This embroidered cloth was created on the New Zealand hospital ship Maheno as it steamed its way north to Egypt in July and August 1915. The words stitched on it are actually the signatures of the ship’s staff and crew.
Two weeks ago this Te Papa object was placed into its display case in Gallipoli: The scale of our war. This blog, in our series about the exhibition, reveals what I discovered while working on Gallipoli about the woman behind the embroidery.
Some background: The Maheno
The Maheno played a vital role in the Gallipoli campaign. The white hospital ship anchored off Anzac Cove five times between August and November 1915. Amidst the mayhem, it received hundreds of sick and wounded men from Gallipoli, then transferred them to hospitals on the Greek island of Lemnos, or farther afield to Egypt, Malta and England.
‘Directly under New Zealand’s care’
The ship was an expression of New Zealanders’ loyalty and compassion. When news of the casualties from the Anzac landing and the chaotic medical situation reached these shores, people here were desperate to do something tangible for ‘their boys’. The Governor Lord Liverpool had the answer. In mid-May 1915, he appealed to New Zealanders to outfit their own hospital ship. Over June, the Union Steamship Company vessel Maheno, (above, before the war) was converted for this purpose and was ready for military service (below).By the time the ship left, all manner of supplies (11,831 pillowcases!) and large sums of money had been donated to the cause. The Maheno‘s medical and nursing staff were poised for their overseas mission. One of them, nurse Lottie Le Gallais (in the photo below), described it as ‘A great white monster … An angel on a mercy mission.’ Lottie’s signature is sewn on the cloth’s left hand column. You can learn more about her in Gallipoli: The scale of our war.
The connection between the cloth and the first voyage of the Maheno is not immediately obvious. But I checked the embroidered names against those listed in a history of the Maheno, and they matched. A newspaper report then helped me to pinpoint the signature cloth to a Mrs A Somerville of New Plymouth. Before the Maheno left, Mrs Somerville sent some fabric to a Wellington hospital nurse, Mary Hobbs, who was a passenger on the ship (her unofficial identity tag below).
Mrs Somerville asked that the ship’s crew and staff sign the cloth, their names be embroidered on it and the finished piece sent back to New Zealand. She intended to sell or raffle the cloth to raise funds for wounded soldiers.
After selecting the cloth to display in the exhibition, I began to wonder about Mary Hobbs and Mrs Somerville – and how a nurse from Wellington heading to war and a woman living in Taranaki were connected. The mystery was solved late last year when Ted Somerville, Mrs Somerville’s son, contacted Te Papa, asking us if we knew about the cloth. Yes! we answered. Sara Guthrie, Te Papa’s textile collection manager and I visited Ted and his family just before Ted’s 90th birthday. We took the cloth with us, because Ted does not get out and about much these days.
Ted remembered the cloth being folded up in a drawer at home while he was growing up in New Plymouth. He went on to connect some dots for us. His mother Annie (nee Hulme) had nursed at Wellington Hospital before marrying in 1913. Fast forward two years, when some of Annie Somerville ’s nursing friends were due to leave on the Maheno. Ted believes his mother would have been on the ship too, had she not had a husband. Instead of heading off to war herself, she sent the cloth down to Wellington to Mary Hobbs, no doubt a friend from her nursing days. So what I had thought was a random patriotic request, was actually a favour asked by a friend to mark a significant event in the war.
Twenty-one years later, it’s historical importance was emphasised by the Wellington Returned Servicemen’s Association, when it displayed the cloth in the National War Memorial (pictured above). And, in the end, this story from a century ago shows us how Gallipoli: The scale of our war has been a process all about connecting the past to the present, as well as people to stories and the items we care for in our collections.