Nance

Reginald George Downing (1891-1967)
Annie Emily O’Neill
(1887-1974
)

Jump down to the list of their children

Annie Emily O’Neill was the second oldest of Patrick Joseph O’Neill & Anne Mary Hough‘s fourteen children, born in Taree on 18 Oct 1887. She was known as Nance from an early age.

Some of the information on this page is obtained from a thread on “soldiers, nurses, munitions workers etc that married overseas during the war years” from the Australian Light Horse Association website.

Reginald George Downing was born on 24 May 1891 at Forest Lodge, Sydney, his parents being George Henry Downing & Jessie T. Boyd and his sister Emily J. Downing (a.k.a. Poppy, b.1893). He graduated in agricultural science from the University of Sydney, and enlisted as a Farrier Quartermaster Sergeant on 25 Mar 1915 NSW, embarking in Sydney on 13 Jun 1915 on the A29 Suevic with the 12th Light Horse. He sailed from Alexandia to Gallipoli on 02 Oct 1915 with the 7th Light Horse, returning on the Huntsgreen on 28 Dec 1915. He then transferred to the 54th Battalion, and left on 14 Feb 1916 for Tel-el-Kebir, “110 km north-north-east of Cairo and 75 kilometres south of Port Said on the edge of the Egyptian desert”. Four months later, on 19 Jun 1916, he embarked on the Caledonian, arriving in Marseilles on 29 Jun 1916. He was wounded in the leg & foot on 19 or 20 Jul 1916 and was sent to the 2nd Eastern General Hospital in Brighton, England, where he convalesced until 27 Oct 1916. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916.

Reginald was again sent to France, arriving 23 Nov 1916, but returned to England , reporting for duty at Tidworth, a training camp, on 01 Feb 1917. Completing training, he was sent back to France on 20 Jun 1917, and was again wounded on 18 Nov 1917. It’s likely to have been during one of his two convalescent periods that he met Nance. Reginald took leave between 30 Jun 1918 and 23 Jul 1918 following their marriage. In Nance’s case that spelled the end of her nursing career, since married women were ineligible for service. In Reginald’s case, it meant returning to the front, which he did, earning a Bar to his Military Cross in Sept 1918 at Péronne on the Somme.

Following the end of war he was granted leave to undergo a postgraduate course in Soil Physics at Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire (11 Feb 1919 to 11 May 1919). He returned to Australia aboard the SS Ypiranga, and was discharged on 15 Nov 1919. His service record can be viewed on-line here.

Nurse Nance’s experience in the Australian Army Nursing Service was equally admirable. She joined up on 23 Apr 1915 and on 15 May embarked at Sydney on the RMS Mooltan with the 3rd Australian General Hospital for Egypt. She was clearly very competent, being chosen whilst en route to her overseas posting to be head nurse; from The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate on Sat 29 May 1915:

COMPLIMENT to a Nurse. — Amongst those on board the s.s. Mooltan when she left Sydney one day recently was Nurse A. K. O’Neill, who goes to a base hospital for wounded soldiers near London. There were between 40 and 50 nurses on board in charge of a matron from Queensland. Dr Fiaschi, who is in charge of the medical corps. on the same ship, thought so well of Nurse O’Neill’s ability that he has selected her as head nurse (with title of ‘Sister’) for the hospital he goes to. This is a great compliment from the famous surgeon. Nurse O’Neill, who is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. P. J. O’Neill of Kempsey, formerly of Beechwood, was recently of the Hastings District Hospital.

She was part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Mudros on Lemnos Island, treating the wounded from Gallipoli. She contracted dysentery, apparently severely, on 26 Aug 1915 and was transferred to Alexandria for treatment, returning to duty on 03 Dec. She then sailed on the Oxfordshire back to Egypt, disembarking at Alexandria on 27 Jan 1916. That year she was mentioned in dispatches and was awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross medal.

Next, on 25 Sep 1916, she embarked with the 3rd Australian General Hospital at Alexandria on the Karoola to join the British Expeditionary Force, arriving at Brighton, England on 5 Aug. She was granted leave for the three weeks (19 Feb to 04 Mar 1917).

On 11 Apr, she was sent to France, departing from Southampton on the Londonderry. She was attached to the 3rd Australian Casualty Clearing Station, Abbeville, on 07 May 1917, but re-joined the 3rd Australian General Hospital there on 25 May. She was next posted to the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station, on 02 Nov 1917. Between 28 Feb and 15 Mar 1918 she took leave again, this time in Cannes. Two other short postings followed, and finally, on 26 Jun 1918, she returned to England for her wedding. Having had to leave the service once married, she nursed with the Red Cross until returning to Australia in February, 1919.

The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate on Sat 23 Oct 1915 painted a vivid picture of the life of a nurse during WW1 based on letters that Nurse Nance sent to her parents:

Letter from Nurse O’Neill.

Written on August 3 to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. P. J. O’Neill, West Kempsey, Nurse Nance O’Neill stated that she was then on the hospital ship Glenlucle Castle, on her way to Lemnos. They were glad to leave Alexandria, as the heat was very trying. A later communication stated they had arrived at No. 3 Hospital, Lemnos. They had nearly 200 patients on the day they started work, and this number soon rose to about 800. Sister O’Neill was on duty in one of the operating tents. The nurses slept in bell-tents, the site being about 40 yards from the waters of Mudros Bay. It was very pretty, with dozens of boats in the vicinity. They indulged in a swim daily; there was no surf, but a dip was very refreshing. Fresh water was then (August 16) very scarce, but a condenser was being fixed up also pipes were being laid. Rather hot at midday, the weather was cool at night. Only condensed milk was obtainable. Butter was out of the question; rice, jam, tomatoes (and lemons for drink) were plentiful, and they got good mutton and bread. A dining-room was being built, but until then meals were taken around a bench. Huts were in course of erection, and things would soon improve. “We were really badly needed,’ Sister O’Neill writes, ‘as the patients can be here within 24 hours after being wounded. Some are very badly wounded, yet are so brave! For the first few days we were all very upset at the sights we saw, not ever being used to the like. You never see anything like it in an ordinary hospital. We are the closest nurses to the front, except those on hospital ships, who go up to Gallipoli and bring the wounded to here and Egypt. I am delighted that we did not stay in Alexandria.” Sister O’Neill wrote again on August 22, after she had been a fortnight at Lemnos. The flies were not then quite as bad as they had been. An Australian mail had arrived during the week, but she was disappointed as no letters got there for her. As her parents wrote every week, she could only think the letters must be somewhere about the country. A visit had been made by a party of nurses to one of the battleships in the bay, and the change appreciated. Amongst hospitals being erected was one by the Canadians. Our equipment has arrived, thank goodness (the nurse states). We are all getting bedsteads to-day. We have been sleeping on the ground – lucky for me I am a good sleeper; some of the girls have had a rather bad time. We went for a walk a few nights ago to see the Turkish prisoners. About 200 in the camp we went to. They seem quite happy and like being there, as they say it is better than at the front and cannot understand why they are fighting. Only one of them could speak French, and not one English. The doctors are trying to bring a boat, and if they succeed, we shall often have a little pleasure, for the harbour is lovely, and it does one good to go out for a time. I believe it is very windy here at times. Next month it commences, and it is said that we will have to move five miles inland. We are really not so very busy now, as most of the patients we have got lately are medical, and it is the surgical ones that affect the operating theatres.”

Lemnos Island 3rd Hospital

Lemnos Island, Greece, 1915. Medical and nursing staff of 3rd Australian General Hospital in the tent lines with patients. Source: Australian War Memorial.

The Freeman’s Journal announced, on Thur 25 Jan 1917, the award of the order of the Royal Red Cross and carried a photo of Nurse Nance in uniform. It was also carried by the Advocate (Melbourne) on Sat 3 Feb 1917. The story reappeared in The Catholic Weekly, Thu 6 Feb 1947, without the photo, in a nostalgic series Stories From Our Files Of 1917:

Nurse Nance O’Neill, who has recently been awarded the Royal Red Cross for her services at the front, was trained at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst. Offering herself for military service abroad at the very outset of the war, Miss O’Neill was appointed Theatre Sister at the Garrison Military Hospital, Sydney. From there she was transferred to Lemnos, and thence to France, where she is still carrying on her labour of love. This is the second nurse in connection with St. Vincent’s who has been thus honoured, Nurse Marie Macken having been awarded, a short time previously, the Royal Red Cross of the First Class.

Nance described the award in a letter to her parents that appeared in The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate on Sat 28 Apr 1917:

Letter from Nurse O’Neill.

Writing from the Kitchener Hospital, Brighton, on February 9, Nurse O’Neill says: – “We had a great day on Monday, 5th February. We all had to go to Buckingham Palace to get our medals, R.R.C. We had to be at the palace at 10 a.m., and when we finally got to the throne room where the King was, we were all in a flutter. Anyway, the King was very nice to us, shook hands with each one, and hooked the Cross on. He spoke to some, and asked how long they had been out, what hospitals we came from, &c. We then had to proceed to Marlborough House to see Queen Alexandra — she is a dear old thing, and was extremely nice, shook hands with us, and gave us all a book and a picture book, ‘The Way of the Red Cross.’ I have read it; it just shows how the Red Cross has advanced since Florence Nightingale’s time. The picture is of herself, also a nurse attending a patient – very pretty. I wish you could see my Cross; it is so pretty, silver and red enamel. I had a snapshot taken with it on, so it will give you an idea of what it is like, as the snapshot is rather good. The night before I went to London it snowed very heavily – my picture is taken in the snow. In the afternoon I met a friend, who took me to lunch and a matinee of the Revue, ‘ See-Saw ‘ – it was very good, so I think I had one of the best days of my life. We only wear the Cross on special occasions, but I am wearing the ribbon like the piece I sent you. I am splendid. Do not send me any thing to eat, I get quite enough.” A further communication, received by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. P. J. O’Neill, of West Kempsey, gives the additional information that Nurse O’Neill was then spending a few days in Scotland, and would almost immediately be proceeding to France. – ‘Macleay Argus.’

The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate reported their wedding on Sat 27 Jul 1918 :

A Military Wedding.

Mr. P. J. O’Neill received a cablegram from Edinburgh this morning (Thursday) conveying the intimation that his daughter, Sister Nance O’Neill, was married on July 4th to Captain Reg. Downing, formerly of Sydney. Sister O’Neill left Australia over three years ago in the troopship Mooltan, with Colonel-Surgeon Fianchi, and served in Egypt, was present at the opening of Lemnos Hospital, and afterwards served in No. 3 Australian General Hospital, then went to Brighton Hospital, England, and afterwards to France. For her splendid services she was decorated by the King at Buckingham Palace with the order of the Royal Red Cross. She has practically been right through the four zones of the war, namely, Gallipoli, France, Lemnos, and England. Captain Downing left Australia over three years ago, and won his commission on the field, and also gained the M.M. decoration for distinguished service in the field. Prior to the war he held the position of Master of Agriculture, in the Agricultural Department, and is beloved by the men under him. He has been wounded twice. – ‘ Macleay Argus,’

We will all join in wishing abounding good fortune and happiness to Captain Downing and his bride. The popular and handsome Sister Nance O’Neill is well known to a large circle of friends in this district, and her gracious and winning personality proved an invaluable asset in the nursing service. Writing from France on March 10th last, Quartermaster-Sergeant E. K. Pountney says of her: – “Have not seen Sister Nance O’Neill yet, as she is away on leave. Strange to say, I had the Captain Quartermaster of the 12th Field Ambulance in this morning. We started talking of Peninsula and Lemnos Island days, and in the course of conversation I asked him if he happened to know a Sister Nance O’Neill. He replied, ‘Of course I do!’ He then went on to say that she was absolutely adored by patients and all others connected with hospital work. He was quite surprised to hear that she was now stationed close by here. He mentioned how down-hearted all the staff at Lemnos were during the critical days of Nance O’Neill’s illness – when she was expected to go under. He said it was only good fortune and the best of medical and nursing attendance that pulled her through, though at the time it was thought their efforts would prove of little avail. I will try and go along and see her before going on leave on the 17th inst.”

The Freeman’s Journal, on Thu 15 Aug 1918, appeared delighted that the marriage involved two Australians!:

We are hearing so constantly of marriages between Australian soldiers and girls on the other side that it is rather refreshing to read of two Australians being wed. News was lately received of the marriage in Edinburgh of Captain Reginald Downey, of the machine gun section, an erstwhile popular Ashfield boy, brother of Miss Poppy Downey, and Nurse Nance O’Neill, a trainee of Vincent’s Hospital, whose name figures prominently on the Roll of Honor in the vestibule of the Nurses’ Home. Nurse O’Neill was decorated by the King with the Royal Red Cross about a year ago; she met her husband on active service.

In a nostalgic article in The Macleay Chronicle on Wed 20 Jul 1932 Reg Gowing described his role in the wedding:

A GOWING BROTHER.

Mr. Reg. M. Gowing, of the firm of Gowing Bros., Sydney, and brother of Messrs. John E. Gowing and Cranley Gowing of this district, is in town this week on a business visit, the first he has paid this coast for 25 years. In the meantime he served throughout the war, and afterwards spent twelve years in the State of Washington, on the Pacific coast, where he invested in orchard country. One of Mr. Gowing’s pleasant memories of wartime is his giving away in marriage to Capt. Downey, at London, of Miss Nance O’Neill, daughter of Mr. P. J. O’Neill, of Kempsey, then nursing the wounded.

The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate,  announced the return of Nurse O’Neill on Sat 8 Feb 1919:

Mrs. Downing Home.

Per Tuesday’s train there arrived from Sydney Mrs. Downing, wife of Captain Downing, but better known in Kempsey as Nurse Nance O’Neill, a handsome daughter of Ald. P. J. O’Neill, who joined No. 3 Australian General Hospital in May, 1915. Since then she has tended the wounded and siok almost uninterruptedly in hospitals at Mudros, and in England, Egypt, and France, though a brief holiday gave her an opportunity to visit the beauty spots of Ireland. In January, 1917, his Majesty the King was pleated to confer the Order of the Royal Red Cross on Nurse O’Neill. Recently she married Captain Downing, and sailed from England on 12th December last. When the train arrived a large crowd of relatives and friends, headed by Mayor C. A. Lane, assembled on the platform to welcome her; and the members of the Girls’ Patriotic League lined up outside as a guard of honor. – “Macleay Chronicle.”

From The Macleay Chronicle on Wed 19 Feb 1919:

Convent School, Kempsey.

On Friday afternoon last the pupils of the Convent School tendered a warm ‘welcome home’ to Nurse Nance O’Neill (Mrs. Downing).

Rev. Father Gunn, who regretted being unavoidably absent from the Welcome Home of the Girls’ League the evening before, welcomed, on behalf of the Rev. Mother, the Sisters and children, the popular Nurse who had so distinguishedly fulfilled the duties of her noble calling. He hoped that long years of happiness and peace would be the reward of her heroic labors.

Rev. Father O’Regan, of Smithtown, expressed his pleasure in being present to welcome home Nurse O’Neill, whom he had known from childhood. He was not at all surprised she had won the Royal Red Cross for faithfulness to duty, because she was always a good child and dutiful daughter. He took this occasion also of congratulating Mr. O’Neill on behalf of the Sisters and children on the honour the citizens of Kempsey had conferred in appointing him Mayor. He wished Mr. and Mrs. O’Neill every success in the arduous duties that position would entail.

Mr O’Neill responded on behalf of his daughter. To inspire the children with a horror of war, he gave a short sketch of a few of the many and dreadful scenes through which Nurse Nance had passed, and held up to their admiring eyes the King’s Cross she had so worthily gained. A short musical programme by the pupils, then a ringing cheer for the “Welcome Home,” concluded the happy little function.

The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate on Sat 04 Oct 1919:

On Friday last Captain and Mrs. Downing (Nurse Nance O’Neill), and the latter’s parents (Mr. and Mrs. P. J. O’Neill, of Kempsey), paid a short visit to Port Macquarie. Captain Downing and his wife both saw lengthy war service, the latter in the eastern and western theatres of the conflict. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

After the war Reginald returned to agricultural research; there are several references to this in old newspaper clippings, for example this, from the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales in 1921:

Thick or Thin Seeding for Wheat?

A farmer in the Central Western District asked for data as to the relative values of thick and thin seeding. In reply, the results of the experiments carried out by the Department were summarised as follows:

1. Thick seeding has given the best results in good seasons, and the later the sowing the thicker should be the seeding.

2. Thick seeding has also given the best results with sparse stooling varieties, such as Florence.

3. What constitutes thick seeding in one district may be medium or thin seeding in another. For instance, medium seeding at Glen Innes is 1 bushel per acre, and when sowing is done late in the season (say in July) up to lh bushels are sown, but at Trangie and Xyngan the best results over a period of years have been obtained with from 35 lb. to 40 lb. of seed per acre, while further west still the sowing is still lighter.

4. Size of grain, stooling habit of the variety, time of sowing, moisture content of seed-bed, and average climatic conditions are all factors which have to be considered. Climatic conditions are variable, of course, and for this reason all departmental tests, when averaged over a period of ten years, give the best results from medium seeding.

As the farmer cannot tell in advance what the climatic conditions of the season will be, the safest plan is to employ a medium seeding, subject, of course, to reservations as regards time of sowing, etc. R. G. Downing, Senior Experimentalist.

In 1925 he was described in The Land as Chief Experimentalist of the Department of Agriculture:

Mr. R. G. Downing, B.Sc., the Chief Experimentalist of the Department, piloted the visitors in this section. A later sowing of each variety (three plots of each) on June 9th, had given a short, though healthy growth. Indeed a casual observer would be more likely to judge that there was two month’s difference in the planting than one, and only a rank optimist would anticipate yields anywhere in the vicinity of the May sown plots. Most visitors would conclude that even with super the middle of June is too late for seeding in Trangie and similar districts.

The Sydney Morning Herald, on Tue 6 Jan 1925, described a report he made as a judge of a competition held by the Murrumbidgee P. and A. Association, on improved farming standards. On Mon 21 Jun 1926 it reported on a talk he gave on the growing of supplementary fodders to lucerne for fat lamb raising. He became an office bearer of the Sydney University Graduates’ Association in the 1930s.

The couple eventually settled and farmed in Dubbo, NSW, on the property known as Merton. The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate carried this notice on Tue 27 Jul 1954:

GOVERNMENT NOTICE

The following applications for licenses, under the Water Act, 1912, have been received from: …

Reginald George Downing, Nance Emily Downing and George Boyd Downing (trading as R. G. Downing & Company) for a pump on the Macquarie River, in portions 7, 6 and 16, parish of Whylandra, county of Gordon, for irrigation of an area of 80 acres. Objections to either of the applications, together with the grounds thereof, must reach me within the period of 28 days fixed by the Act. J. O’BRIEN, Secretary. Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, Box 2702, G.P.O., Sydney.

Reginald rejoined the Australian Military Forces as a part-time officer, and was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 56th Battalion during WWII, the battalion that was “mobilised and undertook garrison duties in Australia until it was disbanded in 1944”. His service record (NX125728) can be  read here.

Reginald passed away on 01 Sep 1967 in St George District Hospital at Kogarah in Sydney, Nance on 02 Aug 1974 in Lochinvar, NSW.

Reg & Nance’s family:

01. John Neil (b. 09 May 1920 in Sydney, d. 31 Jul 1941 in Libya)

02. George Boyd (b. 13 Jan 1924 in Greenwich Point, Sydney, d. 26 Oct 2015 )

03. Dorothy Mary (b. 1925)

Generation 2

01. John Neil Downing enlisted when a University student on 15 May 1940 at Paddington NSW (NX10576). He was a Lieutenant in the 2/17 Battalion when he was reported missing in action in Libya. His memorial is at El Alamein, MAṭrūḥ, Egypt. His service record can be read here. As a mark of remembrance, his parents established a prize for research in agronomy at the University of Sydney (and coincidentally, the writer, Mick O’Neill, was Head of School and was responsible for that award for several years):

The John Neil Downing Memorial Prize Established by R. G. Downing, Esq., B.Sc. (Agr.), by gifts of £25 in 1948 and £500 in 1949, (i) for a prize in memory of his son, Lieutenant John Neil Downing, who was killed in action and (ii) for the encouragement of research work in Agronomy.

02. George Boyd Downing also enlisted, but as an airman, on 09 Oct 1942; his service record can be viewed here. He then completed a veterinary science degree at the University of Sydney: electoral rolls list him either as a student at their property Merton (1949 to 1972) or as a veterinary surgeon living at 3 The Citadel, Castlecrag (1977 to 1980). In 1948 he appears in the list of University of Sydney students who were victorious in the men’s (rowing) eight race at the 1948 Australian University Championships in Perth.

George married Helen Mary Roberts on 04 Jan 1950. A description of the event (with a photo of the couple) appeared in the Catholic Weekly on Thu 19 Jan 1950:

Mr. G. Downing and his bride.

THE marriage of Helen Mary Roberts, until recently almoner at Lewisham Hospital, elder daughter of Dr. J. L. Roberts and Mrs. Roberts, of Lismore, to George Boyd Downing, son of Mr. and Mrs. R. G. Downing, of ”Merton,” Dubbo, was solemnised before Nuptial Mass at St. John’s College Chapel, University of Sydney. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Father V. F. Roberts, of Brisbane, uncle of the bride, assisted by Rev. Father W. Cantwell, C.M., (Vice-Rector of St. John’s College).

Bridesmaids were Maureen Roberts, Gabrielle Gould, Mary Glynn, and Dorothy Downing all of whom were at school at the same Convent of the Sacred Heart, Rose Bay, with the bride. Groomsmen were Bill Reddy, Tom Roberts, James Rogers and Donald Mackie, all University friends of the groom.

Dr. Roberts and Mr. R. G. Downing (parents of the bride and groom) were also residents at St. John’s College during their University careers. The Mass was served by Peter Folkes the bride’s cousin.

George passed away aged 91; his funeral notice read:

Downing, George Boyd October 26, 2015
Aged 91 years. Late of “Merton” Dubbo.

Son of Nance and Reginald Downing (both deceased). Beloved husband of Helen, brother of John and Dorothy (both deceased). Father of John, Rosie, Tim, Anna, Louise and Nick. Father-in-law of David, Ginny and Greg. Beloved grandfather of Steven, Daniel, Martin, Joe, George, James, Annabel, Jess and Nick and Great-grandfather of Tony.

Mass of celebration for the life of George Boyd Downing will be held at St. Marys Church, 264 Miller Street, North Sydney on Monday, November 2, 2015 commencing at 10.30am.tributes.

03. Dorothy Mary Downing married John Gannon Clouston (born c.1923) in the Chatswood district in 1954. John was a scientist and inventor; a list of some of his inventions can be viewed here. They include hand tools for treating meadows, lawns or golf greens, and a method of sterilizing, disinfecting and/or preserving liquids and solids, He appears in the University of NSW Calendar of 1998 as an Honorary Vising Fellow; he gained an MSc from the University of Sydney and a PhD from London.

Shipping registers show the family (there were two sons at that stage) at Fremantle on 23 Feb 1960 returning from London on board the Strathmore. Electoral rolls show the couple living in Carrs Park from 1963 to 1980, with two sons and a daughter.

John passed away on 11 Aug 2006 in Lavender Bay,  New South Wales.

We would be happy to hear from anyone with more information of this family (email mick@oneillfamily.id.au).