June Rapson (nee Page), an only child, was born in Dunedin in 1927 before her family moved to Lawrence, a small town in Otago for most of her childhood. She decided to go nursing as it was one of the few occupations which provided accommodation. June began at Dunedin Public Hospital in 1946, and while she remembers there being a lot of rules for the student nurses, ‘it was fun’ to be in a class with girls she became good friends with.
The nurses had a white uniform, with a hat and belt. Their uniforms indicated their seniority: there were stars on the pocket which were added when the nurses moved up the ranks. Partway through June’s training, the hospital introduced a purple uniform for meals, which they had to change into to go to the dining room – ‘All this in half an hour...we couldn't see the sense in it’. They were never allowed out of the hospital in their uniform.
As a student nurse, June attended lectures once a week for an hour. The same lecture was given twice: if the nurses were on morning shift, they went to the lectures straight after they finished, and if they were on afternoon shift they went in the morning. Sometimes there were blocks of lectures for one to two weeks. They were taught anatomy, history of nursing, practical bed-sponging and lifting, and bed-panning. They were also taken to the hospital and ‘let loose on wards to work with juniors...we followed them round like little sheep’. When a junior herself, June’s tasks consisted mainly of making beds, sponging, and ‘a lot of cleaning’ – even the wheels of the beds had to be pushed in, so ‘our lovely white shoes would get black marks’. June explains the juniors’ jobs.
June lived at the Dunedin Hospital Nurses’ Home for a while, where she had her own room. She recalls that the home sister would check the bedrooms once a fortnight without permission. In their first year, the nurses had to be in by 10pm, they had to sign in and sign out, and were permitted one late leave a week. As she was training in the immediate post-War period, June’s experience was affected by continuing food shortages.
June explains that she heard from other nurses that conditions were much better at Seacliff Mental Hospital than at the public hospital, so she decided to transfer to Seacliff.
At Seacliff Hospital June felt like a ‘fish out of water’. She recalls that the registered psychiatric nurses ‘were not very fussed on us’ – they ‘felt threatened’ by the general nurses’ skills. Work at Seacliff was very busy: they were short staffed, so June often worked two weeks without a day off. They worked wherever they were needed including the Admission Ward, the ‘Disturbed’ Ward, and the ward for intellectually disabled boys. She also worked at The Cottage where patients went before discharge to learn to cook, wash and other domestic duties. The hospital was less well equipped than June was used to, and she had to adjust how she worked as a result. There were few medications except paraldehyde which ‘patients hated and it smelt’. Electro-convulsive treatment (ECT) was used, sometimes un-modified, to control moods. June described patient’s activities such as work in the laundry, gardens and wards, ‘They all knew what they had to do and they did it’, and dances, picnics, fishing and walks. Patients attended occupational therapy where they made crafts that were at times won awards in local shows.
June was exempt from the first psychiatric nursing state exam because she was already a registered nurse, so she just sat her Hospital Finals and State Finals. She was one of only two students who sat their exams – ‘it wasn’t a big thing to sit your finals’. Promotions were based on length of employment rather than on exams. The work was much less regimented than in a general hospital.
Seacliff Village, where June lived, was very close-knit, ‘almost like a family’. The isolation of the hospital kept the village together as they couldn't get out to socialise, and the village ran concerts in the hospital hall and dances in the village hall. They also sometimes went out for picnics: ‘we would borrow, beg or steal food from the hospital kitchen, walk along the [railway] line from Seacliff to Karitane, have a barbeque or picnic, swim, then walk back’. Seacliff had male staff, which was another big difference from the general hospital. They had no contact with them while on duty, but the male staff could come to the Nurses’ Home. She met her husband, Gordon, who was also a staff member at Seacliff, and they were married during her training – June remembers that she took a textbook on their honeymoon. In contrast to Dunedin Hospital, Seacliff ‘didn't mind that you got married and kept working’.
June left nursing for a decade while she had children, and returned to work at Cherry Farm in Waikouiti in 1969. She noticed several major changes in psychiatric nursing when she came back. This hospital was on a main highway so it was easier for visitors, and transport was much better. In addition, there was a change in the nurses’ role: previously ‘it was custodial and looking after the patients physically’, and now they were ‘putting the onus on the patients to look after themselves’.
June was employed part-time as tutor, and later in 1972 she was asked to teach an enrolled nursing course. As well as teaching nurses at Cherry Farm, she gave lectures to general nurses who came for six weeks from Oamaru, Timaru and Balclutha Hospitals for psychiatric experience. When the Nursing School moved to Dunedin in 1979 and she had to travel to teach, she opted of teaching and returned to clinical work as a staff nurse on a psycho-geriatric ward. When June was sixty, she decided to retire from nursing. She enjoyed working in psychiatric nursing as there was a ‘family feeling’ among the staffing community at both Cherry Farm and Seacliff Hospitals – ‘I don't think you get that at general hospitals’.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with June Rapson: