portrait of Jessie Traill

Portrait of Jessie Traill by S Langfier, MS 7975

Jessie Traill is recognised as an important figure in Australian art history. During World War I she spent five years serving as a British Voluntary Aid Detachment. Her war experience is recorded through photographs, sketches, written accounts and letters to friends. Traill’s papers are now held in the Library’s Manuscripts collection.

Born in Brighton, Victoria, in 1881, Jessie Constance Alicia Traill was the youngest of four daughters of banker George and his wife, Jessie. She spent two years of her schooling in a French speaking part of Switzerland. With a passion for art and travel, she pursued etching and painting, studying in both Australia and Europe under Frederick McCubbin, Bernard Hall and Frank Brangwyn.

In December 1914, Traill sailed to England to join the British Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Initially, Australian VADs were restricted from serving overseas, so many Australian volunteers, like Traill, travelled independently to join British services. She received training as a nursing assistant at the Queen Alexandra Hospital Home for Discharged Soldiers, known as ‘Gifford House’.

sketch of people doing chores

A day at Gifford House, by Jessie Traill, c 1915, MS 7975

In 1915, Traill commenced her duties at  Gifford House. The hospital housed up to 140 patients. Traill’s experience as a trainee is documented in an 11-page manuscript accompanied by sketches, depicting her duties and the hospital grounds. It begins:

Having negotiated one’s uniform & got one’s cap to “sit” a bit “in”, one descends to be told one’s duties which are numerous …

While her days were largely consumed with her work, Traill continued to develop her artistic practice by photographing and sketching vignettes of day to day life at the hospital. Her skill as an artist is evident, while her wit and zeal shines through, despite the traumatic experiences that come with working in a military hospital.

patients in hospital beds

Patients at No 8 British General Hospital, Rouen, France, c 1917, MS 7975

Between July 1915 and February 1919, Traill worked at the No 8 British General Hospital, Rouen, in France. Traill’s duties included essential tasks such as cleaning wards, changing bedding, washing and cooking. While the work could be demanding, Traill remained positive and compassionate. She wrote:

They are all dear men and it is a privilege and most interesting to work amongst them.

five nurses

Traill second from the right among workers from No 8 General, c 1917, MS 7975

Traill was on duty when news of the Armistice reached the hospital. In a two-page typed account titled ‘Armistice Day 1918 by a VAD’, Traill expresses the joy and relief felt by all at the hospital after hearing that the Armistice had been signed:

The news has just come through. All morning there was expectancy in the air, now something has happened, something different than ever before … Something we have been waiting for, hoping for, all these years. What shall we do? – is the question on everybody’s lips. We all used to imagine what we would do when the war was over, let’s do something now …

Traill remained at the hospital in Rouen until 1919, caring for the wounded and those affected by an influenza pandemic. Traill returned to Australian in the 1920s and resumed a successful career as an artist. Concerned with the plight of people displaced by the war, she returned to France a number of times throughout her life.

Discover more people, places and events that have shaped Victoria in the Changing face of Victoria exhibition, on Level 5 of the Dome Galleries, overlooking the La Trobe Reading Room.


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