In these days of global health crises it is appropriate to praise those medical workers, doctors, nurses and paramedics who are at the front line of the war on or containment of the COVID-19 epidemic. It must be hellish. They are all facing an unknown foe and are personally working under dangerous conditions every day, despite having the most modern equipment at hand. We are fortunate clients and patients can work at home and consult them in safety by phone or online.
It reminds us that having a brave and competent medical support force was one of the first institutions a rural town with ambitions to develop would try to get installed, not always successfully. Gunyah, a small settlement founded round 1900 in the midst of the Eastern Strzeleckis on the Grand Ridge Road south of Boolarra had the temerity to apply for a Bush Nursing Hospital. Gunyah was successful and in 1914, just at the start of WWI, the newly appointed Governor of Victoria, Sir Arthur Stanley and his wife Lady Margaret, made the long journey from Melbourne to open the new centre. They arrived in the evening by train first to Morwell Station where they were received enthusiastically by the shire president and dignitaries. Then after an interrupted sleep in their train carriage (a stock train of hungry sheep had pulled into the station) set out next day to Boolarra where they were greeted by eager schoolchildren and residents. Then they were taken by car to Gunyah which by that time had a post office, hotel hall and store. It was the first time that the few settlers and their families met on the way had seen a motor car. Lady Stanley noted in her dairy.
“The last part of the road to Gunyah was terrifically bad and we were shot up and down and from side to side till we were sore. At last we arrived and found a little crowd awaiting us outside the wooden room that serves for a church and meetings and dances and everything…the Bush Nurses received us and looked incongruous figures in that wild setting in the neat spick-and-spanness of their uniforms.”
The vice-regal guest was led by a track through the forest of tall eucalypts, sassafras and ferns to where bushmen who had cleared a path, had cut springboards into the trunk of a giant tree, possibly the Patterson tree:
“We went down, down into the loveliest dark, cool greenness, out of the glare of the upper world. It felt as though one’s ordinary life and existence had stopped altogether. I couldn’t believe that any of you really existed or that the war was going on or that anything mattered. The intense silence….gave me a hypnotized feeling that I was dreaming…”
Lady Stanley was soon brought back to reality at discovering this beautiful ferny dell was alive with leeches. She swiftly made it back to the official party and was pleased to arrive back to their train at Boolarra station where they spent the night before the trip to Morwell for their return. She writes movingly of this country trip against the background of the immanent tragedy that would befall young men from this area.
In 1914 a journalist from the Bunyip Free Press and Berwick Shire Guardian, who might have been present at this Bush Nursing opening, noted the isolation that these country pioneers and especially their wives experienced in this beautiful area. Most seem contented even given the state of the roads at the time. It was the dearth of doctors and nurses that troubled them most.
‘Women in need of a doctor may be tied on a packhorse or to a sledge and driven weary miles through slush and over stones, down grades of one in three. The doctor is a brave man who essays the hill journey in winter, and one of them has earned the tender regard and gratitude of the Gunyah people by his fearless response to their calls, night or day, winter or summer. For some time an English trained bush nurse has proved helpful. She serves a district of 90 square miles, and looks a bold pioneer on her hardy grey pony. She has been called out when the roads are blocked by fallen logs, and has had to cut a way through the fences, among the wet tangle of undergrowth, into steep gullies, and over almost inaccessible hills. Most of the settlers keep a stock of home-made remedies, and show excellent skills in bandaging wounds.’
The bush nursing hospital at Gunyah closed in 1935 as many families left the district to find a better life, some to Boolarra, others further afield. Farming there had proved too difficult. It would not be long before young men, bush men and farmers would be called up to fight in another war. A much-loved nurse, Christina (Granny) Greenwood played a similarly vital role in the Budgeree and Boolarra districts especially when infections spread or babies were born at home. Like the responsive doctor mentioned above, she rode her horse out to needy farmsteads and often stayed overnight with the patients she treated. We are now living in admiration of such devotion in our own clinics and hospitals.
Boolarra and District Historical Society is closed for an indefinite time depending on Coronavirus isolation rules. New members are always welcome, and information on our activities can be obtained from Harry Price 0429 696 241, Judy Webster 5169 6351 or Beth Price 5169 6241.