WA History

Sister May

Typhoid fever is still very prevalent in the colony. Last week 129 cases with 10 deaths were reported, as against 75 cases and eight deaths for the corresponding period of last year.

Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911); 22 April 1896; Page 5; Typhoid Fever

On 17 April 1896, Sister May, a trained nurse, arrived in Fremantle via the steamship Adelaide. She was born in Bridgewater, Victoria, in 1874, and at age 17, she commenced training to become a nurse at Inglewood Hospital in Victoria. After a year, she moved to Melbourne before leaving for Western Australia in 1896.

Sister May

Two days after her arrival, the Reverend Rowe inducted her into the Sisters of the People. The Sisters of the People was an organisation formed in the 1890s in conjunction with the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Their purpose was to provide nursing services to the sick who could not afford medical help. Often, they went to rural areas. After her induction, Sister May went where she was needed the most and proceeded to Cue.

At night, on 30 April 1896, she arrived in Cue after travelling by coach. Her appearance was timely. Typhoid was proving to be a scourge in the town. Percy Darg (age 22) died the day before her arrival, and George Dudgeon (age 51) and five others died the day she arrived. There was no time to settle in. She immediately got to work. Her first case was a young man living in a tent near a mine. She described it in her own words:

Soon after my arrival I was asked to go and see a young man living in a camp close to one of the mines. I found the poor fellow suffering from fever and very bad. The tent he was in was so small that there was hardly room to move around, and when standing up I could easily touch the top with my head. Two old jam cases and a stretcher consisting of four wooden forks stuck into the ground, two rails to which bagging was tacked, and two bush rugs comprised the bed (which closely resembled a manger), and upon this the poor fellow was lying. The sides of the tent were rolled up to allow the air to go through. He had no one to attend him but a kindly mate. I continued to visit him two or three times a day until he was able to get about. He was always very pleased to see me. On one occasion he said to me: ‘Well, Sister? I have often read and heard of such as you, but I have never believed it till now. I cannot express the help and comfort you have been to me.’

As well as typhoid, she also cared for people with illnesses such as pneumonia, dysentery, and influenza. In May 1896, she nursed 16 people with typhoid. She bathed them every two hours, made beef-tea, and walked from camp to camp to attend to them. For ten weeks, she worked from 5:30 am until 12:30 pm and often sat by besides at night. With so many cases to attend to, the Sisters of the People arranged for another Sister to go to Cue to help her.

Cue circa 1895.

Public donations helped her work. As well as money, she received donations of groceries, medicines, and other supplies. Dr Waters often visited patients for free, and Mr Grey of Gascard and Co. lent her a horse to ride if she needed to see someone who lived far away. On top of that, residents purchased a house in Cue, specifically for the Sisters’ use.

Sister May quickly became indispensable. Between May and July 1896, she attended 30 different people with various illnesses. Not only did she nurse them, she often cheered them, relieved them, and helped wherever she could (including washing and dressing children). A reporter for The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette described her as a “…veritable ministering angel, flitting about by night and day to houses and tents where sickness abounds, and bringing comfort to many a sufferer.

In October 1896, officials held the first meeting of the Sisters of the People at the Miners’ Institute. The health of the people of Cue had greatly improved. There were still typhoid cases, but there were not as many as when Sister May first arrived. Her presence and her work helped the town immensely, and she gained everyone’s respect.

The Sisters of the People Committee at Cue circa 1897.

For two years, Sister May lived at Cue and nursed people back to health. Throughout that time, she became a popular member of the community. People regularly invited her to their weddings, and in one instance, she was the Maid of Honour. Cue continued to grow and eventually established its own hospital and trained staff. They no longer required the services of the Sisters of the People.

In August 1898, Sister May prepared to leave Cue for Perth. Before she left, a presentation of an address, and a purse of sovereigns, was given to her by the Reverend Rowe as a token of appreciation from the residents. He acknowledged her work and expressed that Cue found itself in a better place because of her. No one who was sick went without medical attention. Throughout the short time she lived in Cue, she left a lasting impression. There was no doubt that “more than one life in the town had been saved through the care and devotion of Sister May.



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