Queen of the Nurses Quest

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.

Entry form for Matron Sadie MacDonald

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.

Queen of the Nurses Quest winners

Queen of the Nurses Quest winners

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.

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As time goes on, we lose so much of everyday history, this is a great story about the Queen of the Nurses quest. Quite amazing amounts of money raised for that time. Thanks for the blog.

Many thanks Greg, You're right about the money. In the 10 months to December 1948, the Fund raised about £55,000, which was £10,000 short of their goal. Still, it's an amazing effort considering that there were fresh fruit shortages in Longreach, butter and tea rationing across the State, and petrol rationing everywhere.

How wonderful to read all this history. I knew of the Queen of the Nurses Quest but had no idea about its origin. The names of those involved, Norma Knight, George Hardman and more. They bring back so many memories. You have done a wonderful job researching and I look forward to more blogs as they come to fruition. Well done Madonna.

Many thanks Rosalie. The Centaur Memorial Fund records are testament to the relevance of radio in people's lives in an era before television. In 1948, it was either being at the concert in the flesh or listening to it on the radio. There are lots of local performers from all around QLD who aided this State-wide tribute to the nursing profession in peace and war. They danced, sang, played all sorts of instruments, were ventriloquists or comedians. The numbers of people who contributed are huge. It says a lot about the public's respect for nurses at the time that the campaign was so embraced.

Another great uncovering of the past and how nurses were used for fundraising. Thanks Madonna.

Such an interesting story Madonna, and beautifully told - it is a story that intersects with and illuminates many aspects of the social fabric of the time and place. Thank you.

Hi MadonnaThank you again for helping to keep the history of nursing alive in this country. You are making public, stories which most of us would not know about, and which should not be lost in the mists of time. While theses times are a bygone era, they should not be a forgotten era! Many thanks Elizabeth

Thanks Elizabeth, the more I am learning about our professional history, the more I realise what I don't know and sometimes don't understand! The place of the military in our profession's development is something that I will discuss in a presentation to the ANMF in Victoria, 21 November. The current generation owes them an enormous debt.

wonderful to learn this about my Aunty Kit. I never met her but she lived on in the hearts of her family and in my sister (now Aunty Kit to my children).

Thank you Jean. By all accounts your Aunt Kit was a popular nurse, and good at her job. She died well before her time and colleagues mourned her passing.