Page 1: Biography
Nga Puhi; military and civilian nurse
This biography, written by Marie E. Burgess, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Ethel Watkins was born on 17 March 1880 in Onehunga, the daughter of Madeline (Magdaline) Ratahi Cochrane and her husband, Bazett (Barrett) Watkins, a millhand. Her mother was the grand-daughter of early Hokianga settler F. E. Maning and Moengaroa of Te Hikutu, a hapu of Nga Puhi. Her parents divorced, and after her mother’s remarriage in 1902 she was known as Ethel Watkins Taylor.
Ethel began her nursing career in her mid 20s. She started with midwifery, completing her training in Wellington in 1906 and beginning nursing training at Hawera Hospital. Although she did not have the benefit of a tutor she passed her primary examination with honours then went on to complete her training at Christchurch Hospital, where she passed the final examination in 1910, again with honours.
As a registered nurse Watkins moved to Gisborne, where she was a sister at Cook Hospital for two years. On the outbreak of the First World War she was quick to volunteer her services and was selected as one of the first 50 nurses to serve overseas with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. After a hurried uniform fit out, the nurses left on 8 April 1915.
Watkins was first stationed at No 15 General Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. She supervised nine orderlies, tending some 240 patients housed in tents. The arrival of big convoys of casualties from Gallipoli meant doing up to 190 dressings a day. Dysentery, diarrhoea and typhoid fever were common, and there were terrible gunshot wounds. But worst of all were the cases of frostbite: ‘With a gunshot wound one felt that something could be done, but some of the frost bites were hopeless’. By the end of February 1916 she had tended 3,500 patients. Watkins also served on hospital ships and in army hospitals in England. While in London she joined the Legion of Frontiersmen, in which she maintained a lifelong interest.
Back in New Zealand by 1919, Ethel Watkins was appointed native health nurse for the Te Karaka district (near Gisborne), where she spent two years. She soon became known for her willingness to turn out at any time to attend those in need. She travelled to outlying areas by horseback, by horse and gig, and later by car. She married Albert Pritchard, a farm manager, at Napier on 5 July 1921. A son born in 1924 died at six days old and an adopted son was killed in an accident in 1951.
As a result of her marriage, Ethel resigned as district nurse. She was farewelled by the local community, with presentations from grateful settlers, returned servicemen and the Legion of Frontiersmen. She continued to provide nursing services to Maori at two nearby settlements and to other residents in the community. A social function was held to honour her at the Whatatutu Hall in 1926 when residents paid tribute to her self-sacrifice in attending accidents and illnesses at any time of the day or night without accepting any payment. They presented her with a cabinet gramophone and records and two easy chairs.
After moving to Matawai in 1928, Pritchard served the community for around 20 years. In 1949 she was appointed an MBE and awarded a long-service medal from the Legion of Frontiersmen. There were several sawmills operating in the Matawai–Motu area during this time and she was often called to attend severe injuries. A sturdy vehicle was needed to cope with the back-country roads and her first car was a six-cylinder, brick-red Chevrolet with a door in the back for stretchers. But where practical she travelled by train, which she used to transport patients needing hospital care the 3½-hour journey into Gisborne.
Ethel Pritchard was actively involved in a number of organisations, including two years as president of the Matawai–Motu branch of the RSA. She was a foundation member of the Country Women’s Institute of New Zealand (Matawai) and of the local children’s health camp organisation, and belonged to the Victoria League, the National Council of Women of New Zealand, the Women’s Division Federated Farmers of New Zealand, and the St John Ambulance Brigade. She was elected to the Cook Hospital Board in 1950, and at her retirement in 1956 received tributes for her work as a district nurse and for her service as a board member.
Ethel Pritchard died at Gisborne on 19 July 1964, survived by her husband. Forthright, and at times dogmatic and domineering, she was nevertheless much admired for her long and devoted service as a district nurse and for her contribution to many community organisations.