Page 1: Biography
Widdowson, Muriel Grace
Nurse, tutor, hospital matron, nursing administrator
This biography, written by Biddy Pollard and John Pollard, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Muriel Grace Widdowson was born in Christchurch on 14 June 1892, the third of four children of Emma Matilda Lawrence and her husband, Howell Young Widdowson, a solicitor. The family moved to Dunedin in 1905 when Howell became a magistrate. There Grace became a pupil at Braemar House. Lack of money prevented her from following her two brothers into medicine and she spent some years kindergarten teaching. She also nursed her mother before her death in 1915.
In January 1918, the year of the influenza epidemic, Grace started training as a nurse at Christchurch Hospital. She became a registered nurse in July 1921 and spent the next five years gaining experience in England and Europe. She returned to Christchurch Hospital as a night supervisor at the end of 1926. During 1927 she did her maternity training at Rangiora Maternity Hospital and her midwifery training at Essex Maternity Home, Christchurch. After another short spell at Christchurch Hospital she took up the position of tutor sister at Porirua Mental Hospital from 1928 to 1930. She was then tutor sister at Auckland Hospital until 1935, when she was appointed assistant matron of Christchurch Hospital. In the following year she became lady superintendent to the North Canterbury Hospital Board.
For 17 years 'Miss Widdowson' was responsible for the nursing staff at all the public hospitals from Ashburton to Kaikoura. In this capacity she was at the pinnacle of a totally hierarchical structure, striving always on behalf of 'her nurses' and 'her patients', but never relenting in her expectation that everyone should meet her exacting standards.
Short, stout and tightly bound in her starched white uniform, she radiated confidence and authority. 'There is no defeat in this house' began the quotation on her office wall. Beyond the office her deep booming voice heralded the approach of a presence that brooked no interference from other authorities, be they medical, technical or clerical. Junior nurses as they strove to meet her standards went mostly in terror. They were, Grace Widdowson assured them, but cogs in one vast machine. Many of her trainees could never, even in their mature years, meet her without their awe returning. Yet 'Wid' would recall them all with pride, and Christchurch graduates were assured of jobs the world over. As small cogs they were hardly aware of her administrative skills, yet these skills earned the hospital an unrivalled reputation as a centre of excellence. And woe betide anyone who offended the integrity of the profession as she perceived it. Intoxication, even off duty, was asking for dismissal; pregnancy was unthinkable.
A few nurses would never forget that Grace Widdowson put duty before all, regardless of extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, when other hospitals grew chronically short of trainees, Christchurch always had a waiting list of young women whose mothers wanted to entrust them to her care. Those of her graduates whom she appointed sisters enjoyed her total support. Their authority was her authority and their self-reliance grew in the certainty that their decisions would be publicly backed against all critics.
Purposeful decorum pervaded her routine. Daily she presided over the compulsory lunch. It began with grace and ended with a departure in strict order of rank. As the nurses filed past their lady superintendent she would note a crooked cap, a crumpled apron, or an unhappy peaky face. Late-comers signalled potential problems in ward staffing, a matter to be followed up during her daily ward rounds. These rounds kept her highly visible and in contact, albeit stiffly formal, with all of her patients. Only a very few were privileged to penetrate the protocol that ensured respect for her position and therefore for the well-being of the whole establishment. Those who did, knew that she set no store on herself, that there was not a hint of pomposity. Instead she bubbled over with good humour, and a rather simple love of life.
Grace Widdowson was made an OBE in 1951 and she retired in 1952. Retirement brought liberation for a warm personality that boomed forthright commonsense throughout a new career. On her first morning as industrial nurse at John Court's Auckland department store the first patient chucked her under her dumpy chin, saying, 'Hullo gorgeous'. Later she stumped fearlessly through London's dockland to her accident clinic. Although she never mentioned her old career, a visiting doctor once remarked, 'You know Sister Widdowson, you'd have made a great hospital matron.'
She never married. During her later years she lived in Christchurch with her long-time companion, Marjory Astley. They delighted in travel, one highlight being the celebration of her 90th birthday in Soho, London. Alert and enthusiastic to the end, Grace Widdowson died content in her beloved Christchurch Hospital on 3 August 1989. According to her wishes, her ashes were buried close to her mother's relations in the parish churchyard at Mundesley, Norfolk, England.