The angel of Durban

Ethel Campbell was born in her mother’s homeland, Scotland, but raised in her father’s home, South Africa. He was a doctor, descended from a line of wealthy sugar planters and, like many of their class and race, Ethel’s family enjoyed power and privilege. Their every need was attended to by a host of so-called black and coloured servants. But come the war, Ethel tired of the leisured life of a Durban socialite. From 1915 until the last of the transports departed, she dedicated herself to the welfare of travelling soldiers.

Her figure could be seen from far out to sea, flashing a message of welcome in semaphore. As every troopship sailed into port, the young woman, sporting a handsome hat, would greet them. Ethel carried baskets brimming with oranges, jams cooked in her kitchen, books, magazines and tobacco. The gifts were thrown up on the decks of the transports and men made sport of catching them. Those permitted to land were treated to a tour of the town, the sociable Miss Campbell their lively companion. 

All through the war the Campbell family home was open to tired, lonely and homesick soldiers. Ethel had two brothers serving with the Royal Flying Corp and another training with the British Army. For the Campbells, caring for these men was rather like looking after their own. Hundreds called at their grand homestead, they took tea on the verandah or enjoyed a cool drink in the shade of the jacarandas. And when they left Durban for Australia or the front, Ethel was there to farewell them. They heard her ‘sweet voice’ and hearty ‘cooee’ amidst the roar of ship engines, and watched those flags flash ‘good luck and safe journey’ in the distance.

They called her ‘Angel Ettie’ and her kindness was not forgotten. Ethel Campbell and her parents visited Australia in 1923. Not far from the coast of Western Australia, lights from the shoreline flashed a message, ‘A digger welcomes Miss Campbell’. 

Ethel spent four months travelling the length and breadth of the continent. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of troops would gather at wharves and train stations hoping to catch a glimpse of her. The newspapers compared her welcomes with that of the Prince of Wales—everywhere she went ‘the girl with the flags’ caused a sensation. Ethel was received by politicians, authors, poets. But most of her time she spent with her ‘digger pals’ attending veteran fundraisers and unveiling soldier memorials. 

Miss Campbell, the newspapers declared, was ‘the best loved woman in Australia’, every digger’s ‘sweetheart’. Not once on her tour did the enthusiasm wane or the crowds dwindle. Why did she cause such a sensation? Most who greeted Ethel had met her before. She was the girl of the wharf who threw them fruit or cigarettes. Some had shared her wit and conversation; many appreciated her willing ear and ‘cheery smile’; a few, no doubt, admired her handsome figure. 

What did this war work mean for Ethel? No doubt it was a chance to feel needed, an opportunity for a woman to engage with events shaping the world, a welcome distraction from a life of petty diversions. Ethel was certainly a product of Empire, she believed passionately in Britain’s cause and played the part of a dutiful daughter of the dominions. As was the case for thousands of other women across the globe, this was no abstract sense of patriotism—the war had cost Ethel dearly. Her fiancé had been killed at the beginning of the conflict. Perhaps honouring these men was a way of holding on to the man the war had taken from her. 

During Ethel’s Australian tour, many hoped romance would blossom with an Anzac. ‘Aren’t you going to take an Aussie back with you?’ someone yelled from one of the crowds. Ethel laughed off the suggestion, ‘There are too many. I love you all.’ Like many women of her generation whose sweethearts were killed in the war, Ethel never married. 

Home in South Africa, in her little patch of Empire, Ethel never forgot Australia. When another world war erupted she welcomed another generation of men through her port town. At her home in Pietermaritzberg, amid a forest of Australian and South African flora, stood a bluestone hut, a Zulu dronga called ‘Little Australia’. Photographs covered every inch of its walls and cupboards, and shelves were stacked high with mementos. In 1942, a soldier from the Second AIF told his family of his visit: ‘We all felt we were in some sacred place where one should tread softly, and we told her so. She replied that she had it built as a memory of the wonderful men whom she had met in the last war … and in what more fitting place could she entertain the sons of these men? … the “Angel of Durban” is at work again.’ 

A celebrity during and after the war, Ethel Campbell has slipped almost entirely from memory. Ships no longer call in at Durban to take on coal and supplies. Today, crossings from Australasia to Europe are mostly made by air and not all that many visit a country where thousands of Australians and New Zealanders once settled. But in her day Ethel represented the links that bound the Empire together; the common cause of Britain and the dominions; and the way a woman’s welcome rescued men, however briefly, from the rough world of soldiering. Her story reminds us of the transnational story of women’s war work, and the emotional as well as the physical labour that involved.

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘The angel of Durban: Ethel Campbell’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 89-93; 356.