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Nurse Scharness

Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 2 years, 3 months ago

Time Travellers in Essendon, Flemington and the Keilor Plains



A Moonee Ponds Midwife


Mary Ann Scharness, 1864-1931


by Marilyn  Kenny


A heavy knocking awoke Mary Anne Scharness.   It was the cold, early hours of a Saturday in late June 1919.  Although she may not have expected such a call it would not have been an unusual intrusion because Mrs Scharness was a midwife and used to responding to the midnight bell.   This wakeup call however was different.   On her doorstep was a distressed, confused, angry and embarrassed man.  He lived with his wife and children, five minutes’ walk from Nurse’s private hospital and they probably knew each other by sight.   Out tumbled a story that even Nurse Scharness with all her experience had not yet encountered.   His wife had woken him very ill at 2am and told him that she was about to become a mother.   His initial reaction was disbelief for he did not know she was pregnant.   When the reality sunk through he summoned a neighbor then went seeking professional help from the local midwife.   This might not seem a particularly unusual story however the husband in this case was a returned soldier who had disembarked in Melbourne only some four months before.   He had served overseas for three and a half years and during that time his wife had received his allotment of four shillings a day.   The family were just reestablishing itself and only the week before the birth had welcomed home the second of his brothers who had also been with the AIF.  The mother to be was brought to Nurse Scharness’ Lorne St hospital, local doctor Dr Newing  summoned and eventually a male infant born. 


Dr Sydney John Newing’s (1888-1950) practice was in The Crescent, Ascot Vale.   He was a leading Catholic layman, sportsman and served  two terms on the Essendon Council.   At the time of the 1919 birth his brother, Dr William Newing, was still overseas with the AIF.   Photo The Argus April 1938. 


This did not mean that Nurse Scharness could relax, for the next day what seems to be an almost identical situation presented.   Robert and Edith were a childless couple in their late thirties who had been married in 1907.  Robert had been away with the AIF since mid-1916 and returned at the very end of January 1919.  A baby of the marriage hence would have been born at 22 weeks gestation.   Although the care of premature babies was beginning to be understood it was extremely unlikely that such a five month baby would have survived.   However, Dr Sid G Strahan attended the birth of another male child at Nurse Scharness’ hospital.


Dr Sid (Septimus) George Strahan 1877-1933 at his 1909 marriage to Ina Guinn in Aberfeldie. 

Dr Strahan was a keen billiard player and oarsman.  Dr Strahan’s practice was at the

Tower House, Margaret St, Moonee Ponds.  Photo   Punch June 1909.


On 4 July Nurse Scharness registered both births, the first as ex nuptial, the second as nuptial.   The outcomes were different.   Robert and Edith were soon to become soldier settlers in fruit growing country, raising their only child to maturity and to see him serve in WW2.  The first couple never lived together again.   A fortnight after the birth the cuckolded husband served his wife and the putative father with divorce papers.   This was to be one of the record numbers of divorces, six a day, given in 1919.  Many cases were returned Diggers confronted with their wife’s infidelity.   This divorce, with nationwide publicity, was granted a few months later, with the co-respondent to pay £200 damages plus costs and hospital fees.   The Court was told that it was believed that the baby had died.   However extensive searching has not been able to locate a death certificate for this infant.   


Nurse Scharness may have been grateful that on this occasion at least she did not have to appear in the Divorce Court to depose as to events.   She had been called on as a witness in the Coroners Court on occasions beforehand, and more recently had been prosecuted in local court and fined.   However, traditional midwives, women such as Mary Ann, were currently the focus of much official interest and the prudent would have been trying to maintain a low profile. 


Family History


Prosser. — In sad and loving remembrance of my dear

Brother, Alf, who was drowned on the 2nd April, 1888. 

He left his home in perfect health,

Ne'er thinking death was near;

Not dreaming that he never should

Return to home and friends so dear. 


— Inserted by his loving sister, M. A. Scharness. 


Mary Ann Scharness saw many families through crises during her years as nurse and midwife and experienced great personal trauma.    Mary Ann’s life had begun in 1864 when she had been born to George Prosser and Esther Forge.   The couple had been married in Albury in 1856 and moved around whilst George chased gold.  Mary Ann was the fourth of at least ten children born in various locations throughout Victoria, she being born at Osborne Flats.   In 1870 the family moved to Collingwood where George ran a grocery store in Smith St and the last three children were born.   Mary Ann was 10 years old when the family was completed.   George, aged 51 years, died in 1881 and a year later Mary Ann, 18 years old, was married.   Her husband, Frederick Scharness, had German origins and was seven years older.   


Within a twelvemonth she was the mother of a daughter named Alice Forge, honouring her grandmother’s name.   A son, George, was born in 1886 but died before his first birthday;  and a daughter followed in 1887.  It is probable that the family then were living with or close to Esther Prosser when tragedy struck.   On April 2 1888, 16 year old Alfred Forge Prosser was drowned in the Yarra.  A plumber’s improver, Alf lived in the family home.   Early on Easter Monday he had taken the train to Newport where he and three friends had hired a rowboat and gone out for a day’s fishing.   As they were returning via the Yarra mouth in the late afternoon the weather turned rough and Alf’s spliced oar split.   As the group were struggling to make way against the wind, drift and waves the boat was overset by a bay steamer.   The Excelsior was running late for its 4 pm Geelong trip and was travelling at 10 miles an hour, creating a wash like a tidal wave.   Alf, who could not swim, stayed in the boat which was smashed by the fast moving ship.   The three other boys were rescued but Prosser’s body was never recovered.  The Steam Navigation Board later suspended the Captain’s license and he was charged with manslaughter. 


After a lengthy committal hearing Captain Schutt underwent a Supreme Court trial.   One of the defence claims was that there was no case to answer as there was no legal proof of Alf’s death.   Esther Prosser and her sons had to give evidence of Alf’s absence from home and reasons for identifying as his a hat recovered from the river.  Esther testified that her son was steady and well behaved and always slept at home to counter claims that his absence was voluntary.   The jury acquitted Captain L J D Schutt.  Esther Prosser then brought a civil case against the steamer’s owners claiming £1000 for injuries caused by their servant’s negligence.   The case was withdrawn with the terms of the settlement not recorded.


The bay steamer Excelsior.   On Easter Monday the ship was overcrowded with 300 souls on board (capacity 100).  There was no look-out despite it being a hot, public holiday and many pleasure craft being on the water.   The horn was not being sounded and the steamer didn’t stop to offer assistance.   Captain Louis John Daly Schutt had, in 1884, after a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, survived for a fortnight on a raft, his wife giving birth two days after their rescue.   In 1889 he became a Port Phillip pilot and died aged 84 in 1934.  Photo POI Australia https://poi-australia.com.au/ss-excelsior/


By  1891 Fred Scharness was listed in the Directories as a bootmaker at 718 Mt Alexander Rd on the east side (now 528).   This was a lock up brick shop, built in 1890,  with one room and an 18 feet frontage, just three doors down from Buckley St.   It is not clear where the family  were then living.   By 1893 the family had settled at Dominey’s Hall, 687 Mt Alexander Road, where their last child, Charles Frederic, was born.   Their home was an unusual combination of shopfront, hall and residence.   Fred ran his business from a bench underneath the front window of the shop and also acted as caretaker for the hall which was part of the property - a very large room (40 X 30) that was hired out for lodges, classes and gatherings.   The family called the home Yackandandah; the site of one of George Prosser’s mining claims.    The children went to Essendon State School and the family attended the South Essendon Methodist Church.


Dominey’s Hall.  Photo M Kenny, 2017.

George Dominey, Essendon rate collector opened the hall in 1891.  It was used for Lodge meetings, by the Essendon Baptist Church and for school classes.   The 1889 building underwent an award winning restoration c1995. 



Local Nurse


At some stage Mary Ann took up the role of visiting nurse and midwife.   There is no evidence that she had acquired any formal qualifications for this role.   The Women’s Hospital did have a scheme whereby a woman could work unpaid for three months, pay a fee and so acquire midwifery knowledge.   For an extra charge one could receive formal instruction, sit an exam and get a certificate.   Given her family commitments it is not likely that Mary Ann undertook this instruction.   She most probably had acquired her skills working alongside an older woman, perhaps her mother or aunt though it may have been a local woman who took her on as an apprentice and taught the trade.   


By 1897 she certainly was taking on nursing, her name being mentioned in a notorious case of its time.   This would have exposed her to what she already had not learnt of the worst sides of nursing and medicine.   About 1895 a family moved into a small cottage in St James Street around the corner from Dominey’s Hall.   Husband Will was a baker working close by in Mt Alexander Road and was a few years younger than his wife Emma, born in 1858.  The couple had four living children who in 1897 were aged from fourteen to six years.   The children were of an age with the Scharness children and would have gone to school with them.   Emma and Will had also had three other children who had not survived as well as a still born infant.   Emma was not a strong woman and suffered dreadfully in her confinements, the last leaving her a bed ridden invalid for three months.   When she became pregnant again Emma was determined not to carry through with the pregnancy.   She consulted the family’s lodge doctor Dr Dickinson.  He prescribed Epsom salts and promised that he would induce labour at 8 months to give Emma an easier time


This advertisement and many similar appeared in newspapers. 

The Bulletin March 1895 


 Emma also bought pills and medicine from a chemist in South Melbourne, used Condy’s crystals (potassium permanganate) internally.   Emma may also may have purchased a ladies remedy from Clara Hope, a herbalist, one of many who advertised remedies for irregularity.   When she was about 14 weeks pregnant, in August 1897, by accident or design, Emma and Will met a woman who went by the name of Nurse Martin, though they also knew her as Mrs Sheenan.   Nurse Martin said she would see Emma right and after much brooding Emma visited the Sheenan house in The Strand,  Moonee Ponds.   She made four visits in total alone whilst a certain procedure was undertaken.   Eventually Emma miscarried at home but the procedure was incomplete.   Emma became seriously ill and on two occasions Martin called in doctors from town, who on prior payment of their 1 guinea fee came, examined, intervened (with a penknife in one case) and advised that a local doctor be called.  Dr Dickinson came but refused the case saying that Emma was probably septic and Dr Fishbourne likewise.   Neither doctor could risk carrying infection to other maternity cases nor would they have been keen on being associated with the suspect situation.  Dr Martell, who was primarily a physician, eventually operated in the St James Street house with Dr Thomson  administering anaesthetic.  Dr Martell also reported the case to the police.   Over the next three months Emma lay dying of sepsis (blood poisoning), which eventually caused heart failure and pneumonia. 


Scots born architect, George Brown Leith, (1858-1937) designed several churches

in the district and was also a prominent Freemason.


The sequence of events is laid out in the fifty-seven page Coroner’s inquest.   This considered Emma’s dying depositions taken by George B Leith (Essendon Mayor in 1897) in the presence of her husband, Leith’s clerk, two detectives, Martin and Nurse Bridget The last was a sick nurse, a 21 years old untrained woman who was obtained from an employment agency to run the house and attend the sick room.   Nurse Scharness provided day time nursing and during the terminal fortnight a trained nurse was also engaged.   Nurse Martin was taken into custody after Emma’s death but was released once the Coroner’s jury could not attribute the death directly to her.   No one seemed to have made the link between Nurse Martin (born 1858 in North Melbourne as Mary Alice Stocks, and mother of six) with Alice Marr (her married name).   In 1893 Alice Marr had been acquitted of performing an illegal operation in Fitzroy on the grounds that there were no witnesses.   Frederick Scharness together with her husband were executors of Emma’s estate of £150 (said to be from an aunt’s bequest).   Dr Martell submitted an account for 20 guineas but it is not clear if or how Mary Ann was reimbursed.   When she nursed a terminally ill neighbour two years later she was paid 2 guineas for professional fees.   


Protection of Infant Life



A sun bath at St Joseph’s Foundling Home, Broadmeadows.   The Australasian July 1907


About the turn of the century Nurses Scharness appears in the records as a Registered Nurse.   This title did not mean that she had any official recognition of her skills in midwifery or nursing but rather that she was approved as what we would term a foster mother.   In 1890 the Protection of Infant Life Act was enacted to safeguard the lives of children, under the age of two years, who were given in care by their mothers to other women.   It was designed to stop baby farming, taking in numbers of infants on payment of a lump sum and then allowing/causing their deaths.   In 1898 the Police Department took over the supervision of the Act’s provisions but most records survive only from 1901.   From her registration number Nurse Scharness appears to have been registered about 1900.   To be approved as a registered nurse a woman had to personally lodge an application at Russell Street Police Station.   She had to be seen as a fit and proper person to be entrusted with the care and maintenance of infants, to have adequate housing and be able to supply the names of two character references.   Approval was based on the dimensions of the house and official knowledge of the woman, but the police also looked at the opinion of local groups such the Ladies Benevolent Society.   Police inspected the nurse’s home monthly, reporting in writing on the cleanness of the home, clothes, bedding and feeding bottles.   The nurse also had to produce her roll book showing the name of the child, from whom received and who was paying the weekly charge.   The average fee appears to have been 10/- to 12/- a week.   


If the fee was in arrears for more than four weeks, the child was made a Ward of State.   The Inspector also reported on the state of the child, eg healthy, delicate, ailing or dead.   The last was a regular occurrence and there was a mandatory inquest in the case the death of a boarded out infant.   On one day in January 1899 inquests were conducted on the death of five boarded out infants.    It was such a commonplace event that the death often barely received a line in the newspapers, and the infant’s name was often not given.   This may also have been to protect the reputation of the mother and family as most of these children were ex-nuptial.   In 1902, 360 nurses had the care of 620 children, of whom 104 died (17%).  The rate was probably higher  as when child sickened some nurses returned the infant to the family to avoid the Coroner’s scrutiny.   An unfavorable finding could lead to the Nurse being publicly named and her registration cancelled.   In most cases it was found that the child had congenital problems or failed to thrive with the forms of artificial feeding then available.   In 1903 Nurse Scharness’ name appeared in connection with several of these cases.   


St Joseph’s Foundling Home had been established in Broadmeadows in 1901, and Dr Thomson and his successor Dr Robert Hughston, as Medical Officers of Health to the Shire of Broadmeadows, were also Honorary medical attendants at the Babies Home.   It may be this connection which brought a steady stream of infants from the institution to be cared for by Essendon registered nurses.   A number of single Catholic lasses also seem to have been confined at Nurse Scharness’ home.   Again the local doctor may have been the conduit to give more privacy to the girls whose families could afford this.   


Dr Horiato Percy Martell (1862-1933) lived in Norwood Cres, Moonee Ponds.   In 1895 he married Dr Margaret Whyte, the second woman to graduate in medicine from the University of Melbourne.   The couple adopted a daughter from a Registered Nurse in 1900.  Dr Martell served on the Essendon Council, was an active Justice of the Peace and unsuccessfully contested a State Election in 1914. Photo The Argus July 1914.   


On 23 December 1902 a young woman from Adelaide was delivered at Mrs Scharness’ with no doctor in attendance.   Her family had sent her away to prevent her marrying.   It was a large Catholic family with several prominent in the religious life and the girl felt that she could not go against her parents.   Prior to her confinement the woman arranged with Mary Ann that the child would be taken away at birth and that she would not suckle.  Mrs Scharness gave way to the mother’s wishes and took the child to Registered Nurse Healey in Darling Street.  There the infant remained until he sickened on the 30 December, whereat the nurse consulted Dr Martell who advised taking him straight back to his mother.   Nurse Scharness, though she felt imposed on accepted the child, and immediately sought medical attention for the then unconscious baby.   Nothing could be done and the boy died next to Mary Ann in the early hours of 31 December 1902.  At the Coroner’s inquest Mary Ann testified that she had attended many confinements and knew how to suppress lactation and had done this in five recent cases.  Mary Ann told the Coroner that she realized this practice prejudices the child’s chances of living but that she had to deal with the disinclination of the mothers to suckle.   Senior Constable Nolan, who was responsible for nurses in our district, said he knew both nurses to be good, careful women and that he had heard Mrs Scharness express her antagonism to the practice of mothers not feeding their infants.   He felt that Mrs Healey, who had two other babies die in December 1902, had been unfortunate.   


Sub Inspector S J Nolan

Supervisor of nurses in the Essendon district.

Weekly Times April 1910


One of the issues with the Protection of Infant Life Act was the amount of police time spent in inspectorial duties.   In 1901, 66 officers were involved, rising to 124 in 1906.  Women’s groups found it objectionable that nurses should be subject to the stigma of a visit from the Penal Department and lobbied for female inspectors, as police could not have the eye or heart of a mother.   In 1907 responsibility for inspection passed to the Department of Neglected Children.


The Pathologist reported that the child would not have survived, irrespective of his care.   The Coroner declared that mothers should feed their infants, and separating the child from the mother disastrous and greatly contributes to their mortality.   The jury indicated that the mother should have been made to appear, despite Nurse Scharness reporting that the girl was still recovering in bed.   The jury felt that if the mothers knew they would have to appear in court it would deter them from the practice of not suckling their child.   A rider to the verdict was that the practice of removing new-borns from their mothers should be discouraged.    Nurse Scharness announced to the Court that she had sent in her resignation as a registered nurse.


In early January 1903 another single lass from Adelaide was delivered by Mrs Scharness.  Two weeks later the mother returned home and the infant was given into the care of a Registered Nurse who lived in St James Street.   This woman had only been registered the previous month and this was her first boarded out infant.   However, she and her carrier husband had 6 children living with them in their five room weatherboard cottage, the four surviving aged 3 to 16 years.   The infant seemed well for two months but then died suddenly of convulsions.   The Coroner found that no blame was to be attached to the nurse. 



Elizabeth, the St James Street Registered Nurse, top centre in lace collar.  

 Her foster child seated left front row.   Family photo 1910.


In late February 1903 a 17 year old single old lass was delivered of a son at Mrs Scharness’.   She came from a large Catholic family settled in the Riverina, and indications are that the father may have been a relative by marriage.   The outcome for this child was in stark contrast to the others.   The mother stayed for some time in Moonee Ponds, presumably feeding the child.   When she returned home the child went into care with the St James Street family.   The weekly payment was made faithfully and the boy grew up in this family.   Although it was known that he was fostered he took their surname and half a century later it was he and his family who took in his widowed foster mother, caring for her in her final days. 


The registrations for these ex-nuptial births share a curious similarity.   The middle name given to all three boys was not a conventional Christian name but a surname, eg Johnson.   Given that Mrs Scharness was responsible for the registration it is possible she was using this method to ensure that the father was named even though his details would not appear on the certificate. 


Private Hospitals


In being confined at 687 Mount Alexander Road, these young women were not simply boarding with the Scharness family.  They were being admitted to Nurse Scharness’ Private Hospital.    Although most women were still confined at home with the midwife visiting for the delivery and lying-in period, many did seek care in a hospital.   The Women’s Hospital was largely restricted to charity or emergency cases, so many midwives offered accommodation in their own homes.   If, like Mary Ann, the midwife habitually accepted into her house women for confinement she was required to register the premises as a Private Hospital.   The system had been in place since 1889. The registration system  was administered by the Central Board of Health, but the permit was given by the local Council.    The registration criteria involved ensuring adequate ventilation and reducing impingement on neighbours’ peace and quiet.   Premises (unless run by a medical practitioner) had to be registered annually with the Council.   This body was required to conduct a quarterly inspection.   Proprietors had to indicate the purpose of the establishment,the number to be accommodated and to prove their character.   Case books had to be kept.   Any death or stillbirth had to be notified.   No private hospital was allowed to admit any cases of infectious or contagious disease.  Ex-nuptial births had to be registered by the proprietor within three days.   


Over the years the regulations became more specific and to be registered premises had to achieve adequate and higher standards of ventilation, drainage, cleanliness, fire safety, and character of the operator had to be sound.  The local Health Officer and the police had right of entry.   The aim was to prevent the establishment of abortion factories, baby farms and the extreme exploitation of the ill or elderly.   About a dozen hospitals were registered each year, only about one fifth of these being run by doctors.   A Board of Health enquiry, however, revealed that not all local Medical Officers ensured that the inspections were conducted, and the necessity for annual registration was generally ignored.   The imprecise nature of the regulations meant that no action could be taken to enforce the character requirement.   From 1910 onwards a number of new Private Hospital Bills wound their way through the Parliament and several teetered on the verge of being passed into law; however, all failed.   There were too many vested interests- local Councils, the medical community, trained nurses, the rural lobby, the churches and charities and the Central Board.   The 1915 Directory contained advertisements for only three local private hospitals, though another three advertised regularly in the Essendon Gazette.   There were a range of facilities, ranging from Mrs Bridget MacCardle, whose home was also a general boarding house, to Nurse Mary Jane McLellan, a trained nurse.



Examples of advertisements from the Essendon Gazette c 1914.


Birth notices indicate that Nurse Scharness’ private hospital was a choice made by married as well as single women.   Several of these were from the then remote Tullamarine, and again Dr Thomson’s role in Broadmeadows may have played a part in that decision.   It is clear that several women may have been with the family at any one time. 


The Scharness household underwent several changes in the second decade of the century.   In 1909 the eldest daughter Alice married and left to settle with her husband’s family in the goldfields of Western Australia.   In early 1911 Ethel married and left home to live in Flemington.   A few months later Alice returned to give birth to her son at the Mt Alexander Road home.    




Measuring the Dose.   The Profession of Nursing.   The Argus Feb 1909


The Professionals


Nightingale nurses came to Victoria in 1870.  By the turn of the century there were 250 trained nurses employed in Victoria, the majority educated at local hospitals. To enter training a woman required a Merit certificate (Year 8), was to be  healthy, active, used to domestic duties and not above average height.   During the three years on the job training the probationer undertook a course of (15) lectures on elementary anatomy, elementary physiology, surgical and medical nursing, as well as technical lectures on general nursing given by experienced staff.   A trainee nurse was paid between £9- £24 pa with uniform and board.   


About seventy nurses graduated each year from Victorian hospitals, however few could be absorbed into staff positions in public hospitals.   Those who were not lost to the profession by marriage had increasing opportunities for employment.   Some would have worked at private hospitals run by medical practitioners, or if they had capital set up their own residences.   Others took up agency nursing, living in a nurses’ home and being sent out as a private nurse, residing in the home whilst there was need.   The Melbourne Trained Nurses Home established in 1885 was the publicly established body, managing about twenty nurses.   It was this organization that provided the services of Nurse Baker to the dying Emma in 1897.  There were also about half a dozen private employment agencies from which nurses could be hired.   All set their own fees and had a specific sets of conditions of service, covering issues such as number of hours of sleep, standards of meals to be provided, laundry arrangements etc.  Nurses could also be hired by doctors to assist with operations in the home.   The fees for agency nurses ranged from 2 to 3 guineas a week.   Some nurses may have worked on their own account, however there was always the issue of obtaining suitable respectable accommodation, enforcing employment conditions and obtaining fees


A District Nurse making a friendly call in 1913.  Nurses wore a drab coat, helmet and dust veil and carried an emergency basket.   The fee for a confinement was 13/- (means tested) which could be paid off at a shilling a week.   They delivered about 300 babies a year, the Women’s Hospital 1400.   The Herald October 1913.


In 1901 the Victorian Trained Nurses Association was formed to lobby for registration, promote the interests of nurses and establish uniformity of training.   As trained nurse numbers increased a Bush Nursing Association was formed in 1910.   A District Nurses Service was founded in 1890, its services restricted to the poorer suburbs.   A Visiting Trained Nurses Service was established in 1910.  These nurses were employed by a local voluntary Committee which covered between one to three suburbs.   The nurses, known colloquially as hourly nurses, normally lived privately in the area for which they were responsible.   This service was set up in Essendon in 1917 when Nurse Muriel Seward of Athol Street was appointed to the district.


Essendon Gazette 1917


Nurse Seward went on to to be in  charge of the Influenza Hospital in 1919, and in 1921 set up  Llandyssil Private Hospital in Scott St.  Bush Nurses were guaranteed a salary of £145 pa and Visiting Nurses £150.  Hospital nurses could expect £80 pa plus full board and uniform. Visiting Nurses charged £2-12-6 for maternity cases with ten days attendance (all fees went to the Committee).   Midwives such as Nurse Scharness seem to have averaged 2 guineas with a charge of 10-12 shillings per week where the woman delivered in the nurse’s private hospital.  Chemist and doctors’ fees were extra.   Bush Nurses were expected to be horsewomen, and suburban nurses rode bicycles or took trams or trains to cases.     


The Maternity Bonus


 A newspaper impression of what was motivating some midwives in 1912.

Bullion in the Babies.   Smiths Weekly June 1931


In October 1912 Andrew Fisher’s Federal Labor Government introduced the Maternity bonus.   This paid the woman (of European descent), married or single a payment of £5 upon the birth of a child.   This was equivalent to about two weeks’ wages for unskilled workers.   The maternity bonus was intended to provide a woman with the means to adequately equip herself for her lying in, purchase adequate linen and ensure she received attention.  After its introduction, many were the stories of the misuse of the money.   Women were accused of using it to purchase jewelry and furniture.   There were complaints that it was made payable to the woman and not the man who was seen as liable for debts relating to the birth.   The Women’s Hospital expressed concern at increasing admissions of septic post-partum women.   The Hospital Board attributed this to the frugality of many poorer women.  These would in the past have sought admission, but objected to paying half of the allowance in hospital fees.   Instead, in an effort to eke out the allowance, they engaged an inexpert attendant at the lowest possible cost with adverse consequences.   It was thought that the availability of the bonus encouraged many unsuitable women into midwifery.   Courts hearing claims for maintenance of ex-nuptial children reduced the sum awarded to the mother by the amount of the bonus.  It was said that in some areas with few midwives the nurses demanded payment of the full allowance rather than the previous accepted rate.  And there were false claims including a case in the first half of 1913 that was reported nationwide.  A doctor and two nurses were accused of conspiring defraud the Commonwealth by falsely registering births and claiming the bonus.   They were also shown to have forged claims on behalf of single mothers.   One of these midwives was local, Mrs Hannah Janet Hurrell of Mt Alexander Road.   There were lurid tales of overcrowded, unregistered private hospitals, vanishing babies and mysterious adoptions.   Hannah Hurrell was called a liar, hard-boiled and obstreperous.   The doctor was acquitted however the two midwives were given a sentence of one year’s gaol with hard labour and fined £100 each.   


Hannah Hurrell (1860-1938) had been a Registered nurse from 1899-1903.  Her registration was cancelled after

the death of the fourth of the 13 infants she had in her care over this four year period.   Photo Police Gazette.


Frederick Scharness


Shortly before midnight on a cold and showery Wednesday 16 July 1913 Mary Ann returned home after attending a maternity patient.   She found her husband Frederick dead on the bedroom floor.   


By this stage the couple was sharing a cottage in Hall Street with their daughter Alice and her husband Charles Arthur Pitman and their child.   Daughter Ethel was in Dover St, Newmarket with her husband Alf Parsons and their two year old son.   Esther Prosser had died in the April and Mary Ann had received £75 from her estate, providing some extra security when Fred sold up his business at the beginning of 1913.  He had needed surgery, which was successful, but declared that he had the means to retire and not work again.   Fred was now 56 years, a small, spare man who fretted about his health.   He was hard of hearing, believed he had a weak heart and knew he was in the early stages of consumption (tuberculosis).   However, after the surgery he had undertaken a trip to Western Australia.   


When Mary Ann made her discovery Dr Dickinson was called for but there was no hope, Fred had been dead for some hours.   He had that day travelled into the city then called on Mary Ann who was nursing a new mother in Ardoch Street.  He had complained of feeling ill had returned home, taken to his bed but accepted afternoon tea from his daughter, and arranged to meet the family at Dover Street for the evening meal.   The local police constable was notified, searched the scene, and was alerted to a tumbler filled with fluid that that had a smell of formalin, a strong disinfectant.   As a death certificate was refused, the matter was referred to the Coroner   and there was an autopsy and inquest.  It was found that a substantial dose, 1oz (28g), of formalin, a corrosive poison, had been ingested.    Statements made by the family indicated that there was a bottle of formalin in the house, which Mary Ann may have used to disinfect her nursing linen and equipment. 



Patent Medicine.   Image courtesy eBay


Fred was also in the habit of taking patent medicines which included Fellow’s Syrup which advertised itself as being useful for bronchitis, influenza, tuberculosis and exhausting diseases.   Fred also carried with him a bottle of Easton’s Syrup, a nerve tonic.   Both concoctions contained strychnine.   In addition Fred regularly burnt formalin tablets, inhaling the fumes to treat his tuberculosis.   These tablets, formalin compounded with sugar, were normally used as an oral rinse to treat major dental infections.   Mary Ann felt that her husband had been showing signs of low spirits though no family member had ever heard him say he was tired of life.   The Coroner had never before encountered a case caused by this poison.   The finding was death by self-administered poison with insufficient evidence to show Fred’s state of mind.   The case was reported as one of suicide, one of 144 registered in that year, 70% of which were men and with poisoning being the second most elected method.   The case was sufficiently unusual to have been discussed at a meeting of the Central Board of Health.    

It eventuated that Fred had made a will in 1906 when ill and staying with a market gardener in Burwood.   He divided his estate equally between his wife and three children.   The total estate was £602 however only £213 was in savings the remainder being mining and other shares and two rural blocks of land. 



















Charles Scharness


Essendon Gazette 10 Jun 1915.

Charles was 5 9’ in height, 11 (70 k) stone, with a fair complexion, blue eyes and black hair.   


Mary Anne’s surviving son Charles took up an apprenticeship in wood turning and joining with the large firm of timber merchants, James Moore and Sons at South Melbourne.    Once Mary Ann and Fred gave up independent housekeeping, Charles went to board with his sister and family in Newmarket.   Charles, born in 1893, was military enthusiast joining the 5 Australian Infantry Regiment aged 17 years.  With the introduction of the compulsory training scheme in 1911 the Regiment was divided.   Charles was then posted to the 64 City of Melbourne Regiment serving there for a year.   In 1913 he transferred  to the 58 Infantry Battalion (Essendon Rifles).   Charles did not just fulfill his basic requirements but devoted himself to achieving promotion.   This would have included attending additional parades and training days and camps.  By mid 1914 he had passed the necessary exams to achieve the rank of Colour Sergeant.   He was part of the escort party at the military ceremony at the Moonee Valley racecourse on Sunday 16 August 1914 where the new colors were dedicated and presented to the 58 Bn.   By this date war had been declared, and on Saturday 15 August Charles had enlisted at the Queens Park Hall in Mt Alexander Road, Moonee Ponds.   His attestation taken by the 58 Bn 2 Lt William Charles Scurry, at just 18 years too young yet to enlist.


On the Monday Dr Sutherland declared Charles medically fit, and aged not quite 21 he became Colour Sergeant in the 7 Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces.   These were handpicked men selected from the hundreds that queued to enlist, the majority being single and aged 19-29 years. On the Wednesday the men, D Company of the 7 Battalion, together with their Commander, Elliot, assembled at the drill hall then marched to the Moonee Ponds  railway station.  At the station they were addressed by Mayor Henderson  and Elliott.  In Melbourne they assembled on the parade ground at Victoria Barracks, worked into fours and  marched down St Kilda Road behind a Citizen Forces band, through the city and up the Sydney Road escorted by crowds of boys and friends.    After several meal breaks they arrived at the embryonic, windswept, Broadmeadows camp. 


The troops marching through Melbourne on their way to the Broadmeadows Camp.

Punch August 1914

There was a full programme of physical drill, squad drill, rifle exercises and lectures.   Uniforms were issued in a piecemeal fashion, and the recruits endured the quagmire of the mud, outbreak of diseases and demanding weather.   Mary Ann would have been one of many thousands who on weekends visited the camp by special train.   The Units were fit for a Brigade,  inspection by the Governor General on 11 September, and undertook a march through the city a fortnight later.   In the early hours of Sunday, 18 October 1914, the Battalion marched out of camp and took train at Broadmeadows for Port Melbourne.   There the 7  Battalion  plus 120 horses embarked on HMAT A20 Hororata.   On the Monday the troops left Victoria.  As the pier was closed families lined the foreshore to farewell their boys.    The overcrowded Hororata took a week to reach Western Australia.   Travelling in convoy with 38 other ships the troopship travelled via Ceylon to disembark in Egypt on 6 December.   There Charles took on the role of Quartermaster Sergeant for B Company under Captain Alf Jackson.


Charles wrote descriptive and reassuring letters home.   After arduous months in Egypt the Battalion left for Lemnos on 8 April.   Arriving in harbor the troops spent most of their time on the ships with some route marches and exercises on land.   On 24 April, orders were issued for the attack on Gallipoli Peninsula, north of Gaba Tepe.  Of the 140 men from the 7 Bn who left the ship only 38 reached the shore.   Charles was listed as killed at the Landing and buried two days later by the senior Methodist chaplain to the NZ Forces the Rev John Aldred LuxfordAs the Scharness headstone at Fawkner Cemetery records,he was 22 years and eight months of age.   


Chaplain Luxford (1854-1921) served both in the South African War and Gallipoli. 

Photo Auckland Museum on line.


On Saturday 1 May 1915 Essendon families started to receive news of the AIF’s deaths and casualties at Gallipoli.  Charles’ death was confirmed on 22 May hence the family notices and newspaper paragraphs appearing on the 10 June listing this as the date of his death.   For the next seven years Mary Ann was to receive many official letters regarding her son, two parcels of personal effects, confirmation of burial details, notice of exhumation and reburial, photographs of the grave, various medals, a memorial plaque and memorial scroll.   There were also the dedications of a number of Rolls of Honour, school, church,  workplace and municipal.   Of his daily pay of 11/- he had allotted 7/6 and also made his will entirely in his mother’s favour.   Mary Ann’s initial pension was £26 pa.  During the course of the war Mary Ann and her daughters would learn of the deaths of nearly 600 locals –one a week - many of their friends from school, neighbours, work, church, militia and sport teams.   Countless others would return permanently injured.  Mrs Scharness may have delivered some of these men, known them as infants and children.   There were also family members involved in the conflict, including one of Mary Ann’s beloved nephews who died in France  in 1917It is worth noting that the names of Mrs Scharness and her daughters never appear in connection with the multitude of patriotic activities in the period 1914-1918.    



The Midwives Act


In 1915 the Victorian legislature eventually gave way to the decade of repeated lobbying of women’s and medical groups and individuals interested in the health of women and children and the increase of the race.  The delay was partly directed by concern that poor women could not afford professional fees and the position of rural women where the number of midwives was likely to be reduced even further by regulation.    Midwives for the first time were placed under direct Government control.   This followed the earlier examples of the Tasmania (1901), UK (1902), and Queensland (1912).  A Midwives Board was established and all women wishing to practice in this field had to apply to be registered.   Those without formal training and certificates could apply to be recognized under Section 14(b)of the Act, a grandmothers clause.   This required women to show they had been in bona fide practice for two years, produce certificates from two doctors as to competency as well as a character reference from a public figure such as a clergyman.   The application fee was two guineas, and the annual registration fee 5/.   Each application was scrutinized by the Health Department.   In the case of emergency an unregistered person could act but after 1916 anyone practicing for gain, using the title of midwife or implying she was registered without being so, would be prosecuted and fined £20.


The first part of the Directions to Midwives instructed nurses to be scrupulously clean in her person, clothing, appliances and house.   She had to wear a clean, washable dress and apron and when in attendance tuck up her sleeves.   Several writers have pointed out that no such directions were issued to doctors who could attend confinements in their everyday attire.   The midwife had to carry a bag of specified equipment.   In the case of emergency the midwife was required to call in a doctor, whose fee was guaranteed by the Midwives Board though this could later be recovered from the family, except in the case of lack of means.   There were detailed regulations as to the midwife’s responsibility to her patient and the infant.   Methods of cleaning herself, clothing and instruments were minutely set out.   Midwives had to faithfully adhere to all the requirements and regulations. 


Despite the trauma she had recently been through, Mary Ann safeguarded her livelihood by applying for registration.   She was one of 42 local women (and all midwives had to be females over 23 years) whose names were included in the register (see Appendix).


1917 –Fined


By 1917 Mary Ann was living at 36 Chaucer Street together with her daughter Alice, son-in-law and grandson.  This was a more commodious house than the five room Hall Street cottage, and maternity patients were accommodated there.   It is not clear whether Mary Ann sought registration of this house as a private hospital.  However in November 1917 Nurse Scharness along with two other local midwives were prosecuted in the Essendon Court for operating from unregistered premises.   The local health inspector Harry Unwin Lyon (1859-1929) explained to the court that the Central Board of Health had received an anonymous complaint that several unregistered private hospitals were operating in Essendon. The Board then wrote to the Council  which had no option but to investigate and prosecute.   Two doctors, Martell and Deane, testified to the women being legally qualified nurses, excellently conducting eminently suitable premises.   The doctors had visited frequently and there had been no cases of infectious disease.   Martell added said that these institutions were an absolute necessity for Essendon as domestic help was practically unobtainable and eight out of ten women were as a result compelled to be confined in such places.   The difficulty was that regulations required all private hospitals be situated 10 feet from the property boundary to give privacy and contagion protection.   There was a problem in Essendon in obtaining such sites.   


One of the defendants had applied for registration in 1915 and been refused on this ground though it had been stated that the distance was satisfactory even if it did not meet the standard.   The Police Magistrate, supported by a full Board of Justices, decided to convict all three women.  Nurse Scharness was fined 5 /- with costs of £3 10.    The nominal amount of the fine may have indicated local support for these nurses and their services.   One wonders what motivated the complaint, a disgruntled nurse who had been refused, a competitor or a local do gooder? There were no similar cases in other suburbs so one suspects a local grievance.   Nurse Scharness was not prepared to fold up her tent, and lobbied for change.   In March 1918 she and another high profile midwife, Nurse Rebecca Rossinitiated a public petition against this unjust treatment.  They proclaimed that they and others were unable to obtain registration even though their establishments were beyond reproach and were favourably reported on by doctors.   Any buildings they might obtain did not give the necessary 10 feet clearance from adjoining properties.   This seemed a problem peculiar to our district where there was a middle class demand for such hospitals but a shortage of economically reasonable and adaptable houses of a suitable size.   This has to be seen against a background of a shortage of housing, unwillingness of landlords to rent and difficulties of adapting housing in terms of plumbing and sanitary internal finishes.   The petition was to be presented to Thomas Ryan MLA asking him to make representations on this issue. 


A New Venture


 Mary Ann sometimes signed her full name; sometimes she just used initials.   

However she was known generally as Nurse Scharness. 


 In July 1918 Mary Ann advertised that she was moving to Winchester Street, and the Pitmans moved to live with the Dover Street family.   The separation was only temporary, as in August 1918 Nurse Scharness applied for registration to establish a private hospital in Lorne Street, Moonee Ponds.   This was successful.   At the age of 55, widowed, with a pension that would have allowed her to pay her own way if she lived with one of her daughters, Mary Ann was embarking on a new venture.   Lorne Street was a substantial dwelling on an 80 feet frontage with a 10 feet pathway on both side of the house.   It bordered on Ascot Vale, and relocation would have involved setting up relationships with different medicos, chemists and services.   


Although the Pitman family moved back to share the house, Nurse Scharness may also have had a working relationship with another local midwife to come in and assist according to demand.  It is clear that midwives had always had a system of covering for each other in times of sickness or unavailability.   The birth notices make it evident that not only local folk used her hospital.   Women came from Clifton Hill, Croxton, North Essendon and Flemington to be confined with her.   During this time the war ended and the AIF returned.   There was an increase in marriages, a slight recovery of the birth rate and the influenza pandemic.  There was also a change in the nursing field and women had more choice and avenues of advice.   Most of the 3000 nurses who had served overseas returned and were seeking employment.   Many were debilitated by their war service and unable to cope with the demands of hospital work.  Nurses who were eligible for a War Service Home grant could obtain a loan of up to £700 to establish a private hospital or nursing home.   If two were in partnership each could obtain the full amount of the loan.   The developing field of Infant Welfare was also attractive to returned nurses as it meant regular hours and a degree of independence.   Although Essendon did not establish a service until 1922 the Melbourne Council had a centre in Kensington from 1920 and many Essendon mothers used this.  All of these added to the complexity of a traditional midwife’s life. 


The Midwives Act with its many stipulations did not appear to have made a major impact.  The Board met regularly, however there were no resources for regular inspection until 1926.  Any action taken by the Board to sanction or deregister midwives took place as a result of complaints by doctors, nurses or families.   The new omnibus Health Act that came into being in March 1920 did have more influence.   All new Private hospitals were now to be registered and inspected by the Health Commission.   The new Act allowed the authorities to have an elastic approach and exempt some hospitals from fulfillment of all requirements if it was expedient to do so.  This particularly applied to rural facilities and was seen as a passing phase until development had occurred.   The Department undertook a systematic inspection of all private hospitals, listing defects with future registrations being dependent on these being remedied.   Victoria had 476 private hospitals of which 195 had fewer than five beds.   In 1922 55 private hospitals closed, including that of Nurse Scharness’ Lorne Street maternity hospital.   It may be this Health Department’s inspection resulted in the closure. 



Grosvenor Street


The family moved to Grosvenor Street,  however Mrs Scharness did not retire.   She renewed her annual registration and continued to describe her occupation as Nurse on the electoral roll.   On 1 July 1924 the 1923 Nurses Registration Act came into being after ten years of discussion and delay.   This regulated the nursing profession, requiring nurses to have a minimum of three years hospital training.  Registration with the Nurses Board gave the right to wear a special badge and designated headgear and the use the title Registered Nurse or Registered Trained Nurse.  These were the only reserved appellations, the title Nurse could still be used by the formally untrained.   There was no grandmother’s clause in the legislation and experience alone did not qualify a woman for nursing registration. 


Mary Ann’s pension was now £75 pa.  In 1924 she also benefited from the Commonwealth scheme whereby War Widows and Widowed Mothers received free membership of a Friendly Society.   This provided   for medical treatment and medicines.   She became a member of the Australasian Women’s Association, set up by the ANA, as Friendly Societies did not accept lone women into membership.   


The family experienced another tragedy in 1927 when Charles Pitman died at the age of forty five.   Apart from one brief interval, Mary Ann had shared a home with him for fifteen years.   Charles did not leave an estate and the circumstances of the now two widows and the 16 year old Charles Alfred may have been straitened.   Mary Ann herself died intestate in 1931, and her estate was not probated until 1943.  This showed she died possessed of some remnant shares from her husbands’ estate and a block of land in Ivanhoe, value in total £127.  A quarter of a century of service did not bring her a home of her own or wealth.   She still, however, paid the fee for the annual renewal of her midwifery registration.   Midwives were brought under the Nurses Board in 1929, though as someone who had qualified under Section 14b in 1915, Mary Ann was still eligible to be registered and practice. 


Every April since 1916 Mary Ann Scharness had inserted an In Memoriam notice in the On Active Service newspaper column.   This was one of the few legitimized outlets for War related maternal grief.


Notice in The Age Friday 25 April 1930


There was no notice in the 1931 newspapers as Nurse Mary Ann Scharness had died in the February of that year.   Her daughters’ acknowledgement notice indicate the extent to which the community felt the loss of someone who had served for so long.



© M Kenny 2021


Thank you to Registered Nurse Elizabeth foster son’s descendants and other family historians who first alerted me to Mary Ann Scharness and her role in our community. 


Appendix A


Names found in Police correspondence files of some local Registered Nurses


No 60 Eliza Stewart (also given as Stuart), 46 Young St (corner of Pratt St)

No 142 Jane E Burton, 9 Marshall St (corner of Smith St).   Husband George, a painter.    

No 258 Martha Haldroy (probably Holdroy), 4 St James St (husband John)

No 305 Mary Healy, 65 Darling St 

No 316 Kathleen Lane, 12 Tennyson St

No 332 Keiza Annie Nichol, 63 Moore St, corner Chaucer

No 422 Johanna McDermott, 8 Puckle St



Register of Midwives, Victorian Government Gazette 10/2/21

Names of 42 local women (from a total of ~ 2500) registered under Section 14(b). 


Martha Bertha Acton, Sydney St A V

Hilda M Andrews, 56 Holmes MP

Bessie Armstrong, Raleigh St E

Annie L Ball, Homer St MP

Annie Carstairs, Grace St MP

Emma Cawley, Park St MP

Jean Annie Clyde, Learmonth St

Frances Cogan, Hurtle St AV

Mary Cullen, Buckley St E

Margaret Donohue, Burton AV

Caroline George/Tuck, Middle St AV

Ellen Grigg, Grandison St MP

Julia Halinbourg, Winchester St MP

Eliza Halligan, Banks St AV

Flora Harris, Buckley St MP

Elizabeth Harrison, The Parade AV

Evelyn Humphries, St Leonards Rd AV

Margaret Kavanagh, St Leonard’s Rd

Annie Keogh Taylor, St MP

Agnes Langan, St Leonard’s Rd

Clara Mackley, Moonee St AV

Jane McDonald, St Leonards Rd AV

Mary McNish, Ardoch St E

Alice Madden, Wilson St MP

Elizabeth Morris, Lorne St MP

Gladys Moule, Moonee St MP

Mary Elizabeth Murphy, Tennyson St MP

Jean Nelson, Ascot Vale Rd MP

Charlotte Pattison, McPhail St E

Agnes Perrett, Mt Alexander Rd

Kate Pringle, Maribynong Rd MP

Mary Ann Regan, Wilson St MP

Cathine Reynolds, Selbourne St AV

Elizabeth Rice, Pascoe Vale Rd

Rebecca Ross, Park St MP

Mary Rossi, The Parade AV

Margaret Salmon, Wigton St AV

Eliza Smith, Letherbridge St MP

Mary Jane Snell, Union Rd AV

Mary Tickell, Raleigh St E

Harriet Woods, Filson St AV

Georgina Young/Granger, Albert St MP


See also Midwives of Essendon and Flemington 



Australian Dictionary of Biography

Austin R      Our dear old battalion: the story of the 7th Battalion, AIF, 1914-1919, Rosebud, Vic.  : Slouch Hat Publications, 2004 

Callanan J   'Giving Birth in the Bush: Colonial women of Victoria and the challenges of childbirth, 1850–1880 ’, Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no.   17, 2019.   

Chalmers R W Annals of Essendon Essendon Historical Society 1998

Commonwealth War Graves  Commission website

Davison CL  'Looking Back and Moving Forward A History of Privately Practicing Midwives in Western Australia'.   PH D thesis Curtin Universtity 2019

Dean A and Gutteridge E   The Seventh Battalion AIF 1933 https://www.preddonlee.com/7th_Battalion_AIF.  pdf

Grehan M   '"A most difficult and protracted labour case”: Midwives, medical men, and coronial investigations into maternal deaths in nineteenth-century Victoria’, Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no.   8, 2009.   

Gregory, Alan, The ever open door: a history of the Royal Melbourne Hospital 1848-1998, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1998

Haigh G      The Racket How Abortion became Legal in Australia, MUP Carlton 2008

Harris H D   Infant Life Protection Act 1890 Indices https://helendoxfordharris.com.au/harriland-press/microfiche/ilpa

Harris H      ‘Victoria Police Involvement in the Infant Life Protection Act 1893-1908’, Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no. 9, 2010.   

Harris, K.   (2009).   'Work, work, work: Australian Army nurses after the First World War'.   In When the Soldiers Return: November 2007 Conference Proceedings, St Lucia, Queensland. 

Herplace  Women’s Museum Australia Unmasked: celebrating Nursing and Midwifery, Victoria and beyond https://herplacemuseum.com/unmasked-exhibition/

Jones A Follow the Gleam A History of Essendon Primary Schoool 1850-2000, Australian Scholarly Publishing 2000

McCalman J Sex and suffering Women's Health and a Women's Hospital MUP Carlton 1995

McMullin R Pompey Elliott Scribe Publications Carlton 2002

NSW Midwives Association With Courage and Devotion: a History of Midwifery in New South Wales Anvil Press; 1984

Swain, Shurlee; Howe, Renate Single Mothers and Their Children: Disposal, Punishment and Survival in Australia, Cambridge University Press, 1995 

PROV, Wills and Probate, Shipping Records, Inquests, Criminal Trial Briefs, Prison Records, Land Records, Police Correspondence files, Divorce files, Civil case files   

BDM, Sands and MacDougall Directories, Electoral Rolls, Police Gazettes, Victorian Government Gazettes, Cemetery records, MMBW plans, Rate books, Victorian Year Book

Lands Department Title Deeds

National Archives of Australia Service Records, Embarkation Rolls

Newspapers, The Age, the Argus, Essendon Gazette, Smiths Weekly, Weekly Times, Punch, Flemington Spectator, The Australasian, The Herald  

Legislation, The Infant Life Protection Act 1890 (No. 1198), The Midwives Act 1915 No (2773), Health Act 1919 (No 3041), Nurses Registration Act 1923 (No 3307)

Annual Reports The Central Board of Health, Repatriation Commission


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