Friday 13 December 2013 by Robyn Siers. 11 comments
Education at the Memorial, First World War Centenary

"It is the hospital ship, with its Red Cross flag flying aloft, that stands as the one humane agency in the midst of the horrors of modern naval warfare."

The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 1914.

Just days after the declaration of war on 5 August 1914, the passenger ship Grantala was taken over by the Royal Australian Navy. It was converted into a hospital ship within three weeks, with room for 300 patients, and renamed Hospital Ship No. VIII. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in August 1914 that “friends on shore have sent gifts of books and tobacco, cards and games, and other presents and comforts for wounded sailors”. It was to be the Navy’s first and only hospital ship.

Along with doctors and sick berth attendants, seven nurses from Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) Hospital in Sydney joined the medical team on board. Sister de Mestre was appointed Matron. The ship’s Principal Medical Officer, W. N. Horsfall commented that, "they were all accustomed to working together on shore, and a good spirit animated the nursing staff throughout their commission". The women were required to purchase their own uniforms, and, unaware of their destination, chose an all-white outfit in keeping with that of the Navy. By 8 September, they were heading for Townsville, and then on to Rabaul, New Guinea.

The Grantala accompanied the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force at Rabaul before also treating patients from action with the Germans at Suva and in the Pacific. Captain Brian Pockley, the first Australian officer killed in action was a doctor, also from RPA. Sister Rose Kirkcaldie recalled that, "he was well known to us and a much valued friend. It was with real grief we learnt of his death."

On their return to Sydney on 22 December 1914, the Grantala’s naval and medical personnel were paid off. The nurses were keen to continue in active service, but were advised that further service abroad was unlikely as the war would soon be over. Sister Kirkcaldie promptly made her own way to England and joined the QAIMNS. Matron de Mestre and four of the others later joined the AANS and served overseas, several on hospital ships.

Medical staff on board the Grantala included seven nurses: Matron de Mestre, and Sisters Clanston, Kirkcaldie, McMillan, Burtinshaw, Neale, and Colless.AWM 302802


Jennifer Baker

Nurses names - Florence Elizabeth McMillan, Sarah Melanie De Mestre, Stella Lillian Colless, Constance Neale, Rachel Clouston, Rosa Angela Kirkcaldie, Bertha E Burtinshaw, Sister Pearson [Source]

Yi Jiang says:

Thanks Jennifer!


The Grantala did not accompany the AN&MEF for four months as that force remained at Rabaul following the German surrender. Following the land operations the chief concern was the whereabouts of the German Pacific Fleet and the Grantala accompanied the Fleet to Suva where it remained for nine weeks. The German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were sighted off Apia on 14th September and Tahiti on 22nd September, and HMAS Australia and the French cruiser Montcalm were ordered to remain in Fijian waters in case the German Fleet returned to the Western Pacific. In anticipation of a naval action with the likelihood of many casualties Grantala's crew spent the time in harbour practising casualty drills using the ship's lifeboats and also coming alongside a warship to receive patients. However the German Fleet had continued east and its position confirmed when it destroyed a British cruiser squadron off the coast of Chile on 1 November. Grantala was then ordered to return to Sydney and the nursing sisters were paid off on 22 December. In 1920 the Naval Board recognized that although the sisters had originally been enlisted as civilians their service should be recognized as naval service and they were awarded Returned Sailors badges. References: "Hospital Ship No VIII - The Royal Australian Navy's first and only hospital ship and her involvement in early naval operations in WW1", Michael Dowsett. The Journal of Australian Naval History Vol. 1, No. 1 2004; "Hospital Ship No. VIII" Michael Dowsett; ADF Health Vol. 8, No. 1 April 2007.

Yi Jiang says:

Thank you for your input Michael; much appreciated. We've might a slight change to the wording to avoid any misconceptions regarding the Grantala's timing.

Lorraine Stacker

Can anyone tell me which ones are the Penrith women?

Max Gleeson

Does anyone know where the name "Grantala" come from?

Yi Jiang says:

Max I can't confirm this but a couple of online sources indicate the word Grantala means "big" in one or more Aboriginal languages. It is a common street name in Australia and doesn't appear anywhere else in the world as far as I can tell, which supports the idea it's an Aboriginal word.

K Harris

Penrith born were Constance Neale, Stella Colless and Rachel Clouston.

Michael T

In answer to Max Gleeson's question Grantala was built for the Adelaide Steamship Company which had a tradition of naming its ships after Australian country towns or regions and particularly South Australian ones. Grantala is an area on the lower Ayre Peninsula in South Australia. She had a sister ship Yongala and the Yongala area is located in the Peterborough Shire in SA.


The War Memorial has 2 models of Grantala in its collection. One was one of 2 ship models built for the RAN at the end of the First World War - the other was HMAS Australia. The Grantala model shows the ship as a hospital ship and is about 90 cm long. The other is a half ship model and shows the ship in its Adelaide Steamship configuration.


Bryan Pockley was not an RPA doctor, but he trained there while he was a medical student. The 21 October 1916 RPA Gazette says, "While he was not a member of the staff of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he received his advanced medical training within its walls, where he was always popular...he was the son of one of the oldest members of the hon. medical staff of the institution in the person of Dr F Antill Pockley, Honorary Ophthalmic Sugeon." (page 13). The article continues, "The late Dr Pockley was both a clever student and a good athlete. From the time when, at the NSCEG School, [?Shore], he passed the Junior University with seven A's, to the day on which he finally took his medical degree, in March last, Dr Pockley obtained his University degrees with great credit, taking second honours repeatedly, and winning Scholarships that prevented his parents bearing his educational expenses. As an athlete he excelled in Ju-Jitzu and swimming, and was also a high-class footballer, having taken the 'double blue' in his first year at the University. He went to New Zealnd with the University fifteen to play football, and for several seasons was Secretary to the University Sports Union, and also of the University Medical Society. The best epitaph which can be given to him will be that 'he died doing his duty.' (pages 13-14)