At the opening of the Marrickville Anzac Memorial Club in 1921 (now demolished) NSW governor, Sir Walter Davidson, paid tribute to Australians’ war efforts. “Hereafter the highest honour that can come to any Australian”, he said, “is to have been identified in the great war. And the greatest honour to any Australian woman that she buckled down and did the same thing as fighting by giving up her time and pleasure and the things she most valued in life, in order to help the men who had gone to fight”.
We can only wonder what Alice Cashin, twice mentioned in dispatches, recipient of the Gold Royal Red Cross Medal and Bar (First Class) and the 1914 Star (Mons Star), thought of that.
Alice had been born in Melbourne in 1870 to Catherine, second wife of Richard Cashin. Catherine died just one year later, so Richard, with Alice and Joseph, the son from his first marriage, moved back to be close to family in Sydney.
Alice began nurse training at St Vincent’s Hospital in 1893 and remained until 1897, before going on to private nursing.
In 1909 Alice travelled to England and furthered her studies. When war was declared in 1914, at the age of 44 she offered her services to the British government.
Alice began working with the British and French Red Cross and was immediately in the thick of it, being posted to the north of France just 15 miles from the front. She led the 4th unit of the British Red Cross in charge of 33 nurses. “At first we were stationed not far from the front”, she wrote home. “They told us we were 15 miles, but we seemed nearer, for the sound of the guns was terrifying, day and night.”
After four months she was transferred to the relative safety of Calais as head of the General Hospital, treating soldiers, and escaping Belgian civilians. For her service during this time Alice was awarded the 1914 (Mons) Star, one of very few Australians to do so.
In the middle of 1915 Alice returned to England and joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve), QAIMNSR. Almost immediately (July 1915) she was sent to Egypt, posted to Cairo and Alexandria, where she ran the large surgical ward at a hospital at Ras-el-tin. This throws up the possibility that Alice worked with or alongside the Australian nurses in Egypt at the time.
Alice shone again in Egypt, being mentioned in dispatches by Sir Archibald Murray, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces. She was then awarded ”the gold Medal of the Royal Red Cross, first class” described by the Sydney Morning Herald as, “the highest a woman can gain”.
With this level of praise for her work it was not surprising that Alice was promoted in 1916 to ‘seas-matron’ of the ‘Gloucester Castle’, a hospital ship. She now had the responsibility of managing a large number of nurses and an even larger number of wounded men, some severely wounded. The ship travelled between England and a number of ports known to Marrickville residents; Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), Malta, Cyprus, Egypt, Moudros (Lemnos) and Mytilene (Mitilini, Lesbos). In fact, a number of these places appear in the mosaics to be found deteriorating on Marrickville Road.
Hospital ship work was dangerous, something Alice was well aware of. She wrote to her parents: ”Today we had sad sights, passed no end of wreckage, but I cannot write about it. You would laugh to see my little lantern and matches, and a small bag, with a few things is ever ready to grab. (sic) It’s always a comfort when the daylight comes after the dark nights. We don’t like nights”.
On the night of March 30-31, 1917 Alice’s worst fears were realised. Sometime around midnight, off the Isle of Wight, a German U-boat, SM UB-32, torpedoed the ‘Gloucester Castle’. Alice had drilled her nurses regularly on what to do in this circumstance and as the ship foundered all the 399 wounded soldiers, including at least 200 bedridden cases, were removed from the ship. Alice disobeyed orders and would not leave the ship until everyone else was clear.
Three of the severely wounded died from the disembarkation, however the calm and orderly removal of the wounded received widespread coverage and high praise.
Alice was mentioned in dispatches by the Secretary of State for War and awarded the bar to her Gold Royal Red Cross Medal, which was presented by the King himself. Alice was the first Australian nurse to receive this double award.
Her commendation stated that she ”showed an example of coolness and devotion to duty, and rendered invaluable service”.
Rather than return to sea Alice was very quickly put in charge of the 400-bed military hospital at Whittingham Barracks in Litchfield, England where she remained for two years.
However, home was calling. Alice’s very proud father, Richard, now 80 years old and in failing health, wanted her to return to Sydney. Alice’s telegram to the Matron in Chief at the War Office simply stated “I must get home”.
On leaving the hospital in 1919 she was presented with a gold linked bracelet inscribed with her war record from the nursing staff, and showered with daisies by the soldier patients.
In Sydney, after a short period of celebrity and social rounds Alice settled with her father and his third wife, Sarah, in Moore Park. It was a short time as Richard died within 6 months.
Alice’s time in Marrickville is, naturally, not as well documented as her war years but it seems that she continued in her nursing on a more personal level. After her father’s death she moved in with her elderly uncle, Jeremiah, who lived in Queen Street, just off Victoria Road. She remained there until his death in 1922.
Shortly after, she move to 290 Marrickville Road (currently occupied by Noff’s Op Shop) to run a stationer’s shop and live upstairs. For a woman who had been invited four times to tea with the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace, a little shop on Marrickville Road was quite a change. But Alice was to stay here until 1936 and during this time another uncle, John, stayed with her and died at her flat in 1926.
Alice became a member of the Marrickville Anzac Memorial Club (demolished) in Garners Avenue shortly after it was founded in 1921. Alice may well have been one of its most highly decorated members. Certainly, she was extremely popular. The Club had cost over £3000 to build and was paid for by public donations, by 1924 it still owed about £2000. It was decided to hold a fund-raising competition to find the “Queen of Marrickville”.
The competition attracted a lot of interest and in the end over 184,500 votes were cast raising £785. Matron Cashin representing the “Diggers” won easily with almost 40% of the vote.
At the age of 66, Alice gave up the stationery shop and moved to her last home in Marrickville. She moved to 348A Victoria Road, just around the corner from her uncle Jeremiah’s old home in Queen Street and just a few doors down from her aunt Catherine’s home at 307 Victoria Road. Alice was keeping close to family.
Alice died on 4 November 1939, two months three days after the start of the Second World War. A devout Roman Catholic Christian throughout her life Alice received a full Requiem Mass at St Brigid’s Church, Marrickville and burial at Woronora Cemetery (Woronora Memorial Park). Members of the Marrickville Anzac Memorial Club were in attendance.
Sadly, while nine other members of Alice’s extended family are buried at Woronora, Alice’s grave remained unmarked for 75 years. Then in 2015 Kathleen le Gras discovered the grave while researching her family history. It turned out Alice’s family were not related to Kathleen’s but she decided it was important to make Alice’s story known.
After a Sydney Morning Herald article about the story was published things moved rapidly. Alice’s great niece Jennifer Furness (who sadly passed way earlier this year) realised Alice might be related and found Alice’s medals, which she donated to the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney.
The story was also read by members of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association who started a fund to place a headstone and statue on the grave. This was officially unveiled on 11 October 2016 by former governor Marie Bashir.
Perhaps Marrickville could also look to honouring Matron Alice Cashin RRC & Bar.
A story and film of the statue creation and unveiling can be found at The Lamp, the Magazine of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association.
Thank you to Clive Baker, president of The Shire Military History Club.
1 thought on “Alice Cashin – the Queen of Marrickville”
An amazing story about Alice Cashin. A wonderful woman who almost passed into history without her story being known. I agree a memorial should be made in her name in Marrickville. I do not procedure but perhaps added to Winged Victory memorial outside Marrickville Town Hall.