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One hundred years of community nursing

by Shirley Sutton

At the beginning of 1911, Canberra, the national capital, was on its way in a modest, yet determined fashion. The federal parliament had decided that the Yass-Canberra site would be the capital’s home. Surveyor Charles Scrivener and his team had completed the job of identifying the borders of the Federal Capital Territory’s 909 square miles.

By the end of 1911 the Federal Capital Territory comprised the rural properties of the Molonglo River Valley and the more widespread limestone plains, a Commonwealth administrative lease at Acton, the Royal Military College at Duntroon, and some widely scattered rural schools, churches and post offices.

Susan McWilliams (then Susan Mossop) in 1970.  She was the youngest person to join the District Nursing Service which reportedly raised a few eyebrows at the time. Here she models the new nursing uniform for a Canberra Times shot.
Susan McWilliams (then Susan Mossop) in 1970. She was the youngest person to join the District Nursing Service which reportedly raised a few eyebrows at the time. Here she models the new nursing uniform for a Canberra Times shot.

Early medical care looked to Queanbeyan

Six miles east of the Acton settlement was the long established rural and regional centre of Queanbeyan.  Although the original Canberra Hospital in Balmain Crescent, Acton, was opened in 1914, it was not an ongoing facility until the early 1920s. Up to that time, those residing in the Federal Capital Territory and nearby needing hospital attention relied heavily on the basic facilities provided at Queanbeyan.

The Queanbeyan Benevolent Asylum was established in 1847, and was principally for the relief and shelter of the poor and homeless. There was little provision made for the treatment of the chronically ill. A cottage in Irishtown (now Dodsworth) on the site of the present Queanbeyan golf course was rented from Captain Faunce for 20 pounds per annum to accommodate the patients, the Matron (Mrs Mary Ruston), her husband and their children.

The Queanbeyan Hospital was built in 1862. Ten patients were then admitted, the average stay was 10 weeks and three patients died.  Queanbeyan was really the major facility for the ill in the region and the major business centre for shopping.

District nursing starts: Bob a Head girls

The first formal District Nursing Service in the ACT commenced as a result of a proposal put to the government by the National Council of Women in 1948.  Finally in 1950 the first District Nurse was employed – Miss Nan Wilshire (now Thornhill).

Nan and Jean Love were called the ‘Bob a Head girls’ as the cost of a home visit in the early days was one shilling. Their first base was the Immigration Department ‘wool sheds’ building in Barton.  They were paid four pounds per fortnight.  No superannuation or uniform allowance, on-call or overtime. They worked atrocious hours, the longest period was 21 days straight. Imagine how exhausted they were.

Nan Thornhill, having just turned 90 years of age and still looking wonderful, was present at the launch of our book about district nursing (details below). She remembers those early days clearly.

“These were the days when we sharpened our own needles for injection giving – boiled our syringes and other equipment on the stove before carrying out care and had much fun with the ‘puffing billies’ chip heaters as they were called in those days.

“We would start at one end of the street and light the chip heater and by the time we reached the other end we would then return to use one where the water would be heated ready to bath the patient.” Today is so different.

District or Community Nurses as they are known today do very little personal care. They are skilled in complex care of patients and use disposable dressings, syringes and other medical equipment. Nan’s story and many more can be found in the just-launched Caring for the Community, Rain, Hail or Shine. The History of District and Community Nursing in the ACT, 1911 to 2011 –– 100 years. 

1953 photo of a first contingent of district nurses outside the Patents Office which then housed their headquarters. The coats and hats are a wartime army holdover. Dresses then were nylon which proved “hot in the summer and cold in the winter”, according to the book. Staff carried the old doctors ‘Gladstone’ bag with supplies for their rounds. Later, small suitcases came into vogue. In the early days, one nurse covered the whole of then Canberra per shift. Seen here from left: Joan Ladd, Cecily Gibson and Lois Davidson.   (credit: ACT Heritage)
1953 photo of a first contingent of district nurses outside the Patents Office which then housed their headquarters. The coats and hats are a wartime army holdover. Dresses then were nylon which proved “hot in the summer and cold in the winter”, according to the book. Staff carried the old doctors ‘Gladstone’ bag with supplies for their rounds. Later, small suitcases came into vogue. In the early days, one nurse covered the whole of then Canberra per shift.
Seen here from left: Joan Ladd, Cecily Gibson and Lois Davidson.
(credit: ACT Heritage)

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