On the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, Blackall State School students have produced a video documenting the life of one of Blackall’s Gallipoli Anzacs – Sister Greta Towner – in time for Remembrance Day.
With the help of the Blackall Historical Society and teacher Avril Fazel, the students have ‘discovered’ the life of a past student as part of the State Library of Queensland’s “Q ANZAC 100 – Memories for New Generation” project.
In 2014/2015, Year 9 student Bayley Williams noted the existence of Sister Towner while researching her brother Major Edgar Towner VC MC FRGSA as a recipient of the Premier’s Anzac Prize 2015.
“While I was focused on researching Edgar Towner, finding he had a sister interested not just me, but teachers, students and community members. We know quite a bit about Edgar but his sister’s story was not very well known,” Bayley said.
Starting with two brief newspaper articles from the early 1900s, found online by Bayley, and noting that her name had been added to the bottom of the Blackall Honour Roll, the students began the process of “Discovering Sister Greta Towner”.
She was born at Glencoe, near Blackall in 1891 and was educated at the Blackall State School and in Rockhampton. She trained at the Rockhampton Children’s Hospital and was registered as a nurse in August 1914.
Enlisting in July 1915, she was sent to the 1st Australian General Hospital in Egypt. Greta was one of just 133 nurses who served on the Greek island of Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign, giving her the right to be called an ANZAC.
After working on hospital ships she nursed in Southall, England, which specialised in amputations and artificial limbs. Like her brother, Edgar Towner VC, MC, she served on the Western Front. Officially discharged on July 4, 1919, she served just one month short of four years.
After studying pharmacy at the University of Sydney, Sister Towner emigrated to the United States where she nursed in various veteran hospitals. She died in California in 1961.
Christine Campbell from the Blackall Historical Society assisted in the research process that has seen the students produce their own documentary on Sister Towner’s life.
“At first Greta did not appear to have left much of a trace of her life apart from her war service record,” Christine said. “Using online newspapers, we began to uncover more details and then moved to overseas records.”
Avril Fazel, Head of Department at Blackall State School, shared the research with junior secondary students. One of them, Sam Bly spoke about the value of seeing Greta’s real uniform, only found this year, and medals and family-shared photos.
“Then the University of Sydney contacted us to confirm Greta had studied pharmacy there in 1920,” Sam said. “That made the telling of her story on video so much better.”
The students’ video production was reviewed by family members and State Library of Queensland staff involved in the project, and a final edit was done by Desert Channels Queensland’s Alun Hoggett, acknowledging this would be the first time Greta’s story would be available in such an accessible medium.
Blackall’s efforts have been rewarded with a Pinner of the Week award by History Pin, and a series of blogs are appearing on the State Library of Queensland website.
The project is supported by the Queensland government through the State Library of Queensland.