Maud Butler: teenage stowaway

Maud Butler was only 16 years old when she first tried to get to the front – and if it hadn’t been for her boots she might have made it too.

The girl from Kurri Kurri, in rural New South Wales, climbed on board a troopship waiting at the Woolloomooloo docks in Sydney at night, disguised as a soldier, and was discovered two days later out at sea.

Her story caused a sensation at the time.

Described as “a clear-skinned, rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed type of healthy country girl,” Maud gave a lively interview to reporters a few days after her return to Melbourne on Christmas Day, 1915.

She told them that she had “had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl. … I decided to do something for myself.”

Maud explained how she had got hold of an AIF uniform in bits and pieces, and had her portrait taken in it.

“I had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl…I decided to do something for myself.” Maud Butler, December 1915 in the Farmer and Settler

On the day before she stowed away she went down to Woolloomooloo Bay to see a transport there, and met an officer, telling him she had friends on the ship. “I made up my mind to see him again, but as a soldier next time,” she told the reporters.

She went straight to the barber’s and had her hair cut short, then headed back the next evening through the Domain to where the ship was lying at the wharf, a sentry on guard.

“Well,” I said to myself, “here goes for up the line. It was a hand over hand job, and I didn’t think the boats were so tall. I got up after a struggle and crawled to a lifeboat,” she told reporters from the Farmer and Settler.

‘Wretched black boots’ gave Maud away

The ship left that night, heaving through the rollers between North and South Head, with Maud tucked up tightly inside the small lifeboat swinging at the davits.

The next day she crept out of her hiding place and mingled

with the soldiers playing cards, and no-one suspected a thing.

With no place for her at the mess, and nothing to eat but some lollies she had brought with her, she made up her mind to raid the kitchen the next night.

But the following day she was discovered, when a suspicious officer asked for her identification disk.

“It was these wretched black boots,” Maud said.

“That was the trouble all through. I bought the tunic and breeches from a soldier, and the putties in George-street, and the cap in Bathurst-street.”

“But I could get no regulation tan boots that I could wear. I tried everywhere, but it was of no use. So I had to chance it.”

“I could kick these boots round the room for vexation.”

The officer hadn’t actually realised she was female, though, and the captain was prepared to let the stowaway continue on to the front with them. But when Maud was told she would have to pass a doctor’s examination, she confessed.

The captain told her he would have her put on a passing passenger liner back home as soon as he could.

“Then I cried for the first time; it was hard luck, wasn’t it, now?” she said.

“The captain was a jolly fellow. He asked me why I didn’t get tan boots, and that made me cry more.”

According to Maud, the captain had told her that “if the secret could have been kept,” he would have let her stay on.

“But it was all over the ship in a minute, and there must have been 500 snapshots taken of me.”

Ship-to-ship transfer

Maud next had the rare experience of being “transshipped” at sea: going down the side of the troop ship on a ladder to get into a small rowboat under escort to take her up the other vessel.

“I had a great joke going up the ship’s side,” she told the reporters.

“We were nearly at the top when I said to the officer above me, ‘You don’t speak [like that] to the girl you took for a walk up George street!’ He nearly fell off with the shock.”

There weren’t a lot of opportunities for young women like Maud in those days.

The reporters had believed Maud wanted to join her older brother in Egypt, but in fact, he hadn’t enlisted at that point.

She told them that she had hoped to get to the front as a nurse, and had come down to Sydney from Kurri Kurri “because I would never learn to be a nurse there.”

In Sydney she had tried to join through the Red Cross, without success. No doubt she could have become involved in the organisation’s charitable activities at home, but they weren’t going to send her overseas.

There were already hundreds of young women, both trained nurses and Red Cross Voluntary Aids, waiting to get the front at that stage. Some even paid their own way.

That wasn’t an option for Maud, the daughter of a coal-miner raising his children alone, and who now supported herself by waitressing in a boarding-house.

Maud was not disheartened, however. She told the reporters that she intended to go to Sydney that night, and “find some way of learning the work and joining the Red Cross service.”

“It is a pity if they cannot find a way for me to be of some service to the poor wounded men. I learned first aid, and was reckoned very good at it. I shall be at the front yet, you’ll see.”

To be continued…

(A version of this story was also presented on the ABC News website, in collaboration with journalist Jennifer King, on 19 September 2014.)

11 Comments


  1. Victoria, the new blog looks great. Just wondering will you be focusing on Newcastle/Hunter Valley women specifically? Or women in general? There’s quite abit been done about nurses during the war but I’m particularly interested in the role of women on the homefront, particularly at the local/town level. I’m posting a link to your blog on my “World War One – Newcastle and Hunter Region” Facebook group. Cheers, Michelle

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Michelle! And hello to your FB readers – if anyone wants to alert me to a particularly good story about women from Newcastle and the Hunter I’d love to hear from them. I am going to be looking at stories of women from all around Australia but being based in Newcastle myself of course I have a special interest in the local stories. VKH

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  2. Congratulations on the launch. It looks great and I think the approach, to tell the story of womens’ experiences of the Great War in this way is right on the money. I’m looking forward to more.

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    1. Thanks Christine, I appreciate your support!

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    1. Hi Emma! Yes John Thompson of Cloudstreet contacted me awhile ago and sent me a copy of the song… I could not quite work out how to link it so thanks very much for the youtube link. VKH

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  3. Dear Professor Haskins
    Maud Butler was my maternal grandmother who lived to be 87 years. She studied to become a midwife in the early 1930 and was greatly respected for her care of mothers and babies in the Canterbury and Campsie area in the 1930 and 1940s in Sydney. So she cared for the children of those soldiers who survived the Great War. Her married name was Hulme, later Rutherford after a divorce and remarriage. Contact me via my email if you would like any further info, photos etc. regards Julie

    Reply

    1. wonderful! Thank you Julie I will be in touch! VKH

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    2. I was not aware of the the actions of Maud Butler until reading an article in a far northern Qld. newspaper earlier this week. Became quite excited when reading further information on line. I believe Maud to be the cousin of my maternal grandmother. Both were born at Coen, far north Qld. Maud Matilda on May 9 1899 to Thomas and Rose Ann Butler nee Wilson. The parents had married at Cooktown on August 6 1896. An older brother – Maitland Thomas was born at Coen 10 June 1897. Mary Anne Wilson, mother of Rose was in attendance at both births. She,in fact, assisted in many deliveries in the Coen area over years.My great grandmother was Jane , the elder sister of Rose. Their brother John was injured and died at the old Ebagoolah township , just south of Coen, on February 21 1903. He is buried there. It is now part of Yarraden cattle station. Have,over many years, attempted to locate descendants of Rose Ann Butler in New South Wales – unsuccessfully! My grandmother spoke of the family in earlier years. She died in 1988 aged 87. Her younger sisters and brother could not supply me with any information when questioned in the early 2000’s. I believe great great grandmother Mary Anne Wilson moved to New South Wales with Rose Ann and family when they departed from Coen. My grandmother moved to Cooktown with her family. I would, so much, like to have contact with Julie who emailed this site a year ago. So much to learn from each other.

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      1. Hello Colleen. Yes your Maud is the same intrepid Maud Butler who tried to get to the front. I am sure Julie you would be delighted to hear from you. If you’d like to contact me via my university email address we can keep in touch. I am planning a follow-up blog post on Maud’s postwar life which I am sure would interest you too. VKH

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