Margaret Duff (nee Minifie) was born in Wellington in 1937. Her father died when she was young, and her family moved to Westport when her mother re-married. Margaret left school at fifteen and worked in an office until she went nursing at age sixteen at Buller Hospital in Westport where one advantage was being able to live-in.
As Westport had few schools, Margaret knew all the nurses already when she started as they had gone to school together. There were no male nurses at Buller when she was there. There was no single intake of student nurses; she remembers that they all just ‘drifted in’. When new girls began training they would just come in and attend lectures with everyone else.
Margaret remembers that as a student nurse, there were many rules around work and uniform. Initially, she learnt bed-making, cleaning, and turning patients – ‘just the basics’ – before she went into the wards. There were clear boundaries regarding seniority – she learned from senior staff and ward sisters and was ‘an extra pair of hands’. Margaret recalls that she received ‘a very broad education’ because of the mixture at Buller Hospital: instead of doing blocks of specialised training as at larger hospitals, they did ‘everything all the time’. She describes the uniform and rules about interacting with others. Margaret remembers that they learnt quickly the etiquette with hospital staff – ‘you knew your place and that was down there’.
Margaret noticed a difference in formality between the ward sisters and the senior nurses – the hierarchical difference was less defined as the sisters had known the senior nurses throughout their training. She remembers that the matron and assistant matron were friends, but still called each other ‘Miss McGill’ and ‘Miss Keem’. The nurses at Buller Hospital also had a closer relationship with the doctors than in bigger hospitals, and the doctors had better relationships with their patients because it was a country town where everyone knew everyone else.
Margaret remembers that things at the hospital were sometime emotionally difficult, but that as a nurse ‘you just had to cope’. She describes occasions like Christmas.
While at Buller Hospital, Margaret lived in the Nurses’ Home. She remembers that their rooms were checked every day for tidiness, they had a washing machine and drying room for laundry, and their meals in the dining room were ‘beautiful’. There were strict rules – lights out at 10.30pm with one late pass a week – and Margaret remembers that the home sister did rounds to make sure you were in bed, sometimes opening their doors and shining a torch in. She says that despite this, many girls used the downstairs windows to come in and out after hours.
Margaret remembers that they socialised mostly with other nurses, going to dances and movies together as a group. She would also meet her mother in town once a week. There weren’t many social activities within the hospital except a nurses’ ball and a concert at the Nurses’ Home once a year, and Margaret recalls that the matron was shocked by a demonstration of the jitterbug. Margaret says that most people smoked, and were unaware of health concerns. She also recalls that Wesport had many hotels with bars, and despite the law they did not close at six o’clock – if you wanted to get in after six you rang the bell three times. Any police officers doing checks would only ring once, and Margaret says that if you heard one ring, everyone would run out the back entrance with their glasses. The nurses weren’t allowed alcohol at their dances, but that they smuggled it in under their long dresses. Margaret explains nurses’ strategies to discourage “boaties” from trying to date nurses.
For Margaret’s graduation the matron held an afternoon tea and invited Margaret’s mother. She was only twenty, and so had to wait until she could register as a nurse as the age limit was twenty-one. She remained at Buller Hospital as a staff nurse for that year, wearing an old registered nurses’ medal lent to her by an afternoon supervisor. Once twenty-one, she moved to Hutt Hospital in Lower Hutt to do her maternity training as it was not available at Buller – it was a ‘good excuse to go somewhere new’. She recalls that at that time they were trying to eliminate the staph bug from the hospital, so there were very stringent hygiene rules, including wiping down the walls between each delivery. She lived in the Nurses’ Home there, where she recalls having more freedom than at Buller.
Margaret met her husband Doug on a blind date to a nurses’ ball in Lower Hutt, and they were soon engaged. They then moved to Dunedin and Margaret worked as a staff sister at Wakari Hospital – she recalls that it was ‘pretty easy to change jobs then’. After her marriage she became a public health nurse, where she enjoyed the freedom of being ‘out and about’ and being her own boss. After her first child was born, she worked part-time at a private maternity hospital, and later worked in Greymouth and then Wellington where they moved to. Margaret says that she didn’t have to work, but that she wanted to: ‘I didn’t like staying at home really’. She then did her midwifery training at St Helen’s Hospital in Wellington: she says she enjoyed maternity work ‘because they weren't sick’. Later, she enrolled in a Plunket training course and became a Plunket nurse. Over her career, Margaret has enjoyed nursing as she liked dealing with the people. In her experience of more recent graduates under university training, she notes that nowadays ‘all the staff are one’: there are no ranks as there is no training workforce. Margaret also notes that the emphasis in training today is on individual practice rather than being a member of a team, as it was in her day.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Margaret Duff: