Saturday, September 18, 2010


Joice NanKivell Loch 1887-1982

The birth of Joice Mary NanKivell in 1887 at the height of a north Queensland cyclone to a seventeen year old mother with only the help of a Kanaka housemaid, could be seen as a portend of things to come. Her father, George Nankivell, managed a sugar plantation. Government withdrawal of Kanaka labour 1890 and the Depression of that period began the family’s downward drift to poverty and bankruptcy. Yet Joice was to become not only an author, journalist and humanitarian, working with refugees in Poland, Greece and Romania after Worlf War ! and World War 11; but also the most decorated woman of the twentieth century.

In the opening page of her autobiography, A Fringe of Blue published in 1968 Joice Nankivell Loch recalls:
I was nearly ten years old … that drenching morning which witnessed the advent of the seven little pigs Father hoped to build a fortune on. … Our neighbours said we were born with silver spoons in our mouths; but the gilt was already off by the time my brother (eleven months younger than me) was born. p.3

After the family’s move to an isolated farming property at Boolara in Victoria,  her love of nature was born, never to die:

The bush was a tangle of creeping things, gay with flowers; birds darted everywhere making odd noises; the crack of whips; the tinkle of bells; hoarse coughing. Sudden flashes of bright feather delighted us, and spinning lightly on their toes were gay blue wrens, their absurd tails flirting and tilted over their backs. p.11

The goldrush had George Nankivell heading to Western Australia to seek his fortune and sending his wife and children to stay with her family in Queensland. It was not to be. Instead he contracted typhoid fever and returned to join his wife in Queensland to recuperate.

...During this period he entertained Joice and her brother Geoff with drawing beetles and telling such wild stories about robbing orchards, cheeking a policeman — and claiming that children of today were duffers. What have you ever done? — that he unwittingly enticed the children to mimic one of his ‘tall story’ escapades:

Mrs Chubb lived down the hill, and we lived near the top. She had a large paddock of pumpkins. Geoff and I could not lift them, but we could roll them, and one day we went off to her pumpkin patch and stole the largest pumpkin we could find. We toiled and rolled, and rolled and toiled with it through that tropical summer’s day, up that shadeless hill, and to my father’s feet.
Furious at what they’d done, he sent them back to return it.
Hot and damp we rolled that pumpkin back. We hammered on Mrs Chubb’s door. … ‘Father told us to steal your pumpkin! But he doesn’t want it now, and sent us back with it.’ …
‘Well,’ said Mrs Chubb, ‘ if he wanted it badly enough to send little children to steal you can take it back to him.’
Back we toiled in that frightful heat.

...Another farm on the King River at Myaree in Victoria turned out to be as big a disaster as the first, and Joice’s mother issued an ultimatum: either a suitable farm be found or she would return to her family in Queensland. This time they found a place at Drouin in the Gippsland just four miles out of town. Now aged thirteen, Joice enjoyed the tutelage of a Scottish teacher who had previously run a school in Melbourne but had sold it to come and look after her ailing father on a nearby farm. For Joice: Her house was full of books —a paradise to me.
...During this time two powerful influences in Joice’s life were her Uncle Harry Mitchell, chief medical officer for New Guinea, and her cousin, Ellis Rowan, a noted painter of flowers. Uncle Harry taught Joice much about caring for sick and injured creatures – human and animal. On his visits to the farm, Uncle Harry provided medical care to the community and used Joice as his medical orderly. He taught her the basic principles of medicine and human anatomy, and gave her manual on home surgery.
...With shortage of labour, Joice and her mother often worked beyond their strength on the farm. But that did not stop Joice’s passion for writing. At night, when the chores were done, by the light of an oil lamp, she would sit up in bed and write in longhand on blocks of cheap paper.
...Throughout her early years Joice maintained her passion for writing both prose and poetry. She finished her first book The Cobweb Ladder and sent it off to Macmillan’s Melbourne branch where it was accepted for publication.
...In an interview reported in The Queenslander, Saturday 8 September 1917 p. 5, Joice was asked:
How did The Cobweb Ladder come to be written?
Her reply:
Well, that's just what I can't tell you. It was not owing to any effort on my part ; it just grew, like so many other books have grown and will grow. It was written at the Gippsland Lakes, chiefly on the backs of envelopes, during one very beautiful holiday that I spent there, and something of the lakes should have crept into it, only it didn't. Strangely enough, it didn't go through all the visissitudes of "first books" as I expected it to. I slmply walked into the Lothian Book Publishing Co. with it, and asked them to read it … and they did.
...When Joice’s brother, Geoff, made known that he planned to pursue wool classing as his future career and not join his father on the farm, her father sold their livestock, ceased wheat growing and decided to retain only the orchard. Thus Joice, after ten years of working for him without payment, received his blessing to escape to Melbourne to pursue her passion for writing on condition she take annual holidays during the fruit picking season.
...In preparation for the big move, Joice sent away for a book on touch typing. Once she was satisfied her typing speed was adequate she successfully applied for an advertised part-time position as secretary to Dr Alexander Leeper, Professor of Classics at Trinity College, Melbourne University.
...Her work hours were flexible and Dr Leeper encouraged her writing and enabled her to attend university lectures that interested her. She joined the Lyceum, the Repertory and the Melbourne Literary Club; the Melbourne Evening Herald took her first war poem, and she appeared thereafter regularly in a short column, Under the Clock.
...With the outbreak of World War I, Joice’s first thoughts were of Geoff. The brother and sister had been close companions since childhood. Nor were her fears without foundation; Geoff sailed for Gallipoli, and at the end of the third year of the war, he and a small detachment came under heavy shelling. There were no survivors.
...As a solace to herself and a tribute to Geoff, Joice wrote ‘The Solitary Pedestrian’ – a collection of twenty-one short stories about their childhood experiences in Victoria and Queensland — bush life seen through the eyes of children. Without Geoff, she indeed saw herself as the solitary pedestrian.
...It was while freelancing as a book reviewer for the Melbourne Sun-Herald, that Joice was asked to review a book on the Gallipoli campaign: The Straits Impregnable* written by Gallipoli veteran, Sydney Loch. A meeting with the author changed her life. Joice and Sydney were married at The Manse, Royal Parade Melbourne on 22 February 1919.
...With the war now over Joice determined to go to Europe to continue a career in journalism — a decision backed by the editor of the Melbourne Evening Herald, who thought it the best step for anyone who had serious ideas about writing; and agreed to take freelance work from her.
...Joice managed to secure passage on one of the last troop ships from Australia. Sydney followed later. Once reunited in London they secured work as Fleet Street journalists. But Joice’s observations as a child of the injustices meted out to the Kanakas in North Queensland and the poverty of rural Victoria, had developed within her a keen sense of the injustices suffered by minority groups. Now, unable to interest the British Press of the plight of the dispossessed people of Poland, Joice and her husband applied to the Quaker Relief Service as aid workers. This decision proved the beginning of a series of remarkable life journeys that were to colour the rest of their lives.

Additional reading:
* A free download of Sydney Loch's book can be found at

de Vries, Susanna (2000) Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread, Published by Hale and Iremonger. ISBN 0868066915. 2000.  

Next week: Operation Pied Piper


  1. Joice turned up in a family history I researched and wrote for a client some years ago. They are quite a remarkable family: another NanKivel became an art dealer and critic in London and bequeathed an amazing collection to the Australian Museum. Still another was a swimming champion!

  2. Thankyou, Satima! Nice to see you here. Family history certainly turns up many surprising connections. Unfortunately, Joice's line ends with her as her only brother died at Gallipoli, and she and Sydney had no children - though they had a godchild.