Nurses guide

General nursing duties in the earliest days of the Colony were undertaken by untrained convicts. This Guide provides an historical background and select list of records relating to nursing in New South Wales.

Historical Overview

Nursing duties

General nursing duties in the earliest days of the Colony were undertaken by untrained convicts. Male attendants undertook the supervision of male patients, their dietary needs and burial. Female attendants undertook similar duties with the female patients.[1] Attention to hygiene standards was almost non-existent.

Free settlers

Free settlers were generally appointed to the more prominent positions. Jane Sims arrived free on the Friends in 1811 to take up the post of Midwife to the General Hospital. Her wages were paid from the Police Fund. Midwives were also employed in a broad range of domestic situations. The services of Mrs Frost and Mrs Reynolds, Elizabeth Macquarie’s midwives at the birth of her son Lachlan in 1814, were so appreciated by Governor Macquarie that he gave them a gift of £5 each.[2]

Sydney Infirmary

When the Sydney Infirmary (later to be known as Sydney Hospital) opened in 1816, its staff consisted of an overseer, an attendant clerk, a gatekeeper, a matron and a number of male and female care givers.[3] Over the next few decades staffing numbers increased and there was a growing awareness of the importance of cleanliness and hygiene as a weapon against infection and disease. In practice, however, improvements in health care were minimal and conditions were often squalid.

Bathsheba Ghost

Bathsheba Ghost’s appointment as Matron of the Sydney Infirmary in 1852 was significant in more ways than one. Ghost had arrived in Sydney in 1839 on the Planter to serve a 14 year sentence for receiving stolen goods. Prior to her conviction she had been employed as a ladies’ nursery maid. Ghost was one of a very few working class women of convict background to be appointed to a position of authority in the colony at that period and she worked hard to raise the standards of nursing care and to provide traiing under very challenging conditions.[4].

Lucy Osburn

In 1868, at the behest of Henry Parkes, Nightingale trained nurse Lucy Osburn arrived from London to take up the position of Lady Superintendent at the Sydney Infirmary. Accompanying Osburn were five nurses trained at the same institution: Mary Barker, Eliza (Elizabeth) Ann Blundell, Bessie (Betsy) Annie Chant (nee Barthorpe), Annie Miller and Haldane Colquhoun Turriff. [5] All were to be employed by the New South Wales Government for an initial period of three years. Osburn devoted sixteen years of her life to the Sydney Infirmary eventually retiring in 1884. During this period she established the Nightingale system of nursing in Sydney and in doing so became an instigator of significant nursing reform throughout the Colony. Major changes included the incorporation of nursing training sessions into the daily hospital routine, the raising of hygiene standards, the introduction of uniforms and the emergence of nursing as an exclusively female occupation.[6]

Training schools

The first formal training schools for nurses in New South Wales were established at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and at St Vincents Hospital in 1882. The training period was two years and increased to three years in 1903. Each hospital conducted its own nursing examinations. The first external formal nursing examinations were held in 1906 under the auspices of the Australasian Trained Nurses’ Association.

Crown Street Women's Hospital

The Crown Street Women’s Hospital opened in 1893. As part of its aim to raise standards of maternity care the Women’s Hospital provided instruction to women who had previously acted as midwives without any medical certification.

Baby Health Clinics

The first Baby Health Centre was opened at Alexandria in Sydney in 1914. A Baby Clinics, pre-maternity and Home Nursing Board was established in July 1914. This was a non-statutory body which appeared to oversee the Baby Health Clinics.

Nurses Registration Board

The Nurses Registration Act (No. 37 1924) hailed the commencement of government regulation of the profession in New South Wales. Under this act the Nurses Registration Board was responsible for the administration of registration examinations, the regulation of registration certificates and the maintenance of registers of qualified nurses. Since its inception in 1924 the size of the Nurses Registration Board has increased and its composition has changed in favour of more nursing members. Its functions have also expanded under the Nurses Act (No.9 1991) to include the promotion and maintenance of professional standards of nursing practice in NSW and the promotion of education for nurses.

A Select List of Sources

Early sources

Colonial Secretary

Index to Colonial Secretary’s papers, 1788-1825 To locate the early records of nurses consult the index under ‘nurses’, ‘midwives’ and ‘hospitals’ as well as under individual names.
1788-1825 *ARK
Colonial Secretary's Special Bundles Nurses, Sydney Hospital 1866-68 [4/768.2] Contains correspondence about the establishment of the nurses’ school at The Infirmary.
Colonial Secretary’s Letter Received 79/6184 [1/2450] - Lucy Osburn’s response to a complaint of Mrs Simmons regarding her treatment as a patient of the Sydney Infirmary in 1879.

Musters and census

The 1805-06, 1814, 1822, 1823-25 musters and the 1828 Census can all be searched by occupation using such terms as ‘nurse’, ‘matron’, ‘midwife’ and ‘wardsman’.

Nurses in NSW government employment

Returns of the Colony These returns provide the following details for matrons of government hospitals: date of appointment, by whom appointed and annual salary.
Public Service Lists These lists contain the following information relating to permanent government employees: name, office, date of appointment and salary.
NRS 12395[8/2599-2733]
Public Service Board: Employees’ history cardsThe following information is provided: date of birth, date of employment, Department and division, designation, salary, date of resignation and remarks.
NRS 5130[6/5347 part-5348]
Parramatta Psychiatric Centre: Abstracts and acquittances of salaries and allowancesThe information given includes situation, name, date of original appointment to the public service, date of appointment to present situation, period, number of days, rate, salary amount, signatures, and number of cheque.
NRS 5131[19/13019-13021]
Parramatta Psychiatric Centre: Staff registersThese volumes provide a monthly record of salaries paid to all staff members, together with the following information (given less frequently): situation, date of employment, age, social condition, whether resident, religion, remarks (eg. notes on disciplinary action taken against staff members, notes on retirement, resignation etc.).
NRS 610[3/5620 part-5622 part]
Board of Health: Salary registersThese registers record monthly payments made to Board members and staff under the control of the Board.
NRS 4838[3/5622 part-5631]
Board of Health: Salary registers 
NSW Government Gazettes Nurses are usually indexed in second or third volume of each year under ‘Nurses Registration Act – Nurses registered Under’. List of nurses divided into four categories – General Nurses, Midwives, Mental Nurses, Infant Nurses. The lists for 1926-1929 and 1933 have been extracted and are available in the reading room as COD 602. Lists for 1939 and 1941 are available as COD 603.

Training records

Public Service Board: Selection of pupil nurses, Coast Hospital 32/3210 
Crown Street Hospital: Indexes of nursing staffThe following information is recorded: name, address, date of commencement and date of leaving.
Crown Street Hospital: Nurses registers The following information is recorded: name, address, date of entry, date of examination, remarks and signature.

Nurses Registration Board

NRS 10859[12/29]
Certificates of registration and miscellaneous certificates 
NRS 10860[8/2742.3]
Register of nursing certificates This register gives the following particulars for nursing certificates issued: if attendant or nurse; name; hospital; year of educational test; first year; second year; third year; and date of certificate.
NRS 10855(Reels 2146, 2620)
Register of general nurses The following information is recorded: name, hospital trained at, certificate number, date of registration, records number, and remarks.
NRS 10856(Reels 2146, 2620)
Register of mid-wives The following information is recorded: name, hospital trained at, certificate number, date of registration or renewal, records number, and remarks.
NRS 10857(Reel 2620)
Register of infants’ nurses The following information is given: name, hospital trained at, certificate number, date of registration, records number, and remarks.
NRS 10858(Reel 2620)
Register of psychiatric nurses The following information is given: name, hospital trained at, certificate number, date of registration, records number, and remarks.
NRS 10854(Reel 2621)
Minute Books
5 Mar 1925-27 Aug 1959

Baby Health Centres

NRS 4866[2/8566.2]
Papers relating to the development of baby health centres and the Division of Maternal and Baby Welfare 
NRS 4877[7/9998-7/10000]
Reports of staffing of baby health centres These volumes include lists of staff at baby health centres and dates of appointment.
NRS 4873 (photos)
Photographs of the Newtown, Alexandria and Bourke Street Baby ClinicsThe photographs include internal and external views of the clinics, mothers and babies in waiting rooms, babies receiving attention and mothers holding babies being instructed by the nurses.
NRS 4921[5/5845]
Register of Country Women’s Association Baby Health Centres 
NRS 4919[5/5846.1]
Infantile statistics This volume represents the daily record of the two trained nurses entrusted with the duty of visiting mothers of new born infants in the Sydney city and inner suburban areas.

Other sources

NRS 606[5/5857-63]
Board of Health: Register of private licensed hospitalsUnder the provisions of the Private Hospitals Act, 1908 all private hospitals were required to be registered and this included maternity hospitals operated by midwives and/or nurses.
NRS 5583[12/3482.2, 5/5878]
Inspector General of Mental Hospitals: Rules and regulations Includes rules for nurses for both the Reception House for the Insane, Darlinghurst and Hospitals for the Insane, New South Wales.

Related Sources

The Australasian Trained Nurses' Association (ATNA), Australia's first nursing association, was formed in New South Wales in 1899. ATNA records are held by the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries Manuscripts Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

Further Reading

Australian Dictionary of Biography – both hardcover and online formats can be searched by occupation.

Judith Godden, Lucy Osburn, a lady displaced. Sydney, Sydney University Press, 2006.

Judith Godden, Bathsheba Ghost, Matron of the Sydney Infirmary 1852-66: a Silenced Life. Labour History 87 (2004): 45 pars. 16 Jun. 2009

Jacqueline Bloomfield, The Changing Image of Australian Nursing: 28 pars. 16 Jun 2009

Angela Cushing. ‘Convicts and care giving in colonial Australia’. Nursing History and Politics of Welfare. Eds. Anne Rafferty, Jane Robinson and Ruth Elkan. London, New York: Routledge 1997. pp 107-130.


[1] Angela Cushing, Convicts and care giving in colonial Australia, p.120

[2] John Ritchie, Lachlan Macquarie: A Biography, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1986 p.141

[3] Cushing, op.cit., p.113

[4] Judith Godden, Bathsheba Ghost, Matron of the Sydney Infirmary, 1852-66: A Silenced Life, p.1

[5] Judith Godden, Lucy Osburn, a lady displaced. Sydney, Sydney University Press, 2006

[6] Jacqueline Bloomfield, The Changing Image of Australian Nursing, par8