Stories that connect us...

Bush Nurse

The following article was written by Mrs ‘Tommie’ Clark who, when she was a bush nursing sister at Koonya hospital in the 1930s, was Sister Clarice Mildred Mainwaring.  She was born on the North West Coast at the beginning of the 1900s. The hospital car mentioned was a Willies Whippet and none of the roads at that time were sealed and a lot of the side roads did not even have gravel on them.  While on the Peninsula, Sister Mainwaring met and married Claude Clark and later went to live at Rowella on the Tamar River, where they successfully grew apples and farmed. This article was first published in the 'Tasman Peninsula Chronicle', No.3 - 1987

In 1930 I was informed by Miss Stammers, supervisory nurse-in-charge of the Tasmanian division that there was a vacancy at Tasman's peninsula and that I was to travel by train from the North West Coast to Hobart and take up duties the next day.  She will transfer me to Koonya by car where the hospital and my quarters would be.  I was thankful she was taking me as I had visions of boarding the Cartela and arriving at my destination feeling ill, as I was prone to seasickness. 

When we set off for Koonya I had no idea of the arrangement but to my surprise and relief a young girl welcomed us and had a meal prepared and accommodation for all.  Fortunately there were no patients.

 It was a dreary cold wet day.  I took one long look at the scene below me at Eaglehawk Neck, and then some of the memories of the convict days that Mother had told me about, and some I had read in ‘For The Term Of His Natural Life’ flooded back and my heart sunk.  I was thinking of returning rather than staying but the next day was sunny and the scenery beautiful so I thought of it no more after passing over the Neck and on to Taranna. 

Miss Stammers took me to the Koonya Hall and there I met the hospital committee - Mr Belmont Clark, (Chairman) and Mr Eric Hayward (Council Clerk) - who, with the other councillors, were responsible for me.  I was scared stiff. They welcomed me and asked me a few questions concerning my abilities, mainly as to whether I could drive a car.  Fortunately I could, and they appeared to be relieved. I learned afterwards that the other applicants had to be taught. The hospital consisted of four beds, with no patients but quite a few bookings, comfortable living quarters, as yet no electricity (two kerosene lamps and candles), a huge stove for hot water and washing etc, very little in my medicine cabinet, Aspros, antiseptics and a few dressings, and a huge report book which I had to fill in each day even if there was nothing to report. The first day I reported to work I had to attend a maternity case. I had no idea where Radnor was as I had not been around the peninsula, so Lucy, my help, came with me but I was too late.  Babe and mother were sitting up in bed looking fine. I then staggered through the bush to pick up the car, eventually arriving home to hear the phone ring. It was another case at the same place.  It was breaking daylight, which made everything more approachable. Again, another lovely babe and mother were smiling at me. 

I met and attended some fine people and all offered to help in anyway they could.  Besides midwifery, I had quite a few nasty accident cases. One gentleman, riding his horse, called in about 9:30 PM with a nasty leg gash that was bleeding. I had to do something so I asked him to try and get off the horse, which he did with great difficulty, with a sock full of blood and this gash I was to attend to. I found some dressings and ordered him to the nearest doctor who lived at Sorell. I was able to arrest the bleeding but it needed stitches, and as you can imagine, it had drastic results and I was responsible. Anyhow, he eventually had his leg and foot amputated. He said it was all corns and bunions and so was no use to him.

A desperate call from Taranna where a sawmill operator took me to is a dear little boy sitting on a stool, white as a sheet and his foot bleeding, and a wee toe missing. I immediately put his foot up and dressed it and said, “You have lost your little toe”, and he said, “Oh no, sister here it is in my pocket!” I took him into Sorell for treatment and went on to the Hobart hospital.  Of course there was no bridge so we had to wait (it seemed hours) before the Lurgurina came in to sight to transport us. The pale little boy recovered and was all smiles, showing off his little toe - or where it was.  Another hurried case soon after, a woman gave birth to twins, one perfectly normal and lovely, the other one refusing to enter this world.  For hours I tried to get a doctor but he had other patients and said that I could manage. Well, I didn't. The mother and I were exhausted and the little one died I felt very sad and upset for days. By this time I was beginning to learn and had not thought of such a trying and sad time for the mother and myself. The husbands were rarely at home. They worked in the bush and in the mills. I delivered 18 healthy and well infants, but two deaths, in the two years I was nursing on the peninsula. 

Another lady informed me and complained of an insect in her ear. She was mainly terrified and had little pain. So I set fourth, after oil applications, and drove over gravelled, bumpy roads as fast as I could – no bitumen roads then - and she suddenly stopped complaining and said that it had gone. Whether it flew out the window I never enquired. We arrived back at Koonya at 3 AM and I dropped into bed exhausted. Then I began to wish I had never stayed with such big responsibilities but so many of the people there were so helpful and I knew I could ask at any time for their company. 

I seldom met cars at night and often had car trouble. The dear old mechanic who kept my car in order was always been called to fix it but he never complained. He had a wonderful sense of humour and told me weird episodes about the previous Bush Nurses who had to be taught to drive the car.  One in particular was difficult, so he said. She would forget to steer, but attended to other gadgets, and one day she ran off the road into the churchyard and knocked down the “Love and Memories” and kept going, eventually finding the road. The mechanic had dental trouble so I ordered him off to a dentist and he was fitted for lower and upper dentures, but he told me they were useless so he kept them in his toolbox.  He and his wife lived at Taranna and the many times I called in they made me stay for a meal and were so hospitable. I soon discovered that most of the folk on Tasman Peninsula were kind and helpful and I could always get company and help if I did any transporting. I made some very good friends and was taken to dances and concerts all over the peninsula. Then of course, I began to feel like I was one of them and became very much appreciated by most. I had the responsibility of the schools, mainly ‘teeth and tonsils’.  I had to be on-call every day and left messages at the post office as to where I would be and when I would return. My mother came and stayed with me for three weeks. She loved the Cartela trip and appreciated my taking her with me to give a hand. The ruins and history of the peninsula fascinated us both. 

After 12 months I had to leave and flew to Launceston by plane from Brighton. The only other person was Captain Taylor who piloted the little plane. He was well known and very capable. I was pleased to see terra firma and we landed first before the Miss Hobart took off on her flight to Melbourne. Her next trip was tragic as she was lost the very next day and was never heard of again.  I suffered earache and felt queer for days after my flight.  By this time a bus service had started so I returned to my destination by bus.  Mail buses were running every day to the Peninsula three weeks later. 

On my return, everywhere looked beautiful and the lass who helped me and I had made a garden. There were masses of blooms where we had sprinkled seeds after cultivation by one of my neighbours.  I saw the biggest snake imaginable crossing the road in front of the hospital. To my horror, one day we had one sliding around on the linoleum at the hospital. There was quite a performance with all the female inmates.  Eventually it decided to disappear itself and we never knew where. I left the peninsula feeling a little bit sad and the folk from all around arranged a farewell at the Koonya Hall. It was a sad experience to say goodbye. I was presented with a lovely tea-set, there are still parts of it in my cupboard now - and greatly admired. It is always a delight to go back to my old haunts and see everything that has changed after 50 years, and for the better too, a good road, electricity, a doctor and a hospital.