Page 1: Biography
Brooke, Evelyn Gertrude
Civilian and military nurse, matron
This biography, written by Patricia A. Sargison, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Evelyn Gertrude Brooke, usually called Eva, was born in New Plymouth, New Zealand, on 13 September 1879, the daughter of Thomas William Brooke, a carpenter, and his wife, Kate Theresa Coad. Her father died, probably in May 1891, and her mother moved to Wellington, where she married Engelbert Julius Fremersdorf in March 1895. By 1902 Eva Brooke was working as a nurse in Masterton. In 1904 she became a probationer at Wellington District Hospital, completing her three-year training and passing the final state examinations in December 1907. She worked in a Hawera private hospital the following year before becoming a private nurse. In 1910 she returned to Wellington Hospital as a ward sister.
After the outbreak of war Eva Brooke was appointed second in charge of the nurses who sailed with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to German Samoa in August 1914. The post of matron in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service followed in April 1915. She was then appointed matron on the hospital ship Maheno and embarked for Turkey in July 1915.
As a hospital ship matron she was responsible for all nursing arrangements. Much of the work was carried out by male orderlies, whom she had to train, but who were under the command of a non-commissioned officer (the wardmaster). It was thus necessary for everyone to be tactful and generous, but, from the first, disputes arose over rank. Nurses were given the courtesy rank of officer but many male officers refused to recognise this and the women were 'subjected to a great deal of unpleasantness'.
Seasickness devastated many of Brooke's staff, and the horrors of war could not be avoided: during August and September 1915 the Maheno made five visits to Anzac Cove at Gallipoli. In extreme heat, while bullets raked the decks, the nurses worked with the 'poor, torn, mangled fellows' amid the 'horrible sickly odour' of dysentry, disease and decay.
Brooke returned to New Zealand in January 1916 to be matron of the military hospital at Trentham. While there she had to cope with influenza and cerebro-spinal meningitis epidemics. In November she was back on another hospital ship, the Marama. The nursing work was less strenuous than on the Maheno but the tension engendered by the possibility of being struck by mines or torpedoes remained; at least eight hospital ships were sunk during the war. As a result in May 1917 all nurses were disembarked at Suez. Some expressed disappointment, but Brooke acknowledged her pleasure at reaching England and being allowed to stay there.
In England she was matron of the New Zealand Hospital for Officers at Brighton until the end of 1917, when she transferred to No 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Wisques, France. She served during the hopital's most active years of operation, when monthly admissions often topped 1,200. A 'big, scattered place' with constantly changing staff, it was bitterly cold in winter and many nurses suffered from painful trench foot. Back in New Zealand she was matron of the military hospital at Featherston from June to December 1919, then spent a year at Narrow Neck in Auckland.
In spite of the hardships, Eva Brooke found much to enjoy in her war service, such as the beauties of Samoa, woods in France ablaze with violets, primroses and bluebells, and sea-bathing, boating, tennis and entertaining at Brighton. She was among those who were mentioned in dispatches by General Douglas Haig for 'special devotion and competency'. Then there was the 'proud hour' of her investiture at Buckingham Palace, when she was the only New Zealand nurse to be awarded the Royal Red Cross and bar, and her excitement at meeting the prince of Wales during his visit to Auckland in 1920.
Eva Brooke's dedication to her soldier patients did not end with her demobilisation in 1920. In June 1921 she became matron of Rannerdale Home in Christchurch, a hospital for disabled veterans who required constant, skilled nursing. She resigned shortly before her marriage on 12 June 1925 to William John Brown, a veteran who had been one of her patients. There were no children of the marriage. The Browns lived in Christchurch where William worked as an engine driver. After William died Eva returned to Wellington, where she nursed privately for some years. By 1957 she had retired to the Lady Freyberg Servicewomen's Veterans' Home. She died in Wellington on 11 February 1962.
Eva Brooke was a quiet, serious-minded woman, a patriotic nurse respected by both her staff and the doctors with whom she worked. 'Sometimes these last four years seem like a dream', she wrote of the war, yet it reshaped her life in a way which seems to have given her lasting fulfilment.