Penrith District Nurses Hospital Ship – Grantala

( Photograph No 302802 Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial )

Nurses in this photograph include three women from Penrith:

Front Row (left to right): Sr Stella Colless (Penrith); Sr McMillan; Sister Constance Neale (Penrith);
Surgeon W N Horsfall; Sr Rachel Clouston (Penrith); Sr Rose Kirkcaldie; Sister Burtenshaw;

Middle row, centre: Matron Sarah Melanie de Mestre

At the outbreak of World War 1, an expedition called the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force (AN & MEF) was sent to the German colonies in the Pacific including Rabaul. Accompanying the force was the Grantala , the first to be fitted out as an Australian hospital ship during World War 1.

The Grantala, along with her sister ship Yongala, was built for the Adelaide Steamship Company at the Armstrong and Whitworth Shipyards at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England for the interstate trade. The Grantala , a coal fired steamer launched in 1904 was 363 feet long and 3655 tons.

On 7 August 1914, the Grantala was taken over by the Navy Department and fitted out as a hospital ship at Garden Island (Sydney). The Nepean Times carried the following report on the hospital ship:

“Australia has just fitted out her first hospital ship – the Grantala, and now she is on the way to the seat of war. The ship was decked in the colours of neutrality and mercy that are recognised all over the civilised world; the hull clean and white, with a broad green band from stem to stern, and the Red Cross of Geneva clearly shown in the middle of the hull. Prior to leaving she took on board stores and comforts and hospital necessaries, getting ready for the time when these may be required.

The Grantala is bounded by international law and the Geneva Convention. She is absolutely neutral. As soon as her arrangements for putting to sea were complete all the belligerents were notified.She must fly the Red Cross flag. She is liable to be inspected at any time by any warships of the nations at war. While she is ostensibly setting out to succour the sick and wounded soldiers of Australia and the Empire, she is on a wider and more comprehensive errand of mercy, and it need be must attend to the wounded of the enemy. But she enjoys absolute freedom from interference on the high seas.

A visit of inspection to the Grantala revealed how splendidly everything that human skill can do had been done to make the place a real floating hospital. There are wards for 180 men. The cabins have been arranged and refitted that the ship could accommodate at a pinch a maximum of 300 sick or wounded sailors. The holds are full of hospital stores. The operating theatre is as well furnished as a modern hospital. The dispensary is well stocked with every need. The horrors of war will not be increased by any shortage of chloroform or ether. There is a bacteriological laboratory and an X ray studio. Electric fans are ready to cool the wards and cabins. There is enough calico and medicated wool and lint to do for a good-sized navy.

Dr Horsfall is in charge of the whole arrangements on board. He has been appointed acting fleet surgeon for the Royal Australian Naval Reserve. Under his guidance a tour of the hospital ship was made additionally interesting, and all thing were made plain to the landsman. For he has been nine years in the navy. For three years he was staff surgeon to the Bermuda Naval Hospital, and four years on the flagship with Admiral Sir Day Bosanquet. He is an Australasian, for he spent years in Melbourne and New Zealand, and recently was settled at Newcastle. With him are Dr Stephens of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, who only recently returned from England, primed with the latest surgical knowledge; Dr Trinca, of the Melbourne Hospital; and two equally brilliant young doctors from Melbourne, Dr Doyle of St Vincent’s and Dr Southey the skiagraphist to the Melbourne Hospital, Doctors Farrer and Wesley, who were selected by Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart for this work, even as the Melbourne men were selected by Sir Harry Allen. The consulting surgeon is Dr W A James, of Melbourne.

The Rev Mr Hudson is the chaplain of the Grantala . He comes from the Cerberus (Willliamstown Naval Depot) and has a large experience in dealing with service ratings.

In the nurses’ quarters, comfortably fitted up by kind friends ashore, are the matron Miss de Mestre, and six of the nursing sisters – Misses Clouston, Kirkcaldie, McMillen, Buttenshaw, Neale and Colless – all specially selected nurses from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Three of the nurses mentioned are natives of Penrith – Miss Clouston (daughter of the late Rev T E Clouston), a former Presbyterian Minister at Penrith), Miss Connie Neale (daughter of Mr H J F Neale), and Miss Stella Colless (daughter of Mr and Mrs Alfred Colless). In charge of the operating room is Mr Wilson, who has had 30 years experience in the same hospital; the dispenser is Mr Creig, from the Newcastle Hospital; and an ex-navy man, Chief Sick Berth Steward Murray, has charge of the 23 selected ambulance men, recommended by Dr T Storie Dixson, of the St John Ambulance.

As the wounded sailors come over the side they are placed in the receiving-room on the main deck. Aft is the observation room for special cases, and forward is the theatre, with hot and cold water, glass skylights, ample ventilation, and all that a modern operating theatre demands. A lift conveys the patients to the lower deck ward and cabins. Amidships are the nurses’ quarters, and further on is the laundry. They say on board that you could leave all your clothes in the laundry on your way to the bath, and on returning could have them ready washed, ironed and mangled. Maybe this is an exaggeration. But everything is done by machinery, and is right up to date. There is a washing machine, a hot-air chamber for drying, a steriliser for the surgical dressings, and a disinfector for the bedding. There is a mangle and flat irons, and all incidentals for a first-class laundry. On a hospital ship this is a vital necessity.

On the upper desk provision is made for the cots of the convalescents – 20 on each side of the deck. there is also an infectious ward on the poop deck with plenty of fresh air. Two motor boats are provided to transport soldiers from any warships or ports to the hospital ship.

Friends on shore sent gifts of books and tobacco and cards and games, and other presents and comforts for the wounded soldiers. Miss Henderson, sister of the captain-in-charge, HMA Naval Establishments, assisted by several ladies, was untiring in her exertions to assist in adding to the general comfort of the vessel, and among other things provided a little bag for each cot, in which the sailors may have their pipe or personal belongings. Altogether, the hospital ship of today is a vastly different proposition to the cockpit of the Victory, a hundred years ago.” [Grantala: Australia’s Hospital Ship Nepean Times 5 September 1914, p3 c4-5]

When the Grantala left Sydney on 30th August she carried a full complement of medical staff including the three nurses from the Penrith District. Also on board the Grantala were two Penrith men: Henry Lethbridge Tingcombe the purser of the Grantala and Corporal Arthur Gates. Tingcombe later joined the 18th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force and died on 29 July 1916. Gates, who had served with the 1st NSW Mounted Rifles in the Boer War, enlisted at the beginning of World War 1 and served in Rabaul, Egypt and the Western Front.

After arriving in Townsville, the Grantala was ordered to Rabaul and arrived on 13th September. Within an hour of arrival, the wounded were brought aboard. Several days later when the French cruiser Montcalm arrived at Rabaul, some of her wounded were also transferred to the Grantala. On the 4 October 1914, the Grantala along with other ships in the squadron, was ordered to Suva and remained there until the German Squadron was defeated near the Falkland Islands.

The Australian Nurses Journal of January 1915 provided the following information:

“Several PA nurses went off in the early days of the war in the “Grantala” the hospital ship attached to our fleet. With the destruction of the “Emden” and the Pacific Squadron there seemed no further need for this ship, and she returned to Sydney, and the staff was disbanded. These nurses, Miss Colless, Miss Clouston, Miss De Mestre, Miss MacMillan, Miss Burtenshaw, Miss Kirkcaldie, and Miss Pearson, are therefore back with us, but we think are mostly yearning for an opportunity to go to the Front.

She then returned to Sydney in and was paid off on 22 December 1914 as she was too small . She was handed back to her owners in February 1915 and later that year a British subsidiary of the the Compagnie General Transatlantique (CGT) purchased the Grantala and renamed her the Figuig. In 1920 she was transferred to the CGT and scrapped in 1934.

The Australian Nurses Journal (1915) volume 13, no. 1 p. 2.