Eye to eye with Ettie Rout


Image: Passport photograph of Ettie Rout, 1918. Photographer unidentified. Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand. Ref: PAColl-4832. 

I’ve been looking at this face for months. It belongs to Ettie Rout. She was born in Tasmania in 1877 but raised in New Zealand from the age of eight. I’ve examined her hair and her eyes. I’ve pondered her broach, the weird wrinkle of her collar, the shape of her mouth.

I’ve read Jane Tolerton’s excellent biography. I’ve read scholarly essays. I’ve read feature stories. I’ve read the pithy biography on Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. I’ve searched her up on Trove, Papers Past, the Cenotaph database and the Australian National War Memorial. I’ve downloaded the war photos, the journalism photos and the body beautiful ones. I’ve watched the episode from the TV series.

I’ve been to the State Library and ordered some of her books from the stacks. They’re odd but also awesome.

Take Whole-Meal With Practical Recipes. The book came out in 1927. Sir William Arbuthnot Lane wrote the foreword. I did not make that name up.

‘Mrs Ettie A Hornibrook has, at my urgent request, written a pamphlet on the subject on Whole-meal and Whole-meal Products, which will supply to the Public just such information as will afford them a basis upon which to form their own conclusions as to the benefits of Whole-meal and the terrible damage to health that is being inflicted on the community by White Flour products,’ Sir W begins.

The capital letters are in the original. White Flour, Sir W says, is ‘the chief factor in the production of disease and particularly of cancer, and in the deterioration of the physique and health of our nation’.

Rout summed the menace up thus:

The Whiter the Bread,

The sooner you’re Dead.

Sir W suggested her ditty should be hung ‘in a conspicuous position in every home and in every baker’s shop’. My mum would have bought one! White flour did not enter our kitchen in the 1970s or even the 1980s. The new millennium has bought no softening on the ban either.

Another of Rout’s books was Safe Marriage: A Return to Sanity. It was published in 1922 and banned, immediately, in New Zealand (where marriage had to be unsafe and insane, presumably?)

Sir W wrote the preface for this one too. ‘To no woman has it been permitted to do the same amount of good, and to save more misery and suffering, both during and after the war, than to Miss Ettie Rout. Her superhuman energy and indomitable perseverance enabled her to perform, in the most efficient manner possible, a work which few woman would care to handle and to which but an infinitesimally small number are capable.’

Rout then kicked off the text proper with her trademark subtlety.

‘At present marriage is easily the most dangerous of all our social institutions. This is partly due to the colossal ignorance of the public in regard to sex, and partly due to the fact that marriage is mainly controlled by lawyers and priests instead of women and doctors,’ she wrote.

I could go on with many more fabulous quotes from the land of Rout but I’ll save the juicy stuff for the talk I’m giving (along with three other historians) at Melbourne Museum on Sunday 26 October. The event is called No Place for a Woman. It’s been organised by the Professional Historians Association and all the speakers are proud members.

I had to blurt out a few long quotes here because our talks are so short. No more than ten minutes. I’ve had to condense all my research into about 1300 words. It’s been a hell of a process: submit a 100-word pitch; audition with a three-minute script and pictures; submit draft script of no more than 800 words; get paired with coach; revise script; perform script for coach; revise again; and perform again with images and archival film. On Monday, there’s a run through ‘a voice artist’. I know, I want that job title too.

I reckon my script is coming along. I can look Ettie in the eyes but I’ve got to do some more work on tone, pace, volume, riffs and preemptive chuckles before I get the final nod from my amazing, demanding coach, Museum Victoria curator Bec Carland! Thanks Bec. You’ve forced me to really see Ettie for who she was and I’m looking forward to sharing these insights next weekend.



About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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3 Responses to Eye to eye with Ettie Rout

  1. Kathryn Simpson says:

    Hi Rachel – so glad to read your blog about Ettie because her great work across so many fields is still little known. I read Jane Tollerton’s fantastic book and have been trying to get my short article about Ettie’s work during WW1 published but there has been little interest. Are you interested in publishing it on your blog? Here it is: . N’oublions jamais Ettie Rout!
    Safe sex, World War 1 and our diggers in Paris? It’s not a traditional tale of remembrance but a true story about a woman that Generals, Governments and whole countries tried to forget. The Anzacs who met Australian born, New Zealander Ettie Rout never forgot her or her mission to control venereal disease infection. She achieved this by providing Anzacs with prophylaxis, counselling, education and access to licensed brothels in Paris. A Life of Ettie Rout ‘Guardian Angel ‘ or ‘Wickedest Woman’ (1992) written by New Zealand Historian and award winning journalist, Jane Tolerton dips into archives and diaries to bring to life long suppressed voices and viewpoints on the psyche of soldiers, sex and the battlefield during World War 1. Tolerton’s research goes beyond the Army’s scare campaigns and dangle parades to illuminate one woman’s courage, compassion and determination in the face of hypocrisy, intolerance and rejection.
    Tolerton details Ettie’s creation and management of a scheme called the Volunteer Sisterhood. In July 1915, Ettie rallied New Zealand women, fund raised and lobbied the Government to allow a female volunteer corp to follow the troops to Egypt to help the sick and wounded. The first band of Ettie’s sisterhood arrived in Egypt in November 1915. They had difficulty finding work in the hospitals but were accepted by the New Zealand YMCA canteen at Esbekia Gardens. Ettie arrived in February 1916 and soon cabled New Zealand requesting more volunteers. The Volunteer Sisterhood prepared and served food to the thousands of troops who went to the YMCA canteen for reasonably priced food and entertainment. Ettie was alarmed by the escalating rate of venereal disease and realized that the Army’s policy of moral prophylaxis wasn’t working. She had toured the notorious Wazza quarter of prostitutes several times and believed that the answer to the problem was to close it down, provide precincts of inspected prostitutes specifically for soldiers and issue physical prophylaxis. She confronted the highest echelons of the New Zealand Army and Government to complain that nothing was being done to prevent venereal disease. Meanwhile, Ettie opened and managed a canteen and later a recreational club for Australian and New Zealand troops in Egypt, providing an oasis of music, fresh fruit, drinks and much needed respite from the monotony of camp life. When most of the men moved on she became a one-woman catering company visiting the small neglected camps of the Australian light horsemen in the desert with fresh food and drinks.
    The role of the AIF in the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day 1918 and the later contribution of the Australian public to the rebuilding of the town is commemorated every year yet the sizeable contribution of Ettie Rout in assisting the civilian population of Villers-Bretonneux in the aftermath of utter devastation, is little known. In the summer of 1919, Ettie and her husband Frank Hornibrook set up a depot for the American Red Cross in the ruins of the Villers-Bretonneux school. Jane Tolerton’s research reveals details of Ettie’s remarkable work for the malnourished, weak and grief-stricken inhabitants living in a barren landscape of deep shell holes, without sanitation or running water during the harsh winter of 1919-20. Ettie fed 200 children every day and ran a canteen and soldier’s club frequented by English and Australian soldiers with the British war graves detachment.
    The French Government awarded Ettie Rout the highest civilian decoration, the Reconnaissance Française for her work in Paris and Villers-Bretonneux as a volunteer. Apart from this recognition by the French Government, Jane Tolerton’s book about the amazing life of Ettie Rout, appears to be the only memorial to Ettie’s war service. Ettie Rout, Lest we forget.

    • Hi Kathryn,

      thanks for your response and your summary of Ettie’s life. People can read it as part of your comment. You may be interested to know that Jane Tolerton is finishing work on a “short book” on Rout, that focuses on her sexual health campaign in WWI. Look out for it!

      • Kathryn Simpson says:

        Many thanks Rachel. Will you be publishing a transcript/audio of the talk you gave at the end of October at the Melbourne Museum?

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