NURSING WITH THE AUSTRALIAN INLAND MISSION
AT HALLS CREEK, W.A., 1946-48
by (Mrs) D. F. Andrew (formerly Sister Dulcie Peel)
I was born at Geelong and lived with my parents, sister and two brothers at Inverleigh, about 20 miles west of Geelong, Victoria, until I was 10 years old, and then moved to my father’s farm at Buckley, 10 miles away.
I was the niece of John Clifford Peel whose letter to the Rev. Dr John Flynn in 1917 convinced him that aeroplanes could be used to assist medical aid in outback Australia.
I grew up in a family of parents and grandparents who supported John Flynn’s endeavours to get a Flying Doctor Service started, along the lines suggested by John Clifford Peel.
With nursing for the Australian Inland Mission (A.I.M.) in mind, I commenced my general nursing training at Geelong Hospital and completed
midwifery training at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne in 1945. During that time I met my husband-to-be who was an Air Force officer. I had already applied and been accepted for service with the A.I.M. and was awaiting an opportunity to go to Halls Creek in the Kimberleys, W.A.
During my training at Geelong I met Marjorie McKean who was also training with the A.I.M. in mind. We were both members of the Presbyterian Church and followed the work of Flynn of the Inland very closely.
In April 1946 Marjorie and I were appointed to Halls Creek At this time A.I.M. nurses were appointed for 2 years. We were expected to fulfil this term without holidays and had to be very fit! It was also desirable to be very good friends. After almost a fortnight of travelling by train and plane (and waiting for connections in Perth) we arrived at Halls Creek. Before leaving home we read all we could about Halls Creek, but even so, we could not have imagined what a contrast to our own home State it would prove to be!
We arrived at Halls Creek aerodrome about 2.30 in the afternoon and were met by the Secretary of the Roads Board who was also Secretary of the Hospital – a Mr Arty O’Leary. Transport from the aerodrome to the town, a distance of 10 miles, was by the Roads Board’s tip truck, driven by Arty O’Leary. We sat in the front seat and the two retiring nurses sat in cane chairs on the back. The road was incredibly rough but the time went quickly as Arty questioned us on our ability to make bread, milk goats and pull teeth! Arty was very deaf and had only one eye.
During the war, all white women were evacuated from the area and had not returned to Halls Creek so the total inhabitants were about 11-12 white males who gave us a warm welcome and were very keen to see what we looked like!
The town consisted of a Police Station, Post Office, Hotel, A.I.M. Hospital, two stores, a couple of small residences and some aboriginal humpies or bush dwellings. The Post Office and Police Station were fine substantial buildings made of white-washed mud brick. The older part of the hospital was also made of mud brick painted white – it had originally been the Miners’ Institute. A newer building had been added about 1935. This was made of angle iron and caneite and was elevated to allow the air to circulate. The older building was used for the dispensary and our living quarters. It had one large central room with a verandah on all sides.
Parts of this verandah included our kitchen, living room and the male ward with separate sections for aboriginal and white patients. The newer building had a balcony all round and comprised two central rooms, one for our sleeping quarters, the other as the female ward. We slept on the balcony which was enclosed with flywire. Jack and Daisy, an aboriginal couple, helped with our domestic chores. Daisy did the housework and laundry and milked the goats, while Jack was responsible for keeping the grounds clean and tidy, chopping wood for our very large kitchen stove and carting water from the well. Jack and Daisy preferred to sleep in the dry creek bed even though there was a separate shed for them. We baked bread every second day. The dough was set the night before in a large iron bathtub and was ready for kneading when we got up next morning.
The goats kept us supplied with milk and the fowls with eggs. Both goats and fowls ranged freely among the spinifex and although the goats came home at night to be milked, the fowls often stayed out and did not return until they had hatched their chickens. The goats appreciated the space under our building to keep out of the heat.
Meat was brought into the town from Sophie Downs Station on three camels. Each camel carried two 44-gallon drums of meat. The meat was packed in the drums between layers of gum leaves. One drum contained fresh beef, mostly roast or fillet, which cost about five pence per pound. The other contained salt beef. It was all beautiful meat but after 2 1/2 years of eating mostly beef we craved for the humble sausage!
Our groceries were bought from either George Burke’s store or Smith’s (run by W. Johnson, his wife Maud and daughter Dawn). We entered George Burke’s store through his bedroom at the back of his shop. There was no natural light in the store at all, so, depending on the size of the order, George would either light a lantern or just strike matches until he found the item required.
Fresh fruit and vegetables were brought in by air freight from Perth once a week, but during the wet season we often got donations of vegetables from the station people. Perishable foods were kept in a kerosene-operated refrigerator. For lighting we used kerosene lanterns. There was a temporary power line from the hotel’s generator which gave us one light in our sitting room until 10pm.
During the wet season we hoped for enough rain to fill our water tanks for drinking for the remainder of the year. Water for laundry, bathroom and general cleaning was drawn from a well near the hospital.
The annual Race Meeting was the event of the year. This was held to raise funds for the A.I.M. and Flying Doctor Service. For four days the town’s activities centred around the racecourse which was 10 miles from Old Halls Creek, near the site of the new town. It was hoped that we would not have any patients in the Hospital at that time. However, at one time we did have an elderly man with a heart complaint and he insisted that we should all go. So a comfortable bed was made up on the back of the Roads Board’s tip truck for him and a great time was had by all.
It was at race time that we used up our surplus supply of poultry. It seemed to be a tradition that the Hospital supplied the poultry, the hotel the beef and the Police the pork for lunches at the races. The policemen collected wild pig while out on patrol.
Each year at Christmas, before the wet season set in, we held a party for the children on outlying stations as well as those in town. Santa Claus would arrive, very hot in red suit, whiskers and all.
Our day commenced at 6.15am when we answered the roll call on our pedal radio to Wyndham, 250 miles away. The call sign of the base there was 8WY. This session was the only one where we could get clear reception, so if we needed advice from a doctor we had to use that session. To pedal the radio for transmission was like riding a bicycle uphill, so if we had a lengthy report to give, one of us would pedal while the other spoke.
At this time there was no actual Flying Doctor in the Kimberley Region. A doctor from Broome or Derby called at Halls Creek every 6-8 weeks. By road, Broome was the best part of 500 miles away, Derby a bit less. He came on the regular weekly flight of the MacRobertson-Miller Airline. The plane arrived at Halls Creek about 5pm, stayed overnight and left at 5 next morning. We usually had a number of patients waiting to see the doctor and these had to be examined by the light of a hurricane lantern.
If possible, we “saved up” any dental extractions for the doctor, but when this was not possible we pulled the teeth ourselves.
If a doctor was unable to come to Halls Creek and a patient needed his attention we took the patient to either Derby or Wyndham on the MacRobertson-Miller plane. This meant that one nurse had to travel with the patient and would be away for one week while the other kept things going at Halls Creek. In one extreme emergency we had to get an RAAF plane to come from Darwin to evacuate a patient. This took four days. During the war the Flying Doctor plane had been destroyed by Japanese bombers and had not been replaced.
The A.I.M. office teams in the capital cities of Australia kept us supplied with books and magazines for anyone who needed reading matter. These were very popular, especially with the “Old Timers” who lived on the outskirts of the town and came regularly to collect them and have a chat with us.
When we were not busy at the Hospital, life was very relaxed in Old Halls Creek. We played tennis each afternoon and this was a great time for the townspeople and the staff who came in from the aerodrome. We enjoyed the beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I shall never forget some of the thunderstorms we experienced. It was wonderful to see the Hospital Creek and Halls Creek running so high after being dry for months. After the water subsided we would go down the Hospital Creek with our aboriginal help, Daisy, and look for gold specks. We were not very successful, but Daisy’s sharp eye would always produce something worthwhile.
In 1985 I returned with my husband to see the ruins of the old town. My husband was particularly interested to see the remains of the old post office where 150 or so of his letters had passed through!We spent 2 1/2 years in Halls Creek. In October 1948 Sister McKean and I left Halls Creek for home and soon after I was married.
I feel very privileged to have lived and worked for the A.I.M. in Old Halls Creek.
The A.I.M. Hospital was established in 1918 in response to an event which became famous. A year earlier James Darcy, a stockman, sustained injuries in a fall from his horse. His mates took him into Halls Creek where, following telegraphed instructions from a doctor in Perth, the postmaster performed an operation. This was successful but Darcy died from another condition before the Perth doctor reached Halls Creek.
The Rev. Dr John Flynn soon saw that Halls Creek was another remote place needing a hospital. In 1912 he had gained the approval of the Presbyterian Church’s Assembly to set up the Australian Inland Mission. John Flynn was thus the founder of the A.I.M. and remained its Superintendent until his death in 1951. The Halls Creek Hospital was the fourth in a long line of similar medical facilities in all corners of the outback. Another dream was realised when, in 1928, the Aerial Medical Service performed its first mercy flight. Initially part of the A.I.M., it later became the Royal Flying Doctor Service, an independent and world-renowned organisation.