The Queensland Connection of Ethel Campbell: The Angel of Durban

 

Ethel Campbell with her semaphore flags. John Oxley Library, Negative No. 193322.

Ethel Campbell with her semaphore flags. John Oxley Library, Negative No. 193322.

The young lady above, with her semaphore flags, was known as the "Angel of Durban" and was loved and revered by Australian troops during the First World War.

Ethel Margaret Campbell, was born in Glasgow in 1886. Her father, Dr Samuel Campbell, was a native of Natal in South Africa, but received his degree from Edinburgh University and practiced medicine in Glasgow, Scotland.  He eventually returned to South Africa with his family.

During World War I his daughter, Ethel, devoted herself to the welfare of Australian and New Zealand soldiers who passed through Durban on their way to and from the front.  From 1915 until the end of the war she met every Australian troopship arriving in Durban and, being an expert signaller, would welcome the troops with her semaphore flags, as she stood on the wharf.  When the ships left she would send them a final farewell wishing them good luck.

She also worked tirelessly at the  YMCA hut in Durban, which was known as the "Soldiers Rest", where the troops could relax, enjoy an inexpensive meal and be entertained by the lady volunteers.  Ethel and her parents also looked after the troops at their home in the Durban hills, offering hospitality to the boys far from home.  In 1919 Ethel was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in recognition of her war work.

Volunteers at the YMCA hut, Durban, during World War I. Masterton District Library and Archive, Record No. 525639.

Volunteers at the YMCA hut, Durban, during World War I. Masterton District Library and Archive, Record No. 525639.

Ethel was also a gifted poet and wrote many verses about the Australian troops she admired so much.  These poems were published in newspapers and as compilations of her work.  Several of her publications are held in the John Oxley Library including When the Diggers touched at Durban 1915-1920 and A Passing Cheer!: COO.EE!-Love to all my Digger Pals". 

Campbell, Ethel "A Passing Cheer" p. 2-3.

Campbell, Ethel "A Passing Cheer" p. 2-3.

Campbell, Ethel, "A Passing Cheer!", p. 8.

Campbell, Ethel, "A Passing Cheer!", p. 8.

In 1923 Ethel, with her parents, made a tour of Australia where she was feted at receptions across the country which were organised by the Returned Services League.

The Campbell family's visit to Queensland, however, had a special significance.  Dr Campbell's sister, and aunt of Ethel, Marie Campbell  who was born in Natal, was married to Sir Alfred Sandlings Cowley, who had been a Queensland politician and a sugar planter in North Queensland.  During the war he was chairman and administrator of the Queensland Patriotic Fund.

Sir Alfred Sandlings Cowley. John Oxley Library, Negative No. 16807.

Sir Alfred Sandlings Cowley. John Oxley Library, Negative No. 16807.

Lady Cowley, nee Marie Campbell, was the founder and president of the Queensland Soldiers' Comforts Fund.  In 1920 she was appointed OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for her patriotic and fundraising efforts during World War I.  Ethel and her parents stayed with the Cowleys at their home, Silky Oaks, in Toowong, Brisbane, during their stay.

Silky Oaks, Toowong, Brisbane. Photograph from: http://www.silkyoaks.org.au/our-community/our-history/

Silky Oaks, Toowong, Brisbane. Photograph from: http://www.silkyoaks.org.au/our-community/our-history/

The John Oxley Library holds a presentation address, featuring flowers embroidered on silk, which was presented to Lady Cowley in 1919 by the Queensland Soldiers' Comforts Fund, in appreciation of her war work.

Presentation Address to Marie Cowley, John Oxley Library, Acc: 10004.

Presentation Address to Marie Cowley, John Oxley Library, Acc: 10004.

John Oxley Library, Acc: 10004.

John Oxley Library, Acc: 10004.

In honour of her Australian tour Ethel wrote the poem To Aussie Land.  A hand-written and signed copy is held in the John Oxley Library, (OM 80-52).

Sadly, with the advent of World War Two, Ethel was again called to duty with her semaphore flags as she welcomed the diggers of the second A.I.F to Durban.   When she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1944 she moved, for health reasons, from Durban to Hilton, which was about 70 miles away.  Not to be deterred, many soldiers found their way to her new home which she called "Little Australia", and which was filled with the gifts she had received from grateful soldiers. She had a two-up tower erected in the garden for the amusement of her Australian friends.

Ethel died in April 1954 and was mourned throughout Australia, but especially by the diggers she had served so tirelessly and faithfully during the dark years of war.

Lynn Meyers, QANZAC100 Content Curator

 

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I have a collection of Ethel Campbell poems titled Australia at War that has two pages glued together. The poem on the glued pages is titled Twenty Years Ago . Do any of the publications held by you contain this poem? I would very much appreciate a copy.

I have a deteriorating copy of tbe poem The binge of "Niam". I would very much like a copy of this poem. Many thanks, Annie