Guest blogger, Madonna Grehan, John Oxley Library Fellow for 2015.
The Centaur Fund Series highlights Queenslanders’ special acknowledgement of the nursing profession, in the years after World War II.
In 1948, the main fundraiser for Queensland’s Centaur Memorial Fund was a “Queen of the Nurses’ Quest”. The idea was for hospitals and health centres to select a nurse as their Quest candidate and develop a committee to fund-raise in her name. Attractive prizes awaited the nurse who raised the most money: a trip to Honolulu and a substantial wardrobe of the latest fashions.
Guided by service areas within the Health Department, Queensland was divided into 11 regions. Some nurses were sponsored by a Shire or town and took that region’s name, as did ‘Nurse Maroochy’ and ‘Nurse Bundaberg’. Matron Sadie Macdonald was ‘Nurse Army’, sponsored by the Army. Others entrants were sponsored by businesses such as the Imperial Meatworks at Redbank; their nurse was ‘Nurse Imperial’. There was also ‘Nurse Bookmakers’, ‘Nurse Bread Manufacturers’, ‘and Nurse Greek Community’.
As far as the Fund was concerned, the Quest was a “most popular nurse” competition, not a beauty quest. Even so, the application forms required prospective entrants to record their height, complexion, hair colour, and eye colour. Around 70 candidates gained sponsorship for the Quest, although 100 nurses indicated their interest as potential candidates. The competition was so popular that the Miss Australia Quest decided not to field a candidate from Queensland that year.
The Queen of the Nurses’ Quest and the Centaur Appeal were launched at a concert in Brisbane’s City Hall on Monday 15 March. This evening event featured a fabulous line up, compered by well-known personality George Hardman of Radio Station 4BH. Frederic Rogers was at the keys of the City Hall organ. The young Cunningham brothers Barry and Martin, winners of the Regent Talent Quest, performed their song and dance act. Billy Williams, Amateur Hour winner, played the harmonica. Singers included Kay Ernst, a soprano formerly of JC Williamson’s, Val and Pat Pedersen the popular ‘radio harmony singers’, and Lennie McDermott of Cremorne Theatre fame. Accompanist for the evening was Miss Norma Knight.
During proceedings, a special message was read from Sister Ellen Savage GM (George Medal), the only nurse to survive the 2/3 Australian Hospital Ship Centaur’s sinking. At that time she was in London, undertaking studies in hospital administration. Savage thanked Queenslanders for their care and kindness to Centaur’s survivors in May 1943, commending the Appeal as an appropriate gesture to her fellow Centaur nursing personnel killed in the incident.
Many of the entrants in the Queen of the Nurses Quest were present on the night of the launch, wearing their white uniforms, sisters’ veils or nurses’ caps, and scarlet red cloaks. Towards the end of the concert, the candidates were invited onto the City Hall stage for the official launch of the Quest by Lieutenant-Governor Frank A Cooper.
After a hectic year, the Quest competition closed in December 1948. Right up to 16 December, only two of the Fund’s Executive knew which nurse had won. With Radio 4BH covering the announcement and crowning ceremony at Brisbane’s City Hall, the winners of the Queen of the Nurses Quest were declared at 9pm.
Sister Peggy Taylor ‘Nurse Cold Flame’ was the Queen of the Nurses, raising £5001. She was sponsored by the firm Charles Hope Ltd, the maker of the ‘Cold Flame’ Kerosene Refrigerator. Matron Sadie Macdonald ‘Nurse Army’ was second with £4002/16/5. Sister Catherine (Kitty) Evans ‘Nurse Ipswich’ was third with £2486/13/10. This huge fundraising effort , combined with general donations, generated £44,000 by December 1948 making possible the purchase of Exton House at 337 Queen Street in Brisbane. It was to become an educational and recreational centre for the nurses of Queensland. Re-named ‘Centaur House’ the building was a perpetual memorial to the 11 nursing sisters killed in the sinking of the 2/3 AHS Centaur.
Madonna’s previous blog stories can be found here: