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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter V. — My Tour with Mrs. Neill

page 35

Chapter V.
My Tour with Mrs. Neill.

We started off on a fine summer morning early in November, on our way to Napier, visiting on the way several small hospitals, Greytown, a tiny cottage, a cottage at Master-ton, not much bigger, very inconvenient and entirely unsuitable for the purpose, and plans for a new hospital were then being prepared. Dannevirke was another place we visited, quite a new small cottage hospital, then Waipukurau, and finally Napier. None of these hospitals quite met my expectations; they were all small, inconvenient, and badly planned, but, no doubt, at that time met the need of the more sparse population of twenty-five years ago. All of these hospitals are now very different places.

Even Napier, when we came to it, impressed me very badly. This was the hospital a friend from Prince Alfred had come to as matron a few years before. She had married and there was now a new matron. The medical officer in charge took us round the hospital, and afterwards Mrs. Neill took me to see the chairman.

One of the duties of the inspector was to meet the chairman or some members of the Boards, and point out any special notes taken when visiting the hospitals.

Our tour in these parts lasted about a week, and we then returned for a few days to the office, where I was again initiated into my future work. Examinations were pending, of nurses, and of some of the untrained midwives, page 36 who had omitted to register under the concession clauses of the Midwives' Act. A very simple paper was set, and this, supplemented by a viva oral examination, allowed a number of these women to become registered as was necessary under a new Act.

The State examination of the nurses in the various training schools was to take place in December, so it was necessary to send out forms of application and to arrange all the necessary detail. Certain doctors were chosen to set the medical and surgical papers, and these were to be printed and ready for despatch at the last day. Examiners for the practical and oral examination were appointed and centres arranged, so my first few weeks in office were very busy ones.

All this arranged, we left to visit the hospitals in the South Island, first of all staying a few days in Christchurch, then going on to Dunedin, leaving the intermediate hospitals for me to visit alone later.

At Dunedin there was a State maternity hospital, which had been in existence a little over a year. Mrs. Neill was specially interested in this place, having, of course, both selected it and selected the matron, Miss Holford, who was personally appointed by Mr. Seddon after enquiry by him as to whether she knew any members of Parliament to push her claim. On her saying “No,” to his enquiry, he said, “You are appointed.” There were twenty other applicants, all of whom had backing by some more or less influential personage, and worrying him.

Miss Holford, who had been trained in New Plymouth Hospital, and taken her midwifery course in Sydney, pleased him by her independent attitude.

Unfortunately, as was the case in Wellington, an existing house had been purchased and adapted as a hospital, page 37 an arrangement which is never really satisfactory. The house was a fine private one, standing on a rise, commanding a fine view and with a good garden. It was a much better place than the Wellington one, and with some few alterations has done excellent work for twenty-six years. A woman doctor was appointed at the start in 1905, and is still carrying on, while the matron only retired after 22 years' service.

The Dunedin Hospital was in many ways the best I had so far seen in New Zealand, though it had been established in an old exhibition building which formed the central block round which wards had been added. Miss Fraser was the matron, an old Edinburgh Hospital sister.

From here we went on to Invercargill and Riverton, where there were small hospitals. The institutions connected with these southern hospitals we had not time to visit, and I was to return for a more complete tour of inspection, when under the new Private Hospitals' Act, I would have the various private institutions and little maternity homes to visit; I would also have the Mental Hospital at Seacliff to see.

After returning to Wellington, we set forth for Mrs. Neill's final visit to Auckland, from whence she was embarking for the United States to join her son.

We then went to the Auckland Hospital, an institution built on a fine site with a splendid view of the harbour. It is difficult to remember my first impression of this hospital, but in many ways it struck me as better planned than any other I had seen. Recently some wards on the pavilion system, with which I was familiar in Sydney, had been added, and although some of the old part was insanitary, inconvenient, and altogether unsuitable for the purpose of page 38 a hospital, this is now all changed, and the Auckland Hospital is a first class institution.

While in Auckland, we went to the Mental Hospital, Avondale, some miles out, a large place set in the midst of a big area of land, gardens and farm. This was the third of the mental hospitals I had seen, as Mrs. Neill had taken me to Mount View, at Wellington, and introduced me to Dr. Crosby, the superintendent, and also we had gone to Porirua, some twelve miles out from Wellington.

Porirua was a large place, but Avondale was larger, and took about 1,000 patients. I cannot here go into a description of these places, they are grim and forbidding at the best, and at that distant period were very different from what they now are, with better classification of patients, and with provision for comfortable home-like houses for those who voluntarily submit themselves for treatment and for the better behaved patients, better means of recreation and more chance of study of individuals.

Hamilton was another town we visited when Mrs. Neill introduced me to Dr. Douglas, and the matron, Miss Roth-well. A funny little place it was then, but rebuilding was soon to start, and the Waikato Hospital is now one of the finest in the Dominion.

Then we returned to Auckland and with great regret I saw Mrs. Neill off on her boat. During the time we had spent together we had learnt to esteem each other, and the friendship thus formed lasted till Mrs. Neill's death, some years after returning from America and again taking up her residence in Wellington. The close of her life was sad, as she became a helpless invalid from rheumatoid arthritis.

After Mrs. Neill's departure it was necessary for me to arrange for the appointment of an assistant. Mrs. Neill page 39 had in the office a trained nurse, Miss Mary Webb, who was only appointed temporarily, as she had not a midwifery qualification, but at the time, training at the St. Helens Hospital, Dunedin, was Miss Harkness, a Wellington Hospital trained nurse, whom Mrs. Neill had selected for the permanent post. Therefore, it was thought that provision had been made for the assistance of a fully qualified nurse who could carry on during my frequent absence on inspection of hospitals.

Unfortunately, just after I returned to the office after seeing Mrs. Neill off to America, Miss Webb became very ill, and was obliged to give up work. I was very sorry, as she was a capable woman and we were getting on well together. It was then arranged that her sister, not a nurse, should come and act as clerk until Miss Harkness was ready. I regret to say that Miss Mary Webb did not long survive. Just as Miss Harkness finished her career at St. Helens, and passing the examination for midwives, became registered, another set-back occurred. She was persuaded by the doctors at Nelson, where she had previously conducted a private hospital, to give up the Government appointment and carry on her private hospital. Therefore it was necessary for me to find a substitute, and with so little knowledge of nurses in New Zealand as I then possessed, this was not an easy task.

Mrs. Neill had mentioned to me a nurse whom she considered would be suitable for appointment to one of the St. Helens hospitals, so I determined to see her, and when in the South Island I was about to visit Oamaru, where she lived, I telegraphed to her to meet me at the hotel. This was Miss Jessie Bicknell, trained at the Nelson Hospital and at the St. Helens Hospital, Dunedin. We met and I decided to recommend her for the vacant position. page 40 She was appointed, and for the whole term of my service she was with me, and on my retirement succeeded me as Director of Nursing and Matron-in-Chief of the Army Nursing Service.

We worked together in accord and saw the many changes in the department. As work grew, more assistant inspectors were needed, and gradually our staff of nurse inspectors grew also. I refer elsewhere to the appointment of Miss Bagley, who was the next addition and stationed at Auckland office. For a number of years Miss Bicknell and Miss Bagley were the only nurse assistants who were in the department, and Dr. Valintine and myself the only Inspectors of Public Health, and perhaps the years when this was so were happier and more harmonious than when our numbers increased.

I believe New Zealand was the first country to adopt the system of inspection by qualified nurses, with a nurse at the head of a sub-department, as she was the first to have a system of registration of nurses under a special Act of Parliament. Now, in many other countries, there are nurses appointed to carry on similar work.