NZ’s WWI hospital ship and Annie’s autographs

NZ’s WWI hospital ship and Annie’s autographs

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.

Linen cloth, embroidered with the names of medical staff, nurses and crew of H.M. New Zealand Hospital Ship ’Maheno’ on her first voyage, July-August 1915. Gift of Wellington Returned & Services Association, 2014. Te Papa (GH017818)

Two weeks ago this Te Papa object was placed into its display case in Gallipoli: The scale of our warThis 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’

Postcard, USS Co Maheno, 3 January 1909, Dunedin, by Muir & Moodie studio. Purchased 2009. Te Papa (PH000709/43)
Postcard, USS Co Maheno, 3 January 1909, Dunedin, by Muir & Moodie studio. Purchased 2009. Te Papa (PH000709/43)

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).

Untitled [Maheno], about 1915, maker unknown. Te Papa (C.010501)
Untitled [Maheno], about 1915, maker unknown. Te Papa (C.010501)
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.

Lottie Le Gallais and nurses on the Maheno, 1915. Auckland War Memorial Museum (PH-1995-2-21)
Lottie Le Gallais and nurses on the Maheno, 1915. Auckland War Memorial Museum (PH-1995-2-21)

Mystery women

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).

Nurse Mary Hobbs - unofficial identity disc, 1915
Nurse Mary Hobbs – unofficial identity disc, 1915

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.

Mystery solved

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.

Leslie Adkin, 17 July 1932, TBC
Leslie Adkin, 17 July 1932, TBC

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.


  1. This embroidery includes my great grandfather PTE later SGT James Hislop Mitchell’s name at the top left hand corner. He served as a RAMC Orderly on HMNZHS Maheno in 1915, and from 1917-1919. Thank you so much for including this image, it will be included in his life story.

    1. So very proud of James Hislop Mitchell.
      I have just found out on ancestry he was my 2nd cousin
      Thank you for the publication.
      Patricia Kennedy

  2. Hi, I am interested to know how we know that the first time Lottie found out about her brother was when she got his letters back and when that was.
    If you have a policy of not dealing with me, it would be good to know.
    Otherwise it would be good to be treated like anyone else.
    Thanks – Jane Tolerton

  3. I’m doing an assignment for my school on the First World War and one of our questions was ‘Why was Lottie Le Gallais included in the Gallipoli: Scale of Our War exhibition at Te Papa?’, I understand she was a nurse but is there anyway I could get more information on her? Thank you.

    1. Author

      Hello Hannah
      I suggest that you come to the exhibition and have a look at the section which tells Lottie’s story – and to also look at her story in relation to the rest of the exhibition and the other personal stories featured in it. This will help you decide for yourself the reasons why we chose her story.

      Kirstie Ross
      History curator

  4. Author

    Hello Althea
    Thanks very much for your comment – are you from Thames?

    It could be Clara – I’ve checked against her photo on her Cenotaph database record and the women in the photos have similar shaped faces.

    The photo is in Lottie Le Gallais’ photo album at Auckland Museum library, but no other names are written on the photo apart from Lottie’s.

    Kirstie Ross
    Lead curator, Gallipoli: The scale of our war

  5. Clara Hawkins from Thames Hospital was onboard, and I can see her signature
    Hoping that is her bottom row left in the group photo.

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