The comfort work of Annie and Portia Wheeler
Guest Blogger: Ursula Cleary 2016-17 Q ANZAC 100: memories for a new generation Fellow
Annie Wheeler moved to Westminster Gardens in March 1917 to be closer to the Australian military offices, Red Cross, YMCA and cable office in Horseferry Road and the ANZAC Buffet in Victoria Street. Proximity to these organisations was crucial for her comfort work. Communication delays and errors were common place during war but even the short bus ride to Lancaster Gate, where she had been living, compounded these problems. In 1917 Annie had 900 boys on her list; 900 boys she had vowed to “mother” and comfort. Annie sent and forwarded letters, parcels and cables, visited the sick and wounded in hospital, entertained those on furlough, transferred and loaned money, located boys who were missing, presumed dead or prisoners of war and opened her home to any who needed a bed.
Portia, Annie’s daughter, now 19, shared the immense workload. Annie and Portia moved to England so Portia could complete her schooling at the private girl’s boarding school Clovelly-Kepplestone in Eastbourne, Sussex. The Wheeler family were from Eastbourne and Annie’s husband, Henry’s Will stipulated Portia should finish her education in England. They moved to England in 1912 and were there when war was declared.
When Annie suffered a breakdown at the end of 1917, Portia took over the operation, now the Central Queensland Comfort Fund, leasing two additional rooms at Westminster Gardens for offices and moving the work out of their flat. Annie credited Portia for properly organising the work. She told her friend Mary Stewart 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’s list, transferred from a book to an index card system, had grown from 900 boys to around 2300. Each boy had his own index card. The soldier’s details and description of each contact was recorded on the front of the card, his family’s details on the back.
In her late teens, Portia was ripe for romance and with so many young soldiers coming and going it’s not surprising she fell in love. Fred Fox, a regular visitor when he was on leave, captured her heart. Enlisting in 1914, the twenty-year-old private was one of the first to land on the beach in Gallipoli. He fought in France and Belgium and was promoted three times. Captain Fred Fox spent as much time with Portia as possible and when he was severely wounded in August 1918, Portia’s comfort work became personal. They returned to Australia and were married in 1920; Annie walking her daughter down the aisle.
Further stories about Annie and Portia Wheeler’s life in London are available on my blog http://www.ursula-cleary.com
The photographs, recently digitised, are from the Mrs. Annie Margaret Wheeler papers 1884-1991 collection in the John Oxley Library.