Edith Lilian Bridges

President of the Friendly Union of Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers, war widow, mother

Lady Bridges was the initial president of the Friendly Union of Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers, set up by her friend Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, wife of the Governor General, early in World War I to provide support for families of soldiers of the first AIF. The shock of the death of her husband, Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges, Commander of the first AIF, less than a month after the landing at Gallipoli and the prolonged and very public commemorative ceremonies associated with the return of his body to Australia and his reburial in Canberra, affected her health to the extent that the following year she retired from public life.

An adopted child, Edith’s life was punctuated by tragedy including the loss of her first-born son soon after birth, the drowning of one of her seven-year-old twin girls in a boating accident on Sydney Harbour and the death of a 17-year-old son at boarding school in England. During World War I in addition to the loss of her husband, she worried constantly about her son Major Noel Bridges DSO, who fought at Gallipoli and the Western Front and was wounded in Flanders in 1918. Born Edith Lilian Francis in 1862 near Moruya, Lady Bridges died in Melbourne in 1926, aged 64, and was buried in St John’s Churchyard, Canberra.

Edith Lilian Francis was born on 2 August 1862 at Yarragee, just outside the town of Moruya on the New South Wales south coast, the third child of her mother’s second marriage to Alfred John Dawson Francis. Her mother was born Margaret Agnes Anne (known as Agnes) Green in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the eleventh child of a Deputy Commissary General in the British Army, William Goodall Green. Agnes grew up in Newfoundland and the Cape of Good Hope where she married William Wilson when she was about eighteen. She and her husband migrated to Australia; their first child was born in Sydney in 1854 and their second in Moruya where Wilson worked as a storekeeper at ‘Kiora’. In 1856, at the age of 28, Wilson drowned in the Tuross River leaving Agnes with two children. In 1858 she married Alfred John Dawson Francis, a widower with two children, who was an agent for the Illawarra Navigation Company at Moruya. Six years later Alfred Francis, after suffering severe bouts of depression and mania, suicided in Sydney by swallowing potassium acid. Agnes, left without support with four young Francis children, the last born after her husband’s death, as well as two children from her first marriage to Wilson, decided to move to Queanbeyan and start a school. At about the time she moved she arranged to leave her two youngest children with families in the district.

The second youngest, Edith Lilian Francis, was about eighteen months old when she was informally adopted by a childless couple, Donald James and Elizabeth Georgina MacLeod at Batemans Bay. Her adoptive father, Donald James MacLeod, had been born on 16 July 1820 at sea off the Spanish coast during the voyage of his parents and older siblings from Leith, Scotland, to Van Diemen’s Land. The MacLeods were distantly related to Elizabeth Macquarie and the MacLeod parents stayed for three months at Government House, Sydney when Lachlan Macquarie was governor. From Van Diemen’s Land, members of the MacLeod family became large landowners mainly in Victoria. Donald MacLeod had land near Geelong and was granted a licence to pasture at Narrung on the Victorian side of the Murray River opposite its junction with the Murrumbidgee River and he also acquired land in the Moruya district. On 27 June 1848 at Geelong he married Elizabeth Georgina Flanagan, who was born in County Cork, Ireland, a daughter of a pioneer landholder of the Eurobodalla district, Francis Flanagan, of Shannon Flat near Moruya.

Edith grew up at ‘Cordynia’, the MacLeod property at Batemans Bay. It is doubtful whether she had any further contact with her natural mother who, in 1864, started the first non-denominational public school in Queanbeyan under the National system of education. The school met such opposition from the Anglican and Presbyterian ministers and Agnes was subject to attacks including stone throwing that, in mid-1865, she was forced to close the school which had enrolled 68 pupils during its short existence.

As she grew up, Edith’s family contacts were her adoptive father’s extensive MacLeod family of pastoralists and her adoptive mother’s Flanagan family. After Donald MacLeod’s death on 25 February 1883 at Cordynia and burial at Batemans Bay, his widow, Elizabeth MacLeod, and Edith, aged 20, moved to Sydney. Two years later, on 10 October 1885, Edith married Lieutenant William Throsby Bridges at St John’s Anglican Church, Darlinghurst. Although Edith used her birth surname of Francis when she married, there is no evidence, apart from her detailed knowledge of the genealogy of her natural mother’s family, to indicate that she had contact with her mother, who in 1871 married photographer William Walter Thwaites and had a further four children. After it was discovered that Thwaites was a bigamist, he and Agnes married again, following the death of his wife, but the marriage failed. In 1887 Agnes returned to Queanbeyan to open a short-lived ‘Ladies Seminary’. She died at Marrickville in 1902 at the age of 67.

Born at Greenock, Scotland, on 18 February 1861, William Throsby Bridges, who arrived in Australia at the age of 18, was employed by the New South Wales colonial government as assistant inspector of roads and bridges in several country districts. Just before his marriage he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the NSW permanent artillery. After training at the School of Gunnery, Middle Head, he joined the instructional staff. Promoted to captain in 1890, Bridges attended several gunnery courses in England and in 1893 was appointed chief instructor at the School of Gunnery and promoted to major in 1895. He served with the cavalry division of the British Army during the Boer War.

During this period Edith and William Bridges had seven children, a son, Seymour, who was born in 1886 and died six months later, twin girls, Dorothy and Margery born in 1887, William Arthur Noel in 1890, Donald in 1894, Marion in 1896 and Anthony in 1905. On 18 December 1894, the family suffered the tragic loss of Margery, one of the twin girls, who was drowned aged seven, in a boating accident on Sydney Harbour.

In 1909, when Bridges was made Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff in London and appointed CMG, Edith and the children moved to England for what the family expected to be a posting of several years. In January 1910, however, Bridges was promoted brigadier general and recalled to Australia to found Australia’s military college at Duntroon in the Federal Capital Territory, located in a district with which he had a genealogical connection through explorer Charles Throsby, an ancestor on his mother’s side. Throsby had been with the first group of Europeans who in 1821 crossed the Molonglo and Queanbeyan rivers and the country which was acquired for the National Capital. Bridges resented being recalled to Australia so soon after moving Edith and four of their children to England and faced the prospect of a long family separation as there was no accommodation at Duntroon. This situation was exacerbated by the death in 1911 of their second son, Donald, aged 17, at his boarding school in London, following two abdominal operations.

Construction of the Commandant’s residence at Duntroon did not begin until October 1911 and the following month Bridges obtained leave to visit England partly on official business but also to spend time with Edith and the children at Gryon, south of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where Edith had moved the family after their son’s death. Although quarters at Duntroon were not completed until December 1913, Bridges brought Edith and the children out several months earlier, installing them at the Duntroon station manager’s former residence, a house later reserved for the Director of Military Art. This ensured that Edith was present at the naming of Canberra by Lady Denman, wife of the governor general, at the ceremony held on bare Canberra paddocks on 12 March 1913. Edith can be seen in a white dress and hat among the distinguished guests on the dais and at the official lunch held in a tent where she sat at the main table with her husband.

When World War I began, Bridges was appointed commander of the Australian Imperial Force with rank of major general and charged with raising an Australian contingent. Edith Bridges and her family had already moved from Duntroon to a flat in Toorak, Melbourne, where she became the first president of the Friendly Union of Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers, an organisation founded by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, wife of the governor general, whose major wartime achievement was to found the Australian Red Cross. The Friendly Union, set up to promote a friendly feeling among relations of members of the AIF and to give mutual help and advice in any trouble or difficulty, attracted the wives of senior military officers including Annie Legge, wife of Major General J G Legge, and Susan Sellheim, wife of Major General Victor Sellheim, as well as leading figures in women’s groups and charitable and patriotic organisations in Melbourne. It was a very active organisation; even the branch at Wangaratta was able to get Lady Helen Munro Ferguson to stop at the town overnight to attend their meeting while she was travelling from Sydney to Melbourne by train in late November 1915.

After the landing at Gallipoli, General Bridges became known to his troops for attracting sniper fire during his daily inspections of the firing line. On 15 May 1915, he was shot by a sniper in Monash Valley and evacuated gravely ill to a hospital ship. He died, aged 54, en route to Egypt on 18 May 1915 and was buried in Alexandria. In June it was decided to return his body to Australia for burial, the only Australian killed in World War I whose body was returned to Australia until the return of the unknown soldier to the Australian War Memorial in 1993. The unique decision to bring General Bridges’ body back to Australia is believed to have been strongly influenced by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson’s close friendship with Lady Bridges. It was a decision that went against the government’s own policy quoted by Ken Inglis as:

What most families could not afford, none would be allowed; modern democracy demanded that all dead soldiers lying in foreign ground should be brought home at public cost or none at all.

Lady Bridges heard of her husband’s death at her home in Melbourne, then of his burial in Egypt and the decision to reinter him in Canberra. On 2 September, three and a half months after his death, a state funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, followed by a procession through the city streets. The following day his body began the journey by special train to Canberra where it was received by a bearer party from the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery with a gun carriage and a team of six horses and followed by a mounted escort of Duntroon cadets. After a memorial service at St John’s Church, Reid, the funeral procession augmented by an infantry guard from Duntroon moved off up a dusty road, which later became Anzac Parade past the site of the future Australian War Memorial to Mount Pleasant where he was buried on a hill overlooking the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in a grave designed by Walter Burley Griffin, the only example of a structure in Canberra designed by the city’s planner.

The shock of her husband’s death and the prolonged and very public commemorative ceremonies associated with the return of his body to Australia and the reburial in Canberra, together with her son Noel, one of the four remaining of her seven children, being on active service with the AIF on Gallipoli and then in Flanders, affected Edith Bridges’ health to the extent that it is doubtful if she ever fully recovered. In 6 June 1916 she wrote to Lady Helen Munro Ferguson asking to be relieved, at least temporarily, of her position as president of the Friendly Union of Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers. She wrote:

It’s very humiliating and disappointing to find oneself fit for nothing more intellectual or useful than writing or setting up lists. But the fact remains that the shock of last year and the deep anxiety, and now the fact of my son being at the front, in Flanders, leaves me just “a poor thing” where energy of mind is required.

Lady Chauvel, wife of the commander of the 1st Light Horse AIF, became president and Lady Bridges joined Mrs Legge, Mrs Sellheim, Mrs Eva Hughes and others as vice-presidents. The organisation remained very active with organisers appointed to arrange visiting, clothing distribution and musical performances and setting up a system of district visitors.

By a special act of the Commonwealth Parliament, known as the Officer’s Compensation Act 1915, Lady Bridges was paid £4500 compensation for the loss of her husband, with the provision that any liability under the War Pensions Act 1914-15 to the widow and dependants ‘shall be determined’ (i.e. ceased). The Act was assented to on 15 November 1915. Under the War Pensions Act 1914-1915 Lady Bridges would have been entitled to a widow’s pension. Her husband at the time of his death was being paid at the rate of £1500 per annum plus an allowance of 15/- per day. Apart from his wife and children, General Bridges before his death had made an allowance of £1 a week to his sister Mrs Adelaide Zouch of Moss Vale, a widow with three young children who was described as ‘delicate and not well off’. Despite strenuous representations from Mrs Zouch and her solicitor, this payment ceased on 9 November 1916 under the terms of the Officer’s Compensation Act. The Repatriation Department paid an education allowance for General Bridges’ youngest child, Anthony, until he reached the age of 18 when he was still at Melbourne Grammar School, and later subsidised trade training for him.

During 1917 and for the rest of the war, extreme worry about her son Noel on the Western Front dominated Lady Bridges’ life as her letter to the Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson on 11 August 1917 illustrates. She wrote very diffidently asking Sir Ronald if he could use his influence, ‘if some means might occur’, to suggest her son, Captain Noel Bridges, for a staff appointment. (Headquarters staff usually operated at a distance from the front line.) At the end she wrote: ‘I feel a little afraid I should not have written.’ The staff appointment does not appear to have occurred, but he was selected for a staff course in England and on 28 December 1917 the award of DSO to Major Noel Bridges for conspicuous service was gazetted.

In 1918 Bridges was back at the front. When he was wounded on 12 August 1918, his sister, Dorothy Bridges, wrote to Army Headquarters in Melbourne asking that his name be kept out of the official casualty list for a month and out of the Press completely. ‘My reason for this,’ she wrote, ‘is my mother’s health as she is in no fit state to stand any shock & as yet I am not informing her.’ When the war ended, Major Noel Bridges DSO was discharged from the AIF in England, contrary to the usual army practice, so that he could return to his pre-war position as Assistant Superintendent of Surveys in the Federated Malay States.

On 6 January 1920 a more relaxed Lady Bridges replied to the official war historian, CEW Bean, who had requested information on her husband’s family and early life. Her reply gave a glimpse of the human side of the stiff military figure of General Bridges as his wife and family knew him. ‘Do not portray W. as always dour – old’, she wrote before clearing up a misconception arising from his birth in Greenoak, Scotland, while his naval father was posted there. ‘W’s family have no Scottish association’, she wrote. ‘It is my own family that has the Scotch tradition.’ Revealing that she knew her birth mother’s family history, she wrote that through her mother, she and her children were from an old Perthshire family.

Lady Bridges led a quiet life away from the public eye until her death on 13 October 1926 at the age of 64. Her body was returned to Canberra by the Cooma mail train arriving at Queanbeyan station on 16 October 1926 and conveyed to St John’s Church, Reid, where relays of officers from the RMC Duntroon kept watch. The funeral service was held in the afternoon and she was buried in St John’s Churchyard (Row B1, grave 354) after a service in the Church. She was survived by her children Noel, Dorothy, Marion (Mrs Arthur Maxwell) and Anthony. Her son Noel, a member of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force was lost at sea on 1 January 1942 as the Japanese advanced on Singapore in World War II.


Archival resources

  • NLA MS9021, R. E. Cowley, ‘Soldiers, surveyors and selectors: a genealogy of the Cowley and Simpkins families and associated branches’, 1996, Edith Bridges to CEW Bean, pp. 191-2.
  • NLA MS696, Papers of Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson (Lord Novar), Box 10, Lady Bridges to Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, ‘Rosemount’, South Yarra, 6 June [1916], p. 7999; Lady Bridges to Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, ‘Holmwood’, Brighton, 11 August [1917], pp. 8000-1.
  • NAA, B2455, First AIF Personnel Dossiers 1914-1920, Bridges, William Throsby, Major General, barcode 1935247.
  • NAA B73, Personal case files, World War I, Bridges, William Throsby Major General, R56792, barcode 20856878.
  • NAA B2455, First AIF Personnel Dossiers 1914-1920, Bridges, William Francis Noel, Major, barcode 3121347.
  • AWM, Appeals and Fundraising Souvenir Collection, 4/1/7, ‘Friendly Union of Soldiers Wives and Mothers AIF’.
  • Commonwealth of Australia, Officer's Compensation Act No. 49 of 1915: An Act to provide for compensation to be paid to the Widow of Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges, KCB, CMG. (Assented 15 November 1915)

Published sources

  • Clark, C. D. ‘General Bridges: The reluctant Commandant’, RMC Historical Journal, vol. two, 1973, pp. 31-6.
  • Cowley, R.E. ‘Margaret Agnes Anne Green/Wilson/Francis/Thwaites’, Journal of The Moruya & District Historical Society, June 2000, pp. 12-16.
  • Gibbney, H. J. Eurobodalla: History of the Moruya District, Library of Australian History/Shire of Eurobodalla, Sydney, 1980.
  • Hart, Steve ‘The Curious Case of a Soldier’s Return’, Canberra Historical Journal, no. 53, March 2004, pp. 15-18.
  • MacLeod, Bruce Donald, ‘Genealogy of the family of MacLeod of Tasker in Australia, November 1820-March 1990’, MacLeod, Neutral Bay NSW, 1990.
  • Wangaratta Chronicle, 1 December 1915, p. 1.
  • Australasian, 16 October 1926, p. 52.
  • Argus, 20 March 1931, p. 6.