Mrs Gladys Riggs’ lifetime association with the Royal Far West Children’s Health Scheme

Brother and sister Teddy and Grace, suffering from sandy blight (trachoma), wearing new tinted, corrective spectacles, 1928.

To celebrate our Diamond Jubilee, in 1984 our Branch members and supporters were asked to send in their stories for us to share in our ‘Reflections’ publication.

This recollection was submitted by Mrs B L Delaforce, the Hon. Secretary of Kempsey Branch in 1984, about a wonderful woman, Mrs Gladys Riggs, and her special relationship with Royal Far West.

Mrs Delaforce said,  “Mrs Gladys Edith Riggs nee Phelps was born at Warrnambool on April 1st, 1894. She died on July 13th, 1983.

“Mrs Gladys Riggs was the first singer to be awarded a scholarship to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, beginning her lessons there just prior to the First World War. She was later to become a teacher of singing, a generous one at that, for throughout the hostilities she organised many concerts to aid the war effort. She married in 1917, and her husband, Lawrence Henry Cooper Riggs, was one of the first to land on Gallipoli, surviving the experience until the August offensive when he was seriously injured.”

“They made their home at Neutral Bay in Sydney, where Mrs Riggs abandoned her career to rear twin daughters and a son. They were sill youngsters when the family moved to Bathurst, with Mr Riggs transferring to Manager for the Railway Refreshment Rooms.

“It was at Bathurst that Mrs Riggs began, in 1932, her lifetime association with the Royal Far West Children’s Health Scheme. It was sparked by a meeting with the Rev. Stanley Drummond who was aboard one of the trains taking children to Sydney for the annual camp at the Manly Home. Mrs Riggs, immediately enthused by this vast, humane scheme, was an instant convert to its cause. She worked independently of any official Branch, (…) to see that the children passing through as patients and their transport officers were given the chance to bathe if necessary, and special fare in the form of hampers and other goodies for their long journey either to or from Sydney.

“She had also formed a friendship with Sister Brookes, who was the travelling sister appointed to the West to take over a specially equipped railway carriage. This woman, a precise but outgoing person, set up the concept of travelling clinics before she resigned. It was, however, Sister McInnes who became a long associate of Mrs Riggs, and for many years afterwards they worked in close association.

‘Mrs Riggs remembered Sister McInnes with great affection, and until the Sister’s death some years ago, they carried on at least annually a fulfilling correspondence. (….). Mrs Riggs met her regularly ‘on the run’ from and to Sydney, sometimes with seriously ill babies or children in tow, and always with confidence that this one with the sandy blight {Trachoma}or that one with some crippling disease or handicap would be restored and returned to the West to live useful and normal lives.

“When the Riggs’ family left Bathurst, they eventually put down roots in Kempsey in 1937. At the time, the Far West Scheme (…)  gave children of the Western district a holiday once a year or free medical and surgical treatment at the hands of Sydney’s finest specialists.

“Always a regular visitor to the Manly home in the days of the tent city and later as a fine brick establishment, Mrs Riggs discussed with Matron Hill the possibility of extending the work of the Scheme to districts other than those west of the Range. The casual conversation bore fruit. Soon afterwards, Branches were being formed close to the coast, and Sister McInnes began making visits. Mrs Riggs set up the Kempsey Branch probably just before the War (World War Two).

Brother and sister Teddy and Grace, suffering from sandy blight (trachoma), wearing new tinted, corrective spectacles, 1928.
Brother and sister Teddy and Grace, 1928.

‘It was hardly a Branch. There were three members – herself, her husband and a friend from Bathurst, who now lived in Kempsey. (At first) public interest was poor. That did not stop the team – McInnes and Riggs – from seeking out children needing the type of attention offered through Manly; children with severe defects, with cleft palates, rickets, the effects of poliomyelitis, physical deformities and sight defects. (…) Little by little the value of the Scheme to coastal towns like Kempsey became known. In those days, Sister McInnes wold arrive by train early in the morning, have breakfast with the Riggs’ and, with Mr Riggs as chauffeur, set off – the three of them – tracking down sick kiddies. By 1942, Mrs Riggs was President of the Country Women’s Association and made sure the Far West Scheme was included in its list of community interests.

“The Branch was by now well and truly formed, and had as its Secretary Mrs Una Hickson, who now resides at Taree. Mrs Riggs was President and (…) pulled into shape the nucleus of the organisation. Throughout the war years, clothing and food formed much of the ‘gifting’ to the Home, which by then had evacuated to the mountains. After the War, Mrs Riggs turned her fundraising talents entirely to the Scheme. She was President through those long post war years, relinquishing the post in 1964 after her husband’s death.

“She raised thousands of dollars during those years, selling raffle tickets to the major Christmas appeal and during the year at button days or concerts. By the early ‘60s the Branch had a Welfare Officer and the school and the Doctors and, of course, the general public had become accustomed to The Far West. The Scheme had public acceptance. The future of the Branch was secure.

“Mrs Riggs never lost her interest or her concern for the Scheme.”

We at Royal Far West are so grateful and humbled by the enthusiasm, selflessness and ‘can-do’ attitude of our many supporters, just like Mrs Rigg, both past and present. We really couldn’t do what we do for country kids without you.

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