A Home Away From Home



It’s the year 2018, this year we recognise the 100th anniversary of the armistice of WW1 and in New Zealand we celebrate the 125th anniversary of womens suffrage in this country.

I wanted to undertake a new arts project that commemorates the signing of the armistice as an extension of my WW1 project ‘Sand in the Apricot Jam’. So I looked at my grandfather’s service record and discovered that he was recovering from malaria at the Aotea convalescent home in Heliopolis, Egypt around that time. I was curious to uncover a little more about this home and this investigation led me to not only to a remarkable group of women who ran the home but stories of incredible insight where the need for such a home was recognised and then supported with fundraising and donation of food and goods – mostly from the women of New Zealand.

Fueled by the realisation that in my research into WW1 and the NZ Mounted Rifles I hadn’t come across many stories at all of the women who served as nurses, VADs and ambulance drivers in that war, and learning of the strong actions of many New Zealand women – I knew instantly that this was the arts project I wanted to undertake.


Mina Macdonald was a nurse at Whanganui hospital at the outbreak of WW1. As stories of horrific injuries started filtering back to NZ she recognised the importance of setting up a convalescent home in Egypt for New Zealand soldiers and the benefits of them being nursed by fellow New Zealanders. Rather than them being shipped to Britain to recover. So she gathered together a group of friends and her sister Betty and proposed this idea to the government. Within 6 weeks they had the backing from the government and a staff of 8 set sail to Egypt. The government would provide funds for some of the food but all the other necessary provisions and equipment was provided by generous donations and fund raising efforts by women’s groups back in New Zealand.

Aotea Convalescent home, Heliopolis Egypt. Gifted for use by the Sultan of Egypt – photo supplied by Claire Angove
The staff of Aotea, Back row: Sister Nora Hughes, nurse Mina Macdonald, nurse Ruth Cameron, nurse Lina McLaren; Front row: Sister Kate Booth, Matron Mary Early, Elizabeth (Betty) Macdonald (missing Mysie McDonnell) – photo provided by Shirley Arabin
The staff of Aotea Convalescent Home, Heliopolis, Cairo. Back, from left: Sister M McDonald, gunner, John Stuart NZFA, Captain R Gerrard, Sergeant G Sleight and Sister L McLaren. Front, from left: Sisters R Cameron, N Hughes and M McDonnel, Matron M Early, B McDonald, Sister Kate Booth– Photo from Auckland Cenotaph records

The home was much loved by the men who were cared for there. The home cooked meals and famous scones were a welcome relief from the bully beef and hard tack biscuits the men were used to. Even those that weren’t patients were never turned away and boys on leave in Egypt could enjoy a famous Aotea scone when they came to visit.

Source: Papers Past

Support from the regions

Mina and Betty Macdonald along with Mysie McDonnell came from the Whanganui region; Kate Booth and Nora Hughes came from the Wairarapa. The people of Whanganui, Wairarapa and Rangitikei got behind these nurses and the home providing beds, clothing, bedding and gifts of food for Aotea. They also ran fundraising events to help fund the home. Without this support from the communities back in New Zealand Aotea couldn’t have been run.

Activities at Aotea

The men had many activities they could participate in, they included tennis , board and card games and an extensive library of books (these rackets were supplied by people back home). They also went on excursions to local gardens and the zoo in Cairo. Ettie Rout wrote that you could always tell a boy from Aotea because he would have a slip of blue paper in his pocket. Aotea had a supply of blue paper that they used to wrap the sandwiches and scones in when on an outing.

Aotea tennis court
Aotea tennis court – Photo supplied by Shirley Arabin (Niece of Kate Booth)
Betty MacDonald enjoying a picnic outing in Cairo with some of the patients – photo supplied by Claire Angove (A relative of Mina and Betty Macdonald)
The pet gazelle
grandad's pictures in order 252
A group of the ‘boys’ at Aotea and a few of the nurses – photo courtesy of Kevin Clunie from his grandfather Garry Clunie’s collection

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The art project

Having researched about Aotea and getting in touch with relatives of some of the women who worked at Aotea, who were very generous supplying me with photographs and sharing their knowledge of Aotea, I was able to build up an idea of how I wanted to represent the place and the people in my artwork. I was fortunate to receive the ANZAC fellowship residency at NZ Pacific Studios Residency to pursue this project.

Ettie Rout’s reference to the blue paper gave me an idea for the surface material so I set to to dye sheets of paper I would use as a ground for the paintings.


On the ANZAC residency (you can read all about this below) I decided to do predominantly portraits of the nurses on the blue paper as well as a few that referenced other aspects of Aotea.

After the residency I was keen to extend the body of work further and investigate a new way to represent these unique women and the Aotea home they ran. I chose to do this by creating hand made cotton veils (a challenge for a non-sewer!) to represent each of the women. I then drew on them, composite scenes of nursing and life at Aotea also making reference to the  NZ Mounted Rifles they cared for.

Below is the different finished components of the project as it was installed at Aratoi gallery, Masterton, NZ in October 2018.


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ANZAC residency

It’s April and I’ve begun my 3 week residency at NZ Pacific Studios in Northern Wairarapa. I stopped at the Clareville cemetery in Wairarapa on my way to the residency to pay my respects to Kate Booth a sister from Aotea. She is buried in the RSA area of the cemetery


Here I’ll post a few photos of work in progress as I begin to develop the individual paintings that will make up the body of work called ‘A Home Away From Home’

My studio at NZ Pacific Studios Residency – the Autumn sun flooding in



Friday 20th April update:

This week on my residency has been a great journey of discovery. Not only with experimenting with different media but also getting to know my nurses a little more and a remarkable connection between my grandfather and one of the soldiers connected to my Anzac bridge fellowship.

Studio shot of my works so far

Gareth Winter at the Wairarapa Archives has been a great help, a wealth of knowledge! Together we shared what information we had and with his help I’d discovered one of my nurses (Who I now feel I’m getting to know slowly) Lina McLaren had come from the Wairarapa not Whanganui which I’d mistakenly connected her with somewhere along the way. She married a Major she’d met at Aotea called Allan Standish Wilder. Gareth had found a photo of her in the archives, he’s such a good detective!

Lina featured here outside Aotea at Christmas – photo: Wairarapa Archives

Another rather surprising discovery this week has to do with the Kaiparoro Anzac Bridge (the Friends of the Bridge support my Anzac Artists Fellowship) I was looking into the service history of the men from WW1 who are memorialised on the bridge and to my surprise I discovered that Victor Falkner, who’s father built the bridge in honour of his son and the other local men who lost their lives, was in the Auckland Mounted Rifles just as my grandfather John (Jack) Culleton was. But not only that, they were both in the 4th Squadron! My grandfather having been wounded at Gallipoli the same month Victor was killed.

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Workshop with the kids from Mauriceville School

As part of my residency I had a fun morning doing an Anzac themed workshop with the cool kids a Mauriceville School. It’s a small country school in the Wairarapa. They helped me with my Anzac project. I asked them to paint some tiles based on a pattern of tiles at the Aotea home. They also created their own designs based on the stories I told them about Aotea. These tiles will then be constructed to form a cross to represent the nurses. These kids were awesome! The older kids helping the younger ones with a pretty tricky design. It was a real pleasure

The kids hard at work
Some awesome individual artworks created by the children in response to stories about the WW1 soldiers and the nurses at Aotea Home
A close up of the collaborative artwork – created by myself and the students from Mauriceville School

The exhibitions

Aratoi – Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Masterton


It was wonderful to bring this body of work to the community of Masterton where Aratoi – Wairarapa Museum of Art and History is located. Many relatives of the nurses from the Wairarapa came to see the exhibition which was rewarding for me as the artist.

I was fortunate enough to meet with a couple of them and we reflected on how extraordinary it was that because our relatives met in Egypt 100 years ago (my grandfather being cared for by the nurses at Aotea) that we should connect now, and art being the catalyst for this meeting.

WHMilbank Gallery, Whanganui


WHMilbank Gallery is located in what used to be the Druids Hall. In 1918 a dance was held to raise funds for Aotea so it was wonderful to show the work in this building that had a historic connection to Aotea.

This gallery space also offered the opportunity to install the exhibition in a different format to how it had been shown at Aratoi.

The opening was attended by many relatives of the women who served at Aotea and some brought along additional information about the women and their time at Aotea. It was a wonderful exchange of information and a celebration of what this group of women had done for the good on the New Zealand soldiers.

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