Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stronach, Nellie Elizabeth (1892–1991)

by John Moremon

This article was published online in 2016

Nellie Elizabeth Stronach (1892-1991), community worker, was born on 28 March 1892 at Balmain, Sydney, only child of Scottish-born John Stronach, marine engineer, and his New South Wales-born wife Helen, née McDonald, a former teacher who had taken her stepfather’s surname of Tulloch. Young Nellie attended a private school until she was twelve then continued her education under a governess, finishing at age fifteen. Because of her father’s work, the family spent periods in Scotland during her childhood.

By 1908 the Stronachs had settled at Ballina, New South Wales. Nellie ran an infants’ school and sang at concerts, functions, and musical festivals in the district. She volunteered with the Australian Red Cross Society and Girls’ Patriotic League during World War I, in which she lost her fiancé. The family returned to Balmain, probably in 1920. Stronach became a partner in a tea and sandwich shop, while caring for her ageing parents both of whom died in the 1930s. Joining the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1930, she ran the organisation’s cafeteria in the city from about 1935.

On 6 March 1942 Stronach enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service, putting her age back to forty-three to be eligible. She served as a cook with the 2nd Ambulance Car Company in Sydney and at Tamworth. Promoted to sergeant in June, she applied for a commission but was rejected because of her age, the truth having been discovered. In May 1943 she was promoted to warrant officer, class two, and in July was posted to the Australian Defence Canteens Service Club (later retitled No. 9 Australian Army Canteens Service Club) at Railway Square, Sydney. She was transferred in September 1944 to No. 1 AACS Women’s Club, Melbourne. At both establishments, she maintained discipline with ‘tact & good humour’ (Weir 1992, 6). 

Discharged on 27 April 1945 to become a YWCA philanthropic representative with the army women’s services, Stronach was attached to barracks in New South Wales at Bathurst and Albury. The next year she became matron of a cannery workers’ dormitory at Leeton. She left for Japan in 1947 as a YWCA welfare officer with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Attached to the 130th Australian General Hospital, Kure, the ever-popular ‘Stronnie’ supported nursing and medical staff and, when the Korean War started in 1950, took over the patients’ mess in the renamed British Commonwealth General Hospital. In 1952 she was appointed MBE for ‘service to the troops far beyond the normal call of duty’ (AWM AWM88). She taught Western-style cooking, social customs, and home-craft to Japanese brides and fiancées of Australian servicemen.

Returning to Sydney in November 1953, Stronach served as matron of Glen Mervyn Legacy House hostel for students at Randwick, Sydney, and then of the Church of England’s Gilbulla conference centre at Menangle. In 1961 she was appointed director of Tremayne, Kirribilli, a YWCA hostel for young women from outside Sydney studying and working in the city. Short, slightly built, and bespectacled, she superintended ‘with an iron fist coated with kid leather’, yet became ‘like a mother’ (Gain 2014) to her charges and was ‘much loved’ (Dunn 1991, 135). Off duty, she resided with her close friends Keith and Beryl Gain at Mosman, being ‘Aunt Stron’ to their children. After retiring in 1976, she lived with the Gains until moving to Parramatta in 1980. Energetic and sociable, she cherished her friendships and her faith, and continued her voluntary community work. She never married. On 20 November 1991 she died at her Parramatta home and, following a Uniting Church service, was cremated.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. AWM88, AMF K/56
  • Australian War Memorial. MT885/1, S/8/27
  • Dunn, Margaret. The Dauntless Bunch: The Story of the YMCA in Australia. Clifton Hill, Vic.: Young Women’s Christian Association, 1991
  • Gain, Louella. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, N390423
  • Parramatta Advertiser. ‘Nellie Remembered as “Full of Joy”.’ 27 November 1991, 29
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘She Teaches Japanese Our Cooking.’ 30 September 1952, 5
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Y.W.C.A. Pioneer in Japan Returns Home.’ 13 November 1953, 23
  • Weir, Joan. ‘Nellie Elizabeth Stronach MBE (Post War) NF390423 – WOII.’ Khaki 16, no. 1 (March, April, May 1992): 6-7

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Moremon, 'Stronach, Nellie Elizabeth (1892–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stronach-nellie-elizabeth-20635/text31469, published online 2016, accessed online 24 July 2019.

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