Tuesday, 10 May 2016

NQ Midwives - "Invisible Heroines"

I’ve been researching and writing about midwives who lived and worked in North Queensland in the early twentieth century for a number of years now, and I have grown to have so much respect for the service and support these women provided to other women, and for their incredible work ethic.

Nurse Field, of Bowen, who ran a private hospital called Palm Cottage, c. 1916.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.
In the early 1900s, and long before giving birth in a public hospital was commonplace, many women chose to attend a “lying-in” hospital, which was a facility run by a private midwife in her own home, where a pregnant woman could go just before the baby was due to be born and remain there throughout her labour and for several days afterwards.

Many of these private midwives lacked any formal training, either in nursing or midwifery, but they were nonetheless highly respected within their communities, performing as they did, a vital, though mostly unseen, service.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that many of the women who ran these lying-in hospitals worked most of their lives as midwives. Charlotte Sherlaw ran the Garvald House Maternity Home in Cook Street, North Ward and was referred to as “Granny Sherlaw”, because of her age. Another private midwife from Townsville, Mercy Flowers, was referred to as “Granny Flowers” throughout her life, even though she had remarried after her first husband’s death, and had taken a different surname. Janet Veitch, who ran the Southesk Private Hospital in North Street, West End, appears to have been delivering babies right up until just before she died in 1927, at the age of 65. Margaret Walsh, who ran a lying-in hospital at her home in McIlwraith Street, South Townsville, only retired from her profession at the age of 74, due to ill-health.

With a population of roughly 20,000 during the years 1915 – 1918, Townsville’s private midwives were kept very busy as the city’s birth rate was high. From the reports of the city’s medical officer, it is possible to ascertain that 643 babies were born in 1915, 605 in 1916, 700 in 1917, and 780 in 1918. The 1917 birth rate for Townsville was considered to be “exceptionally high”, at 35 per thousand living. In comparison, Queensland’s birth rate for 1917 was 29 per thousand living.

Some women turned to private midwifery as a way to earn a living after being widowed. Rose Blaxland was widowed soon after marrying Colonel George Glendower Blaxland, the first paid Commandant of the Queensland Volunteer (Defence) Force, in 1899. Records show that in 1920, Rose was operating a lying-in hospital in her own home, at 24 Flinders Street, where she had lived since 1900. Rose outlived her husband by 42 years, so she used her skills as a midwife to make ends meet. Most often referred to as Nurse Blaxland, she too was later affectionately dubbed “Granny” Blaxland.

Rose Blaxland is listed on this page from the 'Register of Midwifery Nurses', held by Queensland State Archives.
Photo: Trisha Fielding.
At the same time as they made their homes available to expectant mothers, many private midwives also raised large families of their own, skilfully juggling their commitments as a wife and mother with those of a professional midwife. South Townsville midwife Margaret Walsh raised a large family while at the same time running a private lying-in hospital. Between 1887 and 1911, Margaret and her husband William, had 13 children.

During their lives, the work of private midwives went relatively unnoticed, performed, as it was, with quiet devotion and discretion. In death, these women were remembered for their enormous contribution to so many families, in newspaper obituaries that illustrate the high regard in which they were held. Rose Blaxland’s obituary from the Townsville Daily Bulletin, Friday 16 October, 1942, read:

An old resident, Nurse Rose Isabell Blaxland, late of 24 Flinders Street West End, passed away at an early hour on Wednesday morning last, at the age of 88 years. She was born in Kent, England, in 1854, and landed in Brisbane in 1874, where she joined the nursing staff of one of the hospitals, and later became associated with the Lady Bowen Hospital and obtained her certificate for midwifery. Deceased came to Townsville in 1884 and for the last 40 years resided at 24 Flinders Street West. During her life she practised her profession and often had to travel by stage coach to carry out her duties.  Many a mother can testify to her unswerving devotion to duty and her gentle and tender kindness.

Nurse Amy Field – Bowen

Born in Bowen in 1870, Amy Louisa Wilcox Field (see photo at top of post) trained as a nurse in Warwick for three years under Matron McNamara and later nursed in private homes in Bowen and Proserpine. She would travel to Proserpine by coach, and on at least one occasion travelled there on a railway pumper. In 1908 she opened a private hospital in Bowen called Palm Cottage, where, by the time of her retirement in 1936, more than 2,000 children had been born.

Known as “the Lady with the lamp”, this excerpt from Nurse Field’s obituary in the Mackay Daily Mercury, speaks of the high esteem in which she was held, especially by the women she nursed.

“Every one of those mothers must retain in her heart a deep feeling of gratitude - gratitude for the efficiency that gave them safety in their time of travail; for the devoted attention that she gave to them all, regardless of position; and for that loving-kindness that only the born nurse can give to her patients. Many of those mothers could tell of acts of unselfishness performed by Nurse Field on their behalf; of sleepless nights spent at their bedsides, asking no thanks; of the occasion when she rode, on a railway hand-driven tricycle to Proserpine to give her professional services. What a pity that those many kind works cannot be put into the printed word and set forth for the whole world to see, as an outstanding example of her profession. She was a true friend to all of her patients.”

Nurse Field died in August 1939, at the age of 68, only three years after retiring from nursing.

Nurse Janet Herries – Cairns

Herries Hospital, Cairns, taken sometime before 1927.
Photo: Cairns Historical Society.
Herries Private Hospital was a hospital in Cairns that catered for both maternity and general patients.  Situated at 180 McLeod Street, it was run by Nurse Janet Abercrombie Herries between 1921 and 1939. Janet was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1869, to parents Elizabeth Drew Lang and John Mackie. In August 1900, at the age of 30, she emigrated to Australia, arriving in Rockhampton aboard the Duke of Norfolk.  In 1902 she married Robert Herries (a fellow Scotsman) in Mossman and by about 1915 they were living in Bunda Street, in Cairns, with their four sons.

As well as being an experienced and caring nurse and midwife, Janet also appears to have been a tenacious businesswoman who was not afraid to stand up for herself. In 1920, Janet sued a Mt Garnet man named Frederick Christensen for his daughter’s debt. Clara Christensen had a baby at Nurse Herries' hospital but the bill went unpaid. Christensen claimed that Clara was not his daughter, and that he had only “lived with her mother”. 

Interestingly, despite her long career as a nurse, Janet’s profession was only ever listed on electoral rolls as “home duties”, though she worked right up until the age of 70.

If you have a private midwife/nurse in your family tree, and you have photos or information that you'd like to share, I'd really like to hear from you. Please email me at the address listed under Contacts at the top right of the blog. 


· Various memoranda from City Inspector to Town Clerk, Townsville Museum
· Burial Registers: West End Cemetery and Belgian Gardens Cemetery
· Townsville Daily Bulletin
· Cairns Post
· Daily Mercury (Mackay)
· Ancestry.com
· Queensland Heritage Register
· Reports of City Medical Officer, various years, held by Townsville Museum
· Year Book Australia, 1921 (covers birth stats between 1901-1920)


  1. Hi there, have you found out anything about the local Indigenous midwives? Sarah (Midwifery adviser, Australian College of Midiwves)

    1. Hi Sarah, unfortunately no. They are even more invisible than the women I've just written about. We know that they were indispensable in remote communities but there doesn't appear to be any records, other than anecdotal, and even that is very scarce, which is a real shame.

  2. Do you have any info re Mrs Manley of Dundee Street in Charters Towers?Did the midwives Keep records of their clients?

    1. Hi, no I don't have any info on a Mrs Manley of Dundee Street. I haven't done much research into midwives in Charters Towers as yet.
      It's not likely that there would be any records remaining that were kept by private midwives, unless living relatives have kept some documents, possibly pertaining to payment.