Florence Narrelle Hobbes was born at Merriwinga Tilba Tilba, on the south coast of NSW on 21 August 1878. She was never known by her first name, but as Narrelle, after Queen Narrelle, wife of King Merriman, or Umbarra, the local Aboriginal tribal leader. Narrelle was the second youngest child of John T Hobbes, Police Magistrate, and his second wife Margaret Goldie. Her father had five children from a previous marriage, and then a son and seven daughters.
Narrelle grew up within this large, busy, noisy, close-knit, female dominated household. Her father died suddenly in 1892 when she was 14 years old. One by one her sisters married and left home, but she wanted more out of life and decided to take up nursing as a career. After training at St Kilda Private Hospital in Woolloomooloo in Sydney and Cobar District Hospital in western NSW, Narrelle Hobbes secured the position of Matron at the small and remote Brewarrina District Hospital, close to where her sister Jean lived in north western NSW.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, many of Narrelle’s young male friends rushed to Sydney to enlist. As an experienced nurse Narrelle Hobbes had skills that could be useful in war, so rather than wait and enlist in the Australian Army Nursing Service, she headed off to London where she was accepted into the British nursing service (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Medical Nursing Service Reserve or QAIMNS). By May 1915, Narrelle was in Malta up to her elbows in the catastrophe of the Gallipoli campaign where ‘it’s only when you see them brought in, stretcher after stretcher in that endless procession . . . it’s awful . . . every man or boy . . . is somebody’s boy’.
After Malta, Narrelle was posted to Sicily, India, and Mesopotamia [now Iraq], where she spent nine months nursing in hospitals in Basra and Amara on the Tigris River. By mid-1917, after two and a half years working without respite, Narrelle fell ill. Sent to the Himalayas to convalesce and recuperate, she was ‘mislaid’ by the military authorities and slowly grew sicker. Her family back in Australia were desperately worried, and despite the huge financial costs involved, despatched Elsie, Narrelle’s youngest sister, to India, to bring Narrelle back home. Eventually she was evacuated back to Australia on the Australian hospital ship Kanowna. But it was too late. With Elsie by her side, Narrelle Hobbes died on 10 May 1918 and was buried at sea.
Narrelle Hobbes’ story is of a formidable Australian woman who had a great sense of humour. ‘Thank God I’m Australian’ she said as she came up against her British counterparts. Narrelle worked non-stop, railing against the ‘bally’ rule of the British military nursing service. She travelled to the four corners of the British world, feeling and experiencing first hand both the exhilaration and the tragedy of war.
The story of Narrelle Hobbes is a reminder of the extraordinary contribution of Australian women during WWI, and the personal cost many paid.
Contributed by Melanie Oppenheimer
Melanie Oppenheimer Oceans of Love. Narrelle – An Australian Nurse in World War I, ABC Books, Sydney, 2006
Melanie Oppenheimer Narrelle: Nursing for Empire, ABC Radio Hindsight Program, 28 March 2004