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Bonzer Words!: Jane Bell

Paula Wilson outlines the life of Jane Bell, a Scottish-born woman who brought about major changes and improvements to nursing in Australia.

The QV precinct is situated in the heart of Melbourne on the site of the old Queen Victoria Women’s Hospital. Included in its design are a number of laneways with intriguing names. Among them are Jane Bell Lane, Constance Stone Lane and Red Cape Lane.

Jane Bell was born in Scotland on 16 March 1873; she was one of William and Helen Bell’s eight children. Their world was torn apart when both parents and four of the children died of tuberculosis. The local Presbyterian community rallied to the aid of the four surviving siblings, raising money for them to migrate to Australia.

It was 1886 when their ship landed in Sydney, New South Wales, and the Bell children embarked on a new life. Jane was just thirteen and it may have been rather daunting arriving in a strange country without parents to guide her. Then again she might have seen it as an adventure that many of her peers from the farming community where she was born would never encounter. Whatever way Jane viewed it she grabbed the opportunity.

By 1894 Jane was accepted at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and she began training as a nurse. That first day no one could have envisioned what an impact this 21 year old was going to have on the nursing profession. The rest of her life would be devoted to making changes that would stand to this day.

Four years later Jane graduated. She nursed at a number of locations before ending up in Queensland where she became matron of Bundaberg Hospital, 1903, and Brisbane General Hospital, 1904. Two years later she travelled to London to study midwifery at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital. Once her training was completed she was appointed deputy superintendent of nursing at Edinburgh Infirmary where she remained until 1910 when she returned to Australia.

Jane headed south to Victoria to become Lady Superintendent (Matron) of Royal Melbourne Hospital. This was a position Jane was to hold until 1934, except for a brief period while she served overseas during World War 1. She immediately set about improving nurses’ accommodation and getting them into operating theatres—a place they had previously been excluded from. This was the beginning of her endless fight for reform

As early as 1913 Jane was Lady Superintendent of the Third Military District and when war broke out in 1914 it was a natural move to overseas duties. Jane left Melbourne as a principal matron bound for Egypt on the hospital ship Kyarra*.

Jane’s war service was short-lived as she had serious disagreements with the Army Medical Service. There were no set guidelines for nurses and nobody seemed to know whom they were serving under and what their positions and responsibilities were. Although Jane was principal matron she did not have command of her nurses, orders came through a convoluted system. Jane wanted some sort of clarification and made a number of recommendations. When these were rejected she asked and was recalled to Australia.

While Jane was making the slow trip by ship back home an inquiry was held into the administration of the Australian General Hospital. The inquiry ruled changes be made to the administration of the Australian Army Medical and Nursing Service. Jane’s recommendations were taken into consideration and came into force in 1916.

Jane returned to her position at Royal Melbourne Hospital. Over the following years she made changes that included the red cape that inspired the name of the QV precinct lane. Army nurses already wore the cape and Jane introduced it for all civilian nurses at Royal Melbourne.

Also among the many reforms was the appointment of Sister Tutors, and pay for trainee nurses. To her, nursing was a profession that demanded professionalism and respect by both nurses and the institutions they worked in. She worked for and achieved better training and conditions. Jane was involved with a number of organisations that furthered her quest for reform; among them the Australasian Trained Nurses Association of which she was a founding member in 1899.

Jane retired as matron of the Royal Melbourne Hospital 1934, 40 years after she started her own training. In 1944 she was awarded an OBE and appeared before the Commonwealth Parliamentary Joint Committee on Social Security the same year, with several of her recommendations eventually being adopted.

Jane Bell died, as a patient at the hospital she spent many years fighting for change, on 6 August 1959.

© Paula Wilson

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To read more of Paula's fascinating articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=paula+wilson

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