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Nursing training in New Zealand over the last 125 years
Part 3 Nursing training in the 1940s


Dorothy - 16/06/06

Betty Deyell (née McMillan) has positive memories of her training at Christchurch Public Hospital and still spends time there as a volunteer.

Betty began her training at Christchurch Public Hospital in 1945. When she was eighteen she was interviewed as a prospective trainee and had to answer a list of questions. One she remembered as a little surprising was “Who is your favourite author?” - perhaps asked to find out more about her interests.

She was accepted and moved into the Nurses’ Home. She found that living in with other trainees was a really positive experience. Theirs was a relatively small class and they got to know each other well.

It was particularly advantageous for Betty as in the previous two years she had lost both her parents and was living with her newly married brother.

Three months ‘in pink’
For the first three months the new trainees wore pink uniforms. They lived in the old St Andrew’s Manse which was on the site where the Haematology Department is now, but had their meals in what was then the “New Nurses’ Home”. That building is now called the Hagley Hostel and is used for accommodation for patients’ families, for offices and for clinics.


Betty sitting among the daffodils with the “New Nurses Home” in the background.
Betty sitting among the daffodils with the “New Nurses Home” in the background.
Photo source Betty Deyell
Click here to view a larger version

During the week they had classes in the nursing school which was in the “Old Nurses Home” on the corner of Riccarton Avenue and Oxford Terrace.

On Saturday afternoons they were sent into the wards from 2 to 4 pm and were either told to observe what was being done in areas like the sterilising room, or to serve afternoon tea or do routine tasks like tidying the linen cupboard.

Betty has a vivid memory of the visitors queuing up waiting for the ward doors to be opened and the strict control of visitor numbers – no more than two to a bed.

They took patients to a service in the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel on Sunday mornings and then were free for the rest of the day.

There was stress on the importance of quiet behaviour at all times in the hospital.

At the end of their time in pink, trainees had to sit an exam. If they failed this exam they were usually encouraged to leave nursing.

Training and ranks
Lectures and study led to exams for the trainees to qualify first as a junior pro, then a senior pro, then a junior nurse, then a senior nurse and finally a registered nurse after passing the State finals.

Ranks important in a strict hierarchy
The hierarchy was strictly observed. When on morning duty nurses ate lunch in the Nurses’ Home and filed out in order of seniority. Anyone who was late had to report to the matron or whoever was taking the meal. The same routine applied to the evening meal. Senior staff had to go through doors first, and there was no social conversation in the corridors between nurses of different ranks.

Night duty
On night duty the night sister did the rounds of the wards and in the larger wards there was a senior nurse and a junior nurse on duty. For the smaller wards the two nurses would divide their time among three wards. A midnight meal would be served and eaten in the kitchen and the junior nurse would keep watch over the patients while the senior nurse had her meal.

Every trainee had to do three months night duty as a junior nurse and three months as a senior nurse.

Study and examinations
Nurses were always expected to go to lectures even when they had a day off or were on night duty. They had to sit regular hospital exams during their months of study and there were two State examinations – Junior State and Senior State. Trainees sat Junior State at the end of their first year. Before sitting Senior State they had to pass hospital finals. If they did not pass these they had to wait three months and then sit the exams again.

There was one week off duty before State Finals to allow time for study.

Uniforms as indicators of rank
While “in pink” the uniform consisted of a pink dress with a detachable white starched collar held on with a stud, white starched cuffs, a white cap held on with hair clips, and a white starched apron with a white starched belt. Their hair had to be cut short or wound up into a bun. They wore black stockings and had to buy their own black low-heeled lace up shoes. The uniforms were a reasonable length, so the nurses used to wear the equivalent of knee high stockings rolling down the tops and twisting them round a penny to hold them in place.

Once trainees were out of pink they moved into a grey uniform worn with all the same white starched accompaniments.


Betty in the grey uniform
Betty in the grey uniform
Photo source Betty Deyell

Passing Junior State was acknowledged by a triangle on the sleeve of the uniform. Later successes were shown by stripes.

Once a nurse had passed the Senior State examination she had stripes on her sleeve and wore a mid-blue uniform. Once appointed as a staff nurse she would act as Ward Sister in the absence of the sister.

Sisters wore a high necked apron and had a bow on their caps. Their uniform was blue.

Both patients and visitors found the distinguishing uniforms informative.

This is a marked contrast with what nurses wear now – black trousers, shorts or skirt and a patterned top.

Nurses were allowed to take their starched cuffs off only when working at tasks which would soil them. The dresses had large pockets and the cuffs were kept there when not in use. A trainee could not go to the Ward Sister or the Matron without cuffs.

They had to change to a clean apron before going to dinner. Their laundry was done at the hospital and each week they were given a fresh supply of uniform.

While Betty was at the hospital the nurses were asked to vote on whether they would like a change of uniform. They voted against any change.

Life in the “New Nurses’ Home”
All the nurses lived in the nurses’ home and there was a good family feeling as nurses found friends and shared their experiences in the different wards.

Nurses could apply for a night pass to be out after 10 pm. They had to say where they were going and whether they wanted a pass till 11 pm or midnight. The Home Sister had control over the trainees’ time to return to the Home in the evening. Nurses supported each other and helped their friends climb through windows when they arrived back too late at night.

When it was time for the annual Nurses’ Ball nurses would try to change shifts to be free to attend.

Those who were on morning duty had to hang a round disc on the outside of the bedroom door to ensure they were wakened by the night supervisor at 5 am to go on duty at 6 am.

There were very few male nurses but one was on duty in each men’s ward.

Nursing for Betty after becoming registered
While Betty was a staff nurse she became acting sister in the Men’s Surgical Ward, and promotion to being a ward sister lay ahead, but less than a year after being registered she married John Deyell after he was discharged from J Force. They moved to live in Motueka. Betty worked as the nurse for the local doctor and much later after having a family she worked as night sister in the Hastings Hospital, “The Little Sisters of the Poor”.

Betty is still interested in the hospital and making life better for sick people. She works as a volunteer, sitting with sick patients or arranging in vases the flowers delivered from florists.

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