Alice Mickle was an active supporter of First World War servicemen. Throughout the war she sent parcels to soldiers from Birkenhead, the Auckland area in which she lived. She knew most (if not all) of them personally. Her relationships were likely forged through the work of her husband, Arthur Mickle – the borough doctor, a man who played an important role in the small, close-knit community.
To thank Alice for her numerous gifts, Birkenhead soldiers sent her photographs, postcards and souvenirs, which she compiled into an album, captioning each photograph with the soldier’s name.
Alice’s photographs represent a sample of approximately 40 men of a total of 260 who left Birkenhead from a total population of just over a thousand. By plotting the photographs onto a map of Birkenhead, and noting each soldier’s age, religion, job, marital status, and war service, we learn about the population of Birkenhead as it was before the war and the impact of war on Birkenhead.
Alice Rebecca Maude Mickle (nee Lurguy) was born in London in 1863 she and her husband Doctor Arthur William Thomas Flintoff Mickle married on the 28th January 1889, at St George's Church, Hanover Square, London. After moving to New Zealand, she and Dr. Mickle lived in Rakaia from 1905 to 1911, before moving to Birkenhead, where her husband Arthur was a doctor in the area for 16 years.
BACKGROUND TO BIRKENHEAD
Walking down the main street we saw in a shop window near the church a small tin of preserved strawberries. These reminded me of home, it was a long time since I had tasted strawberries. Three francs… they were the most expensive strawberries I had ever had but they were the most delicious. Ted and I had them for supper with the remains of our dry rations.
(WWI serviceman Tom Dale, son of strawberry growers, writing home.)
The borough of Birkenhead, situated on the north shore of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour, was described by the encyclopaedia of 1902 as ‘a large tract of undulating country, well wooded, and dotted with pretty patches of native bush.’ Birkenhead’s countryside was, the encyclopaedia declared, ‘unsurpassed’ for growing fruit, especially strawberries.
From the mid-nineteenth century Birkenhead drew farmers, orchardists, labourers, commuting businessmen and their families. By the turn-of-the-century, it was home to just over a thousand people.
The borough was also the site selected by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia for a New Zealand sugar works. A large section of flat land adjacent to the deep harbour, with nearby fresh water, timber and clay, made Birkenhead ideal. From 1884, the Chelsea Refinery became the major source of employment for Birkenhead’s workforce. More than one third of Birkenhead’s male population worked there – boys from the age of 12, their fathers and grandfathers.
CLOSE KNIT COMMUNITIES
The communities of Birkenhead were exceptionally close-knit. This was due, in part, to the borough’s remove. Roads were notoriously rough and residents relied upon ferries to transport them to Auckland city. Geographic isolation bound families together. In medical emergencies, for instance, families depended on help from their neighbours and on the expertise of Birkenhead’s doctor, Alice’s husband, Arthur Mickle.
The Mickles lived in Birkenhead from 1911 until 1926. From 1912 Dr Mickle had his consulting room and surgery in nearby Northcote. Nevertheless, he was Birkenhead’s doctor, in charge of the medical care of Birkenhead families.
CHELSEA SUGAR REFINERY
Geographic isolation drew Birkenhead people together. So did the Chelsea Sugar Refinery. The Refinery needed employees to be available day and night so built houses nearby to accommodate workers and later established a loans scheme whereby employees could borrow funds from the Refinery to build their own homes in the vicinity of the works. The Refinery also provided funds when men or their families required medical attention.
As a result, the Refinery retained its workforce and a factory settlement grew. In her history of Birkenhead, Margaret McClure evocatively describes how the hillsides were ‘interlaced with short-cut tracks to Chelsea, and the white-shelled footpaths resounded to the hobnailed boots of shift-workers stomping past late in the night.’
The sugar works employed generations of families; those families spent their lives in Birkenhead. A strong sense of fellowship formed amongst the workers through shared endurance of tough factory conditions – long hours, intense heat, physical exertion, dust, monotony and minimal pay.
Sugar workers lived near to one another, worked together, intermarried, and had children who in turn worked at the refinery. Children grew up ‘swimming and mud-larking… fishing for piper off the old jetty, sailing, boat-building, and rowing, [playing] cricket in the roadway with kerosene tin wickets and running trolleys and hoops down Hauraki Road.’
In her history of Birkenhead, Margaret McClure notes, ‘the two-storeyed homes on the point, with their harbour views, formed a community of their own.’ Quoting a local resident, McClure writes, “All those people had nothing to do with the sugar workers.” McClure continues, ‘Many children in the large homes, like the Chelsea families a mile away, married the sons and daughters of neighbours across the road, or around the corner.’
ALICE MICKLE'S WARTIME WORK
Dr Arthur Mickle and his wife, Alice, played central and important roles.
Birkenhead families relied upon Dr Mickle’s medical expertise and he was intimately involved in their lives – he visited their homes; he helped women through labour; he attended to patients who were injured or ill; he was at the bedside of those who were dying, then comforted the bereaved. Through Arthur and, no doubt, on her own accord, Alice formed close connections with Birkenhead families. Her album is testament to those connections.
‘Practically as soon as the war broke out,’ wrote a journalist for the Auckland Star, ‘Mrs Mickle began to make up parcels to send away, and as time went on and she knew exactly where to send them and precisely what was most needed, her activities doubled and trebled.’
To the wounded in hospital, Alice sent foldout chairs, games that could be played whilst seated, and numerous books. To soldiers in the field, she sent essential items. These were likely knitted socks, mittens and balaclavas; cakes of soap, face cloths and handkerchiefs; paper and pencils; tobacco and tins of sweets. On one occasion she sent chocolates to the 230 men aboard New Zealand’s warship, HMS Philomel patrolling the Persian Gulf.
During the war many New Zealand women raised funds and donated goods to aid New Zealand servicemen, soldiers’ families and refugees. They did so under the auspices of patriotic societies (of which there were more than a thousand in New Zealand) and through organisations such as Red Cross.
Alice, by contrast, worked independently.
She first sent gifts to soldiers of Birkenhead – sons, fathers, husbands and brothers from families that she and Dr Mickle knew personally. As the war continued, she sent parcels to friends from other parts of New Zealand. As long as she had the correct regimental numbers, her parcels reached their destinations.
From the postal service’s ‘Home Depot’ in Regent Park, London, sacks of mail were shipped to France then freighted by train and lorries to field post offices where the mail was sorted into company and platoon. Basil Clarke, a British war correspondent, recalled descending to a post office situated in a dugout on the Somme:
“You climbed down to it by twenty muddy steps made of planks. A stove chimney-pipe ran to the upper air by way of the steps, and in feeling your way down in the dark you invariably touched the stovepipe and burnt your fingers ... A sergeant postman was in charge and along with him were two corporals as assistant postmasters. They were opening the mailbags, newly arrived, and before long were sorting the letters into companies and platoons… The scene, all enacted by the light of two candles and a smoky paraffin lamp, amid narrow walls of clay supported by timber balks [and] the sound of the guns and dropping shells not far away, lent a curious unreality to it all. To see a soldier in shirt-sleeves, struggling patiently to read a badly written name and address while guns were booming not many yards away, was unlike any preconceived notion of a post office.”’
At the war’s peak 12 million letters and a million parcels reached the front each week.
ALICE MICKLE's ALBUM
To thank Alice, servicemen sent her photographic portraits, postcards and souvenirs, which she collected and stored in this book. Her book, gifted to the Museum by her great-grandson, Hamish Mickle, captures the contribution of Birkenhead to the war effort and the impact of the First World War on one New Zealand borough. At the turn-of-the-century, the population of Birkenhead was a little over a thousand. Between 1914 and 1918, 261 men left to serve overseas. 31 men did not come home. Of those who did, some were wounded; others were traumatised.
Before immigrating to New Zealand, Dr Mickle worked in a psychiatric hospital in London. From his experience in this hospital, Dr Mickle may have been able to help returned servicemen suffering from shell shock. She continued to work during the 1918 Influenza pandemic delievering baskets of food and parcels to those who needed help, in her obituary ... "many people of Birkenhead had cause to remember kindness for what she had done for the soliders she now did for the needy around her home. Baskets of food and parcels of clothing surreptitiously found their way into various homes, and only those who received them knew about the action. To do what she could for the sick and fatherless seemed to play a large part in her life." 16
Alice passed away in Auckland in 1930, she is remembered at Purewa Cemetery, alongside her husband.
Alice Mickle’s book is a record of the variety of postcards that were produced during the war. Comparing their design, selection of images, and modes of production, we can see the various ways that war was presented to the wider world.
The Mickle Album is on display in Pou Maumahara on Level Two of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, but you can also view a digisted copy of the album at the above link.
Mrs Alice Mickle: Friend of the Soliders
McClure, M. (1987) The Story of Birkenhead. Birkenhead: Birkenhead City Council.
 Margaret McClure, The Story of Birkenhead (Birkenhead: Birkenhead City Council, 1987), 89.
 Cyclopaedia Company Limited, The Cyclopedia of New Zealand: Auckland Provincial District (Christchurch: The Cyclopedia Company, 1902), 527.
 Question yet to be answered: how many men?
 Margaret McClure, The Story of Birkenhead (Birkenhead: Birkenhead City Council, 1987), 89.
 Question yet to be answered: what happened to the factory when men left for war? 73 employees left. Did women take up work here?
 The 1911 electoral roll notes that Arthur Mickle was in Birkenhead (on Hinemoa Street) and practicing as a doctor (the date in his obituary is incorrect). Dr Mickle gave up work in 1926. He and his wife moved to Henderson.
 Margaret McClure, The Story of Birkenhead, 86.
 ‘Obituary: Mrs AMR Mickle – Friend of the Soldiers,’ Auckland Star, 8 Jan 1930.
 These items are common in lists published in New Zealand’s newspapers, informing the public of what was sent to the front by organisations such as the Lady Liverpool League.
 Margaret McClure, 114.