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Dame Alice Isabel Chisholm (1856–1954)

by A. J. Hill

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Alice Chisholm, at Kantara, 1918

Alice Chisholm, at Kantara, 1918

Australian War Memorial

Dame Alice Isabel Chisholm (1856-1954), organizer and superintendent of soldiers' canteens, was born on 3 July 1856, probably near Goulburn, New South Wales, second daughter of Major Richard John Morphy, pastoralist of Grena Mummell, Goulburn, and his wife Mary Emma, née Styles. Largely brought up by her Styles grandparents at Reevesdale near Bungonia, she was educated at home. On 18 July 1877 at her father's house she married a widower William Alexander Chisholm (d.1902), a pastoralist of near-by Kippilaw; they had three sons and two daughters.

When her son Bertram was wounded on Gallipoli, Alice Chisholm went to Egypt in July 1915 to be near him. Impressed by the inadequacy of the amenities in Cairo, she decided to open a canteen for soldiers and established it, largely at her own expense, in the outer suburb of Heliopolis. The glad response from the Australian Imperial Force encouraged her to open another at Port Said.

Troops moving into Sinai and Palestine crossed the Suez Canal at Kantara and it was on the west bank that a canteen was set up early in 1916 by Alice Chisholm, Verania McPhillamy of Forbes, New South Wales, and Ettie Rout of New Zealand. Beginning with a lone tent near the bridge, and at their own expense, they built up a soldiers' club capable of catering for thousands without distinction of rank or army. Dormitories and dining-rooms were built, flowers obtained, butter on ice was served with freshly baked bread. Perhaps the greatest luxury, especially for men returning from the front, was the showers.

Large as her soldiers' club became, Alice Chisholm saw to it that her service continued to be personal, moving among the troops to greet them and wish them luck. She was highly competent herself and inspired efficiency in her staff; only thus could 4000 soldiers have been fed or 60,000 eggs be cooked in one day. 'Mother Chisholm's' became a cherished institution of the A.I.F. and many soldiers preferred to spend their leave there rather than in Cairo.

In 1918 Rania McPhillamy opened branch canteens, at Jerusalem and, after the Armistice, at Rafa in Palestine. Appreciating the need for amenities on the troopships which would take the Light Horse and the Flying Corps home, the two women insisted that the profits from their canteens be used to provide 'comforts' for the voyage. They made additional gifts to British and New Zealand troops and military charities. Money remaining was given by Chisholm to help found the Returned Soldiers' Club at Goulburn which she herself had proposed. In recognition of her work in Egypt she was appointed O.B.E. early in 1918 and D.B.E. in 1920.

On her return to Sydney Dame Alice was president of the Cumberland branch of the Country Women's Association in 1923-27; she was also a keen supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The later years of her long life were passed in quiet retirement broken by occasional visits to England until, during the miners' strike of 1949, aged 93, she sent a dignified letter of expostulation to the Sydney Morning Herald. 'My heart aches', she wrote, 'for the thousands of our people now thrown out of work and the hardships the women especially will have to endure'. Four years later, replying to the toast on her ninety-seventh birthday, Dame Alice remarked: 'I have had a pretty good innings but I suppose Don Bradman would not think so'. Survived by two sons and a daughter, she died at her home at West Pennant Hills on 31 May 1954 and was buried in the Church of England cemetery at Kippilaw.

Select Bibliography

  • H. S. Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine (Syd, 1923)
  • R.S.L News (Goulburn), June 1954
  • Reveille (Sydney) July 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1917, 8 Aug 1923, 27 May 1926, 8 Mar 1927, 13 July 1949, 7 July 1953, 11 June 1954
  • family papers (privately held).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Chisholm, Dame Alice Isabel (1856–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alice Chisholm, at Kantara, 1918

Alice Chisholm, at Kantara, 1918

Australian War Memorial

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Morphy, Alice Isabel

3 July, 1856
Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia


31 May, 1954 (aged 97)
Pennant Hills, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
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