Ettie Rout Great War Story

The video for this story about safe sex campaigner Ettie Rout screened on TV3 News on 21 April 2015.

Ettie Rout promoted sexual health practices during the First World War in the face of strong public and governmental opposition. Her work was influential in the decision of the New Zealand army to issue free prophylactic kits to soldiers; they adopted the kit that Rout had developed.

She never received proper credit for her work during her lifetime, but soldiers recognised the value of her work and she was responsible for saving many lives from the effects of sexually transmitted infections.

Ettie Rout (1877-1936): safe sex campaigner

Ettie Rout died in 1936. Upon hearing of her death, an elderly Australian war veteran wrote to the official war historian, C.E.W Bean, requesting that she should have a special mention in the history. The veteran described her as

The finest woman – the best and most magnificent person I have ever known.

It’s a fine thing to have the physical courage to go to war for an ideal – even when backed up by public opinion and the admiration and moral support of one’s friends and families. But it is splendid beyond words to have the moral courage – the fortitude to do the same thing in the face of being lied about, discredited, slandered and opposed...[1]

The veteran succeeded in gaining her a few lines in the Australian war history, but the official New Zealand history does not mention her.

Early life

Ettie Annie Rout was born in Tasmania in 1877. Her parents, William John and Katherine Frances, brought their three daughters to New Zealand in 1884. They settled in Wellington, later moving to Woodville. In 1896 the family relocated once again, this time to Christchurch, where Rout took on various typing and shorthand assignments to support her family.

In 1902 she was the only woman in the first group of shorthand writers to work in the Supreme Court and on commissions of enquiry. By reporting on investigations into asylums, prisons and hospitals, Rout was able to gain a breadth of knowledge around issues of sex and health which women did not normally have access to, and that she would later utilise in her war work. Known for working 16- or 17-hour days, she was widely admired for her energy.[2]

War work

In July 1915 Rout established the Volunteer Sisterhood, with the intention of contributing to the war effort by caring for sick and injured soldiers. Two hundred women applied to join the Sisterhood, but Rout only selected those she thought most capable. Despite government opposition towards untrained women going overseas, the first 11 volunteers left for Cairo in October.[3] Rout herself arrived in Egypt in February 1916. In letters to her friends she described the canteen that she had set up at the Soldiers’ Camp in Tel el-Kabir:

We are getting on splendidly here. We have five large marquees up now, and have surrounded the only group of decent trees in the place. It is an oasis for the boys in every way. They throng the place now.
… The cooking has been the trouble. I have had to do that myself for several weeks now, and the weather has been distinctly hot. I have stood over huge field boilers making gallons and gallons of blanc mange; all the boys are very keen on that. They simply devour anything that is made.
… Some of the soldiers who have come to help are great… Goodness me, they are keen on helping us every way they know how. They simply love coming here. I thanked one party the other day, as they left after clearing up rubbish, etc., all over the grounds, but their corporal said, ‘Oh don’t thank us. The blokes thought it was Christmas!’[4] 

As a result of her work at the camp, soldiers began mentioning her when they wrote home to their families:

I have received quite a number of letters from mothers of soldiers in Australia. One came this week, about the youngest of three soldier-sons this woman has given to her country. ‘I know you will do your best for my darling,’ she says.[5]

Rout quickly became aware of the high rates of venereal disease present in the camp. After it became apparent that not much was being done to prevent the spread of syphilis and gonorrhoea, she travelled to London where she researched and produced her own sexual health kit. She set up the New Zealand Medical Soldiers Club at Hornchurch in East London, and from here distributed the kits to soldiers. She befriended many of the soldiers, who recognised the positive effect that her work was having:

An incredibly high percentage of men trod the path which led from London to the V.D. hospital. Miss Ettie Rout, upon whose name be honour and blessing, organised a service which equipped soldiers on leave with the means of avoiding the dreaded disease; and at the Reception Camp the little packages were distributed. N.C.O.s and men were paraded and issued with them as rations. With the officers Tolly adopted a different course. Taking them aside separately and quietly, he would proffer the little box, saying with a smile – ‘Are you going to be good or are you going to be careful?’ With the morality of the proceeding I am not concerned; but the results were of great moment. From the time the system came into operation our losses from this cause dwindled to a very small fraction of what they had been; and hundreds of lives were saved from dire calamity.[6]

In November 1917 she wrote to the New Zealand Times to appeal for money from the government for her work:

The purpose of this club is to provide members of the N.Z.E.F. with the necessary articles for the medical prevention of venereal disease…
By means of prophylaxis and the medical control of women, venereal disease has been practically wiped out at Port Said and elsewhere among Anzac troops. Until these remedies were applied, venereal disease prevailed to an alarming extent... If it were possible for me to run a properly-conducted licensed house for our troops here, I would do it, for the sake of protecting the New Zealand nation against further invasion by venereal disease.
… Personally I have considered the steps I am taking now with the utmost care and thought, from the ethical, as well as from the medical point of view, and I am very sure that it is right and necessary to let our soldiers order their lives for themselves in these matters. You cannot dictate to any man what shall be his morality or his religion. He must make his own choice. Your attempts to impose total sexual abstinence on him he regards as a meddlesome and impertinent interference…  I am exceedingly sorry that I should have to take up a position strongly antagonistic to many New Zealand men and women at home; but—I must be loyal to the soldiers for whom I am working…
It is not easy to conduct a club such as this, and I ask that the task should not be made needlessly difficult by official or unofficial opposition at home. It is not easy to finance such a club as this, and for the most part I have had to do it on borrowed money… When you are considering this appeal, let us urge you that you should remember that every week in the United Kingdom alone from sixty to seventy New Zealand men are being infected with venereal disease; at least ten men every day. Those infections can be very largely reduced, but … the task will never be accomplished by sitting down comfortably and telling lies about sex, or thanking our stars that it is not our job to clean up the mess.[7]

The letter caused an immediate scandal. The Minister of Defence, Sir James Allen, publicly issued a statement declaring that she had misrepresented the number of affected soldiers, and that current preventative measures were satisfactory.[8] However, Rout’s letter was ultimately influential on Allen’s decision to approve the issue of free prophylactic kits to New Zealand soldiers.

General Richardson, commander of all New Zealand troops in the United Kingdom, defended her work and told Allen that he believed the number of infections to be higher than her estimate. Once it had been approved, Richardson chose to use the kit that had been devised by Rout and which she was already distributing to soldiers. Rout would never receive any official credit for this, although at the end of the war the RSA sent her £100 to express their gratitude. The Prime Minister, William Massey, was completely against the idea of prophylactics and it is likely that Allen did not tell him about the Army’s use of the kits.[9]

Shortly after publication of the letter, the government banned newspapers from reporting on Ettie Rout. Any organisation that breached this restriction could be fined £100. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement also published a statement condemning her work. Rout had a complicated relationship with the women’s movements of the time – she no longer supported equal pay, and as a strong believer in eugenics she had an increasingly idealistic view of motherhood. But the most significant difference was that she treated venereal disease as a health issue rather than a moral one.[10]

The W.C.T.U. Conference to-day passed the following resolution:—‘This Convention of representative women of the W.C.T.U., of the Dominion of New Zealand, express its utter abhorrence at the effrontery of Ettie Rout, in implying that New Zealand boys must be supplied with remedies to make wrong-doing safe and sin easy. We contend that we send our sons to fight for purity and righteousness, and utterly discountenance everything that slackens the moral fibre and self-control. We place on record our emphatic repudiation of prophylactics and the woman who advocates them.’[11]

Around the same time as the NZEF adopted Ettie Rout’s kits, the WCTU petitioned the Prime Minister, who agreed that he would try to put a stop to her work, saying that: It was a great pity that Miss Rout had ever been allowed to leave New Zealand…[12]

In April 1918 Rout had left London and gone to Paris. She would meet soldiers at the train station, greeting them with a kiss on the cheek and handing them a card for ‘Madame Yvonne’, who was the proprietor of a nearby brothel. Rout conducted regular inspections to insure that the brothel met her hygiene and safety standards.

Paris leave! A rare privilege – 4 Diggers (Enzedders) one a Maori, whose name by an extraordinary chance was Pari. The long train journey from the Front, the stoppage at some wayside camp and the lecture by one Hornibrook on all the horrors of venereal diseases. And then another train journey to the mecca of our desires. …A minute or two of indecision amongst the scurry of passengers and porters. And then the approach of a tall woman in some sort of nurses attire… And then, to our astonishment and acute embarrassment a greeting in our language of ‘Hallo! New Zealand!’ and an embrace, and a kiss – yes, for all of us.
And then the words to follow her, which we did in some trepidation like tomcats on hot bricks, for it all seemed a little too good to be true. Some few yards to a tall and somewhat gaunt building… Up some stairs to a room with a table and one chair and then the little lecture. She knew, she knew, SHE KNEW. And, dear soul, not only knew – she understood.[13]

While in Paris, Rout was dismayed to find that many of the Australian soldiers had not been issued prophylactic kits. Unimpressed with the army system, she also supplied the Australians with more comprehensive kits. She used her own money, for which she later received about £120 in compensation from the Australian Imperial Force.[14]

I tried to see every man proceeding on leave to Nice or Rome, and give him a prophylactic outfit containing at least ten calomel tubes, ten 2-grain tabloids of potassium permanganate, and a small syringe and some cotton-wool.[15]

After the war

From 1919 to 1920 Rout ran a Red Cross depot in the village of Villers Bretonneux, and she was later awarded the Reconnaissance Française medal for her work there and in Paris. In 1920 she married Fred Hornibrook, but they eventually became estranged. She went to Rarotonga in 1936, and died there at the age of 59, taking her own life by a dose of quinine.

The obituaries that appeared in the papers only briefly mentioned her war work and did not elaborate on the nature of it. The Evening Post said that she was ‘one of the best known of New Zealand women’ before discussing her typing skills.[16]

In 1922, in a letter to her friend H.G. Wells (who would later describe her as ‘that unforgettable heroine’), Ettie told him that ‘it’s a mixed blessing to be born too soon.’[17]


[1] A.W. McCallum to C.E.W. Bean, 18 October 1936, File 419/8/1 DRL 6673 3rd series, Australian War Memorial; cited in Jane Tolerton, A Life of Ettie Rout, p.15

[2] A Life of Ettie Rout, p.49, 37

[3] A Life of Ettie Rout, p.107

[4] Rout, letter to Miss Greenwood of Nelson, “AN OASIS FOR THE BOYS,” Colonist, 16 September 1916

[5] Rout, letter to Lady Godley of London, “OUR SOLDIERS IN EGYPT,” Colonist, 17 November 1916

[6] Unpublished memoirs of Lieutenant Charles Croft Marsack

[7] Rout, reprint of November 5 letter to the New Zealand Times, “VENEREAL DISEASE,” Northern Advocate, 29 December 1917

[8] “A SOCIAL SCOURGE,” Northern Advocate, 29 October 1917

[9] A Life of Ettie Rout, p.168

[10] A Life of Ettie Rout, p.95

[11] “ETTIE ROUT’S EFFRONTERY,” Wanganui Chronicle, 20 March 1918.

[12] “SOLDIERS-MORALS,” Evening Post, 22 April 1918

[13] Letter by unknown soldier, “Ettie Rout – A Memory,” Sargeson Papers, MS Papers 432-463, ATL; cited in A Life of Ettie Rout, p.11

[14] Rout, “Prevention of Venereal Disease in the Australian Armed Forces,” p.331

[15] Rout, “Prevention of Venereal Disease in the Australian Armed Forces,” p.331

[16] “MRS. F. A. HORNIBROOK,” Evening Post ,18 September 1936

[17] E.R. to H.G. Wells, 30 December 1922, cited in A Life of Ettie Rout, p.18.

Primary sources

See also the Ettie Rout set on Digital New Zealand for images and other digitised material.

Additional sources

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