Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Oral histories 2015: My Life of Nursing and Warley Hospital by Gwen McRae

Last updated on 27-Apr-22

This talk was one of a series of 17 talks broadcast on South Gippsland community radio station 3MFM during 2014 and 2015, with the assistance of a Local History grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.

I was born at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne on 30th January 1930. My mother had a son by a previous marriage. My father had five children by a previous marriage but I did not know them until later life. My father died before I was 15. We lived in Moonee Ponds. I went to Brunswick South State School, then Moonee Ponds Central for forms one and two. I got a scholarship then to go to University High School, where I went for forms three and four. I always wanted to go nursing, but my mother was against my going straight from school to nursing. She thought it was too big of a step, so I put in time ‘working’ in an importers’ office as a clerk, making the teas.


I started nursing training at Epworth Hospital on 6th January 1948. The war was over but we still had to have coupons to buy my uniforms. I was supposed to have 10 aprons and 3 dresses. I only had 8 aprons because that’s all we had the coupons for. The dresses were blue and the aprons were white.


We lived on the premises at Epworth and had to be in each night by 10 p.m. We needed a special pass if we were going to be later, and if we were going to be in past midnight we had to front the Matron for special permission. The matron at the time was Marjorie Holding, a retired army nurse. She had been matron for less than 12 months when I started. She was very strict, but very fair.


I stayed at Epworth for a couple of years after I trained. I became quite friendly with the Matron during that time. When I was tutoring we used to go together to pick up tapes and things for my tutoring. She had a Morris Minor car, which she used to let me drive.


As a trainee we started and finished each day with one hour of lectures. In between we carried trays, cleaned pans, and gradually built up to more responsible jobs. I remember at one stage having to feed a retired minister. Every time he opened his mouth to receive a mouth full of porridge his top dentures would fall down to his bottom dentures. I was just 17 and hadn’t had much to do with old people, so I didn’t know what to do. I just kept putting the porridge in on top of his dentures and he got fed!


We had to take temperatures. I remember one time going to the East Wing, where the men’s ward was out on a balcony. We had to ask the men if they’d had their bowels open that day, and one of them said to me: “Well, have you?”


Our day started at 7 a.m. and finished at 5.45 p.m. We were given ‘hospital meals’. One time we had a lovely meal of cauliflower cheese and mince, but often it was very ordinary. I guess we were given the leftovers because sometimes the staff got sick and couldn’t turn up to work the next day.


When I first started we roomed in a 10 bed dormitory, then into double rooms, then single rooms. The dormitory had been a big ward. There was one bathroom for the lot of us. I was a trainee for three years.


We were given lectures morning and afternoon by doctors and surgeons – anatomy, physiology, how to do procedures, eyes, urinary tracts. Lots of different things. The nurses from Bathesda Hospital came to the lectures with us. Even if you had been on night duty you still had to attend the lectures.


We had exams for each of the series of lectures. At the end of the first year we did “First Professional” exams at Melbourne University. At the end of the third year we had a three hour written examination and a half hour or so oral examination taken by doctors. They asked you how you would treat or look after so and so a condition. They could ask us about anything – we had no idea what they were going to question us about before the exams.


I did a Post-graduate year and was in charge of the Children’s Ward at Epworth. The sister there was very good to me. In between that and tutoring I worked in the theatre. I tutored first years then seniors. We were ‘Nurses’ til we graduated, then we were ‘Sisters'.


I worked there until 1953, then had to leave when I got married. We just accepted that we had to leave once we got married. When I got engaged the Matron said “we wanted you to go on to the College of Nursing,” but I just said, “Bad luck, I’m getting married.” And that was that. As a nurse you had to be registered. I kept registering each year even after I was married. I was only married 12 months when I had Helen and then they found out at Warley that I was a nurse and asked me to go nursing there. They didn’t care that I was married.


Warley Hospital was established in 1923 in a house which Mr Thompson purchased, in response to his wife Lucy’s request. Mrs Thompson had been a nurse and with several of her lady friends was distressed that people had to be taken by boat to get to a hospital. Warley was named after the area Mr Thompson lived in when he was growing up. The Dixon twins – John and Laurie – both have “Warley” as their second names as they were the first twins born there. Warley was also the first Bush Nursing Hospital – up until that time there were only what was called Centres.


Lucy Thompson was really the main organiser of the first hospital. She was very involved in the Red Cross. The records are still intact apart from one of the minutes books from the early 1950s. There are also annual reports from all of the Bush Nursing Hospitals.


The local people supported the hospital very well. The community used to do lots of fundraising. One of the first patients provided a cow which the nurse was required to milk. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that when I was there! Fancy having to milk the cow along with everything else you had to do.


They had ‘kitchen teas’ to get food into the cupboards. Local men had wood days when they would bring wood. There was a birthday each November when the local people brought food, linen and money to help with the running of the hospital. For many years there was an annual hospital cabaret ball in the old Shire Hall, organised by the local women. They had a proper dance band and the band provided the m.c.


Also for many years the hospital had a car raffle. The car was provided by Dave Cook, and he never made any profit out of it. The car raffle stopped once Dave retired. Stan Davies encouraged the women to start the Women’s Auxiliary once the new hospital was built in 1962. They were very active holding stalls, and would keep the hospital supplied with jam and even do some mending.


When it became obvious that a facility was needed to house older, frail people, Dr Hopkins asked Les Findlay if he could ask his mother, who lived next door to the hospital, if the family would consider selling her land to the hospital for a nursing home once she had finished with it. This worked out, and once the hospital had bought the land there was a working bee of lots of local volunteers to clear and level the site. It was held on a Saturday, and with Bill Evans detonating the big trees and everyone pitching in, it only took the day to level the site. Unfortunately they disturbed a bee hive, and one of the volunteers got so badly stung he had to be admitted to the hospital.


After that, funding was sought, and Warley Annexe was built in the mid-1970s, first with 14 beds, and later with another 6 beds. There was obviously a need as the place filled up straight away.



When I was nursing, people were kept in bed after an operation. Now people are sat out the next day. We used to do back washes; that went out. People used to stay in bed and we had to wash them. Now they’re up to the shower. If you can put your feet on the floor the modern nurse thinks you can look after yourself. At Warley you could be looking after one patient or twelve, by yourself.


Earlier on we didn’t have all the paperwork the nurses have now. We certainly wrote a report at the end of every shift in which we wrote down all the things that had happened to the patients. We had to fill in drug charts, temperatures, that sort of thing and we always did handover.


When I first went to Warley it was the ‘little’ hospital building. Sisters Cameron and Doreen ran the hospital then and they both had a cocker spaniel each. One was “Mac” I remember. There were cupboards either side of the Aga stove and the dogs lived and slept on one side each. They were OK if they knew you but if they didn’t know you and you came to the door, they’d come flying out barking!


Norma Smith, the cook for many years, did all her work in the little scullery off the kitchen. We had to go to the back door where there was a room where Nell Forrest used to stay – I don’t quite know why she was there, but she was. Everything happened in the kitchen. We used to write our reports there as there was no duty room.


When I was on evening shift I always got the coke for the stove and the hot water service. There was a warming oven and a cooking oven – Norma loved them. We had to do the babies’ washing. Hang the nappies and clothes out, bring them in, fold them. You worked til 10 p.m. Betty Bedwell, later  Justice, slept there overnight in a single room and got up to answer the door, or the bell, or the phone. Shirley Hobbes had her first baby a bit prem, so Betty got up during the night and did the night feed.


Betty used to worry about what would happen if prisoners escaped from French Island and came over to Cowes, but Dr Hopkins said they wouldn’t come here, they’d go to Melbourne.


I remember one time when Dr Don Hopkins was here, the girl who married Ian Hannon came in with her finger chopped from a window coming down on her. Old Jessie McGregor was in the hospital at the time and it was winter. Betty said we’d have to shift Jessie because we had theatre next day and if we shifted her we could have all three tonsil patients in the one room together. Old Jessie objected and went outside to the hedge yelling: “Help! Help! They’re trying to kill me!” She took a swipe at me with her handbag. Betty was busy with Dr Hopkins and the chopped finger. Anyway, Jessie wouldn’t stay in the room we put her in so we couldn’t move her.


One time Jessie had so many clothes on – including a moth-eaten old fur coat. She’d get cold and just put another layer of clothes on.


After we got the ambulance they brought in one woman absolutely covered in fleas. They were the volunteer drivers and they undressed her. The volunteers were great – they did all sorts of things to help, including picking up fallen patients if we couldn’t lift them. We’d call the volunteers and in they’d come to help.


The new hospital was an absolute luxury. But even it had its drawbacks. It still didn’t have night staff. Betty left to get married when the hospital was being built. The Bush Nursing used to organise the staff. Betty was on relieving staff and that’s how she came to us originally. She’d been to Pakenham where she’d even had to do the cooking! They asked her to stay there but she wouldn’t.


When I trained in theatre the first work we did was cleaning. Whoever was on afternoon shift scrubbed the theatre. We still did that at Warley. The big hospitals have cleaners for that now. When I started you only spoke to a doctor when spoken to. You always called them Dr such and such, never by their first names. I always called Dr Williams “Dr”. It was different with Don Hopkins because we were the same age group. And from then on we always called the doctors by their first names.


We had many visits and delegations to various politicians to try and save Warley Hospital – to Caroline Hogg, Dr Bluett, the member for McMillan which was our electorate at the time, Nicola Roxon. Some of them were supportive of the idea, but said we’d never get it. The Federal members and ministers said it was the state’s responsibility to fund it and vice versa.


I was involved with Warley Hospital from 1954. I was doing nursing there til 1993. Even when I was managing the hospital I was doing theatre work. I loved the theatre work with the surgeons – all the things they could do to make people better. Some of the surgeons we worked with were Misters Hendrickson, Syme, Campbell and Rubenstein. Dr Hinrichson came once a month for 20 years, and also came down for emergencies. I loved all my years of nursing, and wouldn’t have changed my life of nursing for anything.