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Sister (later Matron [Major]) Elizabeth Orr RRC

ELIZABETH ORR, (1860-1945), hospital and army matron, was born on 8 September 1860 in the Hamilton district, Tasmania, youngest of at least seven children of Irish-born assisted migrants Robert Orr, farmer, and his wife Jane, née McGuffin. Lizzie's parents had probably arrived from Scotland in 1855. After attending school in Hobart, she returned home, spending all available time with her horses and becoming an excellent rider. In 1881 she began nursing training at (Royal) Hobart General Hospital. On qualifying she entered a lifetime in the profession she regarded as a gift and a vocation. Her working life began as a country nurse visiting patients on horseback. In 1891-99 she was a sister at Hobart hospital.

As Tasmania did not send nurses to the South African War, those Tasmanian nurses wishing to serve had to proceed at their own discretion and expense. Reaching South Africa in January 1900, Orr joined PCANSR (Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service Reserve). She served in military hospitals until 1902 including No 13 Stationary Hospital, Pinetown Bridge. Stationary hospitals were hospitals set up in train carriages on sidings to fill the urgent need for facilities as the army moved forwards. On 19 June 1903, from Johannesburg, she joined the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association and later became a life member. Continuing to nurse privately in South Africa, (Matron of Mine Hospital at Krugersdorp from 1908) she was matron of hospitals in the civil service until April 1913, then spent a year in England. Back in Australia she opened a private hospital at Maitland, New South Wales.

On the outbreak of World War I Orr returned to England in August 1914 and, putting her age down thirteen years, joined the Q.A.I.M.N.S.R (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Army Nursing Service Reserve, the successor to PCANSR). on 10 October. She was posted to the 21st British General Hospital in Egypt. For eighteen months she was matron of transports in the Mediterranean, Gallipoli and Salonika areas, including duties in troop-ships and hospital ships. She later served in hospital ships in the Persian Gulf. In April 1916 she attended the first Anzac service in Cairo. Three months later she was present at the funeral of Lord Kitchener whom she knew personally, admired greatly and spoke of often in later life. As a matron with the 2500-bed 60th British General Hospital at De-el-Belah, in tents on sand, Orr served through the Palestine campaign. With deteriorating health due to malaria, she was invalided to England in March 1919, 'still weak' and looking 'older than her reputed age'. In January she had been awarded the Royal Red Cross. She was also twice mentioned in dispatches.

After recuperation Orr returned to duty at Royal Herbert Military Hospital, Woolwich. Her appointment having ended on 9 January 1920, she embarked from Liverpool for Tasmania, where she became matron of Vaucluse Infectious Diseases Hospital. Six feet (183 cm) tall, self possessed and dignified, she was a stern disciplinarian. On retiring in 1931 she took an extended vacation in England before entering Lasswade Rest Home, Hobart.

An inaugural member of the Nurses' Club, Hobart, from 1922, Orr was also president, later patroness, of the Returned Army Sisters' Association. She never missed an Anzac Day service, remarking that she had 'seven medals and a good chest to put them on'. Miss Orr died on 30 April 1945 in Lasswade home and was cremated with Anglican rites following a funeral service at St David's Cathedral, attended by dignitaries and representatives of service and nurse organizations; her ashes were scattered in Bass Strait. Her medals were subsequently displayed in the Graduate Nurses Museum within the Royal Hobart Hospital.

Select Bibliography

V. Veale, Women to Remember (Launc, Tas, 1981); J. Bassett, Guns and Brooches (Melb, 1992), Australasian Nurses’ Journal, 15 Jan 1917, p 10; Mercury (Hobart), 2 May 1945, p 14, 3 May 1945, p 7, 26 July 1997, p 76; Australasian Trained Nurses’ Association, register, 1904, 1914, 1917 (State Library of New South Wales); service file WO 399/6371 (National Archives of the United Kingdom); private information.

Author: Rosemary Macintyre

Print Publication Details: Rosemary Macintyre, 'Orr, Elizabeth (Lizzie) (1860 - 1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, Melbourne University Press, 2005, p. 313.

Amendments and additions David Deasey and Keiron Spires


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