Within days of the outbreak of war Bessie became one of 20,000 enrolled members of the Australian Red Cross Society, newly established as a division of the British Red Cross Society under the patronage of Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, wife of the governor-general of Australia. The objects of the society were to collect money to provide hospital comforts and clothing, to equip and train women to serve as hospital auxiliaries, and to organise work parties to make and collect comforts for soldiers heading to the front. Local branches or ‘circles’ were formed to organise women and manage their output. War work for the Red Cross provided women like Bessie with a means to do something practical.
Bessie and her daughters, Nina Terry and Kathleen Rouse, joined the Kellyville-Rouse Hill branch of the Australian Red Cross, a branch formed within a week of the declaration of war. The first meeting was held at the Kellyville home of Mrs Amy Glasgow, the wife of a local orchardist, and a great number of the 40 or so women present at that foundation meeting were also orchardists’ wives or daughters. Meetings were frequent. In addition to planning fundraising euchre parties, patriotic concerts and sports days, the women also used the meetings to assemble and pack soldiers’ kitbags and to make cholera belts and balaclava caps. The Red Cross ‘soldier’s bag’ was intended for use in military hospitals and comprised flannel shorts, pyjamas, coloured handkerchiefs, socks, sewing thread and needles, and writing materials, all packed into a pillowcase. ‘Hospital bags’, produced at the rate of one to every 50 soldier’s bags, were also assembled by the Kellyville-Rouse Hill branch. These included rolled gauze bandages, enamel basins, a kidney tray, lengths of unbleached calico and thin flannelette, and other items. Sewing meetings were held fortnightly in Kellyville and monthly in Rouse Hill. The working bees often took place in the ‘schoolroom’ at Rouse Hill House, a light-filled front room with a large table perfect for cutting out patterns or setting up a sewing machine.
The branch held regular bazaars and market days with stalls selling jams, cakes, sweets and other produce, and fancy work. Branch members produced great volumes of knitted comforts for the troops. They also sent dozens of eggs to the Red Cross Produce Department in central Sydney, contributed to the Red Cross Tobacco Fund and collected money for Mrs Jopp’s Ambulance Fund. They sent linen – old sheets and tablecloths – to the Red Cross Linen Depot in the basement of the Town Hall, where the material was turned into surgical dressings.
When the Glasgow family left Kellyville in April 1916, Bessie’s daughter Nina Terry was elected president of the Kellyville-Rouse Hill Red Cross branch. She was re-elected to the position in 1917, 1918 and 1919. Bessie herself was elected as one of two vice-presidents at the annual general meeting in August 1917 and continued in that role until 1920.
The Australian Red Cross provided a perfect fit for women like Bessie and her daughter Nina. Nina, her husband, George, and their five sons lived near Rouse Hill on a property named Box Hill. It was, like Rouse Hill, an old family estate. As well-known community figures from an old established family, Bessie and Nina joined a long list of women from prominent families, often wives of businessmen or politicians, who made up a significant part of the formal membership of the Australian Red Cross. As leaders in their community, it was their unspoken duty to join a Red Cross branch and host fundraising events and meetings. In April 1917 a big sports meeting was held on George Terry’s old racecourse at Box Hill. In May 1918 a garden fete was planned for the ‘picturesque old garden of Rouse Hill House’. Although bad weather upset the arrangements for the fete and the stalls had to be hastily rearranged in the ‘spacious arcade’ that formed the back quarters of the house, local residents turned out in force. Friends came from Parramatta, Richmond, Windsor, Marsden Park, Riverstone and Annangrove.
The Kellyville-Rouse Hill Red Cross took a personal interest in every soldier from their locality who enlisted. Each one was given a send-off at which they were presented with a silver wristwatch. They were each sent Christmas parcels. On their return they were given a welcome home and presented with a specially engraved medal. The last welcome home took place in the Rouse Hill schoolhouse on 20 December 1919, with George Terry chairing proceedings. From all accounts it was an enjoyable evening, with music and games, but all those present surely spared a thought for someone they knew who had not returned. Bessie Rouse had received many heartfelt letters and visits from local women informing her of the loss of a son or brother. On 3 August 1916 a heartbroken Mary Pearce, treasurer of the Red Cross branch, bravely ventured to Rouse Hill House to tell Bessie and her daughter Kathleen the shocking news of her brother Norman’s death. Norman had been engaged to Kathleen. Almost immediately Kathleen left Rouse Hill and travelled to England, where she became a member of a Voluntary Aid Detachment. Her letters home were full of the wretchedness of war. ‘The ghastliness of the war now makes it awfully difficult to write … Everything is so tragic; it is beyond speaking about at all’, Kathleen wrote to her mother in April 1918.1
In the days before the first anniversary of Norman Pearce’s death, Bessie wrote a poignant verse in his memory, signed ‘BR’. It opens with the sad acknowledgement that:
He sleeps the sleep of the true & brave
In the lonely grave in the desert sand
and then turns to thoughts of the particular anguish of a mother’s loss.
Oh! Mother, who’s heart with pain is wrung
Yet proud of the son who at duty’s need
Gave life & life’s hope to see victory won
And true hearts must honour such noble deed.
At the close of the war, Bessie’s daughter Kathleen returned home, and grandson Geoffrey returned in 1923. In late 1919 Bessie received a certificate in recognition of five years’ ‘devoted service’ to the Red Cross, and on New Year’s Day 1920 Bessie’s close friend Annie Perry gave her a copy of a Red Cross pictorial souvenir publication entitled Poems and pictures. It was a modest gift, signifying a quiet but shared achievement.