As the library of record for Victoria, the State Library has a mandate to collect, store, preserve and share the stories, history and experiences of Victoria and Victorians for generations to come. This means that the likelihood of finding a book, photograph, manuscript, map or other collection item related to your local area – sometimes even your house! – is high.

Recently, I was exploring material related to my local area when I came across the identity of Kathleen Gawler, and her collection of photographs from World War I. The collection comprises six albums that record the people, places and experiences she encountered during her service with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) – primarily in Egypt, but also in Turkey, India and Palestine.1

Having initially trained at the Castlemaine Hospital (Age, 19 December 1912), Kathleen made her way to Melbourne to work, before enlisting in the Reserve, embarking from Melbourne in May 1915 aboard the RMS Mooltan.2 She joined the third of four contingents, sent by the Government at the request of the British War Office to supply nurses for the Reserve.3

Kathleen Gawler is listed as the only candidate at Castlemaine Hospital amongst the Country Hospitals listed. Metropolitan Hospitals are listed first
Candidates who passed the Nursing Examination in November 1912, as reported in The Age on 19 December, p 7
Full-length photograph of female standing to right, wearing ankle length nurses' uniform with cape and veil, Standing at entrance with sign above door reading: To F Ward.
Kathleen Gawler outside Ward F (‘My ward’) in her QAIMNS Reserve Uniform; H2011.37/46

As Kathleen disembarked at Suez on 15 June,4 one can only guess at what she might have felt; fear, excitement, adventure, challenge, and perhaps, an intent to capture as much as she could of the scenes around her.

While few of the photos are marked with any context, there was still method in what Kathleen chose to capture; the impact of war, but also a sense of her workplace and those she worked with, relationships formed with soldiers and locals, and moments too of rest and relaxation, with glimpses of the Australian larrikin spirit.

L to R: Interior of nurse’s room, Egypt; H2011.36/28. Army encampments in Egypt; H2011.37/118. Nurses and officers outside of a hotel, Egypt; H2011.36/42

Perhaps the photo, ‘My ward’, marks her first days at the 15 General Hospital in Alexandria. She is captured standing at the door of Ward F in Reserve uniform: a short grey cape with scarlet trim, and a service badge featuring a large ‘R’ at the centre, worn on the right side of the cape.5 6

It was the start of a relationship with Egypt that would continue beyond the years of Kathleen’s war service. Beginning as Staff Nurse, records identify that she rose to the rank of Assistant Sister,7 and was held in high regard. A quote from a colleague, as recorded on the Australian Nurses in World War 1 website recounts:

Sister Kathleen Gawler was only with me about one month, but I found her to be a very keen charge sister – good to her patients, and appeared to be very interested in her work. Should say she was most capable, and certainly well fitted for further employment in Military Hospitals…

W. L. Potter QAIMNS

The RMS Mooltan as it departed Melbourne for Egypt in May 1915. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, P11524.002

There was a short posting to the temporary transport unit in late 1915, most likely on the hospital ship, Glengorm Castle. A later posting of some significance was at the 36 Stationary Hospital in Gaza from 1917 to 1918,8 during which time she reportedly set up a Red Cross Club for nurses who lacked a recreational meeting place.  

L to R: The wounded on board the Glengorm Castle; H2011.37/6, H2011.37/25, H2011.37/26

On 1 January 1918, Kathleen was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class.9 The Royal Red Cross was instituted in 1883 by Queen Victoria to recognise exceptional service in military nursing by British or Commonwealth nurses. In 1915 due to an increase in numbers during World War I, an Associate or 2nd Class was added.10 11

L: QAIMNS Reserve badges. Courtesy of Science Museum Group UK. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. R: Royal Red Cross 2nd Class (ARRC) decoration. Courtesy of Auckland Museum. CC BY 4.0

By the end of 1918, debilitating migraines caused Kathleen to be confined to quarters for a short time before later she was granted extended sick leave to return to England in October 1919.12 She returned to Melbourne on the Megnatic on 9 January 1920, embarking from Liverpool, finally relieved of duty in Melbourne on 25 February.13

L to R: Nurse with wounded soldier, Egypt; H2011.36/27. Two young women, probably nurses, at the beach, Egypt; H2011.36/59. Nurse dressing up as a soldier, Egypt; H2011.36/22

However, within two years she sailed again for England and on to Egypt, working at the Church Missionary Society Hospital at Menouf. It was here she met her future husband, the Reverend Herbert Edward Elton Hayes, who was in charge of the church and school.14 They married at the British Consulate in Cairo on 15 June 1923.15 16 Hayes’ own background is an interesting one but is a story for another blog.

The couple returned to Melbourne in 1924. In 1927, Hayes was given the position of Church of England minister at the new parish of Mernda. While his religious views would prove challenging to church authorities, the couple became a central part of the community for many years, known for their charity and continuing missionary work (for example see Hurstbridge Advertiser, 25 May 1938). Ever resourceful, in later life, Kathleen turned her childhood interest in native embroidery into a small business run from a converted cable-tram car in their backyard, along with the breeding of Irish terriers (Argus, 29 June 1953).

On 9 August 1967 at Armadale, aged 79, Kathleen passed away. Her albums were donated to the Library in 1992.

I will continue to reflect upon Kathleen’s nursing career and her contribution to the community. Her story further connects me to my local area and I am happy to keep sharing it with others.

L: Reverend and Mrs Hayes in 1927 at Mernda. Courtesy of Whittlesea Historical Society, image PD0303. R: Hayes Road Mernda Street sign in 2024 (author supplied)


Hayes Road in Mernda is named in honour of both the Reverend and Mrs Hayes.


  1. It is possible that some of the photographs may be the recordings of her husband, who she married post-war and who served with the British Army Ordinance Corps and later undertook missionary work in Cairo.
  2. NAA (National Archives of Australia), B2455, Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, [Service record of Sister K B Gawler], accessed 24 April 2024
  3. Virtual War Memorial Australia, (n.d.), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Request (QAIMNSR), accessed 24 April 2024
  4. Australian Nurses in World War 1, (n.d.), Gawler, Kathleen Blanche, accessed 29 April 2024
  5. Virtual War Memorial Australia, (n.d.), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR), accessed 24 April 2024
  6. Piggott, J, 1975, Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regiments Series), Leo Cooper, London
  7. FindMyPast, (n.d.), Kathleen Gawler in 1914-20, accessed 29 April 2024
  8. Australian Nurses in World War I, (n.d.), Gawler, Kathleen Blanche, accessed 29 April 2024
  9. FindMyPast, (n.d.), Index to the London Gazette, Civil Promotions (Vol 1, 1918), accessed 29 April 2024
  10. UK Parliament, (n.d.), About the Royal Red Cross, accessed 29 April 2024
  11. Forces War Records by Ancestry, (n.d.), Royal Red Cross – Class 2 (ARRC), accessed 29 April 2024
  12. Her final posting at 19 General Hospital in Alexandria had started in December 1918. Australian Nurses in World War 1, (n.d.), Gawler, Kathleen Blanche, accessed 29 April 2024
  13. NAA (National Archives of Australia), B2455, Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, [Service record of Sister K B Gawler], accessed 24 April 2024
  14. Australian Nurses in World War 1, (n.d.), Gawler, Kathleen Blanche, accessed 29 April 2024
  15. As above
  16. FindMyPast, (n.d.), Consular Marriages 1921-1925, vols 15-19, accessed 29 April 2024

This article has 2 comments

  1. Well done Daniel well written a great read

  2. It is interesting to read these accounts of local people from the dramatic past.

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