Nurses and heroism

08 Mar

Slightly late in the day, but it seems worth posting the story of a few international women for International Women’s Day. In this case this women who travelled from the other side of the planet to care for wounded men in London: the nurses of Harefield Park Hospital, then known as ‘No 1 Australian Auxilliary Hospital’.

In November 1914, the Australian couple who lived at Harefield Park (near Hillingdon), Mr and Mrs Billyard-Leake, offered the property for use by convalescing Australian soldiers. It opened in mid-1915 with room for 150 patients in summer and 60 in winter. At its peak of use in November 1916 (towards the end of the Battle of the Somme), though, there were 1000 beds in use.

Harefield Park Hospital, 1915 (photo AWM)

Australian women played an important role at the Hospital: as nurses, staff nurses, matrons, head sisters and masseuses. Local women also helped with extra roles, such recreation and running the canteen. At any time, though, there would have been between 30 and 60 Australian nurses of various ranks working here in the vital role of restoring the damaged bodies and spirits of their injured compatriots.

Two of those who worked there number stand out as notable. Although their stories are unique, they were just two among many at the hospital and a host more across the country.

Ruby Dickinson and patients from Ward 40 at Harefield (photo AWM)

Ruby Dickinson travelled out from her home in New South Wales in 1915 at the age of 30. She served as a nurse for the next three years, with one trip back to Australia in 1917. In 1918 she was taken ill and died of pneumonia in a nursing sisters’ home and was buried in the churchyard at Harefield, the sole nurse among over 100 patients (and a few male hospital staff) who died at the No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital during the war.

Pearl Corkhill MM (photo AWM)

Pearl E. Corkhill travelled out in June 1915, a a 28-year-old nurse from Tilba Tilba in NSW.  She was based at Harefield, but in 1918 was working at a Casualty Clearing Station near the front line in France. In July, her CCS was bombed by German air raids, but Corkhill continued her duties and calmed the patients throughout the raid ‘without any regard to her own safety’. She was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field later that year, one of the few nurses to be awarded that honour.

Both of these women and many others like them lived and worked in London, across the rest of the UK and close to the front line during the First World War. These two Australian women are just two of those who gave up their civilian lives to work with the wounded in London.

Their roles were not ground-breaking for the liberation of women from their traditional roles, but this things that they saw must have been shocking (especially when sent to the battlefields). We should not forget the part these women and thousands of others, many of them coming from around the world, played in helping those whose bodies and minds were damaged in the war.


AWM history of Harefield Park Hospital (and pdf linked from it)

AWM records relating to Corkhill and Dickinson.

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Posted by on 8 March 2012 in Air Raid, People, Places, Women


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