Discovering Greta Norman Towner through inquiry into a Uniform
In August 2015, six Blackall State School students attended the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) White Gloves Day in Barcaldine as part of the SLQ QANZAC100 – Memories for a New Generation project. The students travelled the over 200 km round trip to be the first from their school and town to see the first authentic object of Sister Greta Norman Towner’s (rather than digital items). The students went through an inquiry process – How do we know this uniform belonged to Greta Norman Towner? Does it match the other records we have? How did it come to be in Barcaldine today? The students inspected and photographically documented the uniform, as it is currently resides in Tambo.
The starting point for inquiry was the medal set – much to the students’ delight they were a match to the war record stamps in Sister Towner’s online war record from the National Library of Australia – the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – but were they Greta’s?
In a direct match to Greta Towner’s online war record, her 1914-15 Star recognised Greta Towner as a Staff Nurse whilst the British War and Victory Medals recognised her as a Sister. These last two medals would have been released after her promotion to Sister in 1918. They were indeed a match!
Other matches to Greta Towner’s war record included the colour patch with a brass “A” on the sleeve of the jacket. The chocolate brown star and green stripe indicated her association with the 1st Australian General Hospital (1 AGH) as recorded in Sister Towner’s war service record. A red stripe was used for the 2 AGH and blue for 3 AGH, as recorded in Kristy Harris’ book, More than Bombs and Bandages.
The brass “A” related to her service on Lemnos Island, off the coast of Gallipoli. Sister Towner’s war record records her be detailed for the island on September 13th 1915. Her arrival on September 17th is recorded on page 57 in the unit diary of the 2nd Australian Standing Hospital on Lemnos Island. The right to wear the brass “A” and thus identify as an ANZAC, was granted in 1918 to nurses who served at casualty clearing stations at Gallipoli, nurses on the hospital and transport ships off Gallipoli and those on Lemnos, Imbros and Tenedos Islands during the Gallipoli campaign. This made them equal to the men involved in the Gallipoli Campaign. (Source: Australian War Memorial)
The two ‘pips’ between the Australia badge and button next to the nape of the red cape indicated a rank of Sister (the same as that of a Lieutenant). Again, a match to Sister Towner’s war service record. These matches boded well for the uniform as being associated with Sister Towner and confidence grew when Tambo Heritage Committee members, who are the current custodians of the uniform, revealed that Greta Towner’s niece, Susan Mayne (nee Towner) had gifted them the uniform and the ribbon and medal sets.
Once the SLQ conservator began the process of inspecting the uniform and packing it appropriately in a safe storage manner for future conservation, it revealed that the cape had a label. Whilst somewhat damaged it was possible to make out ‘Nurse Towner.
The moment it was sealed – label reading “Nurse Towner”The students were thrilled and amazed that Sister Greta Norman Towner’s uniform, some 100 years on not only existed but also was in such good order. They were humbled to have interacted with an object that they felt a strong connection with and proud that their growing knowledge of uniforms and medals had allowed them to question the uniform and confirm its association with Sister Towner – they knew who this uniform represented. Greta Norman Towner – a woman from their school and their town of Blackall.
A puzzling aspect of the uniform was that the ribbon set on the red cape did not match the ribbons of the medals. There was a sense of anticipation on this, hoping that the third ribbon might be a French one, given that in 1919, the Sydney Sunday Times newspaper reported Greta Towner as working in French Military Hospitals. In September 1917, Sister Towner’s war record sees her assigned to a British Hospital in Wimereux, France. Perhaps the British ‘lent’ Sister Towner to French hospitals and it was not recorded in her Australian record?
Online research did not provide an answer, but the Australian War Memorial Heraldry department did. It is an unofficial ribbon for the Victory Medal from early-mid 1919 before the ribbon and medal design were finalised and issued. After the Blackall State School inquiry, the Australian War Memorial posted an article on the ‘unofficial Victory Medal ribbon’.
Did Sister Greta Towner wear this uniform and ribbon set when she arrived at the Blackall train station with her brother Lieutenant Towner VC MC in mid-1919? A newspaper article from July 1919 only reported their arrival not what they were wearing. Would she have ever marched on Anzac Day in the uniform? Research says that after the First World War, nurses were denied the right to march in uniform on Anzac Day. However, nurses were granted that right a decade after the war, by which time Sister Greta Norman Towner, who has served just under four years as an Australian Nurse in the Australian Imperial Force, no longer resided in Australia.
On the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli that instigated Anzac Day, in 2015, Sister Greta Towner’s uniform was worn in Tambo’s Anzac Day march by a community member – one hundred years on Greta Towner’s uniform represented her in the Anzac Day march that she may never have got the chance to do herself in her uniform. This was the students’ first primary source viewed other than digitally reproduced items. It spurred them on in the hope finding or having others share content related to Sister Towner, such as photos, letters, postcards and/or diaries in order to discover more about this special ANZAC.
Blackall State School students have since produced a video on Sister Towner’s life and their connection with her including the interaction of the six students who inspected Greta Towner’s uniform. Their video is part of the Blackall State School and the Blackall Historical Society’s History Pin project, From Blackall to Battle and Back, as recipients of a grant from the State Library of Queensland through their Q ANZAC 100 – Memories for a New Generation, History Pin project.
Thanks to the generosity of Susan Mayne, Sister Towner’s niece, the students have read their first piece of Sister Towner’s writing, digital images of a post card sent by Greta Towner from the Orontes during her voyage from Australia to Egypt. Their interpretation of this important digital item will appear soon. Photos shared by Carroll Abell and Bridget Dendle.
Australian Government, Defence Honours & Awards, Imperial Awards, 1914-15 Star, http://www.defence.gov.au/Medals/Imperial/WWI/1914-15-Star.asp (Viewed 22/09/2015)
Australian Government, Defence Honours & Awards, Imperial Awards, British War Medal, http://www.defence.gov.au/Medals/Imperial/WWI/British-War-Medal-1914-20.asp (Viewed 22/09/2015)
Australian Government, Defence Honours & Awards, Imperial Awards, Victory Medal, http://www.defence.gov.au/Medals/Imperial/WWI/Victory-Medal.asp (Viewed 22/09/2015)
AWM41 1067, ‘Dress: Correspondence with Miss I.I Lindsay. Note by Sister E. Vickers Foote.’
Australian War Memorial, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) 1914-15 outdoor dress, https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2014/05/14/australian-army-nursing-service-1914-15-outdoor-dress/ (Viewed 22/09/2015)
Australian War Memorial, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) 1916 outdoor dress, https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2014/07/29/australian-army-nursing-service-aans-1916-outdoor-dress/ (Viewed 22/09/2015)
Australian War Memorial, The History of the Anzac badge “A”,
https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/anzac/badge/history/ (viewed 22 August 2015)
DIANNE RUTHERFORD, The Unofficial Victory Medal ribbon of 1919 https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2015/09/01/unofficial-victory-medal-ribbon-1919 (01/09/2015) (Viewed 22/09/2015)
Harris, K, More than Bombs and Bandages, Big Sky Publishing, Newport, NSW, 2011 Looking for Evidence, AANS Uniform & Service Requirements, https://sites.google.com/site/archoevidence/home/ww1australianwomen/aans-uniform (Viewed 22/09/2015)
Museum Victoria, Item HT 25303 Buttons - Nurse's Uniform, World War I, Australia, 1915-1920 http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1584133 (Viewed 22/09/2015)