The Story Jack & Maud…the Rollercoaster Ride of Writing Historical Fiction.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

John Lennon.

Writers of historical fiction will appreciate the gruelling roller-coaster ride I’m on. Indeed, as I pursue this exceptionally gripping story, I’ve become a crazed addict. I’m hooked. I might be parked in the lounge room on my laptop, but the adrenalin’s pumping. It’s so exhilarating, and I have to remind myself I’m running a marathon, not a sprint. While there’s a huge whopper of a fish on the end of my line, I still need to reel it in. Catch the darn thing. So, it’s very important that I don’t get ahead of myself. I need to get my facts straight, even though the bright lights are all but blinding me.

However, although these seemingly random pieces were starting to come together, there was still this awful, niggling feeling that Jack and Maud weren’t on the same ship after all. That the dates which were ever so close, weren’t quite lining up and I couldn’t quite make them fit. Had I been a writing fiction, of course, it wouldn’t matter. I could’ve bent or even manufactured the truth and kept my story alive. However, the historian in me couldn’t do that. She insisted on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. According to her, there’s nothing worse than red pen in the margin which isn’t your own.

Yet, while it was starting to look like Jack and Maud were on separate ships which didn’t even pass during the night, I didn’t know for sure and wasn’t quite willing to give up on the story yet.

 

Above: Left photo of Maud Butler on board the Suevic taken by Robert Fletcher owned by the Australian War Memorial. Right photo of Private Jack Quealy, my Great Great Uncle.

The story of Jack and Maud isn’t one of romance. Rather, it’s one of war. On 9th August, 1915 my Great Great Uncle, Jack Quealy, enlisted in the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) at Holsworthy and joined the 13th Reinforcements of the 13th Battalion. At the time, he was 27 years old. He was working as a Letterpress Printer for Cunningham & Co in Pitt Street Sydney and was married to Maggie known as “Scotty”. They had two young children… Jack Jnr three and Eddie two. His service records state that he embarked on the 20th December, 1915 although the name of the ship was conspicuously absent. If it wasn’t for Maud, the exact name of the ship wouldn’t have mattered quite so much, but now it did and I dearly wanted Jack to be on the Suevic. However, it was looking like the Suevic didn’t leave until the 22nd. So near, and yet so far.

Yet, why does Maud matter? Who on earth was she and what, if anything, did she have to do with our Jack? Why all the excitement?

Perhaps, the best place to start is via a message in a bottle which was found washed up on a beach at Portland Bay, Victoria on New Year’s Day, 1916. It read:

“At sea, Saturday, December 25, 1915, 4 p.m. My dear Mum,—I am sending this note by bottle from the Victorian coast. I hope you will get this O.K. We have just finished our Christmas dinner—turkey and pork. Everyone on board is O.K. A girl was found on board dressed as a soldier; she was going to fight with her brother at Gallipoli. Oh, well, good-bye for the present.

—I am, your loving son, Ted.” 1.

That girl was Maud Butler, the 17 year old daughter of a Cessnock coal miner who’d disguised herself as a soldier to get away to the front to serve as a nurse. However, she’d applied both at the Red Cross and at Victoria Barracks and was knocked back due to age and inexperience. Not easily deterred, Maud hatched a plan which is best expressed in her own words…

“I wanted to help at the war, and I still want to do something. It is not true that I stowed away on a troopship just to see my soldier brother in Egypt. I would have gone just the same, because I really do want to be a Red Cross nurse and help the wounded boys.’ This is the response Miss Butler made when questioned by the women of the Y.W.C.A. in Melbourne, in whose care she was placed until she could be clothed in feminine attire and returned to her people in Kurri Kurri, N.S.W…. ‘Soon after the war started,’ the girl continued, ‘I had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl, and I soon found that there were difficulties to overcome. I knew it was no use to stay at Kurri Kurri, because I could never learn to be a nurse there. My brother had gone to the war, and I decided to do something for myself. I took a situation in Pyrmont, as a waitress, and while there put in my time off trying to get in as a nurse. I went to the Red Cross in George-street, and then to Victoria Barracks, but there was no luck at either place. I was only seventeen and I was without training. I could see that I looked too young to enlist as a boy, so I decided to get on board a transport as an ordinary soldier and try my luck that way. I bought uniform bit by bit, all except the regulation tan boots. Then I went to a barber and had my hair cut oft, pretending that I had a fever. He said ‘You don’t look it,’ but he did what I asked him. Climbed a Hawser. ‘I walked from Pyrmont to the city and through the Domain to where a transport was lying at No. 1 wharf. I saw a sentry there, so knew it was no good trying to get past him. ‘Well,’ I said to myself. ‘here goes for up the line.’ It was a hand-over-hand job, and I didn’t think the boats were so tall. I got up after a struggle and crawled to a life boat. The only provisions I had brought with me were some lollies, and I had not had anything to eat from that Wednesday night until Friday, when I was ‘howled out.’ On Thursday, when soldiers were about the deck, I got out of my hiding place and walked round with them. Some asked me for a cigarette, others offered them to me, but no one seemed to suspect me. At sea everything went well except that I was hungry. That night I got back to my hiding-place, and next morning about 10.30 an officer came up to me on deck and asked me what I belonged to. I said, ‘The seventh of the nineteenth.” I went on watching the boys play cards, and gave them advice. Then the officer came back and said, ‘Show me your identification medal. That was the finish of me. I had forgotten that, he said he was going to get a doctor to examine me, so I knew it was all over and I then told him I was a girl. If I had been a boy it would have been all right. I could have gone on. They took me to the captain, and he was very nice —in fact, they all were. The captain gave me a good breakfast, and it was great, but the news was all over the ship in three minutes, and 500 of them had snapped me with cameras. The captain said that he was going to tranship me. Then I cried for the first time; it was hard luck, wasn’t it. now?. The captain was a jolly fellow. He asked me why I didn’t get tan boots, and that made me cry more. ‘Miss Butler asserts that if she had been a boy she would have been in the firing line before this. She is convinced that there is something she can do, and intends to try the Red Cross again.[2]

It would’ve made a great story if Jack and Maud had been on the same ship and something to share with the family. Moreover, thanks to Maud, the Suevic’s journey to the front attracted more media attention and provides some valuable insights into life on board.

As it turned out, Jack Quealy embarked on the Aeneas and so far, I’ve unearthed nothing about that voyage at all. Anyway, it’s quite probably that these details about the Suevic provide some insight into Jack’s trip to the front as well. I’ll elaborate on these in my next post.

Stay tuned!

Best wishes,

Rowena

References

  1. Koroit Sentinel and Tower Hill Advocate (Vic. : 1914 – 1918), Saturday 22 January 1916, page 2

[2] Farmer and Settler (Sydney, NSW : 1906 – 1955), Friday 31 December 1915, page 8

8 thoughts on “The Story Jack & Maud…the Rollercoaster Ride of Writing Historical Fiction.

  1. Pingback: The Story Jack & Maud…the Rollercoaster Ride of Writing Historical Fiction. — Beyond the Flow – Sarah's Attic Of Treasures

  2. Rowena Post author

    She was an extraordinary woman, especially for her time. I’m looking forward to getting to know her better. I shared a poem I came across today along with the most beautiful account of travelling through France to the front. Such a shame he died not long after.

  3. Rowena Post author

    Thank you very much for the reblog, Sarah. Maud Butler was an incredible woman and deserves to have her story shared. I’ve followed that post up with two more, which may interest you and will write a more extensive post about Maud once the silly season’s over. It’s Summer holidays here (complete with bushfires but fortunately not too close to us).
    Best wishes,
    Rowena

  4. lindamaycurry

    I would be very interested to know what happened to Maud after that. Would you believe my bio father was at Gallipoli? I have a copy of his diary but it doesn’t say much about the voyage by ship. I’m 69 now but he was 59 when I was born so I feel like I’m part of ancient history.

  5. Rowena Post author

    Linda, my husband was born when his parents were 38 and his Great Uncles were in Gallipoli, Sinai and France. His Uncle Jim Griffin served in Gallipoli and was awarded a Military Cross in Beersheba
    You might be able to find out more about your biological father’s experiences via the letters in Trove. Some of the letters sent home, were sent into the local newspapers especially in rural areas. These have been an enormous help to me.
    I’ don’t know whether you’ve check out the WWI database but it’s quite good and you can click on his unit and see who else was in the same unit. That particularly helpful if he signed up with others from a rural area. Here’s the link: https://www.aif.adfa.edu.au/showUnit?unitCode=INF3REIN14
    The unit diaries are also online via the Australian War Memorial but can be tricky to find. The AWM’s web site isn’t easy to navigate but here’s a link through to the unit diaries: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1338583

    Getting on Maud Butler, here’s a post you’ll find interesting and there are comments from family members at the end, which really add a lot to the context. Here’s the link: https://uonblogs.newcastle.edu.au/anzacherstory/2016/04/08/world-war-1-teenage-girl-maud-butler-cut-hair-dressed-as-soldier-and-stowed-away-on-troopship/

    Here’s an interview with her in 1930:
    Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931), Sunday 18 May 1930, page 9

    TEARS CAME WHEN TOLD

    BY DOCTOR TO “STRIP”! Maud Butler Was Given Away By No. 3 Pair of Black Boots CONFESSION AND CONSTERNATION

    PICKED out from among 1,700 men because of a No. 3 pair of black boots; brought before the doctor, and gruffly ordered to “Strip!” Is it any wonder that tears welled in the little boyish 16-year-old girl’s eyes Is it any wonder that visions of France, England and Egypt faded away? The world seemed to slip from under her feet. “Oh! I am a girl!” Then there was consternation.

    Stepping daintily across the years, remembered as a slim figure in soldier’s uniform. and Eton-cropped hair, this girl called at “Truth” office during the week. “I am Maude Butler,” she said, the Maude Butler whose picture appeared in “Truth” last week. One could hardly credit that this demure little woman stowed away on an Australian transport, and caused endless worry to brass-hats, red tape experts, who threatened her with court martial and various other penalties. But because she was a girl they admitted defeat. And now Maude Butler would like to tell all those who were on the transport Suevic that she is well, and even after all these: years, wishes to .thank them for what they did for her. There’s a small slim, woman out in one of the suburbs, a grey-eyed, young woman with pink cheeks, curly black hair and busy hands. Three youngsters, two boys and a little daughter of 18 months, keep those hands sewing, mending, cooking; washing 12 hours out of the 24. She has a full-time woman’s job and wants no other. ” Maybe she dreams sometimes, hears a ghostly cheer stirring, the silence of 15 years, an echo of that lusty, tumultuous shouting that went up from 1,700 Australian throats. Maybe she dreams of a Great Adventure that ended in cheers and tears and heart-break for a 16 year-old girl, but the dream matters little. Outside there is a little clamorous daughter and two small boys, and it is their tears that mean everything to the girl that was Maude Butler, the girl who set out to go to war way back in 1915, who borrowed a uniform, cut her curly hair (She points out now, and not without pride, that she wore the first Eton crop) and crept in her size three black boots aboard the troopship. Suevic the night before she sailed with 1,700 of the troops. There was nothing of the strong Amazon with warlike tendecies about Maude Butler when war broke out. She had no death-or-glory stir in her

    blood. She was simply a young girl brought up on the coalfields of Kurri Kurri, a quiet youngster puzzled-at the strange attitude taken by the authorities, who apparently could find no work overseas for a 16-year-old girl. . She wanted to nurse—but there was her youth! Very well, she’d scrub floors, wash dishes, mend—she’d do anything if they’d let her go. They wouldn’t. They were tolerant, good-humored even; but adamant. She’d show them! Once aboard a ship she felt certain that Egypt would be reached as a matter of course,” and, once there “They” would have no option but to let her join up with a hospital or a women’s auxiliary. So. simple it all appeared to Maude Butler, that child from the coalfields. She schemed, she planned, and midnight, December 22, 1915, saw a pair of

    black boots, size 3, creeping aboard the troopship Suevic, All she had in the world was a few shillings, a few sandwiches, and a desperate courage. She was on board, and to-morrow she’d be off and away to her Mecca! She found a small life-boat swinging on the davits, not much of a bed, but It would do. Everything on the ship was quiet and very still, so she crawled into her lifeboat and slept the sleep of the triumphant. Next morning she crawled out, took a bite at a sandwich, looked at the day, and found it good. So she squared her thin shoulders and teamed up with all and sundry.

    Nobody just then found anything amiss in her appearance. She just looked like a young, thin boy—-there were lots of those! The roll call tootled out and the men began to fall in, but not the girl from Kurri Kurri! She took to her black heels and scooted back to her lifeboat. It was a great life—plenty of excitement, if not much to eat. And so she spent her first day at one of the troops. Her second began well enough. Certainly, once out to sea, her swinging bed had set her heart thumping, an extra-toss and she’d be flung out, but that was something that had to be chanced,so Maude just chanced it. Again she, jostled in and out among the men, again she made for the life boat, but not quickly enough. An officer had seen those black boots! She

    turned and faced them, her heart thumping hard against the khaki jacket. “They” asked her where was her disc, her identification disc. She didn’t have one didn’t she? Well, there was no room aboard a troop-ship for discless boys. “So they hauled her along to the doctor. She begged them to let her stay. What did she want with a doctor? She keep the tears off, but her firm young mouth trembled. It was no use, she stood up before the doctor, a matter-of-fact gentleman. He said just one word, but he said it firmly, “STRIP!” Like a flash Egypt and the hospitals faded out, all she realised was that a

    perfectly unknown doctor was demanding that she should take” off her clothes.’ It was all over, “she may as well finish it. She looked at him imploringly—then, “I can’t.. I’m a girl.” There was a chaos, there was confusion. What! A girl aboard. Incredible. Each man had been checked off as he came aboard. The whole 1700 of the troops aboard were ordered below. When they were allowed on deck again a slight figure in uniform was on the bridge. A Melbourne bound transport was communicated with, and Maude Butler was transhipped in mid-ocean, transhipped still in her uniform and those black boots, size three; transhipped weeping the tears of a lost-hope, but hearing the cheers of the 1700 who would see Egypt. She was kept in Melbourne for a few days, to the. Authorities’ dilemma, for what could one do with a persistent girl who had wanted to go to war. Ultimately nothing was done with her except rehabilitating her in the frills of her sex, and sending her back to two anxious people in Kurri Kurri, her , parents’— father “scolding, irate but proud, mother just thankful to have her home. She gave up the thought of getting over there, found a job in the office of the R.S.A. some 12 months afterwards, went there in the hope that she’d eventually find someone who remembered her on the Suevic. When the men commenced coming back she would walk through the streets scanning with anxious grey eyes the faces of every man that passed her, but never a one of those 1700 did she ever, see again. There’s a small, slim, grey-eyed young woman in one of the suburbs with busy hands and three youngsters. Sometimes she dreams, hears a ghostly cheer, smiles at the memory of the tears of a girl of 16 and a pair of black boots. Sewing, mendin- cooking, washing— ”

    The charming Maude; as she is now, the mother of three children, two boys and a girl.

    Such an incredible story.

    On that note, I need to start winding down.
    Best wishes,
    Rowena

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