My Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe that it’s nearly five years since I began thinking about a novel partly set in one of the field hospitals of the Macedonian Front. On Australia Day 2010 I did my first little field trip to scout for a family home for my main character. I walked Tyrrell and Wolfe streets that day but a month or two later decided on Mayfield, a suburb of Newcastle on the Hunter River. I barely knew a thing about the Macedonian front, that forgotten series of battlegrounds from WWI, but was determined to find out more. I skimmed through The Gardeners of Salonika by Alan Palmer, read up about the Australian nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers who were there in Jan Bassett’s book Guns and Brooches. I also did more general reading about the war (including the excellent The Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow) and found out details about the lives of not just Australian nurses but VADs.

My research into Australian VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments – a sort of orderly, nurses’ aid and dogsbody) gave me information that turned out to be crucial to my plotting of The Grey Silk Purse. I actually had to change my storyline. In my early stages of research I decided my character Phyllis Summerville would become a VAD (her personality doesn’t lend her to the profession of nursing) and she would soon after be posted to France in the thick of all the fighting. WRONG! Australian VADs remained in Australia, working at hospitals looking after shell-shocked and disabled Australian serviceman, shipped home from the fighting. During 2010 I began interviewing residents about Mayfield after the war – obviously relying on memories their families may have passed down.

Through my research I met two very dear friends who helped me bring Mayfield to life – the late Helen Marshall and Vera Deacon, who is very knowledgeable about life on the islands in the Hunter River. In 2011 I decided to keep a blog of my struggles with the immense and intricate research that was needed for The Grey Silk Purse. On 16th June I wrote in my very first blog post: “At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.” I had been inspired after discovering about the amazing Olive Kelso King and decided, yep, my girl would be working at one of the field hospitals of the SWH – Miles Franklin’s field unit as it turns out.

In 2012 I had a lot of research points to sort out. For instance, discovering as many Serbian words as I could that my main character would have spoken. (She was given a small Serbian phrasebook after her ambulance driver training). What was her driver’s uniform like? In which battle did my character Adrian Langley lose his leg? Would my young maid sleep at Summerville, the family home where she worked or would she go home? Were the Summervilles wealthy enough to have a chauffeur?

Around this time I met John Vandenberg, a wiki adviser and user, who gave me a crash course and said that if I didn’t put the Ostrovo Unit up on Wiki, the likelihood was that no-one else would. That started the ball rolling. I added Olive Kelso King as well, Dr Mary de Garis and just recently Dr Agnes Bennett. I knew, with dismay that there was no wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at that time. For me, it was just too big an undertaking – although by this time I had read many books on the subject.

Luckily last year I discovered Alan Cumming’s website and he has done wonders in profiling the organisation, including travelling to Serbia. He has also been involved in a short film about the SWH. Last year Alan and I were able to work on the wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I will be doing a biography on Kathleen Dillon soon. Although not Australian I relied quite heavily on her experience, as Head of the Transport Unit based at Yelak, for an important section in my manuscript. I am now actively seeking relatives of Australian women who worked for the SWH and will collaborate with Alan Cumming to get them up on his site. It has been a wonderful adventure discovering all about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and I hope I can do more to raise awareness of this incredible and fascinating organisation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me. See this page for more information: Australians Working with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Doing a newspaper interview

Debbie Robson's studyI have been very lucky in that I have now been interviewed several times regarding my books. So far three interviews for Tomaree (including a magazine interview) and two interviews for Crossing Paths. One of those was a TV interview and the other was conducted at Swansea at my “bottle” launch which was a lot of fun.

Last week I was interviewed by the delightful Georgia Osland and I must say that although she was the youngest of the reporters, she was wonderfully efficient. I threw a lot of facts at her in regards to my writing career and she deftly weaved them into a coherent article.

Here is the newspaper interview in The Star

I owe this latest interview to my involvement in the Local Writers Showcase this Saturday 31st August at Warners Bay Performing Arts Centre where eighteen writers will talk and/or read from their work.

Here is the list of writers involved:
11.00am Welcome from Lake Mac FAW Linda Visman, President LMFAW
11.10 Official opening by Greg Piper, MLA, Member for Lake Macquarie
11.20 Group presentation with: Magdalena Ball Poetry; Fiction; Non-fiction; Jaye Ford Psychological thrillers; Judy Johnson Poetry; verse novel; novel; Beryl Mullard Local History
12.35 Rina Robinson Short story, Poetry
12.40 Lachlan Ness (Tony Lang) Non-fiction: Memoir & stories
12.55 Kaz Delaney (Kerri Lane) Young Adult Fiction
1.15 Carol Wylde-Browne/ Claire Shields Wangi Sailing Club Local History
1.30 Carol Heuchan Poetry & Performance
1.50 Jean Kent Poetry
2.10 Jan Mitchell Biography & Memoir
2.20 Debbie Robson Fiction – historical & contemp.
2.40 Christina Batey Young Adult Fiction
2.50 Linda Visman Young Adult Fiction
3.00 Karen Davey-Phillip Non-fiction: Raising children
3.15 Linda Brooks Non-fiction, Fiction (children’s & adults), Publishing
3.40 Elizabeth Horwitz Getting started in Writing
3.55 Close and thanks Linda Visman

It should be a wonderful day! Come along if you are in the Newcastle/Lake Macquarie area.

Message in a bottle

Message in a bottle found in Maine

In January 2011 I released 20 bottles into the ocean with flyers advertising my book Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel. 10 bottles (mainly wine bottles) were released at Newcastle breakwater and ten bottles at Swansea channel. More details are on my webpage including a plea to contact me should any bottles turn up.

Last month, out of the blue, I received an email from Meredith in Maine asking me if the bottle above was mine. I knew immediately that it wasn’t because below is what was enclosed in my bottles:

crossing paths DL artwork 1

My next thought, of course, was who did release the bottle? It was found in the Bayside area of Northport, Maine and the message reads in capitals:


From the photo you can see that the sand is quite a lot lighter than the beach sand from Maine. Meredith thinks that it may have come from Cape Cod or the Virginia area. Maybe even Australia! I would love to find out. Please contact me if you know where it may have come from or even if you are the Debbie who released the bottle. Here’s hoping we can meet. One Debbie to another! My fingers are crossed!! Please pass this message on if you can.

Finding the right historical details

magnifying glassI‘ve always believed, as the cliche says, that the devil is in the details. I love to seek out little known facts that can’t be found in historical accounts, newspapers and non-fiction works. Whilst writing my book Tomaree I interviewed upwards of 100 elderly people on their experiences of living during WWII. Most of them loved to chat and I wish now that I had had the time to talk to them about their whole lives, rather than just aspects of it. But unfortunately I was a single Mum working part time and I could only spend a few hours every fortnight or so up at Port Stephens where the novel was set.

Some of the stories I heard still resonate – the elderly lady whose mother, in the first years of the last decade, used to drive her pony and trap filled with home grown products from Anna Bay to Stockton, along a stretch of sand at low tide. Sometimes she got caught with the rising tide and a neighbour would have to mind my interviewee. Some time around the 1920s, I think, the sandbar was washed away after a massive storm and then the locals had to travel the long way around to Stockton or Newcastle after that.

There was also another Port Stephens resident who, as a young boy, remembered the American soldiers giving him money for ice-cream. I asked why and he told me it was because they hated all our small change, the threepennies, halfpennies etc that used to weigh down their pockets. “Here kid, go buy yourself an ice-cream.” You won’t find this fact in most non-fiction accounts of WWII involving Americans serving in England and Australia but some elderly people will remember that that’s what they often did.

As a novelist who is very interested in details such as these, I spend quite a lot of time hunting down such facts to make the past come alive. Interviewing people who have been there is a wonderful source of gems – such as a friend of mine’s uncle, a Rat of Tobruk, (he must be one of the last) who acquired a camera by trading with an Italian prisoner of war. When he got the film developed there were pictures of Rommel and his men. A case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I have sent my friend Gina, an oral historian in training, off with a list of questions. Not many of course as her uncle is 93 but I’m hoping she can get a few things down so his memories won’t be lost forever. This is one of the reasons I have started Starving in a Garret a collaborative workspace and sanctuary. One of the things I want to achieve is to find people interested in being oral historians and point them in the right direction. Recently a much loved GP died, I’m not positive but I’m guessing that most of the stories he could have told about being a doctor in Newcastle in the middle of the last century, have died with him.

I’m hoping to work towards building a team of oral historians that can interview people and compile a list of their memories of the local area (as well as details of their life of course) that can be donated to the local studies unit of their closest library. Memoirs and local histories are being written right now but I’m sure that there are wonderful, elderly people out there who are slipping through the net. I’m posting this blog to Starving in a Garret as well so please check there for progress on this project.

Arthur Streeton and the Battle of Amiens

I love hunting facts down, following paper trails and discovering interesting pieces of information. I mentioned in a previous blog that beginning my second draft of The Grey Silk Purse I had 98 points of research to check – things such as the location of the Niagara Cafe in Newcastle –
the weather in London on a December day in 1917, locations in Greece and various birds in the Hunter around 1920 to name some points.

Well I’m down to 10. Yay! and have been working on a very important research point – where my main male character Adrian Langley loses his leg. Before I could choose a location, I needed to choose a battalion for Adrian. I decided that although he is originally from Sydney, he actually joins up with his Mayfield cousins and in early 1917 becomes part of the 35th Battalion “Newcastle’s Own Regiment”.

Immediately the battle of Lena Wood (see picture in link above) caught my eye and with the mention of woods I decided to research the landscape of the Battle of Amiens, August 1918 and quickly found Arthur Streeton’s wonderful painting above. The sight of the painting really changed my thinking and brought with it more questions. Why was the landscape so beautiful and not ravaged? Did Streeton purposely paint an unaffected area of the battle or was this his idealised vision of the pre battle scene? The woods look wonderful, the scenery is green. The whole thing evokes a pleasant summer stroll and that thought led me to recreating AND transforming Adrian’s loss of his leg in a dream. Here is what I wrote inspired by the painting above:

“…Sometimes too the beautiful woods near Amiens loom large in his dreams. Often he is alone, strolling not fighting. August 1918. A summer’s day in northern France. A feeling of peace, contentment and then a sniper parts the green that conceals him and sends an arc of bullets that tears the ground up in front of him, rips Adrian’s right leg apart and slams into his hip and shoulder. It would be better to dream of the way it was but his mind has condensed and transformed the incident until it is almost completely unrecognisable. At least he’s not surrounded by men dying beside him and he is thankful for that. They inhabit the other dreams. Not this one.”

By researching the landscape of Amiens I had found the place where my character loses his leg but it also gave me the opportunity (because of the beauty of the place) to set it against the muddy, soul destroying landscape of a previous battle. Adrian’s most terrible nightmares are from the Battle of Passchendaele where his battalion was bogged down in the mud and only 90 from 508 remained at the end but it is not where he receives wounds (at least not physically) that almost kill him and cripple him for life. Hopefully my future readers will appreciate the irony.

I hate Microfilm readers!

Firstly, I can never feed the film on and get it started. It takes me forever. I am not very co-ordinated and as I struggle with the stupid reel I feel like I’m back at school. Secondly I need the print quite large so I spend my time going up and down each page so I don’t miss anything. And guess what? After half an hour of winding and bobbing up and down I’m suffering from motion sickness. So, not surprisingly, I only lasted an hour reading the October and November issues of the Newcastle Sun, 1917 yesterday morning but found a lot to giggle over.

One of my favourite things is something called Men and Women Personal Paragraphs with snippets of information such as: “Mr and Mrs Penny returned to Newcastle from Inverell today.” Or try this one: “Mr and Mrs  P Gordon Campbell of Mayfield are spending a short holiday in Inverell.” Good to know!

And then there are strange ads for weird things like Fishers Phospherine, the Misses Tidey and Tinsley selling hats, Parisian Designed Frocks. Yes please. (Actually they didn’t look bad). There was a Mme Petrona in the movie The Panther Woman which sounds like it might give Sex and the City a run for its money and a news item entitled “Twice married woman thought husband dead.” I suppose she thought it was worth a try!

By this time I’m totally over the dreaded microfilm readers and haven’t found any ads for two cafes I know existed in Newcastle in 1922 – Tyrrells and Mitchisons. No more torturing myself on the reader. Instead next Saturday I’m going to do some research old style. I’m going to be flipping through newspaper clipping books, turning the pages leisurely and not listening to the crank of a microfilm reader.

Thank God for the snippers club at the Newcastle Family History Society at Lambton. They are a group of enterprising women who meet, chat and patiently snip out domestic and miscellaneous newspaper articles from the Newcastle Morning Herald and other local papers. Yes, I’m going there next Saturday morning and you might not hear from me again for weeks. After all I went there two years ago looking for the New Moon Dance Club who hosted the 1930 New Year’s Eve Dance Party at the Trades Hall in Newcastle and instead stumbled upon an article about a lost silver purse that inspired my current work in progress!