Project Canterbury

  Sister Henrietta
Community of St. Michael and All Angels

Edited by the Dowager Lady Loch and Miss Stockdale

London: Longmans, 1914. 

Reminiscences of Hospital Work in Kimberley.

One of Sister Henrietta's oldest friends and fellow-workers contributes the following.

IT was at the end of April, 1879--two months after I had arrived in Bloemfontein for work in that diocese under Bishop Webb--that I was sent to Kimberley to work under Sister Henrietta; and the friendship began which lasted to the very end of her life, and which, God grant, may some day be continued "otherwhere."

Sister Henrietta was then in charge of the Carnarvon Hospital--a small hospital for paying patients. It had only nine beds, and the staff consisted of Sister Henrietta, Sister-in-Charge, and three nurses, two for day and one for night duty. It was a Government institution, but the Civil Commissioner of Griqualand West--then a Crown Colony--had made an agreement with Bishop Webb by which the latter supplied the necessary nursing staff. At that time, all the nurses were honorary workers. There was another, rather larger Hospital, also supported by Government, for patients, black and white, who could not pay; we called it the "General Hospital." Sister Henrietta had no control over that; it was in charge of a Scotch couple named Cramond, excellent people who, with their son and daughter, managed it entirely. But the two Hospitals were in the same compound and had the same resident Medical Officer, though the Carnarvon patients were mostly attended by their own paid doctors, one of the most popular being the well-known Dr. Jameson--now Sir Starr Jameson. The Carnarvon Hospital had a paid cook and one servant, a native constable; but all the rest of the work, inside and outside, was done by native convicts supplied by Government, and invaluable they were. One ward boy, Tony, a Tembu Wesleyan Christian, who had been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for stealing a cow, was excellent in the wards; and another young heathen Basuto--Springhandt, i.e. "Grasshopper"--was equally indispensable in the kitchen. The only drawback was that at 5 p.m. the whole party of convicts was marched off back to the gaol by the native constables in charge, and until 7 a.m. next day we had no helpers in the wards nor anywhere else.

Over this establishment Sister Henrietta reigned supreme, and for the next three years I was, off and on, one of the staff. The work was carried on under difficulties and at great expense, for the cost of all necessaries in those days at Kimberley was enormous; but the Government paid all that the patients' fees did not cover, and the Carnarvon had become the most popular of institutions and was said to be the cheapest and most comfortable hotel on the Diamond Fields." As a building it had many advantages. It was built of sun-dried bricks and roofed with corrugated iron, and it was well ventilated and cool--for Kimberley. It was covered with beautiful creepers and had a raised, wide stoep, or verandah, all along the front; and there was a garden with flowers--Sister always loved flowers supremely--really beautiful flowers, moon-flowers, four o'clocks, marigolds, zinias and others, and, besides, a hedge of great aloes round the drive in front. The climate of Kimberley left much to be desired; there were heat and drought and furious winds and dust-storms to contend with only too often, but it had its charms also. The early mornings and evenings were exquisite; the wonderful clearness and brightness of the atmosphere, the gorgeous sunsets and sunrises, the splendour of the stars and of the moonlight made up for much that was trying. The Kimberley "Camp" of those days was squalid and insanitary, and the wide stretch of bare veldt round the Hospital, from which in the early days of the "rush" to the mines every tree had been cut down for firewood, was devoid of beauty; but there was a range of low hills in the distance, and in that intensely pure and rarefied air--nearly 5000 feet above the sea--and in the cloudless sunshine, the lights and shadows on those hills, varying in lovely colour from hour to hour, were a simple delight--when one had time to watch them. Sister Henrietta was then in her thirty-second year, and at the height of her powers, mental and physical. She was also in the perfection of her beauty. "She was strikingly beautiful," one wrote of her lately who saw her when in England just before that time, "with something queenly in her beauty." I myself had seen her on my arrival in Bloemfontein and had written of her as "a very stately and handsome person." But handsome was not the word for her--she was beautiful. In a later letter I write of her: "She is so very beautiful; in any dress and in any society she would strike you at once by her great beauty, but I do not think that any dress would suit her so well as her Sister's dress. And there is something so stately and dignified about her; people think her very awful who only know her at a distance." In truth, she studied a grave and reserved manner in her intercourse with the outside world, especially with the doctors whom she always addressed as "Sir," but also more or less with the patients. The impression she made on them was striking; most of them had the greatest reverence for and confidence in her, not quite unmixed with fear. "She comes and stands by my bed like an angel carved in marble," one of my patients said to me one day.

But there was another side to her character, as I soon learned. For anyone to whom she gave her friendship she had the warmest of hearts, the most unstinted affection, the fullest and most unreserved confidence. She had, I think, what has been called "a passion for friendship." From my first arrival at the Hospital we had been very much thrown together, and we were already becoming attached to one another when I was laid low by a severe attack of fever and pneumonia. Sister Henrietta undertook to nurse me herself, giving up her own room to me, and she nursed me with so much devotion, caring alike for my bodily and spiritual needs, that, feeling deeply as I did that to her skill and kindness I owed, under God, my recovery, it is no wonder, perhaps, that in the glow and fervour of grateful affection I wrote of her afterwards: "I thought her very nearly perfect before 1 was ill--I think her quite so now."

From that time forward we were united in the closest friendship; and it was then, when during a rather slow convalescence I was able to be more with her than when at work, that I came to know another of her strongest characteristics: her intense family affection. She was never tired of talking of her home, of father, mother, brothers, sister, of the old life in the country in England; and many were the tales she told me of her childhood and especially of the great love there had always been between her father and herself--his first-born child. What her grief was when that beloved father was suddenly called to his rest just when she was on the point of coming home for a holiday and looking forward to seeing him, only those who knew her intimately could understand. I have the most pathetic of letters written to me at the time, for I was not with her then. But that was some years later. Even in those early days of our friendship I could realize what the sacrifice had been when she responded to the call of God and of the Church and left all to work in the far-off mission field.

It was also during that first period of my work at Kimberley--the South African winter of 1879--that she first told me of her experiences a few years before when, during her Novitiate and while an Associate Worker she had undertaken, at the pressing request of Dr. Prince, one of the leading medical men of Kimberley, to train under his instruction for maternity work, which was so urgently needed at that time. For some months she lived in the wretched homes of the poorer sort of people in the Camp; and the discomforts and hardships and actual suffering she then endured while nursing the poor women in their confinements used to make my heart ache as I listened to her tales of them. Many of the things she suffered could not be told here, but in one case the people were so poor that there was not sufficient food for her and she would have been thankful to have had even enough bread--she suffered real hunger. In all cases she had to do the whole work of the house as well as nurse the mother and care for the baby--look after the other children, cook their food, clean the place, etc., etc. After some months of this severe work, Sister Henrietta had broken down with an attack of fever, so that it had to come to an end. But she had gained a thorough knowledge of maternity work, as well as an experience which she never forgot.

But to return to the work of the Hospital. To that work Sister Henrietta gave herself heart and soul. All her powers of organization and of initiative were devoted to it. The work was very hard, for Sister Henrietta's ideals of nursing were high and her resources insufficient; the nursing appliances were very poor, the conveniences of the fewest. The Dispensary, where medicines, dressings, etc., were kept and poultices and such things had to be made, was a mere cupboard in the passage. Hot water could only be got from the kitchen, which had a most uneven mud floor and where the cook and his satellites were often aggravating to the last degree. Sister Henrietta did not, as a rule, do any of the actual nursing, though she would occasionally take a case, but the whole of the nursing work was under her strict supervision. She gave all the medicines by day, saw the doctors, and received their orders, and on her rested the responsibility for the whole management and conduct of the Hospital, which, with the inadequate means at her command, was no light burden. Then the Hospital was much too small for the number of patients who wanted to be admitted. There were only nine beds--four double wards and one single--but there were often eleven or twelve patients in the Hospital. Sister Henrietta could not bear to refuse an urgent case, and never would do so if by any expedient she could make room for another. And so, often--and more and more often as time went on and the hot season began when enteric fever and dysentery became rife in the Camp--beds were made up for convalescents on the floor of their sitting-room so that their wards could be given to fresh cases. The night nurse shared a bedroom with one of the day nurses--de la Box and Cox--and I have myself slept on a couch in Sister Henrietta's room and dressed in her office so that another patient could be admitted. But, even with all this, patients had to be refused. In December, 1879, I write: "The Hospital has been very much crowded of late. Sister Henrietta has refused as many as eight patients in one day for lack of room." Of course, all this enormously increased the work; only patients extremely ill could be taken in, and there were times when by night or day we "could hardly sit down for five minutes at a tune."

The need for the enlarging of the Hospital was felt to be pressing. Sister Henrietta was constantly urging it upon the authorities, and already, earlier in the year, meetings had been held and architects' plans had been approved for two new wings to be built, one at each end of the Hospital, and also for a large Chapel. But to Sister Henrietta's intense disappointment all sorts of difficulties between the Committee of Management and the Government cropped up, and nothing was done.

Early in 1880, when it became clear that the Hospital was not to be enlarged--the nursing staff also being slightly increased--Sister Henrietta took a small iron house close by for the nurses to sleep in, and all their rooms and their sitting-room were turned into wards, so that, with convalescents on the floor, fifteen patients could be taken. The iron house--like all iron houses--was cool enough at night, but the heat in the day-time was great and the night nurses slept--or tried to sleep--in rooms with the thermometer at 105 degrees. This state of things continued for the rest of that summer.

In April Sister Henrietta, who was in great need of rest, was recalled to the Mother House at Bloemfontein--where I had been for some time--and she remained there until October, a lady Associate being in charge of the Carnarvon meanwhile. At this time the Government of the Transvaal applied to Bishop Webb to supply them with nurses for a Hospital they were anxious to build in Pretoria, adding a special request that Sister Henrietta might be sent to start the work. Sister Henrietta would have liked to go, but neither the Bishop, nor the Mother Superior, was willing to spare her. The Mother wished to make her Assistant Superior, an appointment that would have kept her always at the Mother House, and would have been of immense advantage to the Community and all its works. If the Mother's wish had been carried out there would probably now be no Kimberley Hospital. But other counsels prevailed, and in October Sister Henrietta returned to the Carnarvon Hospital.

By that time--the end of 1880--one of the projected new wings had been built, giving a large convalescents' room, a new dispensary and ward scullery and new wards, single and double, making the number of beds up to seventeen. But the work was no less; the Hospital was just as much overcrowded as ever, and things were very trying for Sister Henrietta. "My dear Sister Henrietta is being worked to death," I write, "with an enlarged Hospital and an insufficient staff--one nurse after another knocking up and going off duty." Again "Sister Henrietta is frightfully over-worked, and I feel sure will knock up soon if she does not get a better staff." Soon after, I was at last sent back to her, and I write: "We are together again for Christmas, and a most unquiet Christmas we have had. ... In this first week we have had four deaths. . . . Almost all the seventeen patients have either fever or dysentery, but on Christmas Eve a poor young fellow was brought in dreadfully smashed in some accident in the mine, and only lived a few hours. We hardly sat down all day. On Christmas Day we had a Celebration at 6.30 a.m., but after that there was not a minute free. . . . Sister Henrietta is not at all well--quite over-tired." That summer of 1880-81 was a fearfully unhealthy one--enteric and dysentery raging in the Camp. The number of deaths was extraordinarily high. Sister Henrietta always made a rule of being present when any patient was dying, and saying the last prayers by the bedside, and again and again she had to be called up at night to perform this sad duty. And what made all these sad deaths the sadder was that many of the patients had been lying ill in their miserable dwellings for days before they could be admitted to the Hospital, and so, when at last a bed could be given them, they came in too far gone for their lives to be saved. Convalescent patients also were sent out too soon to make room for others, and often had relapses, coming back to us with a worse attack than the first. Still we had many wonderful, almost miraculous, recoveries, for which we could thank God.

The need for a larger Hospital only grew more and more urgent--Sister Henrietta was constantly pressing it on the authorities--but no one seemed willing to bestir themselves to raise the necessary money.

In January, 1881, there was great consternation at the Hospital. The Transvaal War had broken out and was already assuming considerable proportions. There were rumours of the Boers having attacked Barkly West and that they were coming across the Vaal to attack Kimberley. And then a letter came from the Mother Superior at Bloemfontein saying that the Government had asked for nurses to take charge of a regular Military Hospital at Newcastle--a place in Natal close to the Transvaal border--and that Sister Henrietta, with two other workers, was to go. For some days we were all in the greatest trouble and anxiety, for everybody felt that her going would ruin the work at Kimberley just when she was moving heaven and earth to get people to take up the matter of the enlargement of the Hospital, and no one knew who there was able to take her place. Happily, however, there were workers who were eager to go, and in the end it was decided to send Sister Louisa in charge of the party--a first-rate nurse who had already done most of the nursing in the Zulu War a short time before. The best of the Kimberley nurses went with her, again reducing the staff there to a minimum and laying fresh burdens on Sister Henrietta. I think that Sister Henrietta was just a little sorry not to go, though she felt that it was more necessary for her to stay.

The rest of that sad summer went on as it began. The work only getting harder and harder--such bad cases, so many deaths--workers leaving or knocking up--"the work is endless," I write, "we hardly know how we get through one day after another." And all in the most oppressive, over-powering heat, alternating with terrific thunderstorms--thunder, lightning, hail, deluges of rain going on for hours at a time, day after day, while we worked on regardless of it all, too busy to pause and think whether the storm was raging or the sun shining. Still, in between, there were intervals of loveliest weather, when the beauty of the early mornings, the freshness and clearness of the atmosphere, the delicious coolness of the air after the rain and storm, the brilliance of the sunshine and of the moonlight, revived our minds and spirits and gave us strength to go on. And there were, too, now and again short lulls in the work, a day, perhaps, after the loss, alas! of one or more patients, when we could just stop and breathe.

In March, as comble de malheurs, Sister Henrietta herself knocked up and took to her bed with a severe attack of jaundice. However, "when the night is darkest, the dawn is nearest." The summer was nearly over and things began to mend. The Camp became less unhealthy and the work less impossible--the autumn weather was delightful. Sister Henrietta, after long illness and slow convalescence, was able to go away to Bloemfontein and to her brother's farm at the end of April; and in June I also was in Bloemfontein. For some months our ways lay apart--Sister Henrietta being for part of the time at Barkly West, starting a Convalescent Hospital there, but by Christmas, 1881, we were together again at the Carnarvon. That summer--my last summer of work in the Bloemfontein diocese--went by much as those before. The heat was intense--I thought it was the hottest season I had known--but the work was, on the whole, somewhat easier as the nursing staff was rather larger and more efficient. And already the work of enlarging the Hospital was being taken seriously in hand. In 1880 or 1881 (I forget exactly when), the Crown Colony of Griqualand West had been made over to, and annexed by, the Cape Colony, and the Cape Colony Government had at once given up the Hospitals to a Hospital Board, composed of the most influential citizens of Kimberley. And the Board, under Sister Henrietta's inspiration, had begun to formulate a great scheme for its enlargement. The two Hospitals were to be united under one management--new wards for different classes of patients were to be built. All was to be carried out on a really large scale, and Sister Henrietta was to be in charge of the whole. The work was begun as soon as the summer was over, and when I left the diocese for England in August, 1882, the walls of the new European wards were rising fast and Sister Henrietta was already appealing for nurses to come out for the work.

After that, we never worked together, but our friendship remained unchanged, and as I shortly returned to South Africa, we met from time to time, and I was always in touch with the Hospital and watched its growth under Sister Henrietta's care. In June, 1887, I was there on a visit and write: "It has indeed grown an enormous place--something like an oak out of an acorn in comparison with the little place it was when I knew it first eight years ago. The little old Hospital still exists, much as it was, as a very small piece in the centre of the great new building." But even then it was not large enough; they were "dreadfully overdone with patients--more coming every day than they have beds for." "Sister has been so harassed and driven with work, from the Hospital being so overcrowded." And two of the nurses were seriously ill, from the same cause, it was thought. It was not until 1892 that I saw the Hospital completed--a really great place, covering a great extent of ground. There was already then the Nurses' Home, where the forty staff nurses slept and spent their off-duty time (the Head nurses had their rooms in the main building), the money for which had been collected by Sister Henrietta, with the help of Archdeacon (now Bishop) Gaul, in a marvellously short time; and there was the beautiful Chapel, built and furnished entirely by the exertions and offerings of Sister Henrietta and her own immediate friends and helpers, where Celebrations and other services were held for nurses and patients both on week-days and Sundays. And Sister Henrietta was at the head of all, overlooking, directing all, arranging all the details of the work, holding all the many threads in her hands. Twice daily, morning and evening, she made the round of the whole Hospital, visiting every ward in turn and speaking with the patients. Every month she changed the staff nurses and patients in the various wards, so that everyone in turn should get the training and experience to be gained in each. And still, in spite of some opposition, she kept up the serious and religious tone of the work by requiring the whole staff to be present every night at Compline at 9 p.m. There was no longer the pressure and overcrowding, all was well-ordered; the work went on with regularity and exactitude. The reputation of the Hospital had become such that patients came from all parts of the country for treatment, successful operations of all kinds were performed, and nurses trained there were sought for as matrons of new hospitals started in other places.

Three years later Sister Henrietta resigned her charge. For some time afterwards when in Kimberley I could hardly bear to pass the gate. But her work for Kimberley was not ended, nor did it end except with her life.

On leaving the Hospital, Sister Henrietta retired, with a small staff of nurses whom she had already been employing in nursing in private families, to a house belonging to the C.S.M. and A.A. and formerly used as a High School for Girls. And from thenceforward S. Michael's Home, Kimberley, became the centre of a great work, sending out nurses to attend maternity and other cases all over South Africa. And later on, with the co-operation of her great friend Miss Mary Watkins, she started what was perhaps her most cherished and her last work: the School of Midwifery for training skilled nurses and midwives to attend the poorer people in their houses in Kimberley and elsewhere. It was of this special work--maternity work, not of general nursing, whether hospital or private--that she said it was "the most benevolent work any woman could undertake." She had seen so much of the life-long injury and suffering caused by ignorant and incapable practitioners to poor women in child-birth. In 1896 and again in 1897-8 I saw the work in full swing, and it seemed to me that the whole of the maternity work among the middle-class and working people of the then large town of Kimberley was in the hands of Miss Watkins and the rest of Sister Henrietta's staff.

And the work went on even after Miss Watkins' death in 1905 and the breakdown of Sister Henrietta's own health--all through all the suffering of her last years. In her last letter to me, written a few weeks before the end, she said what joy it had been to her just before when six of her pupils had passed the Government Examination with honour.

Of the spiritual side of Sister Henrietta's work at the Hospital there is not much to record. In its aim, and in its spirit, and in its ideal it was essentially a religious work, but the Hospital, being a Government institution at first and afterwards supported by the public and always much used by Jews, it was undenominational and no interference was allowed with the religion of the patients. Still Sister Henrietta could at times give spiritual help to the patients belonging to the Church; the Clergy visited them as far as their other work allowed, and there was always--from the first--the little Chapel, where the Holy Eucharist was celebrated two or three times in the week, some patient now and again making his Communion, and where, when possible, the Hours were said. Of other work which she did, side by side with the nursing work, for orphans, for the fallen, for the poor and distressed; of her Literature classes for ladies in later years--on Tennyson, Dante, etc.; of her great work in the founding and starting of the Residential Hostel for working women and girls--for which she collected much of the money--of all this others must tell. I can speak only of what I saw and knew--and partly shared. During those years--from 1879-1898--of which I have written, Sister Henrietta was undoubtedly one of the most prominent personalities in Kimberley--a personality which impressed itself on all who came in contact with her, and whose influence was widely felt. In her little office in the little Carnarvon, and in her slightly larger one in the great Kimberley Hospital she was in touch with all the leaders of political and social as well as ecclesiastical life; she was visited by all in turn. Later, in 1903 and 1904, at S. Michael's Home, during the Mission of Help she was visited by all the Missioners who came to Kimberley; by Bishop Wilkinson, Canon Scott Holland, Father Waggett and others, one of whom spoke of her, after her death, as "such a splendid woman."

Of all Sister Henrietta did and suffered during the Siege of Kimberley and of her work in the temporary hospitals for the wounded after it was over, many records exist, and there is no need to speak.

Of all that strenuous and self-sacrificing work now for ever laid down, I think that she would say to me--as to anyone who loved her--some such words as King Arthur spoke to Sir Bedivere in Tennyson's great poem:

"I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within Himself make pure! But thou,
If thou should'st never see my face again,
Pray for my soul."

"May she rest in peace and may everlasting light shine upon her! "And I would add the prayer of a little card which she gave me years and years ago: "Faites que notre amitié soit éternel."

"I trust she lives in Thee and there I find her worthier to be loved."


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