Trailblazer: Matron Lucy Ethel Beeby, QAIMNS

25 Oct 2022

By Julia Gilchrist

The presence of trailblazing women is a persistent theme in our history. Whilst the franchise for women came into effect in New South Wales in 1902, women in churches of Christ NSW voted on church matters much earlier.

From the earliest days of the movement, our foremothers were supported to develop their voices and lead in a range of areas: teaching Sunday school, conducting home visitation, embarking upon overseas missions, forming temperance committees with powerful lobbying and advocacy, attending church business meetings, and forming their own Sisters’ Conference complete with constitution and objects of purpose. 

The women of Enmore Tabernacle, one of our founding locations, formed a large proportion of the executives on the inaugural Sisters’ Conference of NSW introduced by Martha Clapham in 1894.

Through this body, and in the churches of Christ in Australia more generally, we have a rich legacy of the women and girls in our ranks being supported through the creation of an environment where women are appreciated, respected and encouraged to listen to Christ in discerning their life’s path.

One woman from Enmore who did much to support the women of rural NSW, and those living in high-density communities, was Lucy Ethel Beeby.

Lucy was the sister of the Hon. Sir George Stephenson Beeby, MLA, KBE and playwright. Born in October 1876 to Australian-born parents connected with the Elizabeth Street Church of Christ, Lucy succeeded in her own right as Sister, then Matron, in rural and urban hospitals during Federation when hospitals were funded by public subscription and not state funding. 

Lucy was also a trailblazer in how the qualifications and training of nurses were established and delivered in Federation-era NSW.

When she started out as a nurse in the late 1890s, nurses were trained on the job in the hospital they worked at, firstly as a probationer and accumulating experience over some years, until certification was offered by the big hospitals, like the Sydney and Royal South Sydney Hospitals.

Lucy was certified from 1901-1903 by Sydney Hospital, joining the first accredited nursing associations formed in NSW. She continued upgrading her skills and technical training as these associations developed deep roots in the hospital system. She was part of the earliest cohort of trained women nursing health professionals.

Lucy was also the on-the-ground supporter of the innovative Australian Bush Nursing Scheme, launched in NSW in 1911 by Lady Rachel Dudley, wife of former Australian Governor-General Lord Dudley (1908-1911). Adapted from a pilot program established in Ireland also by Lady Dudley, the Scheme was especially significant for Australian women because Beeby helped shape it to Australian conditions, and it was the practical and humanitarian means by which effective nursing care was provided to rural and remote residents in NSW by women practitioners.

Also the first agency to deliver maternal services to rural women, the Scheme helped rural women of NSW stay in their communities whilst making country life bearable via the provision of maternal services a decade before the Country Women’s Association (1922) came into being.

Lucy served four years in World War I in Cairo (amongst other postings) with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR). She held the official rank of Sister within her regiment upon being awarded the QA service medal.

Lucy’s wartime service coincided with a dramatic shift in perception about what women generally were capable of doing and withstanding. Amongst all other Australian nurses, Lucy stood her ground at field hospitals, witnessing repetitive scenes of blood, gore and horrific battle injuries amongst her charges.

She worked more than 16-to-24-hour shifts, carried out her duties amid extremely loud bomb, artillery and gunfire noise, and remained calm (mostly) amid the chaos to support wounded and dying soldiers.

Her service, like those of her women colleagues, did much to dispel the myth that women could not handle prolonged difficult conditions with composure, competence and ability.

After the war, Lucy wrote for the highly influential Australian Woman’s Mirror ‘Mothercraft’ column.

A community-created magazine, it was edited, managed and produced for women by women across NSW, allowing for the sharing of public health, news, crafts, business and creative pursuits alongside the then-innovative topics of pre-post maternal health, mothering and childrearing, and household management.

As Australian women began moving into the workforce, the demand for women-centric content free of male publishing censorship and omissions makes it especially interesting that Lucy submitted articles for Mothercraft as a trained nurse: indicating her acceptance by women as a voice of authority in her area of expertise, and that the style of article she wrote was popular, accessible, and worth taking the time to read.

In her later career, Lucy built upon her earlier experience with the Bush Nursing Scheme by managing several community-based Baby Health Centres across NSW.

These centres were in the suburbs of Sydney, providing maternal and baby health care services, support, and education to women outside the traditional GP/hospital system.

The first NSW-based Baby Health Centres were essential in normalising today’s routine provision of specific, majority-women spaces for mothers and children to visit for assistance with their unique health and life concerns. Lucy retired from nursing in 1941, living in her home, ‘Inglside,’ in Croydon, until her death from old age in 1950.

From a Christian perspective, through her life and work in the women’s health and nursing field more broadly, Lucy Beeby ministered to women, men and children by supporting their health needs.

The entry of competent, capable and well-regarded women into the health profession was critical for justifying the wisdom and necessity of women securing the right to vote and stand for Parliament (NSW 1902). It also provided its own answer to whether attending to women’s health and wellbeing from the cradle to the grave via specific and varied methods was important for shaping the ethos, character and society that Federation women envisaged for Australia.

Images (from top): NSW Sisters Conference, 1933. Rural nurse visitor (State Archives of NSW). Australian nurses sightseeing in Cairo, Egypt (AWM P00411.001). Extract ‘The Nursing Mother’ (The Australian Woman’s Mirror March 17, 1925). NSW Baby Clinic, c1910s (State Archives of NSW).

Read more of our history HERE

Read more stories from churches of Christ in NSW & ACT HERE