The Australian Boer War Memorial
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Matron Mary Nicolay

Mary Ann Nicolay, (1850–1939) Matron, Nightingale Trainee and Boer War Nurse from Western Australia

Mary Ann Nicolay was born on 2 August 1850, London, fifth of eight children of Rev. Charles Grenfell Nicolay, formerly librarian of King's College Hospital (which had a nursing school), and his wife Mary Ann. Educated at Clifton High School, Bristol, young Mary Ann became a pupil-teacher. She joined the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas's Hospital, London, on 13 March 1876, later recalling long days, cleaning as well as nursing, and writing notes for checking by Miss Nightingale. She was given only moderate assessments by Nightingale. She left in March 1877 for the National Nursing Association.

Her father was himself quite a significant figure in Western Australian history. He was made chaplain to Geraldton in 1870 and later the Western Australian Times newspaper editor. Nicolay was also the founder of Western Australia's first public museum. In 1881 Robinson authorized him to begin a collection of rocks and minerals. Housed in the old guard room at the convict establishment, the collection had several names and as the Geological Museum was transferred in 1889-90 to the old gaol building in Perth as the first part of the Western Australian Museum. In the 1880s he had advised the government on minerals sent in for examination and on the geology of the Guildford-Clackline railway route. Nicolay was keen and sympathetic for Aboriginal welfare. His humanitarian views, ably expressed in the ‘Handbook of Western Australia’ for prospective migrants, were far more liberal than those of most contemporaries.

In 1878 Mary Ann, her mother and siblings joined her father in Western Australia. After a relatively short stay she went back to Britain, where she possibly worked in a hospital at Newport, Monmouth. Later she worked at Dorchester Hospital After the death of her mother 31 January 1887 she returned to Western Australia about 1888 to be near her father at Fremantle.

In 1890 she was appointed matron at Perth Colonial Hospital. She resigned after six months but stayed in office for the rest of the year. Perhaps her reason for the short stay can be summed up as follows. She was staggered at her first glimpse of the hospital

"buildings were good; walls were good; the institution was in a deplorable state. There was accommodation for only 12 women patients."

There was no room for a matron's office as Sister Nicolay discovered. It was some time before she could persuade the authorities to have a spare corner of the building converted for her use. Soon after her arrival she was horrified to discover bugs in her bed, she caught a number and showed them to the Colonial Surgeon. His only comment was “woman you must get used to such things.” Matron however had all the beds burnt as soon as possible.

From 1891 Nicolay undertook private nursing. Her professional care was not cheap: ten guineas a month for midwifery cases, one guinea a day to nurse patients who had survived a major operation. It had been her intention to return to the Dorchester hospital in England but owing to the illness of her father she stayed in Western Australia. After the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic in April 1893 she took charge of the Woodman’s Point quarantine settlement which was located on the site of the infectious diseases hospital. This employment lasted until June. Her father died suddenly on 9 May 1897. By 1897 she was running a private hospital in North Perth. Although the main beneficiary of her father's will, she was never wealthy.

21 March 1900, sponsored by the public, (They had no connection with the army) Sister Nicolay conducted ten nurses to the South African War in the steamer Salamis at Albany, despite criticism for taking scarce, trained personnel from local hospitals. Criticism was also based on many ‘experts’ view that women had no role on the battlefield and had no skills which were appropriate for military nursing. Writers to the papers stated that they had heard positively that British military authorities were turning away a deluge of nurses wanting to nurse in South Africa. The coordination of the contingent was by the Western Australian Nurses Contingent Fund chaired by Lady Forest. Fund-raising activities including a concert in Perth Town Hall were held to pay for the contingent. The nurses themselves assisted in the fund-raising.

Although she seems to have been elected as Matron by her fellow nurses, all of the selected nurses had to take a personal oath of allegiance to Matron Nicolay, indicating that they were not considered to be under military discipline.

They joined some New Zealand nurses and several independents from Queensland under commercial terms rather than under military auspices at Fremantle. Of all the official contingents the Western Australian nurses situation was the most chaotic, either someone had blundered or little consideration was given to how they would get to South Africa as they were sent steerage class with as many as eight per room nor were they able to dine in saloon class as they had been promised. The muddle grew worse in South Africa as no one in Western Australia had thought to tell either the army or British authorities that they were coming or provide letters of introduction. They were dumped on the wharf at Capetown and left to fend for themselves. Fortunately the captain of a liner birthed nearby gave them cabins for the first night then they had to find and pay for their own hotel accommodation. It took about ten days before they were taken on strength by the British army as civilian employed nurses. Initially they were employed as Red Cross nurses in a private facility in Ladysmith, Natal, by September 1900 she apparently was superintendent of nursing of the hospital of Ladysmith. The Western Australian nurses were eventually split up after Ladysmith. Ultimately they came under more direct army control and came onto the British Army payroll. Unsure what to make of them the British Army eventually decided that they were an official contingent like those nurses from Victoria or NSW. Officialdom was much more comfortable with this decision.

Nicolay herself went on to work at No 1 General Hospital Wynberg, No 4 General Hospital Mooi River, No 12 Stationary Hospital Ladysmith and No14 Stationary Hospital Pietermaritzburg before transferring with that hospital to Pretoria. By 1901 she was also assigned to boat service from time to time. This was an essential nursing task looking after invalids and convalescents but also gave medical authorities a chance to spell nurses from the field operations. In February 1901 she was on duty on the SS Ranee at Albany. Nicolay arrived in Albany on 17 April 1901 on board the SS Antillian and returned to South Africa shortly after on the SS Ranee; in June she was back again in Melbourne on the SS Narung. Overall she had little contact with Australian contingents.

Some of the group found their way into South African hospitals, but Nicolay returned to Western Australia in late 1901; next year she was employed again at Perth hospital. For her service in South Africa she was awarded the Queen’s South African Medal

From February 1902 she was inspecting and relieving matron, Perth, a post that also involved travel to government hospitals as far distant as Broome and Albany. In this role she relieved wherever necessary ensuring that trained staff were always available to remote areas. She was a regular Relieving Matron at Kalgoorlie Hospital. She retired in 1917 and was presented with a silver tea service by the children of Kalgoorlie. She returned to Perth Hospital in 1919 during the influenza epidemic. In 1921 she was awarded honorary life membership of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association; she was also a member of the Royal British Nursing Association.

Nicolay was credited with establishing a training regime for probationers and remembered as a disciplinarian. She brought modern nursing ideals to Western Australia and exerted a moral influence over the profession by her often-advertised links with the heroine Nightingale. She was also a strict Anglican churchwoman.

A short, plump and cheerful public figure, Nicolay always wore the blue, outdoor uniform of a Nightingale nurse, including bonnet with ribbons tied under her chin, and a belt that was said to be fastened with a St Thomas's buckle. She travelled twice weekly from her rooms in Subiaco to the Literary Institute to keep up with current publications. In April 1936 she spoke at the opening of the Florence Nightingale Club.

The Coronation medal was added to her QSA in 1937.

She published several accounts embellishing her legend, including reminiscences in the “Magazine” (April 1930).

Miss Nicolay died on 15 October 1939 in (Royal) Perth Hospital and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

By Michal Bosworth, 'Nicolay, Mary Ann (1850–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, with editing and additions by David Deasey


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