Leipst, Elsie Isabella Interview

Today is 5th October 2015. I’m interviewing Elsie Leipst about her long career nursing and her life in Havelock North, plus her times overseas when she was away working. Elsie would you like to start off by telling us where your parents came from?

My mother was English and she came out in 1913 by ship. And she got her inheritance when her father died and she was coming out to see two brothers, but she was going back.  But she had middle ear imbalance and was seasick the whole way so she decided no way was she facing that.  So while she was over here she had two brothers in Hawke’s Bay she happened to meet my father and they set up a friendship. I can’t tell you just when it was but they became engaged.

And then unfortunately, he developed emphysema and went into Napier Hospital for two and a half years so the engagement was broken off. And he had come out … at least his parents had come out from Denmark – I think it was 1894 … bit vague. I haven’t got the history of when they came out, and I think my father was just born when they arrived here. And eventually they were married in 1920 – oh, 1919 – and I was born in 1920. When the war finished they got married.

So where did they come to, and where did they land in New Zealand? In Napier, or Hawke’s Bay or Auckland?

D’you know I don’t know. There wasn’t – in my day there wasn’t that much talked about like it is now, and they didn’t discuss all the details of their home life and that.

That’s normal, and of course us children were to be seen and not heard as well.

You’re telling me. [Chuckle] We missed out a lot on that and then unfortunately, there were – my father was the oldest and he had two sisters, and the mother died. And the father married again and the stepmother was … had this term ‘a tyrant’ and they had a home here in Hastings on the corner of Hastings Street and Southampton Street … no, Eastbourne Street. And on a Sunday when she cooked a roast dinner – oh, they had a second family – I think there was four children – they had the roast dinner at the table and my father and his two sisters were put out into the servants’ quarters. And that happened until … the three of them, when they arrived at the age of thirteen, they were giving five shillings and sent packing to do whatever they could. But my father never ever discussed that, and it wasn’t until after he died that I heard that from a friend.

And my father did jobbing, gardening … you know, going round, and eventually he saved enough money or whatever you had to do in those days, and became an engineer. And the two sisters did housework until they became of age and they could go nursing.

And when they married – my mother was very English – and on the corner of Allerton Street and Heretaunga Street, down by Stortford Lodge, there was a lovely little cottage and it had a fret verandah like they had in England, and that’s what she wanted. So my father rented that and we were there until I was four and then he got a place down Jellicoe Street.

So when you started school which school did you go to?

When I was four I got nephritis – it’s a kidney complaint – and I was in Napier Hospital for four and half months. And for three months all I had was blood transfusions and intravenous, because there was nothing in those days.

Yes, sure.

And Bill Graveheart and Frank Horton – my parents paid a day’s wages for them to come in and give me blood every week and so I was in for four and a half months, and then I wasn’t able to go to school when I was five. I was getting on to six when I was able to go, and it was Parkvale. Parkvale was a lovely little school – it’s bigger now – and we used to walk from Jellicoe Street down and through Beatson Park. There was a little stream and we used to get tadpoles and frogs …


… and take them to school. Well there was nothing – when you went down Grove Road you turned into Jellicoe Street. There were three paddocks and our house, and our house looked down Beattie Street. And on the left hand side there was nothing and on the right hand side there was a paddock, then there was Talbot, Heffernans, a paddock, Allens, then Youngs and that was my uncle and aunt, and then another paddock and Rushtons.

‘Cause there was a dairy farm in that area too wasn’t there?

That’s right yes, and then down our street you came, there was paddocks and then our house and then a paddock and then Paul and then Collinge Road, and then there was a paddock and then … oh, names elude me, I should know who – then another paddock and then Lovell-Smith the photographer.

Yeah, well you mention the name Paul. Did you know Charles Paul?

Oh yes.

Well Charles … I interviewed him, I was talking to him yesterday.

Well I presume that’s one of the boys, is it?

Yes, yes. He’s 97.

Were they the ones that lived on the corner of Havelock Road and ..?

No, they had the dairy farm by Beatson Park … they had the dairy farm.

Oh that was the …

Yes, the father. Charles became a trade commissioner for New Zealand but he’s a real gentleman. Never married but has the most interesting stories.

You don’t have to get married to … [Laughter]

I know you don’t, no, no – I know but it’s interesting …

Mr Paul was wonderful to me, and whenever he saw me he would always put his hand on his shoulder and say “this is my blood daughter.” And it was most embarrassing – one Sunday at St Columba, he was a bit lame and getting on and – I forget the name of the man that brought him in. And I hadn’t seen him for years, and they went and sat down the front and as we got up to leave I waited until he and his companion came down and I said “Mr Paul, you wouldn’t remember me but I’m Elsie Leipst”, because I thought he looked as though he wouldn’t … “Remember you!” And he turned to everybody in the Church and he said “Elsie is my blood daughter.” I felt most embarrassed. [Laughter]

Oh, gosh. What a lovely story, yes.

And there were two girls weren’t there?

I don’t know, I only interviewed …

D’you know you get a bit – you can’t remember – but I think there were … I may be wrong about that.

That’s interesting – because they had horses and they moved the horses down to where the Mayfair Hotel was built …

Oh, yes, yes.

… that’s where the stables were – that’s open paddocks. And then one of the local hairdressers in Hastings, Brian McFlynn, whose father was a farrier …

I think I know the name.

… used to go over to the Paul’s stables. But everyone knew everyone and that was amazing.

It was. And walking to school was just lovely. Greville – when you went into the entrance off Grove Road into Beatson Park, the Grevilles lived in the house next to it.

Oh, yes, yes, yes.

And Dorothy Greville and – I forget the other one’s name – and they used to meet up with us and we’d catch tadpoles and that, it was just lovely. And went to Parkvale School and 1931 was the earthquake and it was out first day back at school. I was eleven. And they built a swimming pool and we had out togs and we were having morning break and we were all standing there and this earthquake came. Shocking. And when we walked to school in the morning here was this lovely park with the stream and that, and we had to wait until a relative or somebody came to take us home. And I think it was Mrs Heffernan who came, and she brought – you know ones that lived around. And when we came through Beatson Park there was cracks and crevices and …

Hard to believe it.

It was. And for a young person it was just … And we never got into our house, and the first home I ever saw … you know our parents did things and that …


We lived in a bell tent that Council supplied and it was on the front lawn, and we were in that from the 3rd of February to the 5th of June because … I’ll never forget going into the kitchen and seeing bricks, ’cause we had a wood and coal range – all the bricks were in the centre. Mum had a great big pot – earthenware pot – stood down there with pickled onions in – that was muddled up with the brick, and a big cupboard on one side opposite the wood and coal range, had all the preserves that she’d done, they were all … Yes, I’ve never seen such a mess.

So then when you left primary school … left Parkvale … you went onto High School?

Yes, I got my matric [matriculation], and then … oh … what happened? Well – Parkvale got a bit big and we were only in Standard 5 but the top – I don’t know whether it was ten or what – was put up to Standard 6 because of spacing, and we sat matric. And my mother happened to say, you know, when they visited the Headmaster at any time, she said something about “I’m not happy about this”. And you know, she felt that it was pushing. And Mr Lord was the Headmaster then, he said “you don’t need to worry Mrs Leipst, even if they get their matric and they pass, they will still be going up to Standard 6 next year.” However, we got our matric and the powers that be said no – once you’ve got that you’ve got to go to High School. Things were rigid in those days.

Yes, yes, yes. So that was Hastings High School?

Yes, down Karamu Road.


It was a combined in those days and we had to walk, and the second year … might have been about the end of the first year … my parents were able to afford a second hand bike for me, so we could bike. And it was just wonderful to have, and I was only thinking the other day after you’d been here, about school days. Oh, no, I shouldn’t be saying all this.

That’s all right, no, no, no – that’s what we’re here for.

Elsie Hunt was a special friend of mine and we were always – ‘what are those two Elsies up to’? We were great friends and we did everything together, and they lived in Jervois Street and I think there were four or five in the family. And they didn’t have a bike, so … And I was a naughty little girl at school, I used to do a lot of talking, and I used to have to do a detention and write out a hundred times ‘I must not talk in class’. So when I got a bicycle and I had a detention, I’d tell Elsie she could ride it down to the Public Library in Heretaunga Street, and she would do my maths homework, put it in a little saddle bag I had, leave it at the library and she’d go home and I’d walk down to the library, bike home in my …

With your homework and everything done.

… for the simple reason that I loathed and detested maths … couldn’t see any sense in algebra, geometry and trigonometry and I thought it’s not going to make any … use for my nursing. And my maths teacher, Mrs Lynyard said “Elsie your books are a joy to look at, but there’s nothing right in them.” Hated maths.

Yes. So how many years did you spend at the High School then?


Four years. And then were you able to go nursing?

No. What happened was – we didn’t have money you see, and I’d always said I was going to go nursing. When I got … was allowed up to the last month at Napier, I used to run round with the nurses and – you know, I’d see a lot of things, and I was going to be a nurse and nurse children.

Then as I grew up, we used to have a lot of missionaries come home to Hastings, and they’d talk about leprosy work you see, so those were the two things I wanted. And when I stated that I wanted to go nursing, Dad said “you’re not”, for the simple reason that he had the two sisters – they trained as general nurses and May, his older sister, went to the First World War and she came home and she eventually became Matron of Gisborne Hospital. And Emma his second sister trained, and she never left Dannevirke Hospital. She trained and she eventually became the matron there. And he knew the life that they’d had, and he wasn’t going to have his daughter going nursing. And so when I left I knew that I had to get a bit of money, so I went to work for a Mrs Helming who had a cake shop in – next door to Lovell-Smith, photographers. [Speaking together]

In Heretaunga Street.

And when I was eighteen – might have been just over eighteen – I applied to Wanganui and I got the form, filled them in and in those days you had to have two references and your father’s and mother’s permission. I handed them to Dad and he said “no, I’m sorry, you’re not going nursing, I’m not filling them in.” I was devastated. I waited a few months and then I applied to Palmerston and I got all the forms and I filled them in again, I thought he’d have forgotten you see, but he never did. And he said “I’m not signing them, you’re not going nursing”. Then 19.., might have been just at the end, I’m not sure what month it was – my mother went into Memorial Hospital and I must have been visiting when Miss Russell the Matron went through. And when she was doing her rounds the next day, she said to my mother “was that your daughter there visiting you yesterday?” And Mother said “yes.” She said “very nice lass, what does she do?” And Mum said “well, it’s a very, very sore point. She wants to go nursing and nothing will shake her, but her father is adamant that she’s not.” And Miss Russell said “Ah”, she said “do you know that we’re starting a training school here in 1939?” That what’s makes me think it was about the end of ’38. And she said “the first class is going to be taken in 1939 and I will send the application form and I’m sure that when she’s filled them in and presents them to her father and he sees that she won’t be leaving Hastings, he’ll fill them in.” And Mum said “I just don’t know.” She said “well you work on him.”

And I think that’s what happened. She talked it over and said about it – so eventually the forms came and I filled them in and I got the – one of the … people that you had to get …


… referee – was your Minister from Church, and he gave me a very good reference. I presented them all to Dad and he looked at them, and he signed them. So I got into the first class in 1939 that trained in the Fallen Soldiers Memorial Hospital. It was a very, very, very special thing. Several of us – I can’t tell you just how many – started. Oh – I’ll go back a wee bit.

1928 they had the first Anzac Service in the grounds of the Memorial Hospital and my grandfather Alfred Leipst took me as an eight year old to go there. And I’ll never forget it. And I looked up and the service had finished ,and we walked to the main entrance and here it had ‘Fallen Soldiers Memorial Hospital’ and about four or five steps up, and we got up to it and looked in and I said “Grandad, one day I’m coming here to be a nurse.” Eleven years later that’s what happened.  [Speaking together]

Yes, you were there.

But we were – and I shouldn’t say we were unfortunate – being the first class they had nothing to go by. And I walked in that door at seven o’clock at night. The Matron’s office was on the right, knocked on the door and said “reporting for duty tomorrow Miss Russell,” and she said “welcome to Memorial Hospital nurse”, rang the bell, got another nurse to bring me my uniform, and it was Grace Burgess who was in the class. She took me to my room, showed me how to pull my cap, how to get dressed and said to me “you’ll be called in the morning, you get up and you get dressed and I will pick you up at seven o’clock and we will go to breakfast.” I don’t know, might have been half past seven. Anyway, don’t matter. And then we did that, and then I was taken … the hospital was small, it had one big long corridor. There was women’s medical and surgical there, then there was men’s surgical, then there was the main entrance that went down, then there was children’s and men’s medical there, and then the maternity. And I was taken down to the men’s medical and children’s ward. And this nurse said – now she took me into the ward, there was about eight patients. Is this the sort of thing you want? Or am I going into too much detail?

No, this is perfect.

And she said “now …” She took me into the ward and there was six men in bed. My – I had never even seen my father in bed – things were totally … and I stood there and looked at them. And she said “Sister George will be here in a few minutes”. And one man said “Nurse, would you go and get me a bottle please?” And I looked at him and I thought ‘oh, I’m in a hospital now.’ So I went to one of the domestics and I said “could you get me a hot water bottle please?” And she looked at me, and I suppose she’d been there for a while and decided she’d play on me. So she got me a hot water bottle and I took it to this man. Well of course, you can imagine the mirth that went on. I had no idea and I felt simply shocking. And then another man, as soon as the laughter sort of went off – “Nurse, would you go and get me a banjo please?” And I thought, I’ve done one thing wrong and I’m not doing that, so I ignored it and I just stood there. Then Sister George, a big bosomed sister came in. Belt down here and she struts, and her veils flowing, and she said “Nurse, I’m Sister George, I’m your tutor. Now we will bedbath Mr So and So, so come with me”. And she takes me out and she gets a big bowl and fills it with water, and we get towels and soap and what have you, and we get it all on the bench, and the curtains are pulled round …  [Speaking together]

Yes, yes.

… but, you know on racks. And the man said … oh, and Sister said to him “we’re just going to bath you Mr So and So” and he said “well I’ve asked nurse for a bedpan and I’m just desperate. ” And Sister turned to me and she said “Did Mr So and So asked you for a bedpan, because when they ask you for something you go and get it immediately and you don’t keep them waiting.” I said “no, he asked me for a banjo”. She never saw the funny side of it. You can imagine the new … thing…

So that was my introduction. And we never had a prelim [preliminary] school. And we were straight in the wards, and then we went straight to lectures. We had lectures in off duty time. We had Dr Cashmore and Dr Whyte giving us our medical and surgical lectures and we had Sister George doing our ward work and theory. Then – now what next shall I go to – I’m getting a bit …

This is how you started, with your tutors and who was doing … in the ward when you started.

We got £30 a year, and as I say there were quite a few of us started, but then they found after a few months that if they didn’t train they could become nurse aids and they didn’t have to go to lectures and they’d get … I think it was another £3 I think they got – we got £33, they got £36 – so they decided they wouldn’t train. So it ended up that the training was for three and a half years and six of us went through that training. We used to go to lectures, we had to sit there and take notes, and … the doctors and that, then we had to go and write them into a special book, and tutors saw … found them every week, went through them. And you know, it was a rigid thing and we had tests, frequent tests and exams and that.

Then it got to our third year and we … I think three months before we sat our final State examination, we had a hospital examination. I’ll show the photos after that are on the wall over there. Six of us sat our hospital final. It was made – the hospital was made what they called an AB Training School – this little hospital, and the first time it was ever a training school. And six of us sat and five of us passed. Then … I think it was about three months later, the State finals for New Zealand and five of us sat and you’ll never believe it – the five of us got Honours. Dr Cashmore was just over the moon. I can see him coming in. We were all assembled in the Matron’s office and he came in and he laughed and he said “ oh, they’re giving them out two a penny.” [Chuckle] He had a wonderful sense of humour. But it was a tremendous honour for that hospital. [Speaking together]

Oh, that was wonderful.

To think that those doctors had never …

Done training before, no.

Yes. And of course they were proud of our … and I must admit, and I do feel a bit proud. I’ve got the data of all the hospital early forming, and all the problems that went on with committees and things, and then in it, it has got how the first class were trained. I mean – that to me was just special.

Oh, I can imagine, yes.

And I stayed on and was made a staff nurse and then I decided that I had four things in life that I wanted – one was that I would be trained as a nurse and look after children, two was that I would do leprosy work, three that I’d travel and met my father’s and my mother’s folk and that, and fourth that I got to 100 and got the Queens …

Right – good one. On the way. [Chuckle]

And so I decided then I was going to do my midwifery and I got that. And then I decided that I would go and be a ward sister somewhere. And I went to Stratford, and I was Men’s Ward Sister, and it was just wonderful – you know, to have your own ward to run and that. I was very, very happy in there. Then one day – and of course we had manpower – you couldn’t leave, and the Matron came to me one day and she said “Sister this will be your last week in Men’s Ward”. And I said “what have I done?” She said “you’re going to be put in charge of the maternity annexe. Sister So and So has left and there’s nobody applied.” And I hadn’t even envisaged this. So I went over there. I enjoyed it … and I must deviate one thing here. Am I giving you too much?

No, no, this is perfect. This is a story about your life and that’s what we want.

When I had Men’s Ward, the men had come in, young men, to have ingrown toenails done, appendix taken out, tonsils taken out, so that when they went to war they wouldn’t suffer from these sorts of things. And I had these young men and I thought ‘they are off to war’, and what they were going to face. So at night, nine o’clock, I’d go over and some nights I’d cook them whitebait fritters and … you know, do these sort of things. And one night, Jack Stephenson, he was a young married man, said to me “Sister could you spare a minute to talk to me when you’ve finish?” And I said “yes.” He said “I’m in the Air Force, I’ll be going away shortly, would you do something for me?” I said “what can I do for you?” He said “it’s my …” Oh, I’ll deviate a wee bit – we never allowed children to visit – and they had a little daughter, Desiree, of about four and she’d come with her mother. And Muriel would go and visit Chad and I’d sit her in my office with a paper and some pencils and that, and an orange and an apple and a piece of chocolate and … ’cause I loved kids … and she’d sit there. And I was saying to them one time, the daughter – you know I just hated Muriel coming and picking her up after the hour.

Yes, yes, yes.

But, Jack said to me when I was sitting there, “would you do something when I go away? My wife is a shy person and she doesn’t mix properly, but she’s taken to you. Would you go and visit her?” And I said “yes, there’s nothing I’d like more, because I’ve never been to Stratford, I’ve got nobody here – I’d love it.” And that was like a second home to me.

So the year went by, and then I arrived over there at the maternity annex, and Jack never went away because when he was called up they found that he had middle ear imbalance and was going to be no use to the Air Force. So because he was working in the Post Office he was exempt. And of course he got Muriel pregnant, and I was over in the maternity annex and I was able to be there and brought into the world Wayne, and I was allowed to name him. That’s seventy two years ago. He’s my godson, they come over – I’ll show you a photo of them – they’re not my biological family but they’re just like it.

And I stayed there in the maternity annex until … I was on call, we couldn’t get another midwife and I’d do an eight hour duty, be up for a few hours, be called on again, and I got fed up with it. So I put my resignation in, and blow me down – the Matron came and said “Manpower have rung up and said that you’ve – you know – put your resignation in. Well” she said “I’m telling you this Sister, I’m not accepting it.” And – see we couldn’t do anything in those days. [Speaking together]

Oh, that’s right.

So the thing was that I had a Sister from New Plymouth and a Sister from Dunedin who had come up to do their Part 1 at Stratford, and we were sitting having our lunch one day and they happened to both mention that they’d been accepted to do their Plunket training. They’d got a year’s leave from their hospital, and so they decided to do their Part 1 Maternity and their Plunket. And I said “ah, can you get … “Oh, well that’s the only way we can get out from an appointment, is if we do another training.” And I thought ‘aah’.

There was a way for you to escape.

So I wrote down to Dunedin and I said that I was willing to – as I told you, once you get started …

I know, that’s why I’m here.

[Chuckle] And I thought ‘that’s my opportunity.’ So I wrote down to Dunedin. Dunedin was the only place that you could do it you see. So I wrote down to Dunedin and said ‘I would like to do my Plunket training,’ and I told them the certificates I had, ‘and I would be willing to do some Plunket relieving for you when I finish my training.’ I thought ‘I’ll put everything.’ Well, you’ll never believe it, almost by the next post I get the form to say ‘you’ve been accepted’, and this was with these two that I was training. I never said a word to them, I kept it for a while and then I put a note into the Manpower again … ‘I wish to be released from my position’. And the Matron came – and she did a round every day – her hands on her hip, and she said “I’ve never known anybody so persistent Sister, I can tell you this, it doesn’t matter how many times you put your notice in, I’m not releasing you.” Because you see she was home and dry. So I put my hands on my hips, and I said “well I’m sorry Miss Horton, but you’ve got to let me go because I’m going to do another training.” She said “you haven’t got one to do.” You see she’d only thought about general and midwifery. I said “I’m going down to do my Plunket.” So she had no option. She was livid. But then these two girls that I had … I said to them one day, it was so funny, and we all started the same time. It was only a four month training. You got no pay for that training down in Dunedin.

Yes, yes. [Speaking together]

So I did that. What did I do when I came back?

Well the two girls that you had – you were training, they were training too …

They were there too. Oh yes, we had a lot of fun.

Yes, yes. Yes, I can imagine.

‘Cause we were all on the same …

But you were the qualified one – you had lots of qualifications didn’t you?

Well they did then almost, you see.

Oh, they did too? Oh, I see … oh, okay.

Yes, ’cause they had their General and they had their Part 1. And it was a wonderful four months, but we didn’t get any days off until the last two weeks when we did District. And I knew why we had to have a fur coat, because it was so darn cold. And there was a big donkey we had to stoke up, and so many did it each day and if you forgot it, lectures were at night and there was no hot water for a shower. And you had a baby that you were responsible for twenty four hours a day more or less. It was a hard training but it was wonderful.

Then, oh yes, then I came back and I … I went and did Plunket relieving at Gisborne, then I came back and did Plunket in Hastings. And that was lovely because I had my nurse friends as mothers, my school friends as mothers and it was lovely. And I had the weekends free, and I loved that. And I did that for a few – two years I think it was.

Then I decided it was time – I’d got enough experience, I’d go overseas. And of course in those days it was by ship, a month on the boat through the Panama Canal. And of course I’d inherited middle ear imbalance and I was sea sick, and oh … But eventually we got to England and another person that I’d made friends with – we went to the YWCA and got board there, and I met all my mother’s people and then I applied to – you know, I registered, and then I applied to work there.

Then I thought ‘well I’d better go over to Denmark before I get settled into England.’ So I went to Denmark, had a wonderful time, north to south and what have you, and in those days you were allowed £20 for Scandinavian countries – didn’t matter how much money you had – and £25 for Europe. Well my people didn’t take any money from us, so we more or less had that £20. And Brenda was twenty five, I was just over thirty, and as I said to my forty second cousin – we were going over to Funen for a few days, and then we were going to get the boat and go back to England. And I said to my cousin “don’t come” – she had two little girls – “we can find our way to the ferry and go to Funen.” Just as we get down there Brenda said “I’ve got to go to the toilet”, so she went off, and when she came out she said “there’s our whistle”. And of course here was the boat whistling. “That’s our boat – come on quickly”, so I got up and we get on board and we sit there for nearly an hour, and I said “I thought we were going to get to Funen in half an hour.” And the man sitting next to us said “you don’t think you’re going to Funen do you?” I said “yes, that’s where we’re going”. He said “well this is going to Kiel in Germany.” [Chuckle] We got on – you see …

Wrong boat whistle.

Yeah. So we landed in Kiel about nine o’clock at night, and Kiel was one of the badly bombed places. And you got out at the ferry, and here were just girders and what have you. So I said to this man “you know, we’re stumped, where can we stay the night?” “Don’t go to that one that side – go that side.” Well we went that side, they couldn’t take us – we banged on the door and they opened it and there’s bars there. We were shattered, you know – 1949, ’48 – and eventually we had to stay that side. And after we’d paid our money for the night, got undressed, went to get in bed and found the bed linen was filthy. Must have had about twenty people asleep in it one after the other. So we never got into bed that night. And we decided, or at least she did, that we had all this money why spend it on a train journey from Kiel through to Paris, why don’t we hitch hike. I’d never hitch hiked in my life. So when it got light – oh, in Denmark they always said if you get into trouble always ask a student. So we get out and we’re wandering around and a student came along and … “do you speak English?” He said “a little.” I said “does anybody ever hitch hike in Germany?” He said “only way we can travel since the War.” And he was wonderful. He took us to a depot where a lot of trucks did long distance, and that’s how we travelled right through.


Really wonderful. Sometimes we couldn’t always get to where we wanted and we had to put our hands up and that.

And so … when you finished your trip …

Then I got back to England and I went back to the Royal College to tell them I wanted to start, and she said “where would you like to go? What would you like to do?” And I said “well I don’t really know, I like children’s work and I …” She said “I tell you what I’ll do – I’ll do a programme for you and then you can see what’s offering in London and then you can decide.” So what she did – I went with Haringey District Nurses, the Queen’s District Nurses, the Midwifery, Hammersmith Training Hospital, Guys – all those big hospitals. I think I did that for about a fortnight, so I knew all that was going. When I went back to report to her, she said “now, what one are you going to go to?” I said “you know what I’d like to do? I’d like to get an English diploma.” I’d found out that different hospitals did six months training and I thought it would be wonderful to have an English … So what I did – the only two that I could get into at that time was TB and Gynaecology, so I did gynaecology and got the diploma in that.

Then I thought ‘right,’ … you see, you had your weekends free and I did night duty, and so I had the day after I’d finished and then the day before I went on duty again, so sometimes you see, I’d have four free days. I could travel around. [Speaking together]

Travel, yes.

I decided that … right, I’d go and work in Scotland. I thought ‘well I’ve seen that, and I can sort of work now’, and I reported to the Royal College and she said to me “now where would you like to work in Scotland?” Honestly, Mr Cooper – to this day I don’t know why I said it – I said ‘well I might as well start at the top and work down, so I’ll start at the Shetland Islands.” She said “well do you know where the Shetland Islands are?” I said “yes, just above Scotland.” I honestly … and she said “do you really want to go there?” So I said “yes, and then I’ll work down.” And you know where the Shetlands are? Have you ever been?

No, but I know where they are. They’re almost in the North Sea.

You’re telling me … I think they’re nearer to Iceland and … She was that thrilled, so she rang through to Glasgow and she said to Dr McKenzie – ’cause it was under the jurisdiction of Scotland – she said “you’ll never guess … I’ve got a Sister here from New Zealand who’s willing to work in the Shetland Islands.” He said “when can she start?” [Chuckle] And she said to me “when can you start?” “Oh”, I said “I’m free now.”

When I get to the Shetlands – oh it was so funny. When I went down to the airport to get the thing, the chappie said “Lassie, you can’t fly, we haven’t been flying for ten days because of the winds and that.” Things were different you know. He said “you’ll have to go by ferry.” So I get on the ferry and we’re there for hours … I’m that seasick, you have no idea. And of course we get to Orkney and we had time there, and I had an address of a cousin of a very great friend of mine in Hastings. So I went down to the wharf and I said “can you tell me where this address is, and the Garricks?” He said “just down the road.” So I went to see them, and he said to me “you’re not looking very well.” I said “no, I’ve been that seasick.” And he said “you want some brandy … I’ll go and get you some brandy.” So he brought me a little bottle of brandy. Then I get to… eventually I get to Shetland and I’m still seasick. Oh I know, yes, it was the night, and I’d been down vomiting and I looked in the mirror and I was nearly as green as the coat that I was wearing. When I got back one of the officers grabbed me by the coat collar and he said “Lassie, I’ve got a place for you to lie down.” And the little area between going up and going down, there were two palliasses put on the ground, and there was another lady lying there, and he laid me down, had a pillow and a blanket, and we were both vomiting. And there was a little boy or little girl and he said “Mummy are you going to die?” And she said “yes”. And I said “well that’s two of us, so am I.” Oh – before that, I was coming back – I said I’d have first class cabin, and he said “well Lassie, you can’t have a first class cabin, because there’s so many people that haven’t got berths – you’ll have to have a second class because you’ll be sitting up all night.” And one time coming back from being sick, oh – he didn’t tell me that there wasn’t a lounge in the second class, it was the bar. And you can imagine being seasick and having all the smell of the beer. So I come back through the outside and I try the bar door and it’s locked. And I bang on it and one of the officials came along and said “you can’t go in, they’re checking up on the tickets, there’s so many hundreds that haven’t got tickets, so you’ll have to stay here until they’ve all been checked.” He said “then we’ll let you in.” And I prayed as I’ve never prayed before that that ship would sink. And I stood there hanging over the – and I think if I’d had enough energy I’d have gone …

Gone over.

[Chuckle] Anyway, he put the two of us down there and through the night this lady said “if only I had done what my mother said, have something from the sea before you go, you’ll never be seasick.” And she said “I should have had some kippered herrings.” And I thought ‘of all the things’, you know … I thought ‘kippered herring’.

When I get to Lurwick, one of the men meet me and he said … they know everybody … “are you the new sister for Brevick?” And I said “yes”, so he said “come with me.” Nine o’clock at night and I get there, and the Matron welcomes me and she said “put your things down – we’ve made supper for you and we’ve got a true Shetland meal for you, and we’re welcoming you with open arms.” Kippered herring. I said “I couldn’t look at a kippered herring – I want to get to bed.” [Chuckle] Oh look, I’m sorry I’m gassing on.

No, no. No – that’s perfect. That’s a lovely … so you didn’t have the kippered herrings?

You’re telling me … I’ve never – I couldn’t look at them after that either. They used to have them. You know these are the things that you remember.

I know, I know … and they are the fabric of life aren’t they?

Oh yes. I had a wonderful time there. I had Men’s Ward. Have you ever been to Shetland? No.

No, no.

The hospitals are all separate. There was a General Hospital, a Medical Hospital, a Surgical Hospital, a TB, an Isolation, and all separate but under the same Hospital Board.

Yes, sure.

And I was in the Medical and I had the Men’s Ward, and the first morning one of the men said – we were chatting – he said “you don’t speak the King’s English?” And I thought ‘what do you speak?’ They were so foreign to me – the different things. And the first morning the Matron said to me “we’re going to give you an experience. We’ve got a patient coming in from the North and the ambulance is going to get her, so it’d be interesting for you to go and get her.” So I said that’d be fine. And off we get … and the Shetlands didn’t have trees – I don’t know whether they have trees now – and we went for miles, and miles, and miles and miles – not a tree. But the ambulance driver said to me where was I from? He said “do you know, there’s another New Zealander working in the Shetland – in Lerwick – a Sister Borrie at the Maternity.” And so eventually …

Got to meet her, yes.

… I looked her up, and we had a wonderful time.

But we eventually get to the North of the Island and everything is bare. There were little wee – what they call button bends – around the place, and eventually we stop and there’s the little house. And people were coming from hither and yon. And we knock at the door and a voice says “come in.” Have you been to Scotland?

No, no.

The little button bends would be … where that door is and about like this. And we walked in and the ambulance driver said “hello – where are you?“ And she said “here”. And I looked around and I thought ‘there’s nobody here,’ but there was a cupboard like that, and he opened it and that’s where she was sleeping – what they call cupboard beds. And there was a sort of mattress … lined with paper and then a mattress on it, and this little shrivelled up lady, it was pitiful. Anyway I wasn’t allowed to do anything and two of the ladies that had sort of come from around said “go and wait outside.” They got her dressed, and do you know – she thought she was going to come to the old people’s home. And the Scottish had a tradition that you didn’t let on if you were going to that – you went with dignity. And she was dressed in a coat and a hat and what have you, and a little velvet bag which she wouldn’t let me take or anything, And we get her back to the hospital. By that time the staff took over, and at the table that night I said to Matron about it, and she asked me – you know – how I … what I thought of things. I said “I tried to get her comfortable but she wouldn’t let me do anything for her. I tried to take a little bag she had, and I was going to tuck her up.” And she said “no way would she let that out of her hand.” And the Matron said to me – “you know what it had?” And I said “no.” I’m not sure whether it was four or six sovereigns, that was to bury her. You see, the poverty they had and they didn’t want people to know. And in the little bag she had a beautiful new white handkerchief to put over her face, and a white shroud.

I had a wonderful time in Shetland, I saw everything I wanted, did everything I wanted. And then – the Matron had been in the War and she had been to Israel. We used to do a lot of things together. I’ll tell you something – why she was so keen to have me. And I found out that the other Sister was doing things with the drugs.

The thing was that you had to make your own amusement and that, and it got that she and I became very friendly. We would go to different things, and Betty and I would do things. Oh – Betty and I went to badminton together, we loved that. And then I saw where they were having Scottish country dancing learners’ classes. So I said Betty “I’ve never done that – what say we join that?” So one night we went and it was to be in the Hall – the main hall of Lerwick – and we get there and there’s … oh, bagpipes and what have you. So I knocked on the door and the chappie came and I said “oh I’m sorry”. There were two rows and they were dancing and that – I said “we’ve come to the wrong place, we’re looking for the beginners class.” He said “this is it, come on in, shut the door, Jock you take this one, you take this one, off with your coat.” I’d never done that sort of thing, you have no idea. They were doing the Dashing White Sergeant. We were absolutely … Betty said when we’d finished and went that night, she said “we’re not going back.” I said “never let it be said we didn’t try everything – we’re going to keep on.” That’s the DVA thing.

And then we got talking one night, the Matron and I, and she said “for a New Zealander you’ve done a tremendous lot of travelling.” And I said – you know seen a lot of countries – and I said “yeah, but” I said “you’ve been to one place that I’d give anything to go to”, and she said “where’s that?” And I said “Israel”, and she said “well why don’t you go and work there?” I said “don’t be funny, I couldn’t do that.” She said “why can’t you? Don’t you know anybody that you could get in touch with that works over there?” And I said “well the only person I know” – oh – we used to have at the hospital what they call the Nurses Christian Fellowship and there was a card which had all the nurses or doctors that worked overseas. And Dr Bill Bathgate from the Taieri in Dunedin was the Medical Superintendent of the Nazareth Hospital.

And you knew him?

No, I didn’t know him.

Oh, you didn’t know … no.

But I worked for his cousin here who I couldn’t abide, David Bathgate …

Yes, sure, yes.

… he was shocking. Do you remember him?

No, but I’ve heard of him.  

Anyway she said “why don’t you go? Write to him and tell him you’d like to go and work there.” I said “I couldn’t do that, it’s a Mission Hospital”. And she said “it doesn’t make any difference.” So I thought about it for two or three nights and I thought ‘well nothing ventured, nothing …’ So I wrote to him and I told him that I was from New Zealand and I’d been working in London and the Shetlands and – you know, I just thought I’d love to come out to Israel. I’d be willing to work for nothing if they would think about it. Well, I get a letter back … ‘any New Zealanders welcome, come as soon as you can.’

So I left the Shetlands. Then I came down back to London and … the thing was that – this would be 1950 – things were difficult. Israel had only been made a state in 1947. Well, I wasn’t going to be sent out by somebody … oh, I had no end of trouble to try and get there. So I needed money because I wasn’t going to be getting any, so I went to work at Paddington LCC Hospital and that was an experience. They were working under a pittance, you have no idea. I’m sorry, I’m waffling.

No, that’s history. It really is – a lot of people wouldn’t even know that, and I think that’s really quite important.

You know when you’re on your own you think about all these. So I did that while I was waiting to get all my visas, and eventually I got them and I flew out to Israel. I went with KLM and when we got to Athens we had a break, and I think we had a couple of hours at the change. Oh yes, I was sitting on the plane and there was a lady near me and when we got out at Greece we had this couple of hours and we were to have a meal in the airport, and we were sitting at the table and I was sitting next to this lady that looked very nice, you know just nice, and she introduced herself. “I’m Mrs Torrence”, and I said who I was and she said “where are you going to in Israel?” And I said “Nazareth”. “Oh” she said “you’re going to the Nazareth Hospital”. And I said “yes.” “Ah well,” she said “you’d better stick with me because my husband will be picking us up.” I said “oh no,” I said “Dr Bathgate said that he was coming to meet …” “Oh,” she said “you needn’t worry,” she said “my husband will have called in to see him and he will have arranged… when we get to Haifa” … oh, what was the airport? Anyway she met the husband and they greet one another, and he said “look, I can’t stop for a minute – I’ve got to look for a New Zealand Sister who’s coming out to work with Bill.” She said “you needn’t worry, this is her here.” [Chuckle] So everybody worked in with one another.

So I went to Nazareth first and I had a wonderful time there, totally different. It was originally Haifa, Tiberias, Nazareth and Jerusalem – all had Mission Hospitals, but when the partition took place in ’47 they were all taken over with exception of Nazareth. And Nazareth was an Arab town, there wasn’t one Jew when I was there. I went back twenty five years later and of course it was half and half then. So Nazareth Hospital was still run on the same situation as it always did.

Well I was greeted – they came out the whole staff and lined up on … it was a two storeyed … and the outside had the stairs like this, and all the staff, and they sang welcome when we came, and I just had a wonderful time there. It was totally different to even Shetland. When I first got there they took me round … here’s an Arab standing outside with a little fire, cooking his soup … went in and there’s people all around in the morning, you know, with their children. Totally, totally different. And after I’d been there for a week or so the Matron who was Nancy Lockhead, she was from Scotland, she said – Jean Gregan … she’s going down to St Margaret’s School to furnish her Arabic so you’re going to take over the children’s ward. Well, it was wonderful, but you had to get used to so much. The mothers would bring in all the food for the kids and they are supposed to be on diets, and they’d sleep underneath … but everything was just, just lovely. And things were going wonderful, and I was having … Dr Bathgate I think was one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever worked with. He had been to the First World War and he was able to associate with anybody. And he was loved at the hospital – the patients adored him, the staff worshipped him too. And to go out with him into the market you needed masses of time because everybody knew him, everybody would want to show him their babies and it was just, just wonderful.

Then one day Dr Torrence came through from Tiberias and we were having lunch. Dr Bathgate had been working all morning and we were sitting down having lunch and Dr Bathgate said “how are things in Tiberias?” He said “shocking. Sister So and So’s on furlough in Scotland, and somebody else is off sick and that”. So he turned to me and said “Elsie how would you like to go and do a bit of midwifery work?” And I said “what?” He said “would you like to go to Tiberias?” I said “yes.” You see, being a freelancer I was … “So go and pack your bags“.

I went to Tiberias and the hospital was right on the lake shore, it was just wonderful. And I’d worked quite a bit in the delivery and … oh, what was her name … she was pregnant, one of the Jewish girls that I worked with. And we would come off duty at ten o’clock at night and decide to go and have a little wander around the lake and it was just the most super place. And to give you one example – one night we came off at ten o’clock and we went down and there were … “hello Sister, how are you?” And we said “fine.” One of our men that their wives had had a baby a wee while ago, he said “finished duty?” and we said “yes”. He said “we are just going to go out with the net, come on out with us.” So we got on board the boat, we get into the middle of the lake, we put the nets out, we catch a lovely lot of fish, we go over to Ein Gev (the other side). Three o’clock in the morning we get some stones and some what have you and we cooked the fish we caught. Oh … you know, just lovely. And I enjoyed that there. See every time anybody would have a day off, I’d go out with them and I’d see …

Then we had a conference, and they all kept in touch with one another. And we had this conference and Sister Lily who was a Danish Sister from the Leprosarium in Jerusalem, was sitting next to me and we got chatting. And when she said where she came from I said “oh – I’d give anything to work there.” She said “would you?” She said “Sister Lydia has gone home”, and she said “I’m all on my own – I’d love to have somebody.” So, I went out to the Leprosarium and that was wonderful.

Was that in Israel?

Oh yes, this was in Jerusalem. Nazareth was there, Tiberias was there, Jerusalem was there. So I said to Dr Torrence “was it all right if I left them?” and he said “oh yes”, you know. And so I went down there, and that was totally different, because it was run by the State of Israel. But the thing was that the lepers, although they were handicapped and what have you, they did as much as they could for themselves and we did their dressings and looked after them. But they were allowed to wander around and that. And one of them, Moshe – Lily said to me one day “now you can give the medications out, but give Moshe enough for two days – on Thursday give him enough for Thursday and Friday.” And I said “all right.” And then – you see their Shabbat starts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. And so I did that and the next day Lily and I were out and we’d been in visiting somebody in Jerusalem, and we were coming back through the City and of course there’s always beggars and what have you. And here’s a leper with just some … and the tin down here, and begging. He’s got a … what you call it on, and Lily pats him on the thing, and says “shalom shalom, Shabbat shalom Moshe”, and I look and here’s our leper – that’s the reason I’d given him his medication. Oh, you know they weren’t stupid. And he’d come home with a lovely big … and they could get all sorts of things. And of course we were in the new city, and then … we had to get passes … and Easter over in the new city and we had to get passes and that, and that was just wonderful.

Then I was still there – ’cause the King had died a year or so before this – and then … I was getting letters from two friends that I had trained over in Stratford … had come over to England to see me and to work over there – two days before I went to Israel, so I hadn’t seen them. I mean I just said ‘hello’. And they kept writing to me and telling me that they had got tickets for £10 to go to the Coronation, from New Zealand House. And of course, as you see, I’m a Royalist.

Yes, I know – a Royalist.

I thought ‘oh, I’m over on this side of the world – oh.’ I didn’t want to leave the lepers, I loved that, but there was this. So I wrote to them and said “look, would you get me a ticket from New Zealand House for £10 the same as you’ve got, and I’ll pay you when I come back.” No problems ,you know they said yes they’d do it. Well then I get a letter back saying they’d been to get the ticket but New Zealand House said I was out of the country and they wouldn’t give me one, but if I applied through my bank – maybe. So I wrote to the bank over in London and said how I was coming back two days before and could I have … And I got a ticket – they said yes, they would have it for me. Now as true as I sit here, and I’m positive a lot of people that wouldn’t believe me – I get back two days before, and the day before I go to the Bank, I get my ticket … I’m staying with my aunt in Wimbledon. Now, in between Pat and Elsie writing and telling me, and eventually my getting word that I have a ticket – it would be at least six weeks’ difference. The day before I’d got my ticket, and I said to Auntie Grace “now if you don’t mind I’d like to make some sandwiches, because I’ll be leaving early in the morning. I’ve got to be in my seat in East Carriage Drive in Hyde Park by eight o’clock in the morning because the gates will close, so I’ll be leaving before you get up.” So I make my sandwiches, but I didn’t sleep because there was that much excitement going on. So – five o’clock I’m dressed, and I take myself off to London. And I eventually get into Hyde Park and on the left hand side there’s nothing, but on the right hand side there’s all stands, the whole way. And as you went in the gate there was a Canadian stand, then an Australian stand, then a New Zealand stand – five hundred people on each stand. And I’m looking at my number – it had a number on it you see – and I was in this stand, and then I look at the number of my seat and I walk up – and of course I’m early, there’s hardly anybody there. And on the second row from the top of five hundred people, and the excitement … and then it comes ten minutes to eight there are four hundred and ninety eight people on that stand and next to me are two empty seats. And I thought ‘I wonder what’s happened to these two that’, you know, ‘they must be sick or something that they’re not coming.’ And you’ll never believe it – I looked down and who should be coming up but Pat and Elsie. Now how many people would believe that, when … you have no idea, the excitement … Two years we hadn’t seen one another, and it was just … oh! We talked, never ate a sandwich or anything, it was just …

And you enjoyed … yes.

Oh, it was wonderful. Then of course we had it all on screen and then eventually in the afternoon when everything was all finished, or … I can’t tell you the exact time … we had the whole procession through the Park and the Queen on her carriage, and … Then when Queen Salote from the Islands saw the New Zealand stand, she nearly was out of the thing … oh, it was …

Then I went back to Wimbledon and my cousin, who was as old as me, had never ever been to anything. I said to them “look, if you don’t mind I’m going to eat my sandwiches, I’m going to have a cuppa and I’m going back to London because they’re putting on a big display tonight.” And I said to Kathleen “what about coming with me?” “Oh.” I said “listen, it’s the Coronation.” “Yes, we’ve seen it on television” she said. You know, the English – some of them are a wee bit … Anyway I talked her into it, and – I don’t know what time it would be, it was when it got dark – we went and we wandering around. To be with the mass was wonderful. And then they had this big fireworks display and it ended up with the most beautiful portrait of the Queen in her regalia. Surely that’s enough of me isn’t it? [Chuckle]

No, you’re still in England. You’ve got … there must be some other adventures between …

I’ve got to think now – what did I do after that? Oh yes, I know. I went down to Cornwall. I hadn’t been down to Cornwall and I applied – there was a position – they wanted a Women’s Ward Sister in Bodmin. So I went down there, and I had two years down there. Found the Cornish were wonderful people but very, very – they would take you out for a meal, they would entertain you anywhere, but you didn’t get into their homes. The only people you sort of got into homes were people that had been overseas and had seen how their homes were open. I can remember the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were here in New Zealand and they used to have a piece on TV at one o’clock every Sunday, and I used to make – we’d had our dinner, and I’d make them sit there and watch it. And one Sunday one of the Aide-de-Comps of the Queen happened to be talking, and he said “we’ve had a wonderful weekend in Christchurch living with the people”. And you know to them, and they were enlarging on it. And I said “this is what I miss in this country.” And they said “what do you mean?” I said “we have people – you know, coming in and having meals and that”, and I said “I do miss this here.” And they said “our homes are our own.”

Is that right?

Mmm – but this was years …

Yes I know, its years ago, but even so – isn’t that interesting?

So then – I was quite happy there, but you see I’d been away for nine years and my father had been on his own all that time – my mother had died. And he’d had a housekeeper, I’d got that before I went overseas. And I thought ‘oh, I should come home.’ So I decided to come home. I got to Auckland and a friend of mine from Hastings was – she knew that I was coming home and she was going to be in Auckland and she came and met me. And she said “when you get back” she said “you are to report to Miss Russell.” I said “why?” “Well” she said “she’s got a job for you.” [Chuckle] So the thing was I wasn’t home that long before I had Children’s Ward which I just loved. And I’d settled in and I’d got into everything and I had to find … my friends were married, they had children and I’d never met … I was having a wonderful time. I was back playing badminton, I’d joined an archery club, I was going out to everything. And I was summonsed one day to the Matron’s office – secretary came down. “You’re to report to the Matron’s office immediately.” And usually she was a quiet person, this secretary, and I said “well I’m just busy at the moment”. And she said “you are to come at once”, and I thought ‘something drastic’s happened.’ And I thought ‘no baby’s been dropped, nobody’s had the wrong medication’ – you know how you sort of panic. So we walked … bustled along to the Matron’s office, knocked on the door. “Come in”, and when I went in, honestly I was scared because I thought ‘you’re not summonsed like that unless something’s happened.’ The Matron was sitting at her desk and opposite her was sitting Sir Edwin Bate, he was the Chairman of the Hospital Board. And he said “Good morning Sister, sit down.” And I though “oh my glory”. And he turned to me and he said “I understand you’ve been asked to go and work out in Korea”. And the minute he said that I thought … oh. I didn’t tell you. This is how I missed out. I had been sent down to do my Diploma of Nursing. Sorry, you see this is what happens.

That’s all right … no, carry on.

Forget that for a minute. I’d been working there in Children’s Ward, and I was summonsed to be told that the Board had nominated me to go down to Wellington to do my Advanced Diploma of Nursing which only the Matron and the Deputy Matron had, and it was a year of study in Wellington. That was a big honour because it was the highest degree you see. And so I had done that, but I had to sign that I would give them two years when I came back because they paid my bursary you see. And when Sir Edwin – he said “I understand you’ve been asked to go out to Korea and work with Save the Children”, and I suddenly thought ‘it’s the worst thing that could happen because they would look at me that I’m not trustworthy. Here I’d accepted a bursary, and here I was thinking of going out to Korea. You see what I’m getting at?

Yes, I do, I know what …

And I stammered “but Sir, Sir – I’ve told them, I’ve told them I cannot go – I’ve told them that – that I can’t go, it’s no use asking me.” And he kept saying in between “but you’d love to go wouldn’t you?” I said “Sir, I’ve told them that I can’t go.” “But you’d like to go Sister, wouldn’t you?” I don’t know whether he said that three or four times, and I said “please … I’ve told them that I can’t go.” He said “well Matron … but you would like to go?” And I said “yes, if I was free.” He said “well Matron and I have talked it over and we’re honoured to think that you’ve been asked. It’s an honour for the hospital, and we’re willing to let you go for the two years. When you’ve finished there then you will do your two years back here.” You see I’d forgotten that – I’d done that in between. Now, now I’ve forgotten where I was up to. [Chuckle]

You’re going to Korea.

Oh Korea … if I got started I’d go on for a couple of hours. When I went out there I was told that I was going to start up public health … start up working outside doing district work – that they’d realised I’d done a lot of children’s work and leprosy work, and that’s what it would be, but I would be attached to a Save the Children hospital in Masan. I would be living there, I’d be helping them with getting their cases distributed and that, but I would be my own boss. I went out there and I lived with them, I was given a driver and I was given a nurse, but before I started, I had – you know, a week to get things ready. I said about an office. “Oh,” they said “we haven’t got an office that you can have.” So we had to set to work and build an office. So there was an old disused pigsty, we dismantled that and some plywood and made a little … you’ve no idea … lined it with newspaper. See it was after the Korean War …

Yes, that’s right.

… and it was terrific. And then went into Masan one day and found some posters and got those and it was quite presentable but … So then I had this nurse and the driver – no, first of all I had an interpreter and a driver, and eventually I got a nurse, and I had an old Jeep to start with and then New Zealand sent me out a lovely new Land Rover and that was wonderful. And I used to go into the villages, and the things that … it was just … mmmm. But I was able to do and get a lot of things started – you know. You don’t want to hear histories do you?

Well it’s – you know, you were there at a unique time after a war – things were pretty poor.

They were drastic. You’d find a little house, a little mud house, and everybody would be sleeping on the floor, there’d be grandpa and grandma and mum and dad and two or three children. Grandpa would be coughing and spluttering and … they had what they called a little yontan outside which they had one bowl that they would cook everything in. The father would be a burden carrier – go out round the district with something on his head and … oh, they just lived in poverty. And I went one day into a little place and the mother had just delivered her baby, and there it was cord and everything still attached to the placenta and it was lying on the floor, wrapped up in a rag and it was dead. Another day I’d find another little baby put down to sleep and the water was trickling down on it from the roof. I had thirteen orphanages that I supervised, two refugee camps that had about – oh, you can read that notice up there if you want to, about it – and things were just … give you one example – one orphanage that was very special to me was what we called the Abandoned Baby Orphanage, and the owner would go out every dawn, go round the town, look in every doorway and pick up all the abandoned babies. And they’d be just in rags lying round the floor. And one day I went in and I said “how are things?” He said “bad. I haven’t had any milk powder for days and days and days from the doong”, they called it. They used to supply. And I used to take milk powder when I had it. I said “look, I haven’t got any today.” You know, we were short of it too, and we had to wait for it to come out from New Zealand and that. And when I walked round to look at them – I’d walk over that one and that one, and I’d say “well that one’s dead”. Another couple “that one’s dead”, and I think this day there was about eight. And then there were another three that were just about moribund and I thought ‘if they don’t get a drip into them they’ll be dead by night.’ So I said to Kim, the driver, pick that, that, that one up, put them in the Land Rover and I’ll take them back to the hospital. And Loena, the doctor there, said “well you know this is a TB hospital and you really shouldn’t let these sort of babies…” So she gave me a cot and I put it out on the verandah, put the three babies on it, put drips on them, and in a couple of days I was able to take them back to the Orphanage.

But to finish the story, they say nurses get hard, but there are times when things get you. And that day did get to me. The thing that finished it was the fact that Australia used to send us out cartons of bully beef, and bully beef’s nice, you know – like a corned beef. Well for weeks after weeks we used to get two slices of bully beef and two boiled potatoes. And I … see I used to have meals there, and I’d come home and I’d say “look, can’t we get Young ?” – that was the cook – “and show her how to make patties and things like that?” But somehow the English don’t think that way, and I didn’t get anywhere with them. And I came home this day and I was so upset, I really was – I was heartbroken to think that there was nothing I could have done for those … Anyway, I sat down to it, and then it got to me. And I said “I’m sick to death of this place – I’m sick to death. Nothing but bully beef and boiled potatoes”, and I got up and I left the table. And I walked out of the dining room and down the corridor to my bedroom.

When I arrived in Korea several months before, they were just throwing the bully beef tin out on the garden, or the ground. I said “this isn’t hygienic”. And we dug a big hole, and we used to put them in there. I got the A de C to help me. But you know – those are the sort of things …

And see that picture there – well the thing is, I went to one of these big refugee camps that had two thousand people in them and sitting out in the dust was a lad of about … 16, 17, 18? … sitting there with a piece of stick in the dust drawing pictures. And I looked at them I thought ‘that boy’s got talent.’ I couldn’t believe it. So I gave him a bit of paper and got him and he did a little drawing for me. So I wrote back to Save the Children and I said “I’ve got this lad that … this talent, can you send me some money – I want to get him paints and what have you.” And I got him to do me about a dozen pictures, sent them back – little ones you know, like that – sent them back to Save the Children and one year they had all their Christmas cards done with that.

And another interesting thing, it came Christmas and I was trying to get the hospital to, you know, be a little bit Christmassified and I had a little … I had scripture notes you see, and they’d sent the Christmas ones out. And there was the Holy Family in colour, there was Mary with the baby on her lap and Joseph behind, and I said to ? “could you do me a picture of this? And I want to put it in the hospital for Christmas”. And I gave him everything. He did it beautifully for me, and d’you know what? When I got it I thought I would explode – it was just absolutely wonderful. He’d done the colours the same, the figures exactly the same, but the faces were all Korean. Mary was Korean, Joseph was Korean and the baby was Korean.

Oh, of course. [Speaking together] 

If I can – I don’t know that I can lay my hands on it now. I’ve had it framed, and every Christmas I bring it out.

Then the thing was, although I was doing quite a bit of work in the district, I was frustrated, for the simple reason that I was only, you know – one here, one there, one there. And then the Head came out of Save the Children from London and he had a week with them in the hospital and then he came out with me for a day. So I took him all around and I showed him everything. I gave him a bit of a run round, and he said you know, how was I finding work Elsie? I said ”frustrating.” He said “in what way?” I said “well, I feel I’m wasting my time.” And he said “what do you mean?” He said you’re”, you know, “very busy”. I said “yes, but it’s not getting – it’s only one here, one there, one there”. And he said “well what do you mean?” And I said “well, you’ve got to get to them at the beginning”. And I said “they’ve got to understand the beginnings of a baby and what have you.” And I said “no use just doing one child here and one child there”. And I said, you know, “I’d like to work like Plunket did in New Zealand.” He said “send me an outline of what you want and let me have a look at it.” So I wrote it all out. I said I wanted to start a baby clinic, I wanted another nurse that could do the home visiting frequently. And d’you know, he said “right, go ahead”. And I had to buy a place. I was fortunate in … there was – I think it had been up two years – but it was quite a big house and it was in an area where there were hundreds and hundreds – I think it was two thousand homes – and I organised it. You’ve no idea, I’d never bought a place in New Zealand. When we got it, they paid for it and everything. And I said to the girls and my driver, “now we’ll go and get it all set up, and we’ll start working and get things organised.” Well, I nearly had a fit. The people that we’d bought it from had left, and you know how when we go we clean it all out? And I thought it would take a day or two to get it all … When I arrived it was chockablock with dirt and filth and all their old clothes and their rags. I said “when are they coming to clean this?” “Oh – [it’s] the incoming people that clean it.” It took a week to get it … you know, things that … cultures and everything are so so …

Yes, different worlds, yes.

… so different. Anyway we got it started eventually, and I got another nurse. And there’s a photo in the passageway of the two nurses that I trained to take over when I left. And we used to have – one lived in and she did anything at night, and in the morning I’d go, and there’d be a queue at the clinic. They’d start at dawn to walk, and once the thing got out that there was a clinic and what have you it was just absolutely wonderful. And I’d give a little talk beforehand – just stand there and talk – just one little subject each day. And then one nurse would stay and I might go out with the other one and do visiting. And believe you me, within a few weeks you’ve no idea … it was just wonderful.

But … another story – do you realise what the time is?

Yes, you’re doing very well, you’re in Korea at the moment.

But you must get home for dinner.

No, I don’t even need to eat.

What about your wife?

No, she’s busy – today’s her golf day. I keep thinking of you with that bully beef and a cold potato …


… I’m not going to complain about having nothing, or the kippers.

Anyway, everything went wonderful. I mean – oh, we had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of problems, but you know eventually it was just … just outstanding.

Oh – twins – nobody liked twins in Korea – it was like an Act of God if they got twins, and if it was a boy and a girl that was shocking. And I would purposely make sure that if I got twins that I saw them so regularly. And the first week – yes, the both of them would be fine, and the next week the little girl hadn’t done so well. And I’d say “now is she being fed?” “Yes.” But eventually … it’d be just one baby and they’d come and they’d say “only one now.” That little baby girl had been allowed to …


So after we got the clinic – this was the second year I was there – the first year I didn’t have it. And all of a sudden we went down one day and we were told that there were twins in that house, and one was a boy and one was a girl. And … so I did all I should the first day, then I went back a few days later, and I could see things had – just beginning to start, and then when I saw that the little girl hadn’t put on anything, I said “I’ll take the little girl, she’s not looking well”. I took her back to the clinic and the – my nurse that was there would look after it at night and I would look after it in the daytime, and I’d make sure that all the people that came knew it was there, they saw me feeding it, they saw me changing it, they saw me cuddling it. I kept her for quite a wee while. But eventually, when I felt that the word had got round enough … and then I said to the mother that the baby – I called it Squib, because it was a little squib – I said “Squib is now able to go home”. And she was heavier than the little boy and that – the word got round and it was the biggest … it was – it was just wonderful.

You’ve got the photos of my album of Korea –

Yes, they’re at the Knowledge Bank, yes. So how long did you – you stayed two years, and where to from there? You came back to New Zealand?

I came back to New Zealand to do two years at Memorial, and I was what they called Clinical Supervisor then. That was in charge of all the practical work of the hospital. I loved it. My two years was over – it was just wonderful. And then they took the training out of the hospital and took it to the EIT, and that to me was the biggest mistake they ever made. And after a while I just thought “no, I’ve had it.” So I applied – there was a job coming vacant with the Plunket in Hastings, so for the last – I think two … two and half years, I was back doing Plunket work, and my mothers were the babies that I had twenty-odd years before.

Isn’t that wonderful? And so did you finish up as a Plunket nurse?


You retired from …

Yes, yes.

You know you’ve – what a wonderful story. 

No, it’s just my …

Your focus never changed did it, from a little girl.  

Oh no. I feel I’ve been the most privileged person for the simple reason that I have been able to do just what I wanted to do in life.

But there’s one thing there – you made it happen. You made it happen. 

Oh, yes, but …

Yes, you drove – you never ever lost your focus.   

You see I wanted to travel and I was able to do all the travelling. Because you see – not getting married I was free.

So you’ve really covered all facets of nursing haven’t you?   

Oh no, there a lot …

But I mean you’ve done them from the North Sea to Dunedin to Israel to London to Scotland. You know you’ve really had a …

No, I’ve been very privileged – very, very privileged.

Oh, that’s wonderful. And do you still maintain any contact with your old friends?

Oh heavens yes. The thing is I have got grandparents bringing me their grandchildren. Did you ever know Snow Baudinet?

Yes, I did actually.

Did I tell you about him? Well he came to live there and I did quite a few things to help him and that, and one day he said to me “I don’t know what it is about you”. And I said “what have I done Snow?” It was the way he said it. And he said “I just can’t make you out.” And I said “why?” He said “well, the other day I was sitting on the porch”, he said “I saw seven grey haired ladies come into your place” and he said “you were here.” He said “I sat out on the porch”, and he said “the laughter that came …” He said “and they were only women.” “Oh” I said “that was my hospital group, those were my nurse friends.” I said “we meet every month.” He said “it’s not only that”. He said “I see children coming to you on their bikes.” He said “I see mothers that have got babies, the kids are running round”. He said “you never got married did you?” I said “no”. I laughed, I said “I didn’t have time.” I didn’t tell him any more. And he said “well I got married” and he said “I’ve got children and grandchildren” and he said “I never see them.” He said “you never married and …” Was he lonely when you knew him?

He was a very stern man. Yeah, he was a very stern – he was a man of last century, you know, he was an old fashioned sort of fellow.

He said “I just can’t make it out,” he said “you’ve always got people coming to you”. And he said “not just …” He said “I see them with babies in arms.” I said “that was one of my mothers”. Lesley – I had Lesley with her children.

Life is interesting isn’t it?

It is. I sit here at night. I haven’t got … I’ve got a DV [DVD] player which I can’t work because if I get a DV [DVD] put in for me I can’t get back to the TV. I am not digitally minded – I’ve got … I’ve got a microwave and I can use that. I haven’t got you know the … but I sit here at night and I’ve got memories and that.

And one of things you were saying – you’re going to definitely make it for the telegram, aren’t you?

Oh, too right I am.

Yes. Oh I mentioned to you earlier about Sister Margaret Cooper, and I also had another sister, Hilda Cooper, who used to nurse in Napier – no, she was Aunt Hilda. And then I had a sister who trained in Hastings, but she withdrew at the final exam – she couldn’t stand the night nursing, and she was in surgical ward and she was on her own, and she had a lot of people to lay out and prepare and she … it was just too much for her. But yeah, it’s fascinating isn’t it – life?

I’m thrilled that I trained in the years that I did. Thinking back, we only had about a dozen medications and to … I’ll give you another instance … and I went to her funeral this year – the first antibiotic that was given in Hastings I gave, and this little girl, Lorna, was about seven or eight – might have been nine – you know, she was young. She had meningitis and Sister and I were bedbathing her one morning, she was completely unconscious. We were nearly finished her when there was a knock at the door, and one of the nurses said “Sister, it’s arrived.” So Sister said to me “finish off here and I’ll be back.” And she came back and she had the kidney dish and the syringe in it. It was a magenta colour, it was Prontosil, and it was 10cc’s and I gave it to Lorna in her buttock; turned her over, got her comfortable – that would be roughly about ten o’clock I suppose – could be anywhere between 9 and 10 when we were bedbathing her. Must have been round about midday when … I don’t know whether I was going back – I was Senior Nurse – whether I was going back to take her temperature or what, but when I went in her eyelids were flickering. And I yelled out “Sister come quickly, come quickly”, and when Sister came in her eyes were open. She said “Lorna, Lorna – would you like an ice cream?” And Lorna nodded and I gave her an ice cream. And I went to her funeral this year.

Oh, isn’t that a lovely story.

You see the thing is that so much has happened in the years that I’ve been nursing. I could count on my fingers the medications we had in ’39, before the War.

Well, I always remember at home, we had castor oil in a big blue bottle and a tablespoon, that was to send us off to school when we were feeling ill. Iodine, Clements Tonic, Lanes Emulsion, some clear calcium water for warts – that was it.

I know, I know. Now my mother had cancer and she went into hospital in ’39 – I was junior nurse. And Dr Cashmore operated and found she had cancer and just closed her up. In those days we never told anybody that they had cancer, it was a no-no. And Sister McCathly – she went off to the War – she was doing the rounds in Women’s Ward with Dr Cashmore, and Dr Cashmore was our family doctor as well as being the surgeon. And when he got to my mother he said “how are you Mrs Leipst?” And she said “oh I’ve got a lot of pain.” And he said “ah well, Sister will give you an injection, don’t worry, we’ll keep you comfortable.” And she turned to him and she said “doctor did you find cancer?” And apparently – Queenie Greenfield, who was in my class was with him, we always had a nurse go round with Sister and Doctor – and she said that when he said that, she looked at Sister McCathly and she saw that Sister could have murdered him. And my mother said “thank you. Will you give me one wish Dr Cashmore?” He said “I’ll give you any wish that you want Mrs Leipst”. She said “will you let me go to Napier Hospital?” And he said “but this is your hospital – you’ve always been in here.” And she said “yes, but my daughter is nursing here and I don’t want her to see me suffering day after day.” And he said “yes.” Queenie said that – oh she went back a wee bit beforehand – apparently he was doing up some charts – and Sister and Doctor came in and he shut the door and he said “Sister, you know perfectly well we never tell a patient that they have cancer.” And he said “Sister, Mrs Leipst is my patient, I’ve always been honest with her and I know that was what she would have wanted.”

This interview today, its of the Knowledge Bank. We’re based at Stoneycroft – it was the former home of Dr Ballantyne.

I know. I’ve been there …

And of course, Dr Ballantyne was head of the children’s department at the hospital when you were working there.

I know. Yeah, and the thing is I used to get cross with him because he’d come down to my ward for morning tea and I always used to take pikelets or biscuits or something, and what he would eat! Listen I’m going to make you another …

Yes, we’ll finish with Dr Ballantyne for a start.

He would always make it down to the children’s ward for morning tea. He would never leave a biscuit or anything. When I was afternoon Supervisor – that was in one part of it between something – I’d be in the Matron’s Office at half past nine waiting for the Night Sister to come on, and he would often come and have a cup of tea with us and eat everything then. Well, when I went off to Korea, Mrs Ballantyne, while I was over there, had become the President of Hastings Save the Children, and when I came home – I don’t know how long I’d been – not very long home, she asked me if I would – I must have been to one of the meetings and spoken or something. “Oh” she said “look – I’d love you to come home and I’d like to hear a bit more – come and have tea.” And she arranged one night to have tea. So I went. Now, he’d been working all day, he came home and … I think about six o’clock, or it might have been quarter to six … we went to the music room ’cause he was a pianist, and he played and we chatted and that. I think it would be roughly about seven o’clock before we sat down to our evening meal, and do you know what we had? Bought, shaved ham and boiled potatoes. No wonder. Then I helped Joyce do the dishes and I went to put something away, and I opened the pantry – and d’you know, there was nothing in the pantry.

Maybe he trained at that place where you used to have the bully beef and boiled potatoes.

I said “Joyce, it looks as though …” And the fridge had nothing in it. She said “I’m not a cook”. I thought ‘no, and I know why Dr Ballantyne used to eat all my …’

And of course there’s the story of the big claw foot bath that’s in the bathroom. That used to be out on the verandah.

That’s right.

And it used to have cold water in it, and he used to have a bath in the mornings. So he was a very – I guess and economical gentleman.

Oh they were. I’ve never … I mean – nothing in the fridge, nothing – and to think that a man had worked all day.

But it’s the story of yesterday isn’t it?

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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

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