Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Martha Sarah Bidmead (1862–1940)

by Rex Clark

This article was published:

Martha Sarah Bidmead (1862-1940), nurse, was born on 5 December 1862 at Guernsey, Channel Islands, daughter of Thomas Benjamin Bidmead, tobacconist, and his wife Anne, née Mason. In 1885, after both parents had died, she migrated to South Australia with her four sisters, arriving on 30 April in the John Elder. Having decided on a nursing career, she began training at Adelaide Children's Hospital in July 1886 and was charge nurse there in 1887-89. For the next eight years she engaged in private nursing, then in 1898 was appointed staff nurse at Burra Burra District Hospital.

In 1899, when the South Australian government decided to send a detachment of nurses to the South African War, Sister Bidmead volunteered and was placed in charge of six nurses who sailed on 21 February 1900. The government paid their fares and guaranteed them a salary of 15s. a week. They were attached to the 2nd General Hospital at Winburg near Cape Town until June, and then transferred to the 10th General Hospital at Bloemfontein where the New South Wales Ambulance Corps was based. The nurses spent most of their time in tented medical wards tending cases of enteric fever and dysentery—diseases which accounted for a high proportion of casualties.

Sister Bidmead wrote regularly to members of the Nurses' Fund Committee describing her experiences; her letters, published in the Adelaide Observer, gave a vivid account of conditions in the improved hospitals and of the struggle against epidemics of contagious diseases. In March 1901 she became ill and after a fortnight's leave was assigned to light duties at the 5th Stationary Hospital, Bloemfontein. She later took charge of the 10th General Hospital and on 4 September was mentioned in dispatches. Late in 1901 she went to England in charge of the wounded on a hospital ship. On 10 December she was awarded the Royal Red Cross, the first South Australian to receive this decoration. She also received the Queen's and King's South African Service medals and in June 1902 was presented with the Devoted Service Cross, a decoration awarded by the South Australian Nurses' Association.

After the war Sister Bidmead engaged in private nursing until 1912 when she was appointed superintendent of the District Trained Nursing Society of South Australia, which provided home-nursing care for the poor. Much of the society's success was due to her administrative ability; she remained in charge until her retirement in 1926. She had been secretary of the South Australian branch council of the Australian Trained Nurses' Association in 1920-26.

Short in stature, with a bustling nature, Martha Bidmead was a born leader with an arresting personality, a positive character and a deep rich voice. In retirement she found time for her favourite hobbies: playing bridge and tending the garden at Guernsey Cottage, the home she shared with her sisters at Payneham. She died there of a chronic neurological disorder on 23 July 1940 and was cremated after a service at St Aidan's Anglican Church, Payneham.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1912)
  • South Australian Trained Nurses' Centenary Committee, Nursing in South Australia: First Hundred Years 1837-1937, (Adel, 1939)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 May 1885
  • Register (Adelaide), 23 Apr, 17 Dec 1900
  • Observer (Adelaide), 2, 9 June 1900, 19 Jan, 30 Mar, 8 June 1901, 3 May, 7 June, 19 July 1902
  • District Trained Nurses Society, Annual Report, 1926 (Royal District Nursing Society, Adelaide).

Citation details

Rex Clark, 'Bidmead, Martha Sarah (1862–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1862
Guernsey, Channel Islands


23 July, 1940 (aged 77)
Payneham, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.