With Australia at war in support of the British Empire, branches of the Australian Red Cross Society were quickly set up all over the country – Gunnedah was one of the first country branches.

The Australian branch of Red Cross began on August 13, 1914, nine days after Australia joined the war in Europe when Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, the wife of the then Governor General, founded the society as a branch of the British Red Cross.

The Gunnedah branch was established after a public meeting was called by Alice Moulton, wife of the local Presbyterian minister. The women of Gunnedah and district responded enthusiastically to the call, with the mayoress Lydia McDonagh elected the inaugural president, supported by Mrs Moulton as secretary and Mrs AJ Baker as treasurer.

According to the original minutes book, once held by the late Don McDonagh, Red Cross was launched at the inaugural meeting on December 28, 1915, when nine people formed the foundation branch.

Membership grew rapidly to 56 in the first few months and the women wasted no time in contributing to the war effort, with the branch holding a gift afternoon and evening, resulting in the collection of 30 sets of pyjamas, 25 shirts, 60 handkerchiefs, 70 pairs of socks, 34 towels, 60 bandages, 27 letter pads, 12 complete outfit kits and 241 miscellaneous items. The sum of 24 pounds, eight shillings and sixpence was also subscribed, including the proceeds of a concert by pupils at Gunnedah Public School, which raised five pounds, two shillings and fivepence.

In response to an appeal for “eggs for the troops” Mrs Moulton organised an “egg day”. The School of Arts was a hive of activity as members and school teachers counted and packed 1053 eggs, followed by a further 1625 eggs donated by the school children.

The Star Picture Co; put on a benefit evening, raising 17 pounds, eight shillings, while Red Cross members held a sewing bee, making bed gowns for the soldiers.

The whole town was caught up in patriotic fervour as the war went badly for the Allies, with a grim toll of Gunnedah men killed, wounded or missing in action. Members worked tirelessly to provide comforts for those in the war zones.

At the first annual meeting in the School of Arts, members reviewed with pride the productive year, with a further seven bales of soldiers’ garments packed for freight the following day.

Red Cross members pictured at the Creative Arts Gallery on Friday night after catering for the opening night of the annual art and ceramics exhibition. From left, Christine White, Deb Stoneman, Kay Benham, Susie Lyle and Maree Jones. Absent from photo: Sandy Thompson.

During the year a branch of Red Cross was formed at Curlewis by Mrs Moulton and although she left the district during the 1916-1917 Red Cross year, there was no loss of enthusiasm by the members who sent 524 pounds to headquarters that year. In the following year 1917-1918, with the war on the Western Front exacting a terrible toll on life, the Gunnedah branch activity reached its peak, sending 2447 pounds, three shillings and 10 pence to headquarters, also despatching 549 articles of clothing, a large quantity of eggs, 51 fleeces of wool and a large quantity of books and magazines. In one memorable effort for Australian Red Cross Day, the Gunnedah branch raised 437 pounds.

When the war finally drew to its tragic end, and soldiers returned home, the role of Red Cross declined and was mostly taken over by the local repatriation committee. Members, however, were heavily involved in helping soldiers re-adjust to family and civilian life and also sponsored the formation of the Gunnedah Hospital Ladies’ Auxiliary. Branch activity ceased in 1921, but was revived in July 1929 when Heather Anderson, wife of WWI medico Dr Colin Anderson, was elected president and held office until 1954. Miss W. Baker was the secretary and Miss Grace McDonagh the treasurer until 1956, when she became president, a position she held until 1962.

As the dark clouds of war once again rumbled across Europe, there was an upsurge of activity within the branch, with members raising thousands of pounds to send to headquarters between 1941 and 1945.

A spectacular success story during the war years was the Gunnedah Red Cross Tea Room, which operated from a building at 270 Conadilly Street. The tea room was opened on Tuesdays and Fridays and manned by local women on a roster basis. The venue served lunch and afternoon tea, with the total profit over the four years amounting to an incredible 9071 pounds, two shillings and nine pence.

In the grim war years, when casualty lists filled the papers each day and many household items were severely rationed, the tea rooms became a popular meeting place. Although the tea rooms were the major activity of the branch during the war years, members rallied to send food, clothing and comforts to the men at war. Red Cross volunteers also made camouflage nets, some members averaging one camouflage net per week – most large enough to cover an armoured car. The group also conducted a recreation room for the 21st Armoured Division personnel who were camped under battle conditions in the district.

After the war, the Red Cross concern for servicemen didn’t end, with comforts provided for soldiers hospitalised with war wounds and families of the veterans who also needed assistance.
As the decades rolled by the activities of Red Cross have included the Red Cross Shop, Telecross, where volunteers call a vulnerable resident each morning for a welfare check, knitting of Trauma Teddies for hospitals, emergency services, doctors and pathologist rooms. Fundraising efforts have embraced Melbourne Cup luncheons, spring craft, food and family days and a street cafe, charity golf day and film night and garden parties.

Past activities have included raising funds for the Red Cross Disaster Recovery Fund, with members also running the Nursing Mothers and change rooms at AgQuip – the first year using a tent borrowed from the Scouts. They also trained as Volunteer Aid Detachment members and trained members of the community in first aid.

They also assisted the Red Cross Mobile Blood Service when it visited Gunnedah.

Many dedicated members have committed years of service to the Red Cross, with names too numerous to mention in this short history but it is safe to say that they are ‘salt of the earth’ locals who have formed part of the fabric of our community for more than 100 years.

To gain greater insight into the work of the Red Cross over the past 108 years, scrapbooks are available at the Water Tower Museum.

Footnote: Australian Red Cross is part of the world’s largest humanitarian organisation. Independent of government and with no political, religious or cultural affiliations, its aim is to improve people’s lives and build their resilience – no matter who they are or where they live.

The Australian Red Cross Blood Service is a division of Australian Red Cross funded by the governments of Australia. United State president, the late John F. Kennedy, said of the Red Cross: “I suppose no single organisation touches the lives of so many millions of people at home and abroad. The Red Cross emblem is respected everywhere as a symbol of help for all men, women and children, regardless of nationality or race. The emblem of Red Cross is to be seen everywhere humanity needs assistance. It is up to us and people everywhere to hold this emblem high as a symbol of hope, here and around the world”.

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