Wartime issue 58 featured article: Friends, sisters and pioneers
How women made their place in military nursing. By Robyn Siers
When Sydney nurses Nellie Gould, Penelope Frater and Julia Bligh Johnston arrived in South Africa in February 1900, they discovered a nurse’s worst nightmare: rampant disease, inadequate clean water and supplies, and unsanitary conditions in makeshift hospitals. In addition, they received a rather cold reception from the local nurses in the British hospitals where they were stationed. The Australian women were members of the newly formed New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve (NSWANSR), and part of a group of 14 who had been sent to South Africa with the second contingent of the NSW Army Medical Corp. Lady Superintendent Gould was their matron.
Welsh immigrant Ellen Julia “Nellie” Gould was born in 1860, and began her working life as a teacher and governess in England. At the age of 24, she settled in NSW and trained as a nurse at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1898, with 14 years’ nursing experience behind her, Gould was invited to oversee the formation of the NSWANSR, the first military nursing service in Australia. She continued to use her talent as a teacher to focus on the education of nurses and the development of the profession.
Australia was not yet a nation when the Boer War broke out in 1899. The various colonies each sent troops – more than 16,000 in all – to fight alongside the British forces in their struggle with the Boers in South Africa. While Matron Gould and the NSW group were the first to go, nurses from other Australian colonies soon followed, some in government employ, others at their own expense. For the next three years, around 60 Australian nurses were scattered in small groups throughout South Africa. Unmarried, and mostly aged between 25 and 40, they were well educated women from middle-class families. They shared a sense of duty and loyalty to the empire, but often had to endure British military prejudice in the field. Historically, male orderlies had worked in military hospitals close to the front line, as the camps were deemed unsuitable for women. Before they arrived, the nurses had been instructed to undertake largely advisory roles, overseeing the work of the orderlies, who would look after the patients. But owing to the huge workload, the women were soon needed to assist. The work was heavy and arduous, as many patients were suffering from diseases like dysentery and typhoid rather than battle wounds.
On arrival, the members of the NSW group were split up and sent to various British hospitals. Gould, Johnston and Frater were posted together to a temporary stationary (rather than tented) hospital at Sterkstroom, to serve with the NSW Army Medical Corps. Gould later wrote that “thirty-one graves mark our short stay of three months”. From there the nurses were moved around several times. Clad in heavy, long, grey skirts, starched white collars and cuffs and their distinctive red capes, they often found themselves on hands and knees, scrubbing floors and walls to transform filthy buildings into hospitals suitable to receive patients. In her report from their time spent at Kroonstad, Gould wrote, “Here we nursed with No. 3 British General Hospital in a large Dutch church ... at night rats scampered over us. One tin of condensed milk had to do nine of us for a month, but who cared?” Though 14-hour shifts were common, “no-one grumbled,” wrote Gould.
For sick or wounded soldiers, the care and comfort the nurses provided was almost as important as effective clinical treatment. They often found themselves taking on the roles of counsellor, letter writer, and even surrogate mother or sister. Sadly, their duties sometimes extended to sending letters of condolence to the families of those who had died. Sister Bessie Pocock, another of the NSW contingent, made particular mention in her diary of one of her patients at Middleburgh, a medic admitted two weeks earlier severely ill with enteric fever:
December 1st 1900.
Brought him [surgeon Mr Elliott] some roses, half conscious, thanks, and clutched them to smell. I see he is dying, cannot save him. Sad afternoon, with him till he died 4.15 pm. Had to take his hand from mine after death he held it so tightly. Told him I would give his mother his love.
In early 1902, Gould, Johnston and Frater were posted to 31 British Stationary Hospital at Ermelo in Transvaal. The surgical wards were filled with the wounded or victims of accidents, many from working with horse-drawn wagons. Gould wrote that “it was a bare hillside … we were nursing the sick from 2,000 troops about there. Mostly typhoid and yellow jaundice. Here we saw the Boers come in to surrender arms.”
Trips between hospitals in boneshaking, horse-drawn wagons must have brought back memories of their childhoods in rural NSW for Sisters Johnston and Frater. Johnston grew up near Windsor, and completed her nursing training at Tasmania’s Launceston General Hospital in 1888. In 1899 she was made a senior sister at Sydney Hospital, and chosen by Lady Superintendent Gould of the NSWANSR as her deputy. Frater, born in 1869, was the youngest of these three colleagues. She left the family farm in Narrabri, northern NSW, to take up her nursing training in 1891 at the Sydney Hospital. Gould had just been appointed as a matron and superintendent of the training school, and no doubt kept a very watchful eye over the young probationers.
After their Boer War service, and following their return to Sydney in late 1902, the three women continued to be classified as “efficient” in the newly formed, peacetime Australian Army Nursing Service. To attain such a classification, members had to qualify in first aid and attend six lectures each year on the organisation of military hospitals, hygiene and military surgery. Efficient members were given an annual allowance of £1, and could be called up for duty in time of war. Their experience as Army nurses in the Boer War gave each of them invaluable knowledge and understanding of the demands of military nursing. Not surprisingly, when war broke out in 1914, each enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force.
Gould, aged 54, and now a Principal Matron in the Australian Army Nursing Service, was sent to Cairo to set up No. 2 Australian General Hospital (2AGH). Mena House, a large hotel within sight of the pyramids, was adapted for use by the hospital, and by the end of April 1915 was inundated with casualties from the Gallipoli campaign. Gould’s strong leadership style was not always to the liking of all her staff. Sister Pocock wrote in her diary while working at 2AGH in 1915, “Great excitement, leaving tomorrow for Ismailia ... doubly glad to get away from Miss Gould and that dreadful Johnston. I like her less than ever.”
While working in France in April 1916, Gould was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her distinguished nursing service. However, the strain of the heavy workload began to take its toll on her health. She was posted to convalescent hospitals in England before returning home exhausted in 1919. In 1920, aged 60, Gould was awarded a war service pension, and lived out her retirement for the next twenty years with her good friend Johnston at her home in Miranda, Sydney.
Johnston and Frater also worked in Egypt, France and England. In 1916, Johnston was awarded the Royal Red Cross (Associate) for conspicuous service. Frater worked on board hospital and transport ships, and after her promotion to matron in 1918 was posted to work in British hospitals in India for the remainder of the war. Her niece Elva Marsh recalled her aunt’s kindness with the patients whom she nursed:
As many of the wounded were in hospital for weeks or even months at a time, my great aunt gave her patients autograph books to write, draw or paint in, as a means of occupational therapy. Some of the artwork in these books was truly amazing and as children we loved to look at her autograph books when we visited.
Gould died on 19 April 1941, aged 81, outliving her friends Johnston by one year, and Frater by two. The world was now in the grip of yet another war. With a strong sense of vocation and a commitment to nursing, none of these women ever married. Gould wrote, “No one who has experienced the satisfaction that arises from work of this nature ever goes back to the dull routine of earning her living in any other of the spheres at present open to women.” The service of all three is commemorated on the AIF Memorial Wall at the Woronora Cemetery in Sydney.
The appropriateness of sending female nurses to war zones, as well as the traditional male orderlies, was a contentious issue for the early Australian army during the Boer War. However, the dedication and effectiveness of these first women paved the way for thousands to follow in later conflicts. Having faced the dangers and demands of wartime nursing, and taken on new responsibilities and practices, these pioneers of the profession proved to be essential to military medical service.
Robyn Siers works as an education officer at the Australian War Memorial. She curated the exhibition Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan.