The Drunken Nurse


The Port Phillip papers are certainly full of drunkards.  Judge Willis himself has plenty to say about the perils of alcohol, and the Police Court is dominated by brawls and crimes connected with alcohol.  But I was particularly taken with this  Sairey Gamp character from the Port Phillip Herald 1 July 1842.

AN AFFECTIONATE WIFE.  For several months past, a man of the name of Henry Hayward a much valued servant of the firm of Campbell & Woolley, had been seriously ill, so much so that it was thought advisable by his medical attendant, Dr Campbell, to send for his wife to take charge of him, who, at the time, was following her occupation of monthly nurse in the family of his Honor Mr La Trobe.  This woman had hitherto been engaged as a nurse in some of the most respectable families- Captain Lonsdale’s, and many others.  The poor sufferer, whom we personally knew as an excellent and faithful servant, was at this time in a most precarious state, being attacked with that frightful disease, dysentry, and although a strong robust man, was evidently sinking fast: the attention of his wife, of course, became necessary, and his Honor the Superintendent being apprised of the circumstance, forthwith sent her to her husband, and himself kindly called to see how the sufferer was doing.  At this stage of the disease the doctor was sanguine of success; but to his extreme mortification he found on each visit that the wife, who had hitherto been supported by the first people in the colony in her vocation as nurse, was a confirmed drunkard; and that she was in the habit of not only getting beastly intoxicated and lying on the bed of her suffering husband, but made it a practice to drink the port wine and brandy, which the medical attendant had ordered for his patient, and thus leave the poor sufferer without succour.  Enraged at this atrocious conduct, Dr Campbell, at his own expense, engaged a respectable woman as nurse, to see that his orders were attended to, and that the wretched wife should not ill use her husband, which he had been informed she was in the habit of doing.  The nurse was unremitting in her attentions, but was frequently obliged to flee the house in consequence of the violent and drunken conduct of the dying man’s wife.  Often has Dr Campbell called upon his patient and seen the wife in a state of intoxication, lying almost senseless beside her husband! and often has he endeavoured, by every means in his power, to prevent such heartless conduct; but his exertions were all in vain; the poor man still lingered on, and the depraved wife pursued her unnatural conduct till the sufferer died! and this took place but a few days ago.  We have been particular in mentioning these circumstances to prevent ladies being imposed upon by such a wretch as the wife of Henry Hayward- a woman who has hitherto gained her living in the first circles as  “a monthly nurse” but who ought, in our opinion to be publicly and soundly whipped through the town for her fiendish conduct to her departed, and as far as she is concerned, her murdered husband.  We have the authority of the doctor for stating that had the wife performed her duty properly the deceased would in all probability have recovered!

There’s not many references in the papers of the time to women working- although how much work Mrs Hayward would gain after this exposure is doubtful! I was intrigued to find out what a “monthly nurse” was,  wondering if it was a nurse engaged for “that time of the month” but instead, it seems that a monthly nurse was a kind of mothercraft nurse who would move in after the baby’s delivery to care for the mother and baby for a month after confinement.  There’s a fascinating article called “The Remembrances of a Monthly Nurse”  in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (1836)that manages to combine celebrity gossip with a quite affecting account of the birth of a baby with cleft lip and palate, all from the perspective of the monthly nurse.

I had seen advertisements placed in the Port Phillip Herald by doctors calling for wet nurses, but this was the first mention of a monthly nurse that I had seen.  It appears that she gained her work largely through word of mouth between the “first families” of the colony.  The reference to His Honor Mr La Trobe, the superintendent of Port Phillip, relates to the birth of his daughter Eleanor Sophia La Trobe born 30 March 1842.  It seems, therefore, that Mrs Hayward was still with the La Trobes longer than the usual month, but as Georgiana McCrae noted, her friend Mrs La Trobe was often in poor health, and the La Trobes would have been first among first families!

I wonder how this marriage between the employee of Campbell and Woolley, a prominent mercantile firm in Port Phillip at the time, and a monthly nurse would play out.  No doubt she would be absent from home for extended periods of time. There’s no mention of other family.

It’s hard to tell what the actual outrage is here.  Was it her drunkenness- taking the port wine and brandy meant for her husband, leading no less to her “murdering” him by not doing her “duty” for him?  Was it her slatternly behaviour, lolling around the bed drunk with the dying man?  Was it her violence to the respectable nurse paid for out of Dr Campbell’s own pocket? Or was it, perhaps, the scandal and trickery by which this drunkard had worked her way into the  domestic households of respectable families, placing them all unknowingly in peril?  Whatever- publicly and soundly whip the woman around the streets- that’ll teach her!


Dianne Reilly La Trobe: The Making of a Governor

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