The story of Rania MacPhillamy

MacPhillamy is a well-known name in the Forbes district, but many may not have heard of Verania, better known as Rania.

Author Jennifer Horsfield had not until a relative of Dame Alice Chisholm first introduced her to the story of the World War I canteens in Palestine and Egypt and directed her to a brief entry on the Forbes woman in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Over two years she researched, spoke to Rania’s descendants and read hundreds of family letters and papers, visited Forbes to speak to the MacPhillamy family and Moree to speak to descendants of Rania’s husband.

The result is Rainbow: The story of Rania MacPhillamy, which was named Non Fiction Book of the Year in the 2008 ACT Writers Awards. 

On Anzac Day, with the author’s permission, we thought it fitting to look at this little-known story.

Rania MacPhillamy was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her work from 1915 through to demobilisation in 1919. 

“Rania herself has been largely forgotten, now that the men who had so many causes to admire her are no longer alive,” Mrs Horsfield wrote in the introduction to the book.

Rania was the daughter of Charles Smith MacPhillamy and Alice Kate, daughter of Henry Halloran. She was born in 1889 and grew up on Warroo Station. She was educated at Warroo Public School and as a boarder at Ascham School, Sydney.

“Rania was the eldest girl in a family of six children,” Mrs Horsfield wrote. … It was expected that she would help to manage the large household, look after her brothers and accompany her parents to social events until she married a prosperous squatter.”

But in 1915, the young woman was, “swept up in the great wave of patriotism that saw thousands of her countrymen rush to enlist in 1914 and 1915.”

The 26-year-old trained as a volunteer nursing aid and went to Egypt where her then sweetheart was serving in the Light Horse.

Tragically, he died in action a few short months later.

Rania met Alice Chisholm and joined her work to establish and run the Empire Soldiers Club.

Mrs Chisholm and Rania, as she was affectionately known, cheerfully contended with heat, sand, wind, flies and scarcity of water. No man was ever refused a meal and wastage was minimal. For some time 'iced tongue and salad' appeared on the menu, when Rania cornered the Cairo tinned-tongue market. Profits were used to reduce prices and improve accommodation.

General Allenby considered their work 'heroic', and with his approval and assistance Rania opened a branch canteen in Jerusalem in summer 1918. Ignoring the sound of heavy artillery, she was soon providing many meals daily and, as at Kantara, refreshments were taken to hospital trains passing through. When she took over the next-door house of a wealthy German she created a 'home away from home', with curtains, tablecloths, comfortable chairs and a piano. She inspired great loyalty among her staff. After the Armistice she moved her canteen to the Anzac Mounted Division camped in the desert at Rafa; she found it 'heavy work', but also ran open-air picture shows. Two months later she was forced to leave at short notice when the Egyptians rebelled.

“The clubs offered rest and recreation facilities for men on leave from the front,” Mrs Horsfield wrote. 

“The Anzac troops serving with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Egypt and Palestine were completely cut off from home and family for over four years, and thousands of the men had reason to be grateful for the presence of these clubs when they were travelling to and from the front line.

“The centres offered generous and kindly hospitality, a precious contact with sympathetic women from ‘home’ and an escape from the tedium of a harsh and debilitating campaign.

“Numerous letters and anecdotes attest to the important influence of these two Australian women upon the soldiers who passed through their doors.”

Rania was welcomed back to Forbes on September 19, 1919, The Forbes Advocate reported.

“On arrival at the station this morning, the returned girl was met by a large number of the leading citizens, also by returned men and a big concourse of people, A procession headed by the Town Band was formed, and marched to the town hall, where a civic reception was tendered.

On arrival at the town hall, 'the mayor said he was very pleased to have the opportunity of welcoming Miss MacPhillamy back to Forbes. The returned lady had done a lot for the boys, on the other side. She had left her home, where she could have lived in comfort, and had gone away to do "her bit."