My grandfather, Herbert Campbell Pearless returned from the Great War very frail. He remained an invalid until his death in 1934, when my Mother Betty was eighteen and her sister Faye was fifteen. It was fortunate that they had relatives living nearby, in the Nelson region. (Herbert was one of eight children, while my Nanna Gertrude was one of nine children.)
My mother left school and went to Blenheim where she trained as a nurse in Wairau Hospital. Mother remembered that all nurses had to live in the nurses’ hostel at Wairau. Each trainee nurse had to bring 3 woollen singlets, 3 pairs of woollen bloomers and 3 woollen spencers, which would hopefully prevent TB; a common illness at the time. Three pairs of woollen stockings were also required. All items of clothing had to have the owner’s name embroidered on it.
Wairau Hospital was where Betty met an injured airman, John Pearson, an immigrant from Britain. John was a test pilot flying in the RNZAF, when he was involved in a serious air crash. This resulted in him needing many weeks of hospital care. Betty ‘specialled’ John, and their romance began. They were married in 1942, and had a two day honeymoon at Hilltop, on the road to Akaroa, on Banks Peninsula. Back at Wairau Hospital, Betty only had to change only half of her name embroidered on her clothing. Pearless became Pearson, making the job easy.
Nursing Years in Marlborough.
The twenty year period between the two World Wars was comparatively quiet for the Hospitals of Marlborough. Plans for another 3 wards, a kitchen, and operating theatre had been approved; and building loans obtained. But with World War 2, the availability of manpower and building materials was severely restricted; and extensions were put on hold.
When Japan entered the war in 1941, Marlborough suddenly assumed strategic importance. A 6,000 strong Army Brigade was stationed there, to meet a possible Japanese invasion threat. Plans were needed to cover the possible bombing and shelling by Japanese planes and ships. Also, the 80-bed Wairau Hospital needed to be greatly increased, with an additional 250 beds. The Hospital Board took over Marlborough College as No 2 Emergency Hospital for a year. It was used for service personnel, and was staffed by Army nurses and volunteer registered nurses. At one stage it housed 100 patients, while the displaced students were educated at various primary schools and church halls around the region.
In response to public protests at the commandeering of Marlborough College, the then Minister of Health, Mr Nordmeyer; and the Director General of Health, Dr Watt, offered, in 1942, the opportunity for the Hospital to proceed with its building plan, but using light construction materials in place of the substantial construction previously planned. Construction costs were to be borne by the War Expense Account. It was agreed that after the war, the building would be handed over to the Hospital Board at valuation. It was estimated to cost 50, 000 pounds, built in wood and fibrolite. Building commenced in 1942, and became wards 4,5, & 6; with the administration block below. To service this increased hospital accommodation required more staff; so extensions to the kitchen block, nurses’ home and boiler house were completed. This was followed by a nurses’ change room and tutorial unit.
Meanwhile, precautions were also being taken against the possibility of air raids. Trenches were dug in the hospital grounds and adjacent to the Nurses’ Home, Old Peoples’ Home and the Fever Ward. Then, based on London’s bombing experience, (where more casualties were inflicted by broken glass than any other cause during air raids;) it was decided to cover all windows in the hospital . Many thousands of yards of calico, wall-boarding, and wire netting were used to secure all windows.
Accommodation for nurses and domestics was insufficient, so army huts were set up near the hospital to serve as sleeping quarters. The Old People’s Home (which was serving as Emergency Hospital No 1) was converted for use as a hostel for staff. Increased demand for support services like kitchen and laundry were soon insufficient for the expanded hospital. (At this stage the laundry was laundering over a million articles per year.)
Social Security, which was introduced in 1939, had a big impact on hospital and medical benefits. At first, the Government paid Hospital Boards 6/- per day per patient; and boards could recover from patients the balance of 16/- per day that it was costing to keep each patient in hospital. ( The Government subsidy later increased to 9/-) Local Bodies were expected to meet increasing levies to make up the difference between what was being paid by the State and what could be recovered from individual patients; as well as the increasing costs of maintaining and running hospitals. These levies were not phased out until the 1950s.
The period my mother Betty Pearless was training at Wairau was during a time of great growth in the medical services. In 1925, in-patients at Wairau totalled only 52 for the year. Twenty years later, the number was 1920. Nursing staff numbered 18 in 1925, and two decades later it totalled 80. The introduction of outpatient departments for general and maternity patients in 1920, made more demands on hospital services. Wairau was serving a population of 19,000 by 1950, and 15,000 of them had treatments in the hospital.
Like other would-be nurses, when my Mother left school at Nelson Girls’ College aged 18, (1938) she presented herself to the Wairau Hospital Matron for an interview. She was accepted and began her training immediately. Nursing students learned by experience, attending lectures given by the matron-superintended Miss Lewis, in her flat, or in a ward; or in the corridor. Some were given during working hours, but mostly in the nurses’ free time before and after work. When training was completed, the trainees sat three examinations and had an oral test of their general ability. Mother spoke fondly of her years at Wairau. Each trainee nurse was given three sets of uniform, and, like her personal undergarments, each apron, cap, cape and dress had to be embroidered with her name.
In 1938 a scheme was developed to give student nurses some preliminary training before they worked in the ward. This was instituted in 1942, when the nurses’ duty roster showed that a class had a preliminary period of four weeks prior to ward work. Until that time, individual nurses attended lectures on their days of duty.
Sister Retemeyer became the first permanent tutor in 1938. She was responsible for drawing up a training syllabus and giving lectures whenever students could be available. A permanent home for training nurses was established with extensive alterations to the nurses’ home. This cost the Hospital Board 6,500 pounds.
The mortuary through the early years was a lone wooden shed situated near the main hospital building. In 1946 it was replaced by a concrete structure (for the price of 3,898 pounds) by Fred Williamson. Refrigeration equipment cost a further 250 pounds.
District nurses had covered remote areas of Marlborough since 1902, but it was 1950 before a district nursing service was provided for Blenheim and Picton townships. Medical practitioners appointed nurses, and notified the Hospital office of patients requiring bedside attention. There was an acute shortage of nursing staff throughout New Zealand, and district nurses were expected to reduce demands on all hospitals. In the late 1940s, Wairau was badly hit by a nursing shortage, so the Hospital board instructed the discharge of anyone who could receive reasonable care in their homes.
During my Mother's years at Wairau hospital, Dr T Julian was medical superintendent, (from 1920 to 1950.) He was demobilised in 1919 after four years’ war service. Then Dr Julian completed his FRCS at London Hospital. His Wairau salary was recorded as being increased to 750 pounds “plus free house, fuel and lighting’ in 1920. He had a great reputation for the high standard of medical care. Under his control, Wairau had the most modern x-ray unit in the southern hemisphere.
Another long-serving staff member was Miss E.M Lewis, who was matron superintendent from 1921 to 1942, when she resigned to serve in the War effort again. ( Miss Lewis had served in the Army Nursing Corps in troop and hospital ships in World War 1.) This time she was matron of the hospital ship Maunganui which made several trips ferrying sick and wounded troops back to New Zealand. She subsequently married Hospital Board member W G Rudd, a widower.
Mother spoke of Lewis with great respect and fondness. She also kept in touch with Dr Julian. I recall our family visiting him by boat ,when we were staying in the Marlborough Sounds in the early 1950s. We were treated to afternoon tea and hugs all round.
I only remember three of Mother’s nursing friends who we saw frequently in the 1950s. Alma Vorbach was one, who I think remained unmarried. Molly Carson was another; I don’t remember her maiden name, but she married Rev Dick Carson, and they had five children, and served in Pakistan for many years as missionaries. We spent time with them when they were home on furlough, and I stayed with them several times in CMS House, Hackthorne Rd. The third person was Molly Troupe. She was married to academic Gordon, a jolly old bearded fellow. (He marked one of my School Certificate exam papers, and told me (off the record) that I had passed it! He recognised my distinct peacock blue ink and rolling handwriting!
Most New Zealand families will have similar histories, which show how much the threat of War influenced our regions. Our people adapted and changed to meet the new challenges. I've recorded this for Nativity Reflections, because I know our parish has some retired nurses who may appreciate this chunk of their history being recognised. During the wars, as now, our medically trained people have served us well. I have left names in this record in case they are recognised by our readers.
Today’s citizens have benefitted from the courage and foresight of those who came before us. Our responsibility is to pass on our knowledge, experience, and a better world for coming generations. While Corona Virus has claimed many lives, and devastated families, the toll is far less than the environmental destruction that is occurring day and night, relentlessly.
Let’s contemplate how we can help prevent this looming global crisis. When God created our wonderful world, He saw that it was good. How it must grieve Him to see what devastation human greed and power have caused; as countries and individuals burn, pillage, pollute and rape land, water and air for their selfish gains. This is the new battle front, people. Let's “put on the armour of God,” and in faith, prepare to clean up our act, and spread the warning to all we can. God has instructed us to be good stewards of His creation.
We who believe, are His ‘essential workers’ in such times of crisis. What a privilege – and a responsibility. We’re under orders from our Creator. Let's rise up and prepare for the next round of warfare.
In His Name,