Matron Martha Bidmead

The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 

Martha Sarah Bidmead, Matron and Head of the South Australian Nursing Contingent, Royal Red Cross recipient.

Martha Sarah Bidmead, was born on 5 December 1862 at St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands, daughter of Thomas Benjamin Bidmead, tobacconist, and his wife Anne. In 1885, after both parents had died, she migrated to South Australia with her four sisters, arriving on 30 April in the John Elder. Having decided on a nursing career, she began training at Adelaide Children's Hospital in July 1886 and later Miss Tibbets’ private hospital and was charge nurse at the Children's Hospital in 1887-89. For the next eight years she engaged in private nursing, then in 1898 was appointed staff nurse at Burra Burra District Hospital.

In 1899, when the South Australian government decided to send a detachment of nurses to the South African War, Sister Bidmead volunteered and was placed as Matron in charge of six nurses who sailed on 21 February 1900. The Nurses Fund Committee paid their fares and guaranteed them a salary of 15 shillings per week the total cost of this contingent came from public subscription. They were not associated with the South Australian Military Contingents. They departed Adelaide 19 Feb 1900 by train for Melbourne and left Melbourne on the SS Australasian 21 February 1900 with the fourth detachment (third reinforcement draft - Captain Nicholson) of NSW Lancers. This accounts for why Murray was unable to give an accurate account of this nursing contingent in his book.

The uniforms selected were, a blue serge gown and cloak lined with red, 3 blue line gowns, 6 red twill aprons for when they can’t be washed, 6 white, bonnets, shady hat and helmet. On their arms they had a white band with the Red Cross, S.A.T.N - South Australian Trained Nurse, and the South Australian coat of arms.

They were attached to the 2nd General Hospital at Winburg near Cape Town until June, and then transferred to the 10th General Hospital at Bloemfontein where the New South Wales Ambulance Corps was based and were for a time under Colonel Williams’ command. The nurses spent most of their time in tented medical wards tending cases of enteric fever and dysentery—diseases which accounted for a high proportion of casualties.

Sister Bidmead wrote regularly to members of the Nurses' Fund Committee describing her experiences; her letters, published in the Adelaide Observer, gave a vivid account of conditions in the improved hospitals and of the struggle against epidemics of contagious diseases. She wrote of receiving a shield from convalescent soldiers on which were displayed a large number of badges, including those of the Black Watch, the Staffordshire Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Royal Horse Artillery and the Seventeenth Lancers, or the 'Death or Glory Boys'.

"The shield was made by a number of soldiers, who were convalescing. They were in rather high spirits, and consequently rather noisy. For the sake of the other patients I hit upon a plan to keep them quiet. I suggested that they should make the shield, and they willingly undertook the task. They spent two days over it, and criticized each other’s work as to the proper arrangement of the badges."

She apparently also possessed a salt cellar made from the casing of a Pom Pom shell as a souvenir.

In March 1901 she became ill and after a fortnight's leave was assigned to light duties at the 5th Stationary Hospital, Bloemfontein. She later took charge of the 10th General Hospital and on 4 September was mentioned in dispatches. Late in 1901 she went to England in charge of the wounded on a hospital ship SS ‘Dilwara’. On 10 December she was awarded the Royal Red Cross, the first South Australian to receive this decoration. She received her medal, from Edward VII with her NSW colleague, Elizabeth Nixon, at St James' Palace, London, 12 March 1902. She also received the Queen's and King's South African Service medals and in June 1902 was presented with the Devoted Service Cross, a decoration awarded by the Nurses' Fund Committee headed by Lady Brown and keenly supported by the wife of the governor, Lady Tennyson. This decoration was described as being in gold and being in the form of a Laurel Wreath overlayed by the crossed flags of the Union Jack and South Australia the whole suspended by two chains from a plain bar with the inscription '1901 Africa' 1902. On the reverse of the decoration was the inscription:

Presented to Nursing Sister XXXX
On behalf of the subscribers to the
South Australia Fund for War Nurses

After the war Sister Bidmead engaged in private nursing until 1912 when she was appointed superintendent of the District Trained Nursing Society of South Australia, which provided home-nursing care for the poor. Much of the society's success was due to her administrative ability; she remained in charge until her retirement in 1926. She had been secretary of the South Australian branch council of the Australian Trained Nurses' Association in 1920-26.

Short in stature, with a bustling nature, Martha Bidmead was a born leader with an arresting personality, a positive character and a deep rich voice. In retirement she found time for her favourite hobbies: playing bridge and tending the garden at Guernsey Cottage, the home she shared with her sisters at Payneham. She died there of a chronic neurological disorder on 23 July 1940 and was cremated after a service at St Aidan's Anglican Church, Payneham.

Recently her medal group of the Royal Red Cross and Queens South African Medal was sold at auction. No KSA was present nor was her Devoted Service Cross included. It would be interesting to know if medal collectors understood the significance of the Devoted Service Cross. The group of two medals was expected to bring $15000 but sold to an unknown buyer for $22000.

Rex Clark, 'Bidmead, Martha Sarah (1862 - 1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, with editing and additions by David Deasey


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