Discovering Sister Greta Norman Towner through Historical Enquiry

Guest blogger: Avril Fazel, Head of Department, Blackall State School.

During research into Blackall born and past student of Blackall State School, Major Edgar Towner VC MC FRGSA, a student from Blackall State School came across an article describing the return of Lieutenant Edgar Towner and his sister, nurse Greta Towner to their home town of Blackall in 1919.

Sister Greta Norman Towner – date and location unknown. (image shared by family member)

Sister Greta Norman Towner – date and location unknown. (image shared by family member)

In Blackall today, Edgar Thomas Towner is remembered through the statue “Towner’s Call”. Ronan Robinson, from Blackall State School wrote a letter to the “Barcoo Independent” in 2008, that saw the community galvanise to see “Towner’s Call” erected in 2009. Edgar Towner VC MC and twice mentioned in dispatches is also well documented in the public domain.

But… Who was Sister Greta Norman Towner?  What did she do during the First World War? What was her life like after the war?  The students knew about Edgar but what about Greta?

Towner’s Call – statue to commemorate the life of Greta’s brother – Edgar Thomas Towner VC MC FRGSA

Towner’s Call – statue to commemorate the life of Greta’s brother – Edgar Thomas Towner VC MC FRGSA

Initial research into Greta Towner online revealed her war record and a grainy image with a few words from an article that appeared in 1919 in the Sydney paper, “The Sunday Times”.  These were the starting point to “Discovering this Sister Greta Towner” through historical enquiry.

Students from Blackall State School with support from Head of Department, Avril Fazel, and Christine Campbell from the Blackall Historical Society began the process of researching and enquiring.  Seeking to find valid sources and supporting evidence about Greta Towner’s life.

Glencoe and the Towner Family (date unknown)

Glencoe and the Towner Family (date unknown)

Research to date has established Sister Greta Norman Towner as being born at “Glencoe” station, Blackall in 1891, she attended Blackall State School and continued her education in Rockhampton.  Greta Towner trained as nurse at the Rockhampton Children’s Hospital, registering as a Nurse in August 1914 and enlisting in July, 1915.  Sister Towner served with the AANS (Australian Army Nursing Service) in Egypt (Heliopolis, Cairo), Lemnos Island from September 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign and on Sea Transport ships.  In 1917 she saw service in England at the Southall Hospital which specialised in amputations and artificial limbs. In March 1917 she arrived in France and was posted to the 8th Stationary Hospital in Rouen. On 27 September 1917 she was posted to the 1 AGH (1st Australian General Hospital) in Rouen and served there for the remainder of the First World War. Sister Towner was officially discharged on 4 July 1919.

Staff Nurse uniform of Greta Norman Towner. Photo by State Library of Queensland

Staff Nurse uniform of Greta Norman Towner. Photo by State Library of Queensland

Upon her return to Australia, Sister Towner took on pharmacy study at the University of Sydney, emigrating to the United States of America where she married twice and held various positions as nurse in veteran hospitals.  Sister Greta passed away in the US in 1961 and shares a gravestone with her second husband, Harry Maloney.

E T Towner – Greta’s Father (date and location unknown – image shared by family member)

E T Towner – Greta’s Father (date and location unknown – image shared by family member)

During the enquiry process, Sister Towner’s uniform become known to the students of Blackall State School and a five students were able to view it and make connections with Greta Towner through this historically significant object.  Similarly, through sharing their research, some Towner relatives offered images and insights into Sister Greta’s life to the students to further their research and connection with the past student.

Greta Towner (nee Hurley) – Sister Towner’s mother (date and location unknown –

Greta Towner (nee Hurley) – Sister Towner’s mother (date and location unknown –

Through the State Library of Queensland’s History Pin project as part of their Q ANZAC 100 – Memories for a New Generation project, students are making their own documentary on Sister Towner’s life and their connection to her story and the process of ‘Discovering Greta’. The video will be published on the “Blackall to Battle and Back” History Pin as part the SLQ Q ANZAC 100 project.   They hope their research will see more objects relevant to this ANZAC from their school shared – so more people will come to know her story.  The University of Sydney has already shown interest in recording Greta’s association with the university through their remembering of the First World War and it is hoped this research will see students of Blackall State School remember Sister Greta Norman Towner in the generations to come.

Enquiries, comments and contributions are most welcome.

Avril Fazel – afaze1@eq.edu.au  (Ph 042978819)

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Thanks to Pamela Francies and Shirley Watts for sharing the images of Sister Towner, Glencoe and Greta Towner (nee Hurley) and Edgar Towner (Greta's parents). Pam and Shirley, are two of many family members with whom our research has been shared. Both Pam and Shirley are nurses as are generations of the extended Towner family.

Nephews, John and Geoffrey Towner were significant in seeing "Towner's Call" come into being with their time, effort and donations to see Edgar Towner VC MC FRGSA remembered in Blackall.

In 2015, Blackall State School student, Bayley Williams was inspired in part by Edgar Towner's story to apply for and be awarded a position on the Queensland Premier's Anzac Prize Tour. Bayley attended Anzac Day at Gallipoli on the centenary, where he visited the resting places and memorials of three of Blackall's Fallen Comrades and read a eulogy to Major Towner VC MC in France. It was Bayley's research that spurred on students, staff and community to discover more on Greta Towner's story.

Please note that Greta Norman Towner enlisted with the rank of Staff Nurse, however, the image of uniform here relates to her being ranked Sister Greta Towner - the uniform has the two 'pips' indicated this rank that is equivalent to a Lieutenant and matches her war record that sees her afforded the rank of Sister in 1918 as does her medal set.

Correction - the correct spelling of Hurley should be Herley. My apologies.

We found mention of E.T. Towner I imagine Major E T Towner's father who exhibited the best 3 rams in the Gympie "Show" in 1878 in the Mining Gazette. We wonder why he was exhibiting sheep in Gympie if he came from Blackall. I work at the Gympie Show society now and wonder if these Towner's are related to our family. Narelle & Colin Towner. Gympie.

We found mention of E.T. Towner I imagine Major E T Towner's father who exhibited the best 3 rams in the Gympie "Show" in 1878 in the Mining Gazette. We wonder why he was exhibiting sheep in Gympie if he came from Blackall. I work at the Gympie Show society now and wonder if these Towner's are related to our family.

We found mention of E.T. Towner I imagine Major E T Towner's father who exhibited the best 3 rams in the Gympie "Show" in 1878 in the Mining Gazette. We wonder why he was exhibiting sheep in Gympie if he came from Blackall. I work at the Gympie Show society now and wonder if these Towner's are related to our family. Narelle & Colin Towner. Gympie.

Does anyone know if this lady knew Annie Frew Muirhead Dowie from Enoggera, Qld?

I am related to Colin & Narelle Towner, Colin's grandfather Alan was a cousin of my father Laurence. We are descended from James Towner who arrived in Sydney in 1839. Edgar Towner is descended from Thomas Towner who arrived in Hobart in 1827 with his mother & sisters. They were the first Towners to settle in Australia. Thomas moved to the Darling Downs and raised a large family in Queensland. Edgar won both the VC & Military Cross in WW1.