Flynn's Outback Angels
Casting the Mantle
by Ivan Rudolph
In this, the second book of the John Flynn trilogy, Ivan Rudolph highlights the women who were part of the AIM and often referred to as ‘Outback Angels’, who played a vital part in helping and fulfilling his dream for a 'Mantle of Safety’. Sister Bett was known as The Little Angel of the North while Flying Doctor Jean White was referred to as The Angel of the Gulf Country. Confronted by rough and tough bush communities these, young and not so young, women, mostly of city background experienced a culture shock we can hardly imagine. But they coped!
Epic and life-threatening journeys to minister to the sick were part of their daily lives for these gallant women. We can only marvel at their dedication amid the heat, dust and haunting loneliness. They sought neither praise nor great reward, but in the words of John Flynn, ‘Silent lives often accomplish more’.
The author argues successfully that Flynn’s main purpose was bringing more women to the outback to ‘sweeten life there’. They would go a long way to solve the horrendous moral and spiritual problems which plagued life in the inland. That is why he sought out, and obtained, the help of so many women and did all he could to encourage women to live in the inland. According to Flynn ‘Good women make good men’. Without women he saw no future for that large part of Australia.
How better to achieve this than to have women go out into the bush as part of his missionary work? Even if they married Inlanders, which many did, and were lost to the AIM they would make a permanent presence and carry on the good work just the same. Their training would not be lost.
As early as 1917 The Northern Territory Times wrote about the work done in Flynn’s cottage hospital at Maranboy when it said ‘The presence of the hospital and its conveniences has encouraged the men to bring their womenfolk to the settlement, and the result is an immense improvement in the comfort and social conditions of this pioneer township’. The same could have been said of any other town where a hospital was opened.
After 6 years of research Ivan Rudolph realised that there had been hundreds of women who had worked for the AIM and not just Sisters or Nurses. There had been flying doctors, vets, pilots, dentists, social workers, flight sisters, educationalists and the list goes on and on. He now had to decide what to put in and what to leave out. After cutting out much material, in particular that of women who had already been written up by other authors, he still needed two books to make it manageable. This volume covers the time up to the Second World War.
His opening chapter deals with Jeannie Gunn, author of We of the Never Never and The Little Black Princess. She was not an AIM Sister but performed similar services and over the years Flynn came to rely on her for information and put several of her ideas into practice. He visited her many times when she was living in Melbourne. She was one of the many women who helped to implement Flynn’s vision.
It was the letters from women living in the inland that stirred Flynn. He had not visualised the vast parched Australian Inland as a potential mission field. After receiving a letter from Jessie Litchfield he was stirred by compassion and it raised his awareness of the plight of these pioneering women. Some of these letters were quoted by his sister Rosetta in her writings which raised additional funds for Flynn’s ideas to be put into practice.
His chapter on Jessie Litchfield is a real eye-opener. It describes better than anything else written before some of the conditions in the outback. She mentioned several times the eating of unwanted half-cast babies by Aboriginal relatives. Although not always ‘political correct’ for our times it certainly provides food for thought. No wonder her letters and those of Jeannie Gunn influenced Flynn’s thinking and achievements.
When Sister Latto Bett at Oodnadatta volunteered for the war effort Flynn had to look for someone to replace the Little Angel of the North. For 4 years she had been nurse, teacher, preacher, confidant and sometimes doctor and always a friend to the community. She was eventually replaced in February 1914 by Sister Jean Finlayson, a Deaconess and triple-certificated Sister. Upon arrival she was much impressed by the little hospital and the Afghan cameleers, ‘whose teeth were easy to pull’. Within months she had treated over 400 patients.
Ida Standley, later Dame Ida, who taught at Alice Springs and boarded with Policeman Robert Stott and his wife also wrote about the plight of half-cast girls who ran the risk of being sold by their tribal relatives for prostitution or were taken away by some unscrupulous man who kept her just as long as he cared to. Dr Walker was in full agreement and wrote to the government that female half-casts were nothing but public property. Standley Chasm, several streets and a school have been named after Ida.
In September 1915 Sister Finlayson moved to Alice Springs where she had a hard time. During her last three months in Oodnadatta she had 6 inpatients, 55 outpatients, 15 tooth extractions, 11 Sabbath evening services, 20 Sunday school sessions and 1 funeral. Flynn greatly benefitted from her information and experiences when he built his hospital at the Alice in 1926. It was named Adelaide House. A grateful Alice Springs later named Finlayson Street and Finlayson Park after her.
Soon Flynn was pressured to open a hospital at Innamincka, where Burke and Wills had died in 1860, staffed by nurses like Bett and Finlayson. Managers of Innamincka Station, leased by Sidney Kidman, Nappa Merrie, Cordillo Downs, which employed 150 whites, and Arrabury which had 50 men on its payroll, agreed in 1923 to host a Border Nurse. The nurse appointed was Marjorie Kinnear who had been the first Sister at the Mitchell Home in Beltana.
She would have to cover an incredibly hot, desolated, dry and forbidding region, half the size of Victoria to act alone without medical support of any kind and without access to telephone, wireless or telegraph. Besides the local stockmen, station hands, shearers and managers she treated itinerant Aborigines, Afghans, swagmen, rouseabouts and drovers who used the Strzelecki Track.
For the people of this vast inland region it was a great relief to have a nurse in the ‘vicinity’. Kinnear had nothing but praise for the kindness and courtesy she was shown by all. Conditions were hard on her as well with temperatures often around the 50 degrees. She was later replaced by Aleida Levick followed by Elizabeth Burchill, who would later write several books about her different postings.
Newspaper articles written by Kinnear resulted in a £1500 donation from Sir Josiah Symon to build a hospital at Innamincka which was opened by Rev Andrew Barber in May 1929. Within a year the nurses were learning and mastering Morse code enabling them to use Traeger’s transceivers to contact the Flying Doctor at Cloncurry for advice.
Birdsville got its hospital in 1923 when Sisters Ida Grace Francis and Catherine Boyd arrived having travelled 1800 km in 16 days to start their mission. They delivered the first baby, Lyle Morton on 21 May 1924. Lyle would later marry an AIM Sister from the Birdsville Hospital, as did his son.
A striking characteristic of Flynn’s nurses was how positive they remained throughout, despite the overwhelming discomforts and difficulties. Most stayed for the agreed two years but Nance Inglis from Port Adelaide, who had started with her older sister Nell at Port Hedland became the longest serving nurse in the AIM network. She also served at Alice Springs, Barmera and Beltana.
In the little spare time the nurses had they managed to organise social events, went swimming and dancing or played tennis or any other sports. A more unusual activity was gold-panning. Olive Weymouth though panned enough gold at Halls Creek to make her wedding ring.
Several of the AIM Sisters and nurses have been awarded a MBE or an OBE for their services. If they had been in the Armed Forces some would have qualified for a VC. One of those was South Australian born Ruth Heathcock who spent her childhood near the shores of Lake Alexandrina. After training she was appointed to Maranboy in 1930 where both Sisters were malaria-stricken. She later moved to Mataranka.
It was here that Ruth was confronted by leprosy among the Aborigines and whites. She devoted most of her life, not just two years, to improving their treatment, both medical and social. She, and later with her husband Ted, served at the leprosarium at Darwin, Channel Island and Borroloola.
In 1941 Ruth, although unable to swim, defied crocodiles, snakes and storms while travelling in a dugout canoe nearly 100 km down the swollen McArthur River into the Gulf down another 30 km to the Wearyon River in an effort to save the life of Horace Foster. He died a few hours after her arrival from loss of blood and gangrene. She was later awarded the MBE for ‘One of the bravest acts ever heard of’ and also for her ‘sacrificial nursing services’.
After reading these and other stories collected by the author about those women who served in whatever capacity in the Inland one is almost dumbfounded. It often beggars belief what they put up with, did and accomplished. What John Flynn did and achieved was incredible but it would never have been possible without the help of the Women of the AIM. Ivan Rudolph has done an excellent job making this available to readers who will be enthralled and enriched.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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