wounded soldiers from ‘A’ Battery, from Dawes Point. The Catholic Press reported her return, stating that “No woman in Africa rendered greater service”.
When interviewed, Macready’s unprejudiced outlook still showed in her respect for the Boers. She praised their girls’ schools and colleges, and also their hospitals; in her opinion “They were making wonderful headway when this misfortune fell on them.”
After returning from war Macready continued her twin occupations of nursing and journalism, working as Matron of Kurri Kurri and Wyalong Hospitals while still writing for The Catholic Press.
Many of Macready’s articles concentrated on the position of women and the working poor. During the 1922 federal election campaign she urged Australian women to vote against Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who she blamed for “the curse of conscription [in World War I] that overshadows Australia”, and who, she argued, did little to support the poor, especially poor working women.
Macready died in 1935, but up until her death she was an advocate of girls’ education and proactively worked towards the advancement of women in both the domestic and the public spheres of their lives.