Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gray, Ethel (1876–1962)

by Merrilyn Lincoln

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Ethel Gray (1876-1962), nursing sister and army matron, was born on 24 April 1876 at Carlton, Melbourne, eldest of the eight children of Samuel Gray, clothing manufacturer from Cavan, Ireland, and his English-born wife Amelia, née Bird. Educated at Lee Street State School, East Melbourne, and the Presbyterian Ladies' College, she entered (Royal) Melbourne Hospital as a probationer in March 1900, gained her certificate on 12 March 1903 and was promoted staff nurse two days later and sister on 29 May. A supervisor described her as 'most satisfactory, very quick and observant, reliable and thoroughly conscientious in her work, also a favourite with the patients'. She remained on the staff until 1908 when she was appointed matron of the Queen's Memorial Infectious Diseases Hospital, Fairfield. She returned to Melbourne Hospital as house matron in July 1909 and in February 1911 became assistant lady superintendent.

Sister Gray became matron of Perth Public Hospital in January 1913. In January 1915 she volunteered for the Australian Army Nursing Service and, having been asked to take charge of a convalescent depot for Australian troops in England, enlisted in the A.A.N.S., Australian Imperial Force, on 9 February as a matron. She embarked ten days later with five sisters who were to form the nucleus of the depot's nursing staff. On reaching England she discovered that the hospital, Harefield Park House, Middlesex, was not ready for occupation. Her first tasks were to advise on alterations necessary 'to make the place capable of holding 150 convalescent patients' and to purchase equipment and furnishings. Before the first intake of patients in June, she was told that Harefield was to become the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital. The rapid expansion and the changing role of the unit placed heavy strains on the staff but 'great unity' existed and 'the spirit of the hospital was good'. Matron Gray, already showing the dedication and the exceptional organizing and administrative skills which were to make her one of the most highly decorated members of the A.A.N.S., supervised the general running of the hospital and the management of the nursing staff until 30 November 1916. By this time Harefield had 1000 beds. Next June she received the Royal Red Cross, 1st class, for her work there.

On 9 December 1916 she joined the 2nd Australian General Hospital at Wimereux, France, retaining charge of the nursing staff until March 1919 when the hospital closed. The 'rush of work' which began with the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 continued until October 1918. She was mentioned in dispatches in 1917 and 1919, appointed C.B.E. in 1919 and awarded the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Française in 1920, being the only Australian woman to receive this honour. On 19 March 1919 she assumed duty with the 1st A.G.H. at Sutton Veny, England, and embarked for Australia on 22 January 1920. She was discharged from the A.I.F. a month later. Soon after demobilization she became the first matron of Epworth Intermediate Hospital, Richmond, Melbourne, a hospital founded by the Methodist Church, and remained in charge until her retirement in 1939. She died in Epworth on 22 July 1962 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. Her estate was sworn for probate at £30,997.

Ethel Gray was a woman of great constitutional stamina and forceful, sometimes domineering, personality. A staunch adherence to Methodism influenced her whole life. Totally dedicated to the nursing profession, she expected the same single-mindedness from her colleagues and, though generally considerate of others, was a firm disciplinarian. A strong sense of duty, instilled by both family and church, never left her. She was 5 ft 4½ ins (164 cm) tall, carried herself well, and usually wore her dark hair parted in the centre. A fresh complexion softened her strong, rather angular features. Her portrait, by Ernest Buckmaster, is in Epworth Hospital. A niece remembers her as 'a lovable person' to whom 'everything was of absorbing interest and worthy of comment'. From her personal diaries, faithfully kept throughout 1915-19, she emerges as a capable, energetic woman with rigid standards of personal morality and compassion and concern for her patients and staff.

Select Bibliography

  • Una, July 1903, June 1906, June 1908, Jan 1913, May 1915, June, Dec 1916, Mar 1917, Oct 1962
  • Australasian Nurses J, May, June 1913, Apr, Sept 1917, May 1918
  • London Gazette, 3 June 1916, 28 Dec 1917, 3 June, 11 July 1919
  • Spectator (Melbourne), 11 Oct 1939
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 July 1962
  • records, and information from the Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Victorian Branch, and Royal Melbourne Hospital
  • E. Gray, personal diaries 1915-19, donated records section, no 1326 (Australian War Memorial)
  • notes prepared for collator of medical records, World War I, no 1326, file AO 419/40/6 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Gray, Ethel (1876–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gray-ethel-6462/text11065, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 11 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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