Friday 11 January 2019

Bathsheba Ghost: Convict Hospital Matron

There were opportunities in the penal colony of New South Wales for a smart woman to overcome her convict past, forge a new career and become one of the most highly paid women in the colony. Bathsheba Ghost managed to do all that in her twenty-two years at the Sydney Infirmary, first as a nurse and then as matron. And when she died she was able to leave a substantial bequest to her beloved hospital.
On 19 May 1838, in the Central Criminal Court of the Old Bailey, twenty-eight-year-old Bathsheba Ghost, former ladies’ nursery maid (I like to think of her looking like the nursery maid above), was found guilty of receiving stolen property and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to the colony of New South Wales. 

At the time she was living at 338 Oxford Street in London (now the site of Debenhams flagship department store) with her husband and three-year old son. See:
for an account of her trial at the Old Bailey.

She left husband and son both behind in London; her husband had publicly distanced himself from her, despite some evidence of his own involvement in the crime.

And so Bathsheba, together with 170 other female convicts, departed England in 1838 on the Planter, a ship similar to the Buffalo (above).

After four months at sea, she arrived at Port Jackson in March 1839 and was assigned work as a domestic servant. 

Her nursing career began when she was granted her ticket of leave in 1844 and began work as a paid nurse at the General Hospital. Two years later, she was granted a conditional pardon; effectively she was free, but it stipulated that she could not return to Britain. So she continued to nurse at what was now the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary. 

By 1852 she had so impressed the Infirmary Board that they offered her the position of Hospital Matron, a post she was to occupy for the next fourteen years. 

Her salary of £80, with board and lodging provided, was considerably higher than that given to her predecessor. By 1854, her salary had been increased to £100. In recommending the increase, the board stated: ‘It is sufficient to say that the order and cleanliness which reflect so much credit upon our institution are mainly owing to her unwearied personal exertions’.

Eventually, Bathsheba was earning £120 per annum, which was one of the highest salaries for a woman in New South Wales at the time.

During Bathsheba’s 14 years as matron, there were major changes in medical practice, including the first use of anaesthetics. Apparently she took these in her stride, as the Infirmary’s annual reports regularly praised its matron for the order and cleanliness of the hospital, and for taking a leading role in training nurses under her care. In 1864, the board arranged for her ‘small and unsuitable apartments’ to be upgraded to allow her ‘accommodation due to her position and long and faithful service’. 

Not only the board was impressed by Bathsheba. Maria Rye, a friend of Florence Nightingale, visited Sydney in 1865. Although she generally condemned colonial hospitals, in a letter to Miss Nightingale she wrote that the Sydney Infirmary was ‘a wonderful exception as good as any Hospital in London’.

Bathsheba never remarried but, towards the end of her life, her son Thomas migrated to the colony of New South Wales and she came to know her granddaughter Eliza. 

Sadly, her final years were marred by a painful and lingering illness of the uterus. In a time of limited pain relief she turned to opium and alcohol, and despite Bathsheba’s much praised efforts to maintain order and cleanliness at the hospital, matters deteriorated during her last illness. (See the cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1869). 

Despite her illness she continued her duties as matron and opposed any idea of change in the running of the institution until her death in August 1866. 

In August 1866, Bathsheba Ghost died at the hospital where she had worked for 22 years. Her death was noted by the board with ‘much regret’. She left a bequest of £100 to her beloved Sydney Infirmary in her will
 – a substantial amount at the time – and her passing was noted with ‘much regret’ by the board. 

In her will she left the Infirmary a bequest of £100 – a substantial amount at the time – and her passing was noted with ‘much regret’ by the board.

In 1953, a memorial to her was unveiled in the Camperdown Cemetery, in a ceremony presided over by Elsie Pidgeon, the then matron of Sydney Hospital.

Given her high regard at the time of her death, it is surprising that a century later, in a 1970 book about the Nightingale nurses, Bathsheba Ghost should be referred to as ‘a Sarah Gamp of the Southern Hemisphere … in the habit of fortifying herself against minor discomforts with a judicious choice of alcohol’.
The Bathsheba Ghost Memorial
Her name does have a Dickensian quality about it, but it is both ironic and sad that Bathsheba’s character and place in history should have become entwined with that the speech-mangling, cucumber-guzzling, gin-tippling, patient-brutalising nurse presented by Charles Dickens in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit.

[The above is taken from my book: An Illustrated History of Nursing in Australia (National Library of Australia). To be published 2018.]


Susan Price said...

Fascinating post. And what an amazing name! Bathsheba Ghost: no novelist would dare to invent it.

Lesley Downer said...

Lovely piece! Thank you! Reminds me of the terrible tale told in The Secret River.

Élisa Lee said...

Thank you so much for this summary! Bathsheba was my gggg aunt. Definitely a fascinating woman who really showed how well convicts could do here in Australia with hard work.