Coast Hospital Matron Jean McMaster
Matron Jean McMaster
Coast Hospital Matron Watson
Matron Alice Watson


Nursing Conditions

In 1903 the medical work was becoming very heavy and it was evident that an increase in the resident medical staff was required. There were 188 cases of typhoid fever, and no less than 656 cases of scarlet fever, of whom twenty-one died. The medical staff consisted of the Superintendent, Dr. A. G. Henry, an Assistant Superintendent and two house surgeons. 

The matron, Miss McMaster, reported that twenty-four of the sixty nurses at the hospital held the Coast Hospital Certificate of Training and that of trainees who had left the hospital, two had become country matrons, three had become head nurses, two had opened private hospitals and two were doing private nursing. Unfortunately, one nurse had died after a four days’ illness with malignant scarlet fever; otherwise the health of the nurses remained good, despite the long hours of work, its arduous nature, and the constant exposure to contagious diseases. 

Nurses of those years commenced duty at 6 a.m. after a quick cup of tea, sponged five patients in the hour between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and went to breakfast at 7 a.m. only if they had completed that task. Work included the scrubbing with bath brick of all bedside lockers, which were wooden, the huge wooden tables in the centre of the ward, and the large wooden dressers in the side-rooms. There were no set working hours; one kept working till the work was done, and it was common for a nurse to work twelve hours a day for weeks on end if the wards were busy. 

Time off was allowed at the rate one day a week, taken as four consecutive days at the end of each month. Ex-trainees of those days recall that after three months’ night duty continuously without time off, they were allowed four days leave. The first two days of this leave were invariably spent in sleeping off their exhaustion. 

On nights off, nurses had to be in their quarters by 10 p.m., except for one late pass per month when they were allowed to stay out until 12 midnight. When returning to the quarters at night down the lone dark avenue of sombre pines from the gate lodge, they found it reassuring to cling rather firmly to the arm of their escort; on such an occasion the pine avenue was regarded as quite an asset. 

Night duty for the probationer nurse was always a trial, as she was obliged to cook the midnight meal for the night sister and senior nurse, and to answer the phone which at the Coast was in the telegraphic room across the darkened road from the Coast wards. The senior nurses and sisters of those times were “real Trojans, very strict disciplinarians who tolerated no familiarity whatever from more junior nurses, but who were kindly people and wonderful teachers. 

But, if the sisters were not awe-inspiring enough to the more junior girls, there was the Coast cook, Jenny H. a woman of generous proportions, lively knowledge of the vernacular, and black and grimy from sweating over the great coke ovens. She was indeed a figure to be reckoned with by any nurse sent to the kitchen for provisions. 

Requisitions to Jenny did not as a rule proceed smoothly on the principle of “ask and ye shall receive”, and many a trainee of those times will recall a skirmish somewhat along these lines: 

Nurse, inoffensively to cook: “Sister would like a dozen eggs for ward 8 please.” 

Jenny, hands on hips, in loud and challenging tones: “Nurse, what do you think I am – a-chook? 

However, at this stage the ordeal is recognized to be nearly over-a few more moments of discreet silence on nurse’s part, some more muttering and rumbling from Jenny, the goods change hands and nurse hurries thankfully on her way, leaving Jenny, one suspects, chuckling quietly to herself. 

In 1908, remuneration for nurses was at the princely rate of 16/8d. per month for the first three months and thereafter 7/6d. per week. When in 1911 the wages of all nurses from probationers to fourth year were raised to £70 per annum, Matron Watson was upset as now “we shall have all sorts of undesirables coming out for training to get the high salary”. Nurses of those times could hardly be accused of entering the profession for pecuniary reasons.


The beginning of this decade saw a great increase in the number of diphtheria admissions to the hospital; at its close came the world-wide incredibly severe influenza pandemic. 

In 1910 there were five hundred cases of diphtheria treated at the hospital. Two years later this figure soared to 1,300. To cope with these large numbers a temporary addition to the diphtheria wards (ward 11) to contain thirty cots was erected. This extension was made with calico walls and a galvanized iron roof, a structure allowing full play to the extremes of temperature, quite apart from the very considerable fire risk it presented. More permanent accommodation was subsequently provided, as the annual admissions of diphtheria during the several following years were not less than 570, and were usually over the thousand mark. 

In 1912 each bed cost the hospital £67 7s. 2-1/2d. to maintain, including the ambulance service (£3 7s. 1d.), an outlay which other hospitals did not have. 

On 5th February 1912 the hospital was illuminated by electric light for the first time. By 1914 the installation of all the electrical fittings was complete and the problem of the provision of adequate lighting was at last solved.

During 1912 sleeping galleries were erected in the Coast area for the nursing of tuberculosis sufferers. These were verandah-like structures about fifteen feet deep with a wall and windows on the western side and open to the east. There were two of these galleries, each containing seven beds. With an open aspect to the sea, there was no lack of ventilation, which varied from the refreshing north-easterly breeze which is one of the hospital’s delightful features on summer afternoons, to the boisterous south-easterly squall which beats in onto the coast during the winter months, carrying sea spray high into the air over the old Coast Hospital site.

So rugged was life in the Coast area on occasions, that during one particularly bad squall, a nurse was blown off a ward verandah by the wind and sprained an ankle. During these squalls, the thunder of the waves on the rocky cliffs a few yards away could not only be heard but also felt beneath the feet as a vibration not unlike that of an express train approaching. As a result of all this salt spray, tin and metal ware corroded rapidly.