The new Australian musical A Girl’s Guide to World War opens in Caloundra this weekend. The musical tells the story of Brisbane’s ‘first lady doctor’ and her life partner Miss Josephine Bedford. It focuses on the eventful year of 1916 when the Brisbane women worked in a women-operated field hospital on the front lines of the battle.
Dr. Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford are undisputed icons of Queensland’s LGBTIQ history. Brisbane writer Katy Forde spent years researching Dr. Cooper and Miss Bedford. As a result, she wrote the musical and partner Aleathea Monsour composed the music. QNews.com.au spoke to Katy Forde about the acclaimed new musical, A Girl’s Guide to World War.
Many years ago, my partner Aleathea worked at QUT in the Brisbane CBD. After I picked her up from work one afternoon, we noticed a beautiful old building called ‘The Mansions’ as we walked down George Street.
A plaque out the front caught our eye. It proclaimed that Queensland’s first female doctor once lived there: Dr. Lilian Cooper.
This piqued our interest. Who was this woman? How did she come to be Queensland’s first female doctor? From there, Dr. Cooper led us to her partner Miss Josephine Bedford. And when we discovered they shared the same grave at Toowong Cemetery, we realised that this was a lifelong love story.
Our passion for these women became unstoppable. Firstly, we created a website about them. Then, we did a BBC radio show. Finally, we created this musical about one year in their lives – the year they went to war.
How did two Brisbane women end up on the frontlines?
I assume Lilian and Josephine heard through the suffragette grapevine about a group of women attempting to raise funds to start their own hospital on the frontline. Women were not allowed to join the army in those days. Therefore those determined women decided to make their own hospital instead!
I imagine Dr. Cooper itched to get the front for the opportunity to push her surgical skills to the limit. She really saw herself as a surgeon rather than a doctor. In fact, after the war, she became Australia’s first recognised woman surgeon.
Dr. Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford at war
It was a rugged existence in their field hospital near the frontlines! Although, photos show their hospital was much cleaner, more hygienic and better run than most army hospitals of the day. Even so, sometimes they ended the day covered in blood “as if they’d been in the slaughterhouse” as one of the girls described it. Heating was fairly non-existent. Dr. Cooper sometimes operated wearing a fur coat because of the cold.
We tell the story of that year at the front from the point of view of Dr. Agnes Bennett. Dr. Bennett was a much more restrained woman than Dr. Cooper.
She found Dr. Cooper difficult to deal with at first, but they developed a deep respect for each other. However, Dr. Cooper’s influence on the ‘young girls’ worried Dr. Bennett. She thought Dr. Cooper spoke too ‘openly’ and the girls paid too much attention to her. I love this so much! I love thinking about the ‘influence’ Dr. Cooper had on the young minds of the girls who worked at the hospital. It’s one of the things I included in the show.
The musical is a celebration of Dr. Cooper, Miss Bedford and all the women who went to war with them. They became a family over there. They broke the rules in a way never before done. For these women, and for all women, life would never be the same.
A Girl’s Guide to World War
We’re very lucky with the cast members in our show. Susie French plays Dr. Lilian Cooper and she is just incredible. She has been a stalwart of the musical theatre scene for years, playing in shows like Mamma Mia, Secret Garden, Menopause the Musical, Pirates of Penzance and many more. She brings so much history and strength to Dr. Cooper – you do not want to mess with her!
We also have Vix Sheather from award-winning all-girl blues band ‘Vix and the Slick Chix’.
Aleathea is in the show too, playing Dr. Agnes Bennett. I even have a tiny part as an ambulance girl!
A Girl’s Guide to World War plays at The Events Centre, Caloundra this Friday 11th and Saturday 12th October.
Check out the research at Katy Forde’s blog.
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