Woman Macready, Agnes

Journalist, Nurse and War Correspondent

Written by Jeannine Baker, University of Wollongoog

Agnes Macready was born in Rathfriland, Northern Ireland, the eldest of five children, and migrated to New South Wales with her family in 1867, aged twelve. Her mother Jane died two years later. Macready's father, Reverend Henry Macready, was elected Moderator of the NSW Presbyterian General Assembly in 1880, however Agnes Macready converted to Catholicism as an adult. From the narrow range of occupations available to her Macready chose nursing, although she was already over 25 when she began her training at Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She subsequently worked at Melbourne Hospital and then as matron of Bowral Hospital.

Under the nom de plume 'Arrah Luen', Macready began to contribute sketches and poetry to the Catholic Press. Some of her work was reprinted in American and Irish newspapers. In late nineteenth century Australia, newspapers were male-dominated workplaces and journalism was still not regarded as a reputable profession for women. Aspiring women journalists were often forced to contribute to newspapers surreptitiously, or to adopt a pseudonym to disguise their true identity and gender.

Macready was the first Australian nurse to travel to South Africa after war was declared there in October 1899, arriving even before the first contingent of Australian troops. Military nursing in Australia was then in its infancy, but many women volunteered their services immediately after the war began and were declined. Prejudice against nurses in the British Army Medical Service was still strong, and the British War Office initially intended that nurses would have only a limited role in supervising hospital orderlies, rather than nursing at field or stationary hospitals. Determined to 'get to the seat of war as soon as possible' (Barrier Miner, 18 January, 1900), Macready paid her own way, carrying letters of support from Cardinal Moran, the Premier of NSW William Lyne, and 'the leading medical men of Sydney and Melbourne' (Catholic Press, 20 January 1900). She was also commissioned as a special correspondent for the Catholic Press.

Macready's experiences in South Africa 'shattered all the romance of war' for her. She worked as a nursing sister in military hospitals in Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, Wyburg and Pretoria, and in a camp for Boer prisoners at Simon's Town. While caring for the wounded from the battles at Colenso, Spion Kop, Pieter's Hill and Vaal Kraatz, she gained a 'glimpse of the battlefield, where no woman's face is seen' (Catholic Press, 21 April, 1900).

Macready should be regarded as the first Australian woman war correspondent, although there was no official system at this time for accreditation. The widely held belief that women were fit to report war only from 'the woman's angle' was echoed by Macready, who wrote in her first article from South Africa: 'Of course I see with a woman's eyes, and my point of view is limited' (Catholic Press, 20 January 1900). Despite this disclaimer, Macready does not restrict herself to domestic matters, but also interrogates the progress of the war. She is often critical of the British and sympathetic to the Boers:

'England, when she goes forth to civilise or conquer, always carries a copy of the Bible in one hand and a sword of honour in the other. The Military Power having burned to the ground the comfortable homestead where Mrs Paul Coetze resided (because Mr Paul Coetze refuses to lay down his arms), a paternal government steps in to provide Mrs Coetze and the large family of boys and girls with food and shelter' (Catholic Press, 4 May, 1901).

On her return to Australia in September 1901 Macready continued her twin occupations of nursing and journalism, and contributed to debates about the position of women in the public sphere. In a paper given at the Second Australasian Catholic Congress of 1904 she warned that 'in ignorance lies the danger of the vote in the hands of the woman'. Girls' education, she argued, should promote both the domestic and public spheres of women's lives, in order to form women of 'disciplined brain and skilful hands', because 'upon the ideal of the woman depends the rise and fall of the home, and upon the character of that home follows the advance or retrogression of the State, for what is the State but a collection of homes?' (Proceedings of the Second Australasian Catholic Congress, 1905: 565-66).

Additional sources: Catholic Press, 21 April 1900; Catholic Press, 20 January 1900; Catholic Press, 21 September 1901; Catholic Press, 4 May 1901; Catholic Press, 13 September 1928; Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 - 1954) 18 January 1900.

Published Resources


  • Bassett, Jan, Guns and Brooches: Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1992. Details
  • Wallace, Robert L, The Australians at the Boer War, Australian War Memorial and Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1976. Details
  • Wilcox, Craig, Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899 - 1902, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details

Book Sections

  • 'Arrah-Luen', '"Tommy's" Nursing Service', in G. B. Barton et al (ed.), The Story of South Africa, vol. 2, World Publishing Company, Sydney, New South Wales, 1902, pp. 507-514. Details

Conference Proceedings

  • Proceedings of the Second Australasian Catholic Congress held in the Cathedral Hall, Melbourne, The Congress, Melbourne, Victoria, 24 - 31 October 1904. Details

See also