Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

Boer War Nurses

On 7 August 1900, a 36-year-old woman from country Victoria died of pneumonia in an army hospital in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Also known as Fanny, Sister Frances Emma Hines travelled to the other side of the world with nine other nurses as part of the 3rd Victorian Contingent. Fellow nurse, Sister Julia Anderson, remembered Fanny in her diary. She said:

She died of an attack of pneumonia contracted in devotion to duty. She was quite alone, with as many as twenty-six patients at one time, no possibility of assistance, or relief and without sufficient nourishment.

Sister Hines was buried with full military honours and her grave is marked by a marble cross paid for by the officers and men of the Victorian Citizen Bushmen, whom she served with and nursed. Sister Frances Emma Hines was the first Australian servicewoman to die on active service. Sister Hines was one of 44 Australian military nurses who went to South Africa in the early months of the Boer War.

These nurses were part of the medical services of the colonial military forces. They were all trained nurses. They were unmarried, as was expected in those days, and they were mostly in their 30s. The nurses went, despite opposition from the British military authorities. Offers from some of the colonies of nurses had been rejected by the British. The Queensland government's offer was refused and those nurses either joined other state contingents or paid their own way. It seems amazing-they wanted to serve, yet they were not welcomed. As many as 30 women went to South Africa as civilian nurses, often at their own expense. They were there to care for the men of their own contingents and were expressly barred from nursing British regular soldiers.

Prior to the three disastrous British defeats in December 1899, which became known as Black Week, no colonial nurses or medical services were allowed to go to South Africa. The 14 nurses who left Sydney in January 1900 were members of the New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve and were part of a 108-person detachment of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps. They went as part of the 2nd New South Wales contingent, which included the men of A Battery Royal Australian Artillery and the New South Wales Mounted Rifles. They were a mix of professional soldiers and citizen soldiers-and we would know that mix today as part of the Australian tradition.

The New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve was formed in May 1899 by Colonel WDC Williams, who saw the need for a professional, dedicated nursing service. It was Williams, in the late 1880s, who organised the medical services into the well-trained and professional service that would operate in South Africa under the command of Sister Nellie Gould, who became the Lady Superintendent of Nurses.

The Australian nurses were destined to serve in most theatres of the Boer War. On arrival in South Africa, the nurses of the New South Wales detachment were separated and sent to where they were needed most. Six went to the British General Hospital and four to the No. 2 Stationary Hospital, both of which were in Cape Town. The rest remained with the New South Wales Army Medical Corps at the field hospital in Sterkstroom. As the fighting moved, the nurses moved to hospitals closer to the front. They were indeed on active service.

By August 1900, the nurses were operating in Kroonstad, Johannesburg and Middleburg. From September 1901 to February 1902 they were stationed at the No. 31 British Stationary Hospital at Ermelo. For a time, Sister Nellie Gould was in charge of all nursing services in the Orange River District. In March 1900, 10 nurses led by Sister Marianne Rawson left with the 3rd Victorian Contingent to serve in Rhodesia. Once there they discovered a desperate situation with outbreaks of enteritis, dysentery, malaria, blackwater fever, measles, pneumonia and influenza. There were only the most basic medical facilities available.

Only a few months later all the nurses had become ill, but they were determined to continue working. Given the dreadful conditions, it is a tribute to their collective skills and resilience they were able to continue and, unfortunately, only Fanny died.

Nurse Bessie Pocock served in the No. 2 British Stationary Hospital and she described the conditions in a letter home:

We worked in an Iron building which was used for Agricultural Shows. We only had four officers with staff orderlies for 180 patients. The Flies and Mosquitoes being frightfully troublesome as we were without mosquito nets.

A contemporary hospital with only four doctors, three nurses and as many orderlies would struggle to care for 180 patients, even with modern medical equipment. When you compare that to what would be available today, it shows the way that these women were able to serve effectively in true active service.

We had strong, effective professional nursing staff working in the South African area. Sister Nellie Gould, who led the New South Wales nurses, went on to serve in a number of hospitals throughout South Africa before returning to Australia in August 1902. When she returned to Australia, she continued her association with military nursing and then went on to serve in World War I. In 1914 she was appointed matron of No. 2 Australian General Hospital and went to Egypt and France. She then moved to Britain, where she served until she was discharged in 1919. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross in recognition of her distinguished service.

Nursing Superintendent Marianne Rawson trained in Victoria, England and Ireland. She then came back to be matron of Kalgoorlie Hospital until February 1899. In March 1900 she was appointed to lead the Victorian nurses. and then served across a range of areas in South Africa. She also received the Royal Red Cross in 1902.

The Australian Service Nurses National Memorial in Anzac Parade lists the conflicts and places Australian Nurses have served. It bears the words:

In memory of Australian Service Nurses whose supreme sacrifice, courage and devotion were inspiring to those for whom they so willingly risked their lives. Their memory will always be our sacred trust.

Further down Anzac Parade is the site of the National Boer War Memorial, which, when built, will commemorate all Australian service men and women who served in that war. Here the service of Fanny Hines and the other women I have mentioned will be commemorated by the placement of the badges of the colonial nursing and medical services together with those of all colonial and Commonwealth units who served in the Boer War. Many Australians have no knowledge or awareness of the work that these women did, where they came from, their training and their professionalism. These women began a strong history of effective nursing in Australian military service, of which we can be proud. In the words of the Nurses Memorial, they are indeed 'beyond all praise'.