Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Susannah Graves - one of Townsville's private midwives

When Susannah Graves passed her final obstetrics examination at the Queen Alexandra Hospital for Women in Tasmania in 1918, it must have been a relief to be finally finished. After training first as a mental health nurse in Sydney, and then as a midwife, in Hobart, she could finally go home again to Townsville, where she planned to open her own private maternity hospital. But Nurse Graves was to run into some difficulties with the city council that delayed her plans.

To be eligible to run a private maternity hospital (also called “Lying-In” hospitals), Queensland’s Health Act Amendment Act 1911 required nurses to be registered with the Queensland Nurses’ Registration Board. The legislation was introduced in an effort to regulate private hospitals, health workers and midwives, in the hope of reducing the infant mortality rate. Registration of private hospitals was to be overseen by local government authorities. But one of the shortcomings of the Act was that it did not allow for registration of nurses who had trained outside of Queensland.  

In November 1919, just over a year after returning to Townsville, Nurse Graves submitted a registration form and a copy of the floor plan of her proposed maternity hospital - Leyburn - to the Townsville City Council. Situated on a quarter-acre block fronting The Strand, in North Ward, Leyburn was a modest dwelling consisting of four central rooms, surrounded on two sides by verandahs that were semi-enclosed with lattice.
Portion of a plan of Leyburn Maternity Hospital, The Strand, Townsville, dated 1919. This hospital was run by Nurse Susannah Graves.
This plan is held by CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
Photo: Trisha Fielding
The rooms marked A, B, C and D on the plan were earmarked as wards for the reception of maternity patients. Rooms E and F were designated for the accommodation of nurses, and were both unceiled. A detached outbuilding contained a kitchen, pantry, bathroom, wash house, gas stove and embedded copper boiler. The front and back portions of the house were joined by a verandah (marked H on the plan). A stable was situated in the back corner of the property, and the toilet was next to this. (not shown) A notation on the registration form noted that approval for 3 patients was recommended, pending registration of the applicant.

This is when Nurse Graves ran into difficulties. For reasons unknown, Susie Graves had decided to undertake her nursing training outside of Queensland. Therefore the Queensland Nurses Registration Board could not legally register her, even though she held “a certificate of proficiency as a mental nurse from the Callan Park Mental Hospital in Sydney, as well as the A.T.N.A Certificate of Registration as an obstetric nurse and a certificate from the Alexandra Hospital for Women, Hobart”.

Nurse Graves seems to have gone to some considerable lengths to overcome this obstacle. She may have written to the Q.N.R.B. to plead her case. Alternatively, it seems likely she wrote directly to the Home Secretary to ask for special consideration. In March 1920 the Home Secretary wrote to the Townsville City Council suggesting that as a way to overcome “the difficulties with regard to the provisions of Section 188 of the Health Acts, 1900 to 1917, your Council might grant her special permission to open a private hospital pending the passing of legislation within the next few months which will enable her to obtain registration and thus legally be qualified to apply”.

Susie Graves must have won her battle, because in council correspondence dated December 1920, Leyburn hospital is noted as having “1 ward, 2 rooms” for the reception of maternity patients and was noted as having 7 patients. This makes Nurse Graves’ private hospital one of the largest private maternity hospitals in Townsville at this time. There were 17 private lying-in hospitals registered in Townsville in 1920, and most were only capable of receiving 3 patients at any one time. The only other such private hospital that could accommodate 7 maternity patients was that run by midwife Margaret Walsh - in McIlwraith Street, South Townsville.

It’s clear that Susie Graves provided an essential service for women in Townsville at a time when giving birth in a private home or private lying-in hospital was the norm. It wasn’t until the 1930s that women were routinely giving birth at the public hospital in Townsville. Despite coming up against some difficult obstacles, thank goodness she fought to be accepted as a legitimate provider of midwifery services in Townsville.

Susie Graves married a man named Sarawak Borneo Fisher in Townsville in 1924. At some point they moved to New South Wales where, as Nurse Fisher, she carried on her calling as a private midwife. Her name pops up in newspaper records in Armidale in 1933, and in August 1936, she died, aged 45, in Casino, New South Wales. She was survived by her husband, a son (aged 11), and a daughter (aged 9).

If you have information or photographs pertaining to Susannah Graves / Fisher, please contact me at