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Joice NanKivell Loch is both the most decorated woman in this country, and probably someone you’ve never heard of. Shame on you, Australia.
In these times of bullshitters and egomaniacs, I think we all need some real inspiration once in a while. People we can look up to, who show us that not every member of the human race is an idiot. In Australian history, few fit this category better than Joice NanKivell Loch and her husband Sydney. Joice Loch was the most decorated woman in Australia, but I bet you have never heard of her. So let me remedy that oversight. Joice was born in 1887, on a sugar cane plantation where her father was the manager. The property, at Ingham, Far North Queensland, was one of the estates of her grandfather, Thomas, who at that time was the richest man in the country. The problem was that his wealth came from slavery. The only reason why the plantations made such enormous amounts of money was because they “sourced” their workers from the South Sea Islands, Vanuatu in particular. Between the 1860s and 1901, more than 60,000 men, women and young boys were “blackbirded”—or “stolen”, to you and me. They were put on ships, where a lot of them died. If they made it to Australia, they were auctioned off to the highest bidder, in order to work, especially on sugar plantations, for no or very little money. At Federation, in 1901, the White Australia Policy was officially made the core legislation of the new nation. And the first consequence of that act was the deportation of most South Sea Islanders. Now people like the NanKivells, who had made a lot of money out on black backs, went bankrupt. Joice’s father George got a job at a rundown property in Myrrhee in Victoria’s Gippsland, where the family lived a life of poverty and hard graft until Joice was in her early twenties.
To help out, Joice, who wanted to become a writer, started by publishing a children’s book, The Cobweb Ladder, in 1916. Not long after, her brother was killed in WWI, and her heartbroken father walked away from the farm. Joice herself left too, going to Melbourne, where she worked as an assistant to Classics Professor Alexander Leeper, at the University of Melbourne. She also started reviewing books for the Melbourne Herald, and that is when her life changed. One of the titles on her desk was The Straits Impregnable, by somebody with the pen name Sydney de Logue. Joice read the book, an autobiography about Gallipoli masking as a novel, and was absolutely floored. She contacted its publisher, Harry Champion, and got to meet its writer, Sydney Loch. Loch had been born in England, raised in Scotland, but migrated to Australia in 1905, where he became a jackaroo. When war broke out in 1914, he enlisted and was sent to Gallipoli, where he was a gunner, but especially a witness to the horrible things that were going on there. In his book, he wrote about the death of one of his best friends, blown apart while they were talking, his brains splattering over Sydney’s shoes and uniform. Sydney was repatriated in 1916 suffering from typhoid and dysentery. His publisher turned the book into a novel to get around the military censor, who didn’t want the Australian public to know how bad things were. The first edition sold well, but in publishing the second, Harry Champion, who was married to the sister of feminist and anti-conscription advocate Vida Goldstein, made the mistake of adding a notice that everything within its pages was “all true”. There was a good reason for this. The Referendum on Conscription was going on, and Goldstein and Champion were intensely advocating a “No” vote. The book, they thought, was great propaganda against the war. In reality, it gave the censor the argument he needed to ban it, and it disappeared without a trace.
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In the meantime, Joice and Sydney had fallen in love, and just after the war they married. Both fed up with Australia and eager to see the world and write about it, they first left for London, then for Dublin, where the Irish War of Independence was raging. They stayed for 18 months, dodging bullets and angry IRA Volunteers. When they left in 1921 it was with a book, Ireland in Travail, that came out in 1922. By that time the Lochs had already moved on, to Poland. The plan had been to write something about the war that Lenin was waging on Poland. What happened instead was that they were so overwhelmed by the need of the refugees that they offered their services to the Quaker Relief Movement, which was doing humanitarian work with thousands of dispossessed and stranded Poles. During the day, the couple helped out with makeshift medical services, and setting up educational facilities. In the evening they wrote The River of a Hundred Ways: Life in the War-Devastated Areas of Eastern Poland. Royalties went back into their work for the refugees. First in Poland, then, from 1923 onwards, in Greece, where another calamity had driven 150,000 Christians from Turkey. Again, the Lochs provided medical aid, now accompanied by programs to help both men and women earn their own keep. For two years they lived in a Quaker refugee camp in Thessaloniki, then they heard that a group of refugees had built themselves a village of sorts called Ouranoupoli. When the Lochs went to have a look, they found excruciating poverty, lack of food, homelessness and devastation. Believing that work was the key to self-help, they bought looms, so the women could weave rugs and sell them. Joice came up with the designs, based on Byzantine symbols of ancient Greek manuscripts found in the monasteries of Athos. Together they sourced the wool and dyes, sometimes by engaging their contacts in the Australian press, who would put a call-out for help. It didn’t take long for the rug industry to take off, which saved the small town from starvation. At the same time, the Lochs kept providing Ouranoupoli with medical help and education. This was especially necessary in times of earthquakes, which were regular in the 1930s.
When WWII broke out, the Quakers asked them to join their Friends Relief Service in Bucharest, Rumania, where tens of thousands of Jewish and Polish refugees were fleeing Nazi and Russian armies. They hadn’t been there long before the Nazis marched in, which made the evacuation of the refugees priority number one. Sydney got the men and boys together and out of harm’s way. Then Joice put the thousand or so women and girls on a ship, taking them through heavily mined waters to Constantinople and from there to Haifa. There, in what was then Palestine, the couple worked in a refugee camp. Then they returned to Greece, helping the local population with reconstruction, funding clean water supply and medical needs out of the royalties of the books they wrote in stolen moments.
Sydney died in 1955, but in 1965 Joice gave an interview to the Australian Women’s Weekly. She was described as a woman “who has seen more death, disaster, starvation, misery and sorrow than most people ever think about”. She was 78 by then, but still heavily involved in keeping Ouranoupoli going. Apart from the rug industry, she was funding and teaching what the magazine called “home arts and mothercraft”, with the help of a real baby, no less. “We always have a baby from a foundling home”, she explained, “and we keep him for a year. There is never any difficulty finding adoptive parents afterwards, because our babies are so well cared for.” When Joice Loch died in 1982, she had received medals from six countries, and had been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for “international relations”. The Greek Orthodox bishop who presided over her funeral called her “one of the most significant women of the twentieth century”. There is a monument to her at Ingham Botanic Gardens and a museum to the couple in their Greek village. In 2006, when Susanna de Vries published her biography of Joice Loch, the Sydney Morning Herald described her as “Australia’s answer to the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Mother Teresa with a dash of Indiana Jones”. It is time we induct her into the pantheon of Australian heroes, together with her husband. The necessary antidote to our narcissistic times.
For this story I have used the following sources:
Sydney Morning Herald
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Nightlife—Australia’s Most Decorated Woman: Joice Nankivell Loch
Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread: The Life of Joice NanKivell Loch — Susanna de Vries (Brisbane, Pandanus Books, 2004)
Trove—October 9, 1932
Trove—January 20, 1965
Radio National—Susanna de Vries: The Banned Account of Gallipoli by Sydney Loch