An Inspired Life
Although now largely forgotten, George Cummins lived a remarkable life, inspiring all who knew him by his achievements as much as his generous spirit. He was a leader on the sporting field, an officer in both world wars, an admired teacher and a much-loved family doctor.
Born 17 June 1886 on Dumaresque Island on the Manning River, George was educated at the local school where he gained a love of sport as well as an appreciation of the arts. He became an accomplished pianist and enjoyed participating in local drama, choral and musical productions.
At the age of eight George’s father, John Albert Cummins, passed away after a brief illness. Captain Cummins was master of a tug boat that towed vessels upstream to Taree and other ports along the river. He was 38 years old when he died.
George was the eldest of three surviving children and naturally some of the burden of looking after his siblings fell to him. His mother, Sarah Cummins (nee Downton), had been a teacher at Dingo Creek, prior to her marriage. The provisional school, located on a tributary of the Manning, was not supported by a permanent population and with little prospect of obtaining a posting to a larger school, or even of obtaining suitable accommodation for her and the children, Sarah made the decision to travel to Sydney to train as a registered nurse.
To complete her training, Sarah worked for the Benevolent Society in Sydney.
In the meanwhile, George, his sister Beatrice Sarah and brother John Henry were cared for by their grandparents at the Downton family property on Dumaresque Island. Sarah returned to the Manning River district and for a time worked at a private hospital at Taree. Using an inheritance, she was able to purchase a property in Taree and commissioned the building of a private maternity hospital that served the district for several decades.
In 1909 Cummins came to Sydney to train as a teacher. He joined the Balmain Rugby League side and was an immediate success. At 6 feet tall and weighing in at 14 stone (89 kg), he was larger than most of his contemporaries and cut a fearsome figure on the rugby field. He had already represented Country in Rugby Union, and now took a liking to this new code. He was selected to play in the NSW Rugby League team that toured New Zealand in 1912, the first Australian team to do so.
Cummins appeared in 37 games for Balmain between 1912-15. In 1915 he was one of the stars of a Balmain side that won the club’s first premiership, appearing in 14 of their 15 matches and scoring 46 points from two tries and 20 goals to be second on the list of the team’s points scorers.
Meanwhile, Cummins graduated as a teacher and was appointed to Leichhardt Boys High School where he was admired for his sporting prowess as well as his well-ordered discipline in the classroom.
Cummins enlisted in the AIF in August 1915. He gave his address as “Tennyson” 10 Bowman Street, Drummoyne and his next of kin as his wife, Elsie Una Roberts.
Cummins was appointed as a Second Lieutenant, then promoted to Lieutenant and assigned to the 55th Battalion. On arrival in France his battalion had four days training before being thrown into battle at Fromelles. The poorly planned attack ordered by British High Command to distract the Germans at the Somme proved disastrous for the Australian troops, who suffered debilitating losses and were forced to withdraw. Cummins’ battalion was in the thick of it and on 20 July 1916 he was captured and made a prisoner of war.
Lieutenant Cummins spent three years in internment camps in Germany. The officers were separated from the men and, while conditions may have been more comfortable, they were still not immune from sickness and disease.
Food shortages caused by the Allies’ blockade of German ports impacted on all levels of German society. Malnutrition became widespread and disease was prevalent. Prisoners experiencing these conditions waited anxiously for news from home and particularly for food and comfort parcels received via the Red Cross.
It is a measure of Cummins’ humanity that during his imprisonment his first thought was to reassure his loved ones at home, that he was safe and bearing up well. In a letter to his mother, printed in The Northern Champion, (21 July 1917 p4 “Prisoner of War Lieutenant George Cummins Writes Home”) Cummins stressed they were being fairly treated and were occupied by self-improvement and keeping busy. He even managed to insert some humour into the situation, writing that he was learning to speak French and German, having given up on Russian because it hurt his face where he had been injured by shrapnel.
As evidence that he and the other prisoners were not interfered with by the Germans, he states that they were allowed to walk around the village where they were treated with respect. He cites an incident when dressed in his officers’ uniform, he met a young boy who saluted him. Cummins gave the boy a piece of chocolate that had been sent by relatives in Scotland.
In June 1918 Captain Cummins was transferred to a camp in Holland before being repatriated to England in January 1919, suffering from pneumonia. He had lost weight and his general physical condition had deteriorated. Cummins’s size had been somewhat of a joke amongst his rugby teammates, earning him the sobriquet “Ample George”. Other accounts were no less colourful.
“Though sadly impaired in health as a result of Fritz’s care, he has recovered, and despite the fact that he weighs in the vicinity of 15 stone is galloping like a dog with a tin attachment. Should he regain his sureness of boot he should prove a decided acquisition as a goaler, and his experience and ampleness will be an asset in the scrums. – Pongo”
From Smiths Weekly, April 23 1921*
Returning to Australia he determined to become a doctor and enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at Sydney University. He also renewed his association with rugby league and was persuaded to play with the University Club in its second season. He played eight premiership games for University in 1921. He retired after that season to concentrate on completing his studies and graduated as a doctor in 1928.
Dr. Cummins and his wife moved to Bega where he established a family practice as well as serving as an honorary medical officer at the local hospital. He appeared before a Select Committee investigating an increase in the number of neonatal deaths in the district. He defended the cost of doctor’s fees as reasonable, although it might be a factor in women choosing not to avail themselves of a trained professional. Cummins, however, was known to have waived the fees for those who could not afford to pay.
In 1939 Dr. Cummins again volunteered to serve his country. He was appointed to the Army Hospital at Bathurst with the rank of Major and served until the end of the war in 1945.
He retired in 1949 and became senior medical officer with the Adelaide Shipping Company.
He died 14 February 1953 at his home in Marrickville, survived by his wife and his son George.
- Quoted in Terry Williams obituary to Dr George Cummins, National Rugby League Museum Facebook Page 4 April 2016