Project Canterbury

Four Nurses in Borneo

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, no date.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008


So many exciting reports come into S.P.G. House from all over the world that it is quite a problem to know how to share them all with the Church at home. One method increasingly being used is that of tape recordings available on hire.

The following is not "a book" in the traditional sense. It is a slightly edited transcript of a tape recording compiled from first hand reports telling how the love of Christ is shown through medical skills in pioneer areas in Borneo.

All these nurses speak of the variety and adventure of their life and the joy of meeting the very real needs of people whom the twentieth century has passed by. You must look between the lines to understand the hardships and dangers. All, too, speak of the great need for others of like enterprise to join them. It is to such nurses that this book is dedicated as a challenge and an invitation.

Veronica Thres
Secretary, Medical Mission Department, S.P.G.


After training in London and Liverpool, Gwynnedd Nicholl, R.S.C.N., S.R.N., S.C.M., nursed in Delhi for five years. She then returned to England for further experience and training at the College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, Birmingham, before going to Borneo in 1955.

Beryl Hobby, S.R.N., S.C.M., R.F.N., H.V. Cert., trained at Cardiff, Little Bromwich and Cheltenham and then joined the R.A.F. Nursing Service. She served for two years in Malaya and then returned to the College of the Ascension in preparation for missionary work. She has been in Borneo since January 1959.

Borneo, to which she went in October 1956, is the first overseas post for Wendy Grey, S.R.N., S.C.M., H.V. Cert. She was trained in London and Newcastle, where she was also a Health Visitor, before going to the College of the Ascension.

London-trained Fannie Storr, S.R.N., S.C.M., was a Junior Sister Tutor at St. Thomas's Hospital, London, before going to Korea to work in a T.B. Sanatorium under the Save the Children Fund. She returned to England for missionary training at the College of the Ascension before going to Borneo in November 1960.


Commentator: Asia is the Continent of the future--countries which up till a few years ago were colonies of the Dutch, the British or the French, are now becoming independent and developing at a rate undreamt of by our parents. One of the countries in South East Asia is the huge island of Borneo, mountainous, full of rivers which are the principal means of transport, much of it covered by almost impassable jungle and swamp; a country which produces much oil, but also rubber, coconuts and timber.

In the northern end of this island, in the states of Sarawak, Brunei, and British North Borneo, the Anglican Church has been at work for over 100 years among the mixed population consisting of Land and Sea Dayaks, Chinese and Malays. Education has been pioneered by the Church, which is responsible for a great number of primary schools, and also secondary education, principally in Kuching, Sarawak. The development of an indigenous ministry is one of the important features of the Church. About half the clergy are Asians, and early in 1960 a Chinese was consecrated Assistant Bishop.

In 1956 the Government of Sarawak decided to establish a Community Development Scheme in Padawan, some 50 miles from Kuching in the mountainous interior of Sarawak. The aim of the scheme was to improve the health and living conditions in the area, which serves some 4,000 Land Dayaks, to give practical training in agriculture and trades and to give an opportunity to adults to become literate.

The Government provided the material resources, the Church the trained workers, both Dayaks and Europeans. So in this [1/2] Community there is a priest, several teachers, an agricultural assistant, a carpenter-craftsman and a nurse, who are all tackling the problems of illiteracy, poverty, poor agriculture and ill-health.

The nurse is an S.P.G. missionary, Gwynnedd Nicholl, whom you will now hear describing her first visit to Padawan.

Gwynnedd Nicholl: On Saturday December 29th, 1956, we set out with Canon Howes to see how things were getting on at Padawan, where the Development Scheme was to be started. First we travelled by jeep, which took us as far as the new road went, twenty two miles out of Kuching. Then we shouldered our packs and set off along a slippery and uneven mountain track to the river, crossing several Dayak bridges, which have to be seen to be believed! I only fell over once and we did at last get to the river. There we all climbed into our little punt-like affair, and after many attempts to get the outboard motor started, we set off up the wide shallow Sarawak river, with jungle coming down to the very water's edge most of the way, and only slight evidence of cultivation here and there. We broke our journey at Bengoh, a long-house with a Chinese shop-keeper, where we bathed in the river and had our first meal since the early morning--a chicken (rather tough) with delicious rice and biscuits and oranges.

Commentator: You may wonder what a long-house is. Each village community lives in one great long-house raised on wooden stilts, ten to fifteen feet from the ground. One half of the house is divided into living rooms--a room to each family. The other half is an undivided space for work, meetings and social activities. The long-house is reached by a ladder at each end of the building. They reached Padawan next day and here is Gwynnedd Nicholl's description of it.

Gwynnedd Nicholl: Padawan itself is lovely--a natural wide open space with no horrid jungle--a river all your own and mountains just near enough for beauty and far enough away for comfort. There is nothing in the way of building except what [2/3] belongs to the Development Scheme--a school and teacher's house, the house for me and my two assistants, and a store building which acts as the hospital until that is built. We started off with a table, a chair, a mat for the patient to lie on, a primus stove, with kettle and saucepan, water filter and baby scales--and the walls are lined with shelves made of planks on upturned packing cases which act as cupboards.

Commentator: It doesn't sound much in the way of a hospital, does it? But we can see from Gwynnedd Nicholl's description of the people who come and the diseases treated that it's not just building and equipment which go to make good medical work.

She has two Dayak sisters with her, Adrid and Nipi. The younger, Adrid, had been to school. The elder had had no education at all. Both had received instruction in practical homecraft before being sent to Padawan. Nipi's immediate job was helping Dayak women in their homes. She did a great deal of travelling on her own. She became literate after coming to Padawan. Adrid was able to speak some English so her first work was to accompany Gwynnedd Nicholl as an interpreter. Although she had had no previous midwifery training she has now become a very reliable nurse.

Gwynnedd Nicholl: The villages are scattered over a wide area. It is not possible for us to stay long enough in one village to give adequate treatment at home. When we first came here, we were continually being called out to people who could have made the journey to the dispensary but preferred to stay at home and let us do the walking. Dayak custom did not permit people to be away from home when they were sick. But we are gradually getting people not only willing but determined to stay at Padawan for their treatment--in 1957, 20, in 1958, 68 and this year so far 149. To begin with there were no babies among these. Parents were afraid to take them far from home. It was only in our third year, when we had an epidemic of diarrhoea among the babies and the first one died at home, while the second [3/4] one lived at Padawan, that they began not to be frightened.

It is not always a question just of giving the right medicine. Very often sick babies recover without much specific treatment as soon as they come to Padawan where it is quiet and both baby and mother are able to have a little rest.

The people are full of life and fun and on the whole superbly strong and well made. They are the survivors, of course, of many who failed to get past infancy, when about half the children die if untreated. Many people still do not realise that a large percentage of their children need not die. They do not come early enough for treatment and in many cases they do not come at all. But of 207 babies we have treated there have only been two deaths. This must in large measure be due to the quantities of dried milk powder we are able to provide through generous donations of people in England.

Many people come with yaws and worms, others with leprosy and sore eyes, and accidents keep us busy. There are some diseases here which I have been unable to diagnose, though most things I can manage to treat with the aid of a wonder pharmacopoeia given to me. Oh for a doctor--and a dentist, though we had the valued services of a Chinese Christian dentist who gave the three days of his New Year holiday to come and help us. From now on we shall have an annual visit from the Government dentist.

Commentator: Some of the work is done by travelling to villages in the district. This is now regularly done by a male dresser, who has, however, no transport and has to rely on people from one village helping him to carry medicines and go on to the next. One perilous journey is described by Wendy Grey, another S.P.G. nurse to go to Borneo, who left in September 1959 and spent a month with Gwynnedd Nicholl to get some experience. She describes a journey to reach a man who had broken his leg.

Wendy Grey: We had just finished breakfast, when a messenger arrived from Kiding to say that the father of one of the trainees--[4/5] Kutarp--had fallen from a tree, broken his leg and needed medicine. Gwynnedd decided we should go, though she warned me it was a four to five hour walk to the kampong. If she had said mountaineering, rather than walk, it would have been more accurate. It was very hot and humid and we were soon very wet and sticky. After walking one and a half hours we reached a kampong (village) where we visited a Chinese store and were given cool drinks.

After this kampong, the real test of mountaineering began and gradually got more difficult. We were either climbing steep mountains, scrambling around the sides, or clambering down, through jungle all the time--sometimes over large bamboo bridges over wide rivers. We waded through shallow rivers, at one point through and along a river for twenty minutes with water up to our thighs. We were climbing for the rest of the journey. One slip meant plunging hundreds of feet into crevices of rushing water far below. We were climbing up notched poles for about fifteen yards at a time without support and above crevices. Steep parts of the mountains were climbed on all fours.

Eventually we climbed the last mountain and at 4.30 p.m. arrived at Kiding, a long-house tucked away almost at the top of the mountain and quite hidden from view until actually reaching it. There are about 300 people living in this long-house. Only five are Christians. The remainder are pagans, as we were soon to be reminded.

A number of them watched us arrive, and we had not reached the verandah before we were told that the patient's house was pantanged (closed). This was serious and meant that the Tuagawai (witchdoctor) was at work and that no-one was allowed to leave or enter the injured man's home for twenty four hours after the accident. There we were, having survived a perilous journey as quickly as possible, to be told that we could not see our patient until 6 a.m. the following day. Eventually daylight came, and the occupants of the long-house came to life. At last we were escorted to our [5/6] patient. He was unable to move and his left leg was very swollen, twisted and broken below the knee. When the morphia had made the patient drowsy, I went into action as anaesthetist, and using a mask of gauze-covered cotton wool and an ethyl chloride spray, soon had the patient relaxed and unconscious. The men then went into action, the bones grated in the process, and then Gwynnedd applied plaster of paris. Finally the leg was elevated on a wooden plank and we are relieved to be able to say that he then regained consciousness. Detailed instructions were given to the family to carry out until the visit of a dresser in a day or two. After joining the family in a meal of rice and tapioca we left with Kutarp to start our perilous journey home. How we survived all the hazards is quite beyond human explanation.

We were very weary and shaky travellers by the time we reached Padawan at 4 p.m., but a bath in the river in our sarongs, followed by a cup of tea, and the arrival of letters, helped to revive us. I don't think that even a course at an Outward Bound School in England could have trained us for this type of journey. As it was I was very glad of the Guide training I had had.

Commentator: So you see you have to be tough to go to work in a place like that! Also you have to be prepared to do things which no nurse in this country would be called on to do, such as giving anaesthetics and setting broken legs.

Beryl Hobby, the other S.P.G. nurse to go out to Borneo was well fitted to do this by previous experience in this country and Malaya. After a general and midwifery training and some experience of work in hospitals in this country she went to Malaya for two years where in order to do her work of nursing Malays she learnt some of the language. She is also a trained and experienced Health Visitor. One of the problems she immediately found herself facing was that of the prevalent fear of evil spirits and the idea that they were the cause of disease. In such an atmosphere of superstition the Christian confidence in the victorious power of God stands out. This is what Beryl says about it.

[7] Beryl Hobby: The religion of the Dayaks seems to be the warding off of evil spirits. There are omen birds which have to be obeyed and spirits which have to be placated with offerings of pigs, fowls and fruit at any big event, such as planting or harvesting, and at births, marriages and deaths. An infuriating custom from my point of view is that when people are ill they are shut up in their house with all the doors and windows sealed to keep out evil spirits. The witch doctor says the right words and nobody is allowed in or out for twenty four hours. Many times I've paid one visit and returned later to find I was wasting time. However, two weeks ago I was actually allowed in. The baby had pneumonia and I had already been six times, and the seventh the house was shut. I called the headman and the witch doctor and after long consultation I was allowed in. I treated the baby and suggested I should pray and ask God to help the baby, and much to my surprise they all said "Yes", even the witchdoctor.

They are afraid of the dark, and if they come for me at night four to six men come carrying pressure lamps and guns to frighten the spirits. When I say I can return alone they are amazed, and when I say God will look after me, they don't seem to be able to take it in.

Commentator: As well as curing disease, the prevention of it is most important, and to do this people must be taught, as it is ignorance of such things as infection that causes the spread of many diseases unnecessarily.

Beryl Hobby: When Simit, my Dayak helper, and I do our monthly visits we set off about 7 a.m. when it is still cool. When we arrive at the village a mat is spread on the verandah and a child sent running to tell everyone of our arrival. We sit surrounded by medicines, and examine and treat about forty patients in each village. We have a series of "Jet cards", with pin-men figures to show the cause and effects of diseases such as worms and infected eyes. We usually show one of our sets during the [7/8] visit, usually when a child turns up for the fourth time for worm medicine, or when a mother brings a baby with sore eyes and uses its wrapper to wipe the nose of big brother! I have simple sentences in Dayak written on the back of each card so that I can read them while showing the picture. I do some immunisation and vaccination when I can. The people are always wanting injections, and although I carefully explain what it is for, they just smile happily and say, "If you say it is good, grandmother, it is good"!

Commentator: But they have plenty to occupy them apart from their travelling . . .

Beryl Hobby: We have been very busy in the dispensary ever since I arrived and we see an average of two hundred out-patients a week. There is a lot of diarrhoea, coughs, running ears and sore eyes, and of course worms and more worms. Vitamin deficiency diseases are quite common as the villagers have too little additions of meat and vegetables to the rice which is their staple food. The midwifery calls and emergencies are increasing, and the latter have included two snake bites, a dog bite, a scorpion sting, an acute appendicitis, a boy who fell fifty feet into the birds' nest caves, and a typhoid fever, besides many less exciting ones.

Commentator: Beryl was given a horse which was an innovation to the villagers--she says . . .

Beryl Hobby: If my horse trots the children get so excited they run after it, cheering madly when I stop. They think it funny too when I mount, but they have never seen anyone else riding. I'm very much afraid I shall have to give my pony back though, as he has discovered Bunuk's rice field and has been there three times this week already and there is no way of stopping him except by tying him up all the time.

Commentator: The whole reason for doing this work is to show the love of God in Christ to the people of Borneo. So in each of [8/9] these centres, alongside the medical work, is the teaching not only of children but of adults, and training of leaders in agriculture and building, and the worship of the Church. With so few clergy, celebration of the Holy Communion is infrequent, but the small community is nevertheless a worshipping one.

Beryl Hobby: We haven't a church building here yet, and the priest from Quop can only visit us every two months, but the Bishop has celebrated Holy Communion for us three times this year. Services are held at my house, and we have started having evensong every Sunday evening. Mr. Rebid, the Dayak headmaster, takes the service. We have some nice pictures of the life of our Lord in the dispensary and also a flannelgraph. I use Elsie Anna Woods cut-outs and put up a different story each week. This provides quite a good opening as the mothers show their children the pictures and the men want to know how the figures stay on, and in both cases we can tell them the story.

Commentator: After a month, first with Gwynnedd and then with Beryl, Wendy Grey left Sarawak for Sandakan in North Borneo. Her ultimate destination was to be Tongud, a new mission among the jungle Dusun people, five days journey up the Kinabatangan River. Wendy describes her first journey up the river.

Wendy Grey: After the first two days we changed from the motor launch to a boat called a "go-bang". This is like a rowing boat with no seats, a roof of palm leaves to keep off the sun and an outboard motor. My travelling companions were the boatman, Paepin, and his assistant, a boy called Tikus, and a young Chinese man from the Public Works Department, together with a young Dusun mother with her eight months old baby. When I went to get into the boat I slipped and landed in the mud right up to my knees. My Chinese rescuer slipped in too, and it was only with the help of a third man that we were both hauled out. We were helpless with laughing and so were the dozen or more Chinese [9/10] watching from the timber launch. There was nothing to be done but have a bath in the river in my sarong there and then.

One evening when we stopped at a Timber Camp, we went hunting for pig up the river in the boat. Paepin was the expert. It was amazing to watch his beautifully controlled and stealthy movements as he stalked his victim. At one point I fell in the river again. My one fear whilst under the water was the thought that I might have caused the "go-bang" to capsize and the animals to disappear into the river. But I came up to find all was well, except that the men were worried because of the danger of crocodiles.

The next morning we travelled up the river without seeing any signs of life apart from monkeys and wild pig. There are a great many rhinoceros and elephants and huge apes around but they disappear as soon as they hear an engine approaching.

Commentator: Tongud, where Wendy is stationed, is a mission station which has been pioneered among the Dusuns by two Dayaks, a priest and a catechist, from Sarawak many hundreds of miles away. They felt that their witness to the love of Christ was incomplete without the help of a proper school and medical work. A teacher, Joan Goodricke, offered for this work from Australia, and Wendy Grey who had previously been working as a Health Visitor in Newcastle. Wendy describes the house they had prepared for her at Tongud.

Wendy Grey: It is quite small, raised three feet from the ground, with a floor of slatted strips of thin tree trunk with spaces between. The roof is of attap (dried palm leaves) and the walls are strips of bark and have large holes and gaps all round. Father Puntang, the Dayak priest, said the bark did not look nice inside, so they would be pasting sheets of newspaper on it, to improve the appearance. I suggested that we would rather have it in its [10/11] natural state. There is a small living room, a bedroom each and a kitchen attached.

We visited a native Dusun dwelling. It was raised six feet from the ground and had a pole to climb up into it, but without notches for one's feet. It just consists of a platform floor of slatted wood about ten foot square and an attap leaf roof--no walls at all. All the family sit, sleep and eat and cook on this space. All the people I saw there appeared to be suffering from at least one disease--pneumonia, malaria, yaws, worms, malnutrition--and I am told that there is a great deal of tuberculosis amongst them. Their lives are ruled by witchcraft and superstition and I was shocked to realise how very primitive they are compared with the Dayaks in Sarawak. There are five different languages in the area around Tongud, two are similar but quite different from the other three.

Commentator: In May 1960 the Chinese Assistant Bishop of Borneo, Bishop Wong, visited Tongud and confirmed forty three candidates, the first fruits of the work of the mission. He completed his record of this visit with the words "My first visit to Tongud left me with great admiration for the planning of the Borneo Interior Mission, and the courage and enthusiasm of-Misses Goodricke and Grey. They are doing a most worthwhile job in that isolated area and we must support them with our prayers and supply their material needs".

There is a small radio-telephone at Tongud with which Wendy can get in touch at pre-arranged times with Sandakan and get advice from the doctor there. But any emergency treatment that has to be given she has to undertake alone. With at least one serious case she has set out on the long and difficult journey down to Sandakan.

For thirty days out of the past year Wendy has been out in the jungle to distant settlements with Fr. Puntang. Sometimes they will walk the whole day without coming to a dwelling place and have to sleep the night in the forest. This is very frightening as [11/12] they can hear the wild animals moving around. She finds strength and comfort by repeating the psalms and so can go to sleep.

Another nurse has now gone to Borneo. The time has come for Gwynnedd to return home on holiday, and then it will be Beryl's turn. Fannie Storr has gone to fill the place at Padawan. Trained at St. Thomas' Hospital, London, she served for eighteen months with the Save the Children's Fund in Korea and as soon as the way is open is anxious to return there in the service of the Church. It is a long way from the crowded towns of Korea to the steep mountain slopes and thick jungle around Padawan--the rotten floor of the first long-house she visited gave way beneath her, but nothing daunted she carried on to vaccinate all the children.

Who said there were no more pioneers in the world? But whether struggling with disease and superstition in Borneo, or doing a job in an office or hospital or school in this country, we are one in the Body of Christ, members one of another--so when you pray next time for the Church throughout the world, remember those Christians in Borneo, and remember that they also are praying for you.

[13] Pakistan, Burma, India, Africa from each one we could tell you similar true stories of courage and endurance from missionary nurses. Jungles, mountains, rivers, primitive fears and superstitions are not the only challenges to be met. The light and compassion of Christ are as urgently needed at the focal points of the social turmoil of our time. Whether it is among the teeming population of an Indian town or in a politically troubled African reserve, the Church is there. The Church is there, to preach, to teach, to heal, to show Christ and his grace sufficient for all men's needs. Nurses from Britain work side by side with African and Indian colleagues in crowded hospitals their stories illuminate the tragedy behind the statistics, the hope and vigour with which young people crowd into the nursing profession to play their part. To share their struggles, to be privileged to share with them the riches of our Faith and devotion and medical knowledge is an adventure to which we are called through our common membership in Christ. District nurses, ward sisters, public health nurses, sister tutors--there is a place and a need for the several gifts of each in this service.

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