Marjorie Wilkinson (1920 – ) Methodist bush nurse
Marjorie Wilkinson and Ethel Helyar of the Methodist Nursing Service, may have kept a very strict moral lifestyle, but they were very broadminded in their acceptance of people, all people, and their motto was to deliver health service and pastoral service to all people irrespective of colour, class and creed. What made them so well-loved, was the acceptance they had of other people.
Rachael Kohn, The Ark ABC Radio National intervewing Stephanie Somerville – regarding Marjorie Wilkinson and Ethel Helyar of the Methodist Nursing Service
They were called The Golden Girls, back in the 40s and 50s, but these two weren’t high-stepping it in a Hollywood musical. They were delivering babies and dispensing sacraments in the Australian bush.
Hello, I’m Rachael Kohn and on The Ark, this week, on ABC Radio National, the story of Marjorie Wilkinson and Ethel Helyar, who brought the Methodist Nursing Service to the outback. Feisty, determined, and with impressive religious credentials, they filled a need when part of the country’s medical staff was transferred to the war front. Stephanie Somerville has written their story in an engaging book called Angels of Augustus.
Stephanie Somerville: The government had bush nurses out there, but in Marj and Ethel’s time, there was only the one station at Lightning Ridge, that was Sister O’Brien, a very lively Irish nurse. Flying Doctors at that stage hadn’t actually reached, although they were growing and expanding, they hadn’t reached that area.
Rachael Kohn: Well the women who started the Methodist Nurses Service, were not just ordinary nurses. You’ve mentioned Marj and Ethel. They were deaconesses. Tell me just what is a deaconess?
Stephanie Somerville: A deaconess is basically a female superintendent of a church, and in my understanding the deaconess order was commenced in wartime England to account for the shortage of manpower and the shortage of male clergymen. So these ladies carried all the responsibilities of a male minister, in terms of carrying out the sacraments, and overseeing the church.
Rachael Kohn: Gosh, that was progressive. Well the two heroines of your story are Marjorie Wilkinson and Ethel Helyar. When they underwent training at Leigh College in Enfield in Sydney, to be deaconesses, the men around them were not very happy about it.
Stephanie Somerville: No, there was some jealousy. Now these women were pioneers, let’s not forget. It’s interesting to note that the founder of Methodism, the Reverend John Wesley, did sanction women in ministerial roles across the board. But by the 1940s since the 1700s, tradition and other factors had stifled those liberal views. But this order was brought in to get the nurses out there in the outback and do pastoral work as well as nursing work, so in that sense, they were pioneers.
They were very special. They were called the Golden Girls of the era. Now for some of the men, it was a bit of a problem. The late Reverend Kemp said in his interview that there was an aura about the girls and the boys, they had very strict rules, the student ministers, and they had to let out their energy some way. There were a lot of pranks in Leigh College, but more than that, it was quite sad that the jealousy caused them to strip the women of their college badges that were bestowed on them at their induction service. There were other carryings on too, but in all, jealousy doesn’t operate forever, and there is a happy ending to the stripping of the badges. And I’ll let the readers enjoy the book to find out what that was.
Rachael Kohn: Indeed. Well how much do you think the personal life of Marjorie and Ethel was curtailed by their vocation? How many restrictions were placed on them?
Stephanie Somerville: Well as a lot of people may not realise, the Methodists were very strict moralists, in an outward sense, and they disapproved of dancing, and swearing, smoking, all the fun things that young people tend to like. So as for Ethel Helyar, she was a religious woman anyway, with very staunch views of the very Methodist family she came from, so I don’t think her life was – this was her life. She saw her life’s meaning in the service of helping others. But she was also torn between the needs of her own family and the needs of the outback community she loved so much. Well as for Marje Wilkinson that’s more complex for Marj. She was a good-looker.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, indeed! And the photos show it too.
Stephanie Somerville: Yes. Well she was a favourite with the men, but she had quite a few romances as we read about from her diaries, and gone into the book, but in those days the ministry and marriage were not allowed to mix, so an engagement to be married meant that all her nursing pioneering and deaconess work would be lost. She’d have to resign.
Rachael Kohn: Yes. Well she didn’t want to do that because she was ambitious to some extent. When they finally did commence the Methodist Nurses Service in the Far West in 1946, they named their ambulance ‘Augustus’. Why?
Stephanie Somerville: Well in our archival collection we have a lovely book titled ‘What next, Augustus George?’ and this was the prize for Marj when she, at Leigh College, topped the State of New South Wales for her lay preacher examination. Yes, she beat all the boys as Ethel noted in their journal. Marj and Ethel, they felt the story of humble old Augustus where he didn’t take accolades for himself, but acknowledged the help of others, that was the focus of their mission, as they are about to embark on this great journey.
Rachael Kohn: A very good symbol. Well the mission field that they served was about 35,000 square miles. What towns and regions did it take in?
Stephanie Somerville: Unimaginable distances. They ranged through bush and desert and villages and towns from Hungerford in Western Queensland, across to Dirranbandi, in Queensland and down through Lightning Ridge, across to Walgett, Nyngan, across to Cobar, moving west, even to Wilcannia and all the bits in between.
Rachael Kohn: Gosh. Well the adventures of these two women were like a much more responsible version of Thelma and Louise I thought. They were literally expected to do everything. What sort of things did they encounter?
Stephanie Somerville: Thelma and Louise conjures up country cops, but Marj and Ethel didn’t have the cops after them, nor did they have to drive off a cliff to find a resolution. Well, and what the male doctors and ministers, they didn’t have domestic help or wives to help them, so they had to take church services, deliver babies, chop wood, clean floors and risk their lives on long desert patrols.
Rachael Kohn: Well they also encountered a lot of Aboriginal communities, small communities, people out on their own, that would have meant that they were encountering different world views, different beliefs. Beliefs that were not Christian. What does Marjorie note in her journal about those encounters?
Stephanie Somerville: It’s hard not to remember all her humorous incidences, because she just had a great sense of humour. They may have kept a very strict moral lifestyle, but they were very broadminded in their acceptance of people, all people, and their motto was to deliver health service and pastoral service to all people irrespective of colour, class and creed. So that’s what made them so well-loved, was the acceptance they had of other people.
Rachael Kohn: So did you get a sense from her journals that she had a good relationship with the Aboriginal people she met?
Stephanie Somerville: Oh, absolutely. Their journals clearly expressed the devotion to the care of all people, and they were based in a town that wasn’t very bigoted either.
Rachael Kohn: Was that Brewarrina?
Stephanie Somerville: Brewarrina. And when I was there, I had been a few times but in ’94 I interviewed Pastor Bertie Gordon, since passed away, but he told me that tribal languages had long been lost, so everyone spoke English, so that was no problem. He was great in describing the cultural and the religious differences and also the similarities. Religiously, he thought the Aboriginal race had more of the Mosaic law than any other race he believed; it was just rather sweet.
Rachael Kohn: So you’re referring there to Moses’ law?
Stephanie Somerville: Yes, yes, and it is quoted – I had to put his quote into the book, it was such a precious quote. Marj and Ethel were met with great communities, Aboriginal communities, that lived on the river banks, and Marj and Ethel noted that they lived very poorly. Their shanties were very dirty, had very different ideas in terms of health and the witch doctor, and there were always lots of dogs. Marj seems to note how many dogs there were.
Rachael Kohn: Well Brewarrina I should just say is about 800 miles or kilometres north-west of Sydney, is it?
Stephanie Somerville: Yes, that would be right. It’s close to the Queensland border, perhaps about 90 miles south in the old terms.
Rachael Kohn: Well Stephanie, how did these two women live? In what kind of accommodation? Because it seems a lot of the time they were camping out by the fire and sleeping under the stars. Is that actually how they lived a lot of the time?
Stephanie Somerville: Oh yes. They went on long patrols and they didn’t like to be a nuisance to the graziers, and you’ll remember at that time it was the end of a six year drought. A lot of people were walking off their land, it was very difficult. So they slept in the back of the ambulance, and when they weren’t parked near someone’s verandah, they were out under the stars, camping, collecting firewood, lighting their great gas primus.
It was seven months before the church actually finished the erection of their cottage, so in the meantime, they did have to stay at the Far West guesthouse with the male boarders, and that was fun. And when they actually were about to have their cottage opened, and dignitaries were coming up from Sydney and across the State, they had a bit of time to go on a short patrol, so they went along a patrol to the Barwon River, and on the way back they thought they’ve got a few days to spare, they’ll go out to the lake and look at this picturesque, beautiful, inland lake and all the wild birds out there. Well, they got bogged, and not only did they get bogged, they were attacked by pigs, attracted by the smell of the cooking bacon, ironically. So it was a little miracle in a way, in that they did pray for rescue and looked like they were going to miss the opening of their cottage, but a grazier, who should have been pig-hunting the day before, had been delayed and he happened to come by in that huge remote area, and he was able to bring other men to help rescue them.
Rachael Kohn: Well this was the late ’40s and the war had finished, the men were coming back. What sort of support did these two women get from their Methodist brethren?
Stephanie Somerville: Well they got a lot of publicity in a circular called ‘The Methodist’. Also in the Women’s Home Mission League circulars. The little girls of the Methodist church, the Methodist Girl Comrades pledged to fuel the ambulance, so Augustus was actually, the fuel and maintenance was kept by the Methodist Girl Comrades, Ladies’ Church Aids of various churches sent toys and food, and there were the financial donations and many letters asking for them to be upheld in prayer. Marj was a great prayer, and she still is, her faith is so gentle, and her voice goes very soft when she prays.
Rachael Kohn: Well did the Methodist Nursing Service actually have an impact on the future provision of care in hospitals and in the community?
Stephanie Somerville: Oh, absolutely. It was really a forerunner of today’s District Nursing. We must bear in mind that Victoria and South Australia did commence District Nursing Services in the late 1800s, established by the Presbyterian and Methodist churches respectively. But across the Eastern Seaboard there was nothing. Brewarrina became the model for the Menindee Nursing Service, established in 1949. It was also the model for the Newtown Nursing Service, which Marj commenced when she left Brewarrina in 1949. The Newtown Nursing Service then became the model for the Blue Nurses of Queensland, commenced in 1953. Ashfield Nursing Service came out of the Newtown model. Newcastle Nursing Service came out of the Queensland model, and Toronto came out of Newtown model. Port Kembla came out of the Queensland model. And Hungerford, of course, was based on the Brewarrina model. And some of these are still in existence today.
Rachael Kohn: A major impact, obviously.
Stephanie Somerville: Yes. Also government-based services sprang out of some of these models. Take Ashfield, for instance. The Ashfield Nursing Service in Sydney, when the church and the local council couldn’t agree on administrative matters, the Council took control of the nursing service, which the church had begun. As for other nursing services, and aged care facilities, most of them we know are run by Uniting Care, which is what Marj and Ethel began back in 1945.
Rachael Kohn: Gosh. Well Stephanie, I notice that Marjorie’s married name is the same as yours, Somerville. Is that why you decided to tell her story? Are you related?
Stephanie Somerville: Yes, I am related. I grew up with stories of Marj’s exploits especially that funny first one in the book where she missed the train and had to be hoisted up at the signal arm. Marj is my mother. I knew, growing up, that she and Ethel had done something very important. No-one had written their story, and so with some years of experience in writing, I took it upon myself to try it. I knew it was going to be difficult but the diaries were wonderful, but it was the people of Brewarrina that really kept me going through this long project. And by the time I’d spent ten days interviewing the local people and I heard of how they loved the Methodist sisters so much, I knew I could never let this project go, I had to see it through to the end.
Rachael Kohn: Well you’ve written a truly engaging story that I’m sure your mother is very proud of. Tell me about what she’s doing today and also Ethel?
Stephanie Somerville: Well sadly, Ethel’s passed away, 18 months ago. But she always had hoped that her story would be written. Marj, Marjorie, is just really loving the book; she’s so pleased that the story has finally found recognition. It was a story that had to be told. They wrote a very important chapter of our social history.
Rachael Kohn: And how old is she?
Stephanie Somerville: She’s 86 now.
Rachael Kohn: Wonderful.
Stephanie Somerville: Yes. And she lives on the Tuggerah Lakes and she’s been to a few book launches, and she’s still such a dear. She’s very gentle and very precious.
Rachael Kohn: And I think the feeling must be mutual. That’s Stephanie Somerville, who’s written Angels of Augustus about her mother and friend who began the Methodist Nursing Service.
The Book Angels of Augustus http://nla.gov.au/anbd.bib-an000040713887
Refer also Ethel Helyar : https://atributetoaustralianchristians.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/ethel-helyar/
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