Nancy- One of Australia’s first Indigenous Nurses

I first met Nancy a few months back in Darwin. I was moved by the stories she told me and I promised to track her in down in her home town of Tennant Creek the next time I was passing by. Her son had told me that her mum was a very special lady, and he was right. It wasn’t difficult to track her down in Tennant Creek. We pulled into the cultural centre in town and I asked the bloke behind the counter where I could find her. ‘From Croker Island?’ He said. That was her and he gave me directions, called her husband Joe and told him a friend of Nancy’s was on the way. She welcomed me into her home, showed me the sights and shared her stories. It soon became clear to me, that Nancy is somewhat like royalty here, she has a street named after her and everything.
Nancy was taken from her mother after birth and grew up on a mission on Croker Island pre WWII. Because of this, she doesn’t know how old she is exactly and as a young adult, took on the birthday of Maragret (one of the missionaries) and chose the year out of a hat in order to get a birth certificate. In February 1942, Darwin was bombed along with many other parts of northern Australia. Nancy and 95 other children were forced off Croker Island due to the proximity of bombs and the threats posed to them. She remembers going by boat from Croker Island to the mainland and waving at the war planes as they flew overhead. The 3 missionaries escorted the 96 children as they walked much of the way from Oenpelli to Pine Creek. The children sang to the soldiers in Pine Creek and along the way, something Nancy said they loved to do. Having eaten only rice and flour since leaving Croker, the children gorged themselves with the fine food the soldiers gave them. They later paid dearly for it with diarrhoea making the trip to Alice Springs even longer.
The children and missionaries travelled across Australia ending up just south of Sydney in Scarborough, some 5000km away. There has since been a book written of this journey called ‘They Crossed a Continent’ which is written by one of the missionaries, Margaret Somerville. Nancy lived in Otford and attended school in Scarborough (an area only 20 minutes from where I grew up). It was here that she first wanted to become a nurse. A few of the kids got tonsillitis, Nancy being one of them, and had to have their tonsils removed. The care she received inspired her to become a nurse and so she did. Nurse and midwife. The children spent somewhere between 1 and 3 years there, Nancy said, then the younger ones returned to Croker Island and the older ones stayed for high school.
Nancy trained at the Old Royal women’s hospital in Paddington as a scout nurse. The job didn’t come easy as an Indigenous woman, most hospitals wanted to employ her as a cleaner. But Nancy wouldn’t have a bar of it and worked hard to complete her nurses training. Nancy loved her training and the other nurses she trained with. After her training was complete, Nancy wrote to many hospitals around Australia asking for a job, landing a position in Shepparton, Victoria where she would work for 3 years and trained as a midwife. She hitched a ride down there with a good looking Englishman with whom she became life long friends with and they would write letters to back and forth over the years.


Nancy worked in a few places before settling in Tennant Creek. The hospital she worked in all those years ago still remains, however has been replaced by a new Tennant Creek Hospital. Being a small hospital Nancy worked as a general nurse and midwife in her time. Nancy tells me about one of her first experiences driving an ambulance, not long after getting her licence, having to drive across rising creeks to reach a baby on a cattle station to provide care. She was terrified of snakes in the river. Being a midwife in a small town, Nancy has helped give birth to most of the locals in Tennant Creek, sometimes outside in the cold winters rain using the very gown she was wearing to keep the baby warm on arrival to the world. Nancy recalls the responsibilities of having to care for patients after they had passed away, cleaning the body and dressing them. They then had to transport the body to the morgue usually with a trolley. One time though, the doctor had decided to carry the body instead. As they walked down the hallway, Nancy stood on an unassuming broom, which in turn flung and hit her in the arm. Nancy flipped out, thinking she had been hit by a not so dead corpse, before realising what had happening curling over in laughter.
Only a few weeks into life in Tennant Creek, Nancy met Joe, the man who would one day become her husband. Joe was a miner who had also only been in town for a couple of weeks when he was involved in a car accident. He became a patient of Nancy’s with a few broken bones and would throw his pillow on the floor, Nancy said. They went on to have two children together and Nancy is so proud of them and what they have achieved. Nancy and Joe also have a property on the outskirts of town and love having guests over to show around.
After working as a nurse and midwife for many years, Nancy helped out at the local school teaching kids to read. She would teach them to read using phonetics and with a giggle tells me ‘once they could read they would leave me alone’. Nancy is always happy to share her knowledge and loves to see others do well which is what makes her such a wonderful person. Nancy has had a lot go on in her life and never lets anything get her down. Her positive outlook on life resonates to the people around her and Carl and I are very grateful to have been able to spend some time with her.



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