Canadian Navy

10/18/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 10/19/2021 13:03

First World War nurses mark the beginning of women in the RCN

When six young Canadian women decided to become nurses, they couldn't have imagined they would be serving at sea at the beginning of the First World War.

Motivated by patriotism, loyalty, a sense of duty and in many cases, a sense of adventure, Elizabeth Pierce, Mabel Ogilvie Lindsay, Penelope Mellen, Annie Dover, Bessie Watson and Emma Gertrude Black helped contribute to a new social perception of women's capabilities and potential in the early 20th century.

These nurses were the first women to be officially accepted into the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and served during August 1914 in His Majesty's Canadian Hospital Ship (HMCHS) Prince George, the only Canadian hospital ship to sail with the RCN.

They were recruited by Dr. Charles Barron Wainwright, an English born and educated physician employed by Victoria's Provincial Royal Jubilee Hospital (PRJH). On August 13, 1914, he accepted the position of Surgeon in Charge of HMCHS Prince George and was instructed to purchase medical stores and surgical instruments locally. He was also tasked to recruit three nurses.

At that time, most graduate nurses in Victoria found employment in private duty nursing or in the employment of the two major hospitals, the PRJH and St Joseph's, but many of them also belonged to the growing volunteer Militia.

From these ranks Dr. Wainwright secured the volunteer services of six graduate nurses, all members of the Victoria Militia. The change from three to six nurses was likely prompted by plans for the 24-hour staffing of wards and the operating room, and supports the premise that Prince George expected to serve more than 300 patients.

Dr. Wainwright notified the Senior Naval Officer at the Esquimalt, B.C., naval base that the nurses "should rank as officers and have had sufficient training, hence deserve a rating above Sick Berth Steward."

Elizabeth Pierce

Elizabeth Pierce was born in Ontario and was a 1908 graduate of the School of Nursing at the PRJH. Prior to volunteering for Navy duty, Pierce had been head surgical nurse at the PRJH and also at the Bute Street Hospital in Vancouver. She was appointed Acting Nursing Sister (A/NS), receiving a pay rate of $100 per month.

Although little is known of the nurse's life aboard HMCHS Prince George, Pierce appears to have enjoyed the experience as she sent a post card of Prince George to her family declaring that "a life on the ocean waves suits me very much."

The military life also suited A/NS Pierce as she later served over five years with the Canadian Army Military Corps (CAMC) in operating rooms in England and near the front line in France, and received the order of the Royal Red Cross Class 2 for her bravery and devotion to duty.

Following her war service A/NS Pierce returned to Victoria in 1920 and registered with the newly formed Graduate Nurse's Association of British Columbia as she continued her career with the Victorian Order of Nurses in that city.

Mabel Ogilvie Lindsay

At the time of her appointment to HMCHS Prince George, Mabel Ogilvie Lindsay was 33 years old. Scottish born, she had completed her nurse training at the Radcliffe County Hospital in Oxford, England.

Before travelling to Canada, NS Lindsay spent three years with the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service for India, where she cared for British servicemen and their families who were serving in the British Raj.

During this turbulent time in India's history, she gained a unique experience in caring for the sick and wounded in military service. She was the only Prince George nurse with military experience other than that of the volunteer Militia.

Following her service in Prince George, NS Lindsay also joined the CAMC and spent over five years in England, France and in other hospital ships. During her time overseas she experienced frequent episodes of respiratory infections culminating in a severe bronchopneumonia which left her with damaged lungs and unable to perform general service.

After her demobilization in July 1920 she registered with the Graduate Nurses Association of British Columbia but appears to have spent the remainder of her life in San Francisco where she died in 1966 at 85 years of age.

Penelope Mellen

At 24 years of age, NS Penelope Mellen was the youngest nurse appointed to Prince George. In the summer of 1914 she had just graduated from the PRJH School of Nursing. At this time the Mayo Clinic in the United States had been using nurses as anaesthetists for several years and many Canadian nursing sisters were later used in this role in casualty clearing stations across France.

Since Prince George carried no physician anaesthetist, it is quite likely that NS Mellen, with her recent operating room experience, was expected to fill that role.

Following her time in Prince George, NS Mellen also joined the CAMC and spent two years with 2 Canadian General Hospital (CGH) and 3 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) in England and France, until resigning her commission in June 1917.

One year later she married Major Stanley Gordon Chown, a surgeon with the CAMC who was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his service in the 2 CGH and CCS in both France and Belgium.

After the war they settled in Winnipeg, where Dr. Chown became Chief of Pediatrics at the Winnipeg General Hospital. Their eldest son became a Member of Parliament for that city and their daughter was instrumental in establishing speech therapy services at all the major hospitals.

Annie Dover

NS Annie Dover was born in Bedfordshire, England, in 1887 and came to Canada some time prior to 1914. She was a member of the Victoria Militia when she was recruited for service in HMCHS Prince George.

Following her time in Prince George, NS Dover also joined the CAMC as a nursing sister and spent four years at a variety of CGHs and Stationary Hospitals in both France and England.

Her war experiences were plagued by several incidences of poor health and she was treated for a variety of debilitating infections. She was demobilized in 1919 and after a brief period spent in Victoria after the war, she has left no trace of her life.

Bessie Irving Watson

NS Bessie Irving Watson was born in Cumberland, England, and graduated from the School of Nursing at the Royal Southern Hospital in Liverpool which had opened in 1859 under the advice of Florence Nightingale and was renowned for instituting the first horse-drawn ambulance service in the United Kingdom.

Like the other Prince George nurses, NS Watson was working in Victoria as a graduate nurse and a member of the local Militia when she joined the ship's medical staff.

In March 1915 NS Watson joined the CAMC where she spent time with the 2 CGH in France and from then worked at the West Cliff Canadian Eye and Ear Hospital in England.

On February 28, 1916, while on leave in England, she married Basil Aylmer, a captain in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Forces. She resigned her commission in June of that year and returned to Canada.

During that short time of war service, NS Watson was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2, the 1914-15 Star, and the British War and Victory medals. She returned to British Columbia where she remained until her death in 1956. Her only son, Mathew Aylmer, died at Normandy in 1944.

Emma Gertrude Black

Born in 1884 in Fort Williams, Ont., NS Emma Gertrude Black moved to Victoria with her family as a young child. She completed her nursing training at the PRJH, graduating in 1912. She was also working as a graduate nurse in Victoria and like her peers, was a member of the local Militia.

Following her 1914 summer service in Prince George, NS Black joined the CAMC and served for four years in both France and England. She served overseas until early 1919 when she returned to her mother's home in Vancouver and later worked at the Summerland Hospital in central B.C.

In July 1928, at 44 years of age, she married Sir John Frederick Whitworth Aylmer, the 9th Lord Aylmer of Balrath, in County of Meath, Ireland, immediately becoming Baroness Aylmer.

Sir John was the great, great grandson of Mathew Whitworth-Aylmer, the 5th Baron and Governor General of Canada from 1830 to 1835. He was also the older brother of Basil Aylmer, the husband of Bessie Irving Watson.

Sir John and Baroness Aylmer lived in Vancouver until their deaths.

A short service

War service for Prince George was short, and records show that only two patients were treated in during its 33 days of service in the RCN. A sailor from the Japanese cruiser Idzumo was treated for a broken leg and one of the nurses twisted an ankle.

Women would not have an official role in the RCN until July 31, 1942, with the formation of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS). Over 6,000 women joined the WRCNS and served with distinction in 39 trades in Canada and overseas, until the end of hostilities in 1945.

But Nursing Sisters Pierce, Lindsay, Mellen, Dover, Watson and Black paved the way for women in the RCN, and their legacy aboard Prince George was just the beginning of what women would go on to accomplish in the Navy.