Eileen Marjorie Fosbery Nancarrow, always called Marjorie, was born on 29 May 1906 in Sydney, Australia, the daughter of Fosbery Maunsell Nancarrow, a shipping clerk, and his wife, Violet Marjorie Campbell. Both parents were New Zealanders, and the family moved to Christchurch about 1910. There, although they were apparently not well off, Marjorie attended a private girls’ school, St Margaret’s College, from 1917 until 1923. She was not allowed to go to university, which her father considered ‘a hotbed of communism’, so she became a governess, then did a commercial course. While recuperating in Hawke’s Bay after an illness she met a local sheepfarmer, Bernard Lowry Chambers, whom she married in Dunedin on 23 November 1927.
By 1936 Marjorie Chambers was separated from her husband, with no children but in need of an income to support herself and her ailing parents. On her doctor’s advice she chose a nursing career, and applied to Christchurch Hospital for training. Although initially rejected, she was later accepted by the new matron, Grace Widdowson, who became a staunch friend and mentor. Marjorie and Bernard Chambers were divorced in February 1938.
Marjorie became a registered nurse in 1940. She completed her Plunket training in 1941 and was appointed a ward sister. In 1944 she undertook postgraduate training in Wellington, and on her return to Christchurch became a tutor sister, a position she loved. To further her teaching career she did maternity training at Hutt Hospital, graduating top in New Zealand in June 1948. Six months later, on 1 January 1949, she became matron of Oamaru Hospital. Her particular skill as an administrator marked her out for further promotion, and on 1 December 1952 she replaced Grace Widdowson as matron of Christchurch Hospital.
Marjorie Chambers nursed during a time of great expansion within the hospital service, which had been free to patients from 1938, and she accepted that nursing had to be modernised if it were to attract a sufficient number of suitably qualified staff to meet these challenges. She believed that loyalty, faithful service and patient-centred care should remain the cornerstones of the profession, and fought bitterly against the introduction of overtime and penal rates for nurses in the mid 1960s. However, she acknowledged that improved services would involve change and the ruthless pruning of outworn practices. The years of her matronship at Christchurch Hospital saw the introduction of curtain screening between beds, a nursing technique committee to standardise practices throughout the board’s institutions, new ward routines, and liberalised visiting hours, especially for young children.
Chambers supported the introduction of measures to raise the educational status of nursing and encouraged a spirit of independence rather than unthinking obedience among student nurses. She created a central nurse training school at Christchurch Hospital, which supplied nurses to all the board’s hospitals, and opened a new preliminary training school in 1959. Having introduced study days for pupil nurses in Oamaru Hospital, she extended these to include staff nurses and ward sisters in Christchurch. She was a strong advocate for the new curriculum introduced in 1957, which included obstetrics and preventive medicine in the basic nursing course and reduced the number of domestic and mechanical duties expected of nurses. It would, she hoped, compare favourably with other professional courses available to young women. She also supported the 1966 introduction of School Certificate as a prerequisite for nursing, arguing that well-educated girls were more likely to take a critical approach to learning, and she was a determined advocate of university education for senior nurses.
Staff requirements led Chambers to support the community nurse training programme, a shorter, more practical course introduced in 1966, and she also sought to attract older and married women into nursing. She encouraged part-time staff, especially in geriatric and rural hospitals, and she began training male nurses, albeit with some reluctance. The rigid discipline that had infused nursing culture was modified: Chambers was anxious not to be ‘fierce’. Her own interest in drama and the arts was reflected in the wider recreational opportunities she introduced into nurses’ homes, and eventually she encouraged the practice of living outside the hospital. She did not, however, anticipate the total removal of nurse training from hospitals, and at the end of her life felt that the polytechnic training system would need to be modified if it were to achieve success.
Marjorie Chambers played an active role in wider nursing affairs. A long-time member of the New Zealand Registered Nurses’ Association, she first joined its executive committee in 1950, serving on the nursing education and nursing services committees. She was president of both the North Otago and Canterbury branches, and was national president from 1956 until 1960. She was also a member of the board of directors of the International Council of Nurses, chairman of its South Pacific regional group and a member of its nursing services committee. From 1958 until 1966 she served as a member of the Nurses and Midwives Board. The overseas experience gained while attending the conferences of these organisations in Europe, Britain, Japan and Australia was, she said, ‘an inspiration’, which for her took the place of university education, and gave her the skills to carry out the expansion programmes demanded of her.
During both her matronships Marjorie Chambers was heavily involved in planning and developing new hospitals and new buildings. In Oamaru a diet kitchen and a maternity annexe were opened and the laboratories and nurses’ home extended. In Christchurch she oversaw the opening of Princess Margaret Hospital and extensions to several nurses’ homes before joining committees to investigate, then activate, the new building programme for Christchurch Hospital. These responsibilities led ultimately to what she saw as the biggest change in her personal career. In 1963 she was appointed matron in chief of all the board’s institutions, which meant relinquishing direct institutional control for overall management of wider nursing services. At this time she took off her uniform and moved into an office outside the hospital, thus signalling a new style in nursing leadership. That year her services to nursing were recognised with her appointment as an OBE. Prior to her retirement in April 1966, her portrait was painted by the artist Olivia Spencer Bower.
Tall, slim and elegant, Marjorie Chambers gained the respect and confidence of all who worked for her. Her outstanding organisational and administrative skills were invaluable at a time when nurse leaders were expected to become managers as well as teachers and moral guides. While retaining the ethical standards prevalent in her own training days, her enlightened attitude to change and progress enabled her to draw nursing into a more modern era. Marjorie Chambers died in Christchurch on 6 April 1989.