Nursing on the Goldfields

Article | Updated 2 years ago

Nurses very soon became central to survival for many on the goldfields. They worked extremely long hours in very difficult conditions. The treatment of typhoid required constant vigilance, especially during the long hours of delirium. Many nurses worked themselves to exhaustion. Some contracted typhoid themselves, and some died from it.

Main ward at Government Hospital, c.1900-1910
Main ward at Government Hospital, c.1900-1910
Image copyright WA Museum

At the time of the typhoid outbreak there was no training school for nurses in Western Australia. The first relief nursing was provided by the Wesleyan Sisters of the People, most nurses being recruited from South Australia and Victoria. They were followed by Sisters of St. John of God from Ireland who also established hospitals. The Salvation Army provided much needed aid to the sick under the direction of doctors.

Nurses outside their quarters in Coolgardie, 1890s

Nurses outside their quarters in Coolgardie, 1890s
Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia 009380D

Dining Hall at White Feather Hospital, later known as Kanowna, 1890s

Dining Hall at White Feather Hospital, later known as Kanowna, 1890s
Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia 008540D

Case Study: Matron Bessie Wray

. . . the guardian angel of the institution [government hospital] . . . probably the best known and honored of her sex in this part of the world.’

Coolgardie Miner describing Matron Bessie Way, 27 July 1896

Matron Bessie Way, 1890sMatron Bessie Way, 1890s
Image
Courtesy Mitchell Library WA Museum

In 1895 Bessie Way was appointed matron of Kalgoorlie Hospital. The daughter of an Adelaide doctor, she travelled to the goldfields with her mother. Mrs Way was appalled by the basic conditions of the hospital. Bessie's mother insisted on better than the hessian tent provided for her daughter’s accommodation before she was willing to leave her daughter in the town.

Matron Way was soon ‘winning the gratitude and affection of the prospectors by her untiring devotion to her duties’.

Within a few months, however, she herself contracted typhoid. However, she was one of the lucky ones. She survived the disease to marry a mining man, Arthur V. Harvey. In 1898 she returned to her position as matron at the Government Hospital for the next decade. It became a flourishing institution thanks to her leadership.

Staff and patients at Government Hospital, 1890s

Staff and patients at the Government Hospital, 1890s Matron Bessie Way – back row second from right.
Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia 2020B/2