Jack Rowland Atcherley’s World War One

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As my other World War One articles have shown, although no Atcherleys died in the Great War not all of those who fought came back unscathed. Some suffered relatively minor gunshot or shrapnel wounds, and one was wounded so severely that he was discharged before the war’s end. Jack Rowland Atcherley also suffered injury during WWI. His wounds however were neither the beginning nor the end of the troubles he experienced in a life of highs and lows marked on the one hand by court appearances and time in prison, and the other by scientific achievement and public service.

Jack was born out of wedlock at 27 Abingdon Road in Kensington, London on 1 May 1890. He would grow up never knowing his father, Rowland John Atcherley, who died in Singapore on 8 September 1891. The extent to which Jack’s mother Emma Wheeler was involved in his upbringing is unclear. Apart from her appearance on Jack’s birth certificate, and as his mother on the 1891 census (when she falsely gave her name and status as Emma Atcherley, a married woman), I have found only one other record relating to her. She was not with her son at the time of the 1901 census, when Jack was enumerated as a visitor in the household of a Daniel Bott and his family in Kensington.

It was from 1901 that Jack attended Varndean Grammar School in Brighton. After this however most (though not all) of the available records for Jack show him even further away from his birthplace, in Australia. The first of those records is the passenger list of the Ophir, arriving at Brisbane, Australia from London on 27 January 1910. Although the 20-year-old Atcherley who featured in that list was named as John, whose place of origin was given as Macclesfield, I believe this record relates to Jack.

Jack’s first few years “down under” appear to have been difficult ones. The Queensland Police Gazette for the first half of 1911 include a John Atcherley in its lists of apprehensions (i.e., arrests) and of prisoners discharged. Then, in January 1912, the Brisbane Courier reported that John Atcherley had pleaded guilty to the theft of jewellery worth £5 or more from the home of Henry Biggs, and had been sentenced to a month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

After this rocky start, Jack seems to have turned things around. A Supplemental Electoral Roll for the State of Queensland, Division of Brisbane, Subdivision of Ithaca for 1913 showed Jack Rowland Atcherley, a male nurse, living at the General Hospital. He was still living in Brisbane and working as a nurse in October 1914 when he enlisted as a Private with the 13th Battalion, B Company, of the Australian Imperial Force on the fifth of that month and again, after being discharged for reasons unknown, on the 22nd. His enlistment papers for the latter date show that he was 6 feet tall, weighed 11 stone, 10 pounds, and had a chest measuring 34½ – 38 inches, a fair complexion, brown eyes and fair hair. When he first enlisted on 5 October Jack had named his next of kin as his mother, E Johnson of 4 Nelldale Road in Rotherhithe, London. However on his second enlistment he named his next of kin as Miss Reilly, c/o Mrs Barnett, at his home address in Park Road, East Brisbane. Miss Reilly had given birth to Jack’s son, named Rowland, on 15 July that year.

Exactly two months after his second enlistment, Jack departed Melbourne with his Unit aboard HMAT A38 Ulysses. It appears that his Unit formed part of the 4th Infantry Brigade of the New Zealand and Australia Division, which fought at Egypt and Gallipoli from 1914 to 1915. It was at Gallipoli, on 2 May 1915, that Jack received a gunshot wound to his left hand. This resulted in a trip back to England for hospital treatment at Birmingham. After recovering from his injury Jack did duty at Harefield Hospital from October 1915, finally departing for Australia on 8 May the following year. Although one record shows that he returned as a Corporal, an official investigation determined that Jack’s promotion to that rank, from 17 October 1915, had been a temporary one and that he had reverted to the rank of Private on his departure from England on 8 May 1916. Jack was discharged from the Australian Imperial Force on 27 December that year.

ANZAC, the landing 1915. By George Lambert. Copyright expired.

During Jack’s time in England, Miss Reilly had been making enquiries concerning his whereabouts. Whether or not Jack went to live with her and their son after his return to Australia is unclear. By the time he received his British War and Victory Medals and 1914-15 Star in 1922, Jack had married Doris Annie Howling. His son Rowland was brought up as Rowland Reilly.

It appears that for a while, prior to his marriage to Doris, Jack’s life hit another low point. As part of his treatment for the gunshot wound he received at Gallipoli he had been given cocaine and morphine as pain relief, and he developed a habit of using the drug. This in turn was blamed for the housebreaking which Jack admitted to in a Melbourne court in July 1919. Fortunately, a friend and doctor both offered to provide support and it was agreed that Jack would be released on a bond of £25 before being sentenced. According to a newspaper report, the judge “advised Atcherley to make a strong fight for himself. He would have a struggle before him, but he had those who would help him in it. His unfortunate condition was not an excuse for what he had done, but it was a case for leniency, and that being shown he hoped he would make as great a struggle as he could to recover himself. ‘I will,’ said Atcherley.”

With support from those who cared about him, Jack once again got his life back on track, following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a chemist and mining engineer. Sadly, his roller coaster ride of a life would later take another downward plunge, with accusations of Communist Party membership forcing him to resign a Government job in 1948. The stress from this led to alcoholism and in turn to a conviction for assault followed by a return to prison (the sentence being reduced on the grounds of ill health).

As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, the life of Jack Rowland Atcherley was marked not only by court appearances and time in prison, but also by scientific achievement and public service. For most of his life he successfully pursued an astonishing range of scientific and other endeavours, for which he also deserves to be remembered.

In the years leading up to his final fall from grace, Jack was not only a Government employee but also the Honorary Secretary of the Ainslie Progress and Welfare Association in Canberra. In 1947 he was a candidate for election to the Hospital Board, a position he hoped would enable him to free nursing staff from administrative and domestic duties, and to promote the provision of convalescent homes for after care of patients who had no homes of their own.

Prior to this, Jack’s work included the development of various inventions and innovations, among which were a massaging device, a method of treating clothing to repel malaria mosquitoes, a process for treating dried fruits to destroy insects and prevent the hatching of their eggs, improvements in the protection of sheep and cattle from insect infestation, and a new type of incendiary powder for aerial bombs developed at the beginning of the Second World War. He also carried out research into the effects of aspirin (leading to two publications), established of a group of co-workers for producing Bach flower remedies, and patented competitions or games. Expeditions to New Guinea led to publications on the island’s liquor trade and witchcraft, and while leading a gold prospecting trip there Jack discovered a cave containing hundreds of mummified bodies, bringing their existence to the attention of Western science for the first time.

And before all that of course, Jack was a nurse, until the Great War came and he put his life on the line as one of the ANZACs who fought alongside the British and allied forces.


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