Letters to Merna

The letters of two soldiers written to Merna Gillies during the First World War were donated by her family to the State Library of Queensland.

Both young men had attended Brisbane Grammar with her brother Clyde, both soldiers had very different stories to tell.

William Howe Irving

William Howe IRVING, 3rd Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps, had been working as a station overseer & bookkeeper at a property in Goondiwindi when he enlisted. At first he penned dispassionate and formal conversations, there was never much happening, and he continually chastised his acquaintance for various and sometimes imagined misdemeanours.

Vivian Edmond George HARRIS, 11th Light Horse Regiment, wrote several newsy items, which showed a flair for language. He wrote of his great appreciation upon receiving mail from her and how he read and re-read them so often, he had memorised their content.

As the war continued, IRVING’s conversations became a little less demanding and more reflective of opportunities lost.

His time was cut short, as a member of the Imperial Camel Corps, Irving was shot by an enemy bullet during an action following the Battle of Tel el Khuweilfe, on 6 November 1917, in southern Palestine.

Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau

Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files 1914-18 War

HARRIS, also serving in the Middle East, survived the war and returned to his studies. He was later appointed Science Master at the Southport School in 1924, where he remained until 1940. Known as a man with a strong sense of discipline, he resigned in 1940 to take up a position of Education Officer, for the RAAF in Sydney, NSW.

Letters to Merna

Letters from William Irving and Vivian Harris, now digitised and transcribed at SLQ

Merna Gillies and her sisters Acie and Valda were students of music and the arts, their brother Clyde studied science at the University of Queensland. The Gillies family resided in the now heritage listed home “Nassagawaya” in Gray Road, West End. Merna in particular was well known for her chamber music recitals in Brisbane.

Clyde went on to complete his studies in Melbourne and practiced medicine in Northgate, Brisbane for many years. His three sisters who never married, continued their passion for music and art. Merna and Acie lived and worked in Sydney for many years, Merna later became coach and accompanist at the Opera Workshop, NSW Conservatorium.

Merna Gillies c1960s

Merna Gillies & friend, 1960s. Image courtesy of Gillies family

The Gillies family have provided Brisbane with a great legacy in several ways.  The donation of these letters showed great foresight and opens a window into the lives of not only her family, but those of William Irving and Vivian Harris.  They also made several bequests in the form of scholarly awards continuing the legacy of the music they taught to the students of Brisbane and Sydney.

Further reading:

Marg Powell  |  QANZAC Content Technician  State Library of Queensland