They were called in from the glen: Remembering our Great War nursing sisters

By Ian McKechnie

A stroll through Lindsay’s Riverside Cemetery is always a rewarding experience for the amateur historian, particularly when they happen upon the marker of a well-known local resident like Sir Sam Hughes (1853-1921), Canada’s controversial Minister of Militia and local Member of Parliament.

A few yards away lies the plot of the Hon. Leslie Frost (1895-1973), one-time Member of Provincial Parliament and Premier of Ontario. The Hughes monument is prominently placed on a hillock and is visible almost as soon as one enters the cemetery; Leslie Frost’s final resting place, meanwhile, is marked with a provincial heritage plaque.

They were called in from the glen: Remembering our Great War nursing sisters
Ian McKechnie.

Besides their lengthy and illustrious political careers, Hughes and Frost are inexorably linked to the Great War of 1914-1918 ‒ Hughes as a draconian cabinet minister responsible for the infamous Ross Rifle and MacAdam shovel, and Frost as an ordinary foot soldier in the 157th Battalion (Simcoe Foresters), whose wartime experiences have also been well-documented.

Hughes and Frost continue to fascinate Canadian historians, and their final resting places in Riverside Cemetery are important records of our past.

But there are other veterans of the “war to end all wars” lying in Riverside Cemetery, too, whose stories have by and large faded into the mists of history ‒ and no, I’m not talking about the young men who donned the uniform of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and saw action at Vimy Ridge and other campaigns, though their stories are meaningful and important, as well.

No, I’m thinking rather of Dovie Matilda “Tilly” Mann (1887-1928), whose headstone lies beneath an ancient tree some distance to the northwest of Leslie Frost. Then there’s Virginia McSweyn (1887-1970), daughter of a prominent nineteenth century Lindsay lawyer, who rests not too far from the famous Flavelle family’s plot a few steps away from the riverbank.  East of Chapel Drive, and a few feet away from the final resting of I.E. Weldon, is the headstone of Katherine Eva Allen, née McKinnon (1886-1977).

Who were these women, and what do they have in common? During the First World War, Tilly, Katherine, and Virginia all saw service in Europe as Nursing Sisters. Between 1914 and 1919, over 3,000 Canadian women served in this capacity, and almost 30 of that number hailed from the area now known as the City of Kawartha Lakes.

Ranging in age from their early twenties to mid-forties, Canada’s nursing sisters were responsible for the primary care of wounded servicemen, maintaining hospital wards, meeting ambulance trains, and assisting surgeons. The work was trying and emotionally exhausting, for the nursing sisters had a holistic approach to patient care, looking beyond physical ailments to treat the spiritual and emotional needs of the war-weary and wounded.

To that end, the nurses organized tea parties, holiday fêtes, and excursions for their patients as means of helping them heal in mind, body, and spirit. Winnifred Hardy (1892-1978), from the hamlet of Penial (northwest of Lindsay), and a graduate of Ross Memorial Hospital’s nursing programme, wrote of how she and her colleagues at No. 1 Canadian General Hospital in Étaples, France, “…decorated the wards and tried our best to make the patients forget that they were sick and remember that it was Christmas day.”

Maude Dayton (1887-1970), a nursing sister from Little Britain, likewise wrote home and reported that, “I have watched the effect of music on these men and it works wonders and does far more good than medicine.”

They were called in from the glen: Remembering our Great War nursing sisters
Dovie Matilda “Tilly” Mann (1887-1928).

Like their soldier colleagues, the nursing sisters saw not only joy in the faces of their patients at a Christmas party or for a walk by the seaside, but also great sadness and sorrow in those scarred by the ravages of warfare.

In one of her detailed epistles, Katherine Eva McKinnon wrote:

Well Florence, I could not begin to describe to you the poverty of parts of London. I asked my sister to take me to some of the poorer parts, just so I could see some of the conditions, and I just felt no wonder we are having war, and how thankful we should be to have our good Canadian homes.  It will be a happy band of boys and girls who are spared to return to our homes, and I do not think many of us will grumble at what is set before us.

Canada’s nursing sisters ‒ unlike their British counterparts ‒ enjoyed the rank and pay of an officer, having the status of Lieutenant. Years before many women took on positions of leadership in Canadian society, our nursing sisters were undertaking leadership responsibilities in their hospital wards overseas. In fact, women serving in the Canadian military were eligible to vote in a federal election long before suffrage was made universal. December 1917 saw nursing sisters Alma Finnie, Jean Bennett, and Oda Weldon being the first group of Canadian women to cast their ballots at the Ontario Military Hospital in Orpington, England.

Do any of those names sound familiar to local readers? Oda Weldon (1885-1954) was originally from Cambray. Her second cousin was I.E. Weldon, after whom one of our local high schools is named. And speaking of high school, Alma Finnie (1890-1992) spent two years at Lindsay Collegiate Institute before teaching for a year in nearby Yelverton. Yes, two of the very first women whose votes counted in a Canadian election once lived in our community!

While some of our nursing sisters lived into their eighties and nineties, their distinguished service as “Bluebirds” generally went unnoticed and unheralded by the communities in which they lived and worked. As such, you won’t find a “Maude Dayton Elementary School” or a Royal Canadian Legion “Winnifred Hardy Branch” anywhere on a map.

However, your local museum has been working hard to see that these stories aren’t forgotten.  On Sunday Nov. 12 at 7 pm, the Kawartha Lakes Historical Society is joining forces with St. Paul’s Anglican Church here in Lindsay to host “Unsung Heroes: Remembering Our Great War Nursing Sisters Through Song & Story.”

We invite you to join us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.