M. H. Fraser
Dunedin’s Pioneer Women’s Hall, set up in 1942 in a former lawyer’s office in Moray Place, was the end result of a project initiated by Dr Emily Siedeberg, New Zealand’s first woman doctor. Envisaged as both a monument to the city’s foremothers and a centre for women’s activities, it remains in use by various community groups today. Recently, historian-in-residence Rachael Francis has been delving into the boxes of memorabilia stored in the hall. One of her finds is this memoir by M. H. Fraser, one of the first nurse trainees at Dunedin Hospital in 1884. Fifty years later, in 1934, Nurse Fraser wrote the following memoir about her experiences.
Nurse training [in 1884], by M. H. Fraser
Towards the end of 1884, the trustees of Dunedin Hospital realised that their nursing needs could no longer be met by stray trained nurses visiting the town and by untrained people. The men patients were nursed by untrained men, the women and children depended mostly on the visitors, some of whom had come in search of healthcare for themselves. In our home, a friend was being nursed after a major operation … and the nurse in charge was visited by a trained nurse, who was temporarily employed in the hospital. She brought news of the Trust’s decision [to train nurses] and turning to me said, “You are the type. Why not apply?”
This appealed to me at once and it was decided that I should write to the secretary, Mr Burns … A week later saw me in harness.
Matron: Mrs Burton, whose proud boast was “Me and Dryburgh, the day hall porter, moved the whole hospital from the Octagon.” She wore a grey dress with an apron, carpet slippers, lace cap and cameo brooch. On the afternoon a lace cap with ribbons, satin apron and leather shoes were exchanged for the plainer ones. She served the hospital dutifully but was not suited to train nurses.
Trained Nurses: There were three of these but two left shortly to be married. They were assisted by one who had been a help at Seacliff for some time and by a young girl who also left to marry. Shortly after me followed Nurse Caffin (now Mrs Reid, Maunganui), Nurse Clapcott (Mrs Barclay, Dunedin), and Nurse Monson who lived in Port Chalmers and who only recently died. Other trainees followed in quick succession.
Night Nurse: Nurse James was permanent night nurse then and for many years afterwards.
Ward Maids: There were two ward maids who scrubbed the wards all over once a week and once a week did the pieces between the beds, the scullery and the linoleum down the middle of the ward. The pros did all the rest, emptying ash buckets, taking bedding to fumigators, medicine bottle to dispensary, store basket to store with a daily list and calling later for the filled basket. In those days, it was thought necessary for most patients to have a few ounces of port wine or brandy or a bottle of ale, stout or soda water so the baskets were fairly heavy. Very heavy trays had to be carried from lift to ward, and great cans of syrup, milk, porridge etc. A man hauled up the lift but we carried the trays etc to the ward.
There was one women’s surgical ward of 16 beds, one medical also 16 beds, two children’s wards of 8 beds each, an ophthalmic ward of 8 beds and one for gaol celebrities also of 6 beds. Besides these there were special wards, Nurses’ sleeping accommodation was in any old corner. Mrs Burton had no sitting room of her own but used the doctors’ dining room when it was free.
Conditions of Work
The arrangement was 12 hours work daily and £20 a year salary, providing our own uniform. In return, the resident and visiting staff were to give lectures and to examine us. The twelve hours and much more was given on our side, but no lectures were forthcoming, so we went straight to Mr Burns knowing that Mrs Burton would not be in sympathy … At the next board meeting our lecturers were appointed – Dr William Brown and Dr Colquhoun from the visiting staff and Dr Hemming, president. Such interesting and enthusiastic teachers and pupils too they proved, in spite of the fact that all lectures were given after twelve hours duty.
I had some weeks experience in both medical and surgical wards and then, on reaching the hospital at ten one evening I was sent after a full day’s work to ‘special’ a double pneumonia and a tracheotomy case in the children’s ward, the latter in a tent with an awful steam spray. The pneumonia patient had jacket poultices necessitating visits to the boiler room for boiling water supplies. It was a great responsibility to put on one already tired. To me the most trying part lay in crossing the shaded garden and finding my way along the dark underground passages to the boiler house. The patients recovered however, so that is the main point. The night porter – Reid – did his share in bringing about the result, for he came at intervals to help change the poultices and to carry hot water.
After four months training I was put in full charge of the children’s wards.
Amenities of Life
Four nurses had rooms adjoining the children’s wards, and very little sleep came to a night nurse. It sometimes happened that a day nurse had to pass through a night nurse’s room to reach her own. A new operating theatre was being built beside the children’s wards and doctors and students clattered at all hours down the uncarpeted stairs. A ward maid would stamp in about 12 with dinner on a rough plate and a milk pudding in a half-pint cup. Speaking generally, I may say that our food was rough in the extreme and badly served. At last Dr MacGregor, inspector of hospitals, had an interview with us which resulted in our being granted a much more varied diet, and actually two revolving cruet stands and a dinner service. In the early part of our training I do not think we could have carried on but for the odd hour’s sleep and the liberal food always ready in our own homes.
A few amenities we made for ourselves. Knowing that Mrs Burton would have no sympathy with uniforms we took it upon ourselves to interview a draper who designed for us the caps that may be seen in the photos now in the nurse’s dining room. The aprons we copied from some we had seen; the frocks of either grey gingham or navy and grey serge were ankle length and were worn with stiff cuffs and collars tied with ribbons. We enjoyed our work and have even been known after 12 hours duty to take a tram to Normanby, walk over the hill and to Port Chalmers, have supper at Mrs Monson’s, take the train back – and if we were a few minutes late in returning, Reid never suspected us and the matrons did not enquire. With all the little hindrances, we were a happy set and the three left of the first trainees are still fast friends.
What privileges trainees now have! They are taught many things we never dreamed of, have short hours, a home like a first-class hotel, uniform provided and a good pay with superannuation. We had largely to use our own wits, common sense and initiative in a way which would not be possible or desirable when so many specialists are now available. We concentrated on the nursing and comfort of patients which, after all, is the thing to aim at, and I think I may say that the flowers in our wards were as prettily arranged as any I have seen.
M. H. Fraser trained as a nurse at Dunedin hospital in 1884. Her memoir was transcribed by 2017 Historian in Residence at the Otago Pioneer Women’s Hall, Rachael Francis.