28 April 2023

Riverina Rewind: The day the 'Angel of Durban' alighted in Wagga

| Michelle Maddison
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A big crowd at the Wagga Railway Station

A big crowd was at the Wagga Railway Station on 9 October 1923 to welcome Miss Ethel Campbell, the ‘Angel of Durban’. Photo: Museum of the Riverina.

On 9 October 1923, Miss Ethel Campbell arrived in Wagga by mail train.

Known as the ‘Angel of Durban’ the wealthy young South African had gained enormous celebrity during World War I by dedicating herself to the welfare of travelling soldiers.

She greeted and farewelled every troopship that arrived and departed from Durban port from 1915 until 1920, handing out gifts to soldiers, throwing up fruit and cigarettes to the troops and arranging entertainment while they were in port.

As she toured Australia in 1923, the newspapers declared that she was ‘the best loved woman in Australia’ and ‘every digger’s sweetheart’.

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The crowd at Wagga station was large and enthusiastic. Members of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA), the Red Cross Society and the Sailors and Soldiers Fathers’ Association were all in attendance to greet her.

The president of the RSSILA, Mr W Higgins, received Ethel and introduced her, amid a round of cheers. The mayor, Alderman H Oates (who organised The Mayors Unit during WWI) welcomed the Angel of Durban with a brief speech, and photographs were taken on the portico of the Wagga Town Hall.

Miss Ethel Campbell hands out gifts to the troops

Miss Ethel Campbell hands out gifts to the troops in Durban. Photo: AWM.

Mr Higgins officially welcomed Miss Campbell on behalf of the returned soldiers, and Miss Campbell responded ‘in the high clear tones of one used to the requirements of open air speaking’ (The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, Friday 12 October 1923).

Afterwards, she placed a wreath on the Palazzi Monument in Newtown Park, where papers reported she made friends with the resident kangaroo. From there, she was the guest of the Red Cross Society at morning tea, before leaving for a tour of the Experiment Farm. There, Miss Campbell was received by the manager, Mr Hugh Ross and his wife. She was then driven to Mr Headley’s home at Shepherd’s Siding, where she was entertained to afternoon tea.

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Miss Campbell’s next stop was at the district hospital, where she shook hands with the four digger patients there, before being entertained at dinner at the Commercial Hotel, after which she attended a social and dance at St. Andrew’s Hall.

During the evening Mr W Higgins, on behalf of the RSSILA, presented Miss Campbell with a silver tea set, engraved ‘The Angel of Durban, from the Diggers of Wagga, 9/10/23’.

Referring to her visit to Wagga, the Angel said, “I assure you that my trip to Wagga has been very, very enjoyable. I have had a wonderful time, and one of the best days I’ve had since I came to Australia. In fact, I feel like singing ‘This is the end of a Perfect Day’.”

You can read more about the ‘Angel of Durban’ here.

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