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Elizabeth Lavender (1839–1911)

by Peter Woodley

Elizabeth Lavender, n.d.

Elizabeth Lavender, n.d.

Elizabeth Lavender (1839-1911), midwife, nurse, private hospital proprietor, and businesswoman, was born on 14 May 1839 at Tipton, Staffordshire, the daughter of John Williams, carter and mail contractor, and Mary née Nicholls.[1] In September 1863, Elizabeth married carpenter and joiner George Bunn Lavender, a widower, at St John’s Church of England in Dudley, Worcestershire.[2] He was fourteen years her senior. By 1870 the couple had moved north to Sheffield in Yorkshire, where by 1881 they were able to employ a young woman as a live-in servant.[3] In February 1884 they arrived in Sydney, New South Wales, as assisted immigrants aboard the SS Abergeldie with their five children aged between five and twenty.[4] Within a few years Elizabeth was advertising her services as a midwife from an address in Surrey Hills, and George was seeking work as a carpenter.[5] He died in September 1887 aged sixty-two, leaving Elizabeth, then forty-eight, with several still-dependent children.[6] For the next nine years she advertised her nursing and midwifery services from several addresses in Darlinghurst and Moore Park.[7]

Lavender was a part of a lightly-regulated health care system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where doctors tended to work in private practice while hospitals were run by philanthropic and denominational groups.[8] Within these hospitals nursing was becoming increasingly professionalised.[9] The Australasian Trained Nurses’ Association, formed in 1899, issued diplomas based on examinations and other qualifications, and included 1,811 members on its central register in New South Wales by 1906.[10] Much smaller establishments were labelled private hospitals and provided accommodation for people underdoing medical or surgical treatment, or were ‘lying-in’ facilities for women giving birth. Some were both. The Children’s Protection Acts (1892 and 1902) required proprietors of lying-in hospitals to register births occurring in their establishment within two weeks, but in all other respects the sector was unregulated before 1909. There is no evidence that Lavender had previously worked in the health sector: the census collector in 1881 had not recorded that she held any form of employment. But with no formal qualifications she would not have been out of place. Midwives in Sydney generally possessed no formal qualifications, but were attending around two-thirds of births in Sydney in 1870.[11] By 1906 government officials estimated that there were 107 private hospitals in Sydney, most of them small establishments catering for women giving birth, and another 343 in country New South Wales. Standards of care varied widely.[12]

It is difficult to judge precisely where Lavender’s businesses sat on the spectrum of these small, privately-run facilities. Her newspaper advertisements suggest that the services she provided changed over time. Whereas she described herself simply as a midwife in her earliest advertisements in Sydney, within a few years and for almost the whole of the remainder of her career she was consistently a ‘professional nurse and accoucheuse’. By 1900 she claimed to have successfully attended and superintended 20,000 cases, a number which suggests that she also employed nursing staff.[13] She often advertised ‘to accommodate Ladies from the country requiring a nurse or medical attendance’, but elsewhere simply for ‘patients’.[14] Her changing pitch for custom suggests either that she was adapting her services, or that she would take patients wherever she could find them.

Besides her own advertisements, there is evidence that Lavender provided a reputable service. She certainly had the confidence of the medical establishment, hosting medical and surgical care as well as providing ‘lying-in’ facilities.[15] At least one family was proud to announce the birth of children at ‘Nurse Lavender’s Private Hospital’.[16] She became particularly associated with the Benevolent Society’s ‘Asylum’ on the corner of Pitt and Devonshire Streets, which had opened in 1821 to care for the city’s ‘poor, aged and distressed’, and provided obstetric services, mainly for single and destitute women, from 1848.[17] By the 1890s, the hospital was training both medical students from Sydney University in obstetric care and nurses in ‘modern midwifery, as against the numerous unskilled persons necessarily employed by the public in times past’.[18]

Despite this rising professionalisation of obstetrics, Lavender’s services were in demand. During outbreaks of puerperal sepsis (a perinatal bacterial infection) at the Asylum in September and November-December 1893—a crisis that resulted in the deaths of eight women—incoming patients were directed to her establishment on Flinders Street in Moore Park at the insistence of the obstetric surgeon and Visiting Medical Officer Dr W. Edward Warren. Whereas the visiting doctors considered the Asylum a danger to patients’ health (they would soon resign en masse in protest), Warren attested that Lavender’s was ‘a very well conducted private hospital’. In all, she received 71 women over that period, for which she was recompensed at a rate of £1 1s. per patient per week.[19] Her advertisements that year specified: ‘No infectious cases received.’[20]

Lavender’s association with the Benevolent Society brought her into contact with the most destitute and neglected women of Sydney. In 1894 she testified at a coronial inquest, having admitted a young domestic servant the Asylum had referred to her. Lavender later discovered, and reported to police, that her patient had brought with her a box containing the body of her deceased child born hours earlier at her employer’s house in nearby Redfern.[21] Notwithstanding her projection of orderliness and professionalism, Lavender did not escape scrutiny. In 1894 she was charged with neglecting to register a birth within the required two weeks, though the colony’s Children’s Relief Department did not proceed with the case.[22] In all, she appears to have provided important ancillary services within the system, rather than on its margins, at a time when experience and character were still valued as much as formal training. One account described her as ‘well-known by every Sydney doctor to be a thoroughly practical nurse of long standing’. Whether this were so or not, as it appeared in a Western Australian newspaper at a time when she was seeking to establish a hospital there, and given her flair for promoting her businesses, she might have been the principal source of this intelligence.[23]

Lavender, then in her mid-fifties, had gone to Coolgardie on the Western Australian goldfields in 1896 with her twenty-year-old daughter Georgina. Following the discovery of gold in 1892, the town grew rapidly: by 1897 it had a population of 25,000. With the sudden influx of people and only rudimentary infrastructure, typhoid was rife by 1896, and health services were overrun.[24] Both the public hospital and an array of private institutions often operating from canvas or hessian structures struggled to cope.[25] Lavender had applied to the local council for permission to establish a private hospital there by June 1896. By December she was in business, and she was employing staff by July 1897. The following month she advertised services for ‘Ladies requiring [a] nurse or medical attendance’ at ‘Lavender Hospital’.[26] However, any success she experienced in the west appear to have been tempered by disappointment. Her daughter Georgina eloped with a miner in October 1896.[27] A court was awarded to Elizabeth monies owed by a patient’s employer who had committed to paying on their behalf in July 1897, but it perhaps it was exceptional success.[28] In an environment where more people were drawn to the goldfields than could ever profit from it, and in the midst of an economic depression across much of the country, unpaid debts might have caused her to return to the east. According to her granddaughter’s testimony decades later, Elizabeth left Coolgardie a poor woman, but for the rest of her life wore a brooch fashioned from a small nugget she received from a miner and patient.[29] She had returned to Sydney by October 1898 where she resumed her business as matron and proprietor of ‘private hospitals and nursing homes’ in Moore Park, Darlinghurst. Later she opened a hospital on Glenmore Road in Paddington adjacent to the Benevolent Society’s Royal Hospital for Women, which had opened in 1905 after the Asylum was demolished to make way for Central Railway Station.[30]

In 1906 Lavender’s career and livelihood became more precarious when Charles Kinnaird Mackellar, a doctor and lifetime appointee to the Legislative Council, introduced a private member’s bill to regulate private hospitals. The bill would require nurses and midwives to register with the state. Mackellar was one of Sydney’s leading physicians, with appointments president of the Board of Health (1883-85, 1903-18), president of the State Children’s Relief Board (1902-14), and director of the Royal Prince Alfred hospital (1886-1917). He had chaired the Royal Commission on the decline of the birth-rate and on the mortality of infants in New South Wales in 1902-03.[31] Doctors, police officers and government officials (all of them men) gave evidence before a select parliamentary committee convened to inform debate on Mackellar’s bill. They attested that, with some exceptions – particularly in the city – private hospitals were under the control of unqualified people providing poor quality care on the whole, and that several took in women seeking abortions.[32] Whether the bill amounted to an attempt to eliminate terminations, raise the standard of health care for vulnerable people, shore up the flagging birth rate, or to medicalise women’s long-established practices of nursing and midwifery, Mackellar succeeded on his second attempt. In December 1908, his private hospitals bill was enacted. The act required that private hospitals (very broadly defined) be registered, and that they be managed either by a medical practitioner, a nurse holding qualifications from either a surgical and medical hospital or a maternity hospital, or a person approved by the Board of Health.[33]

In February 1909, as the new act came into effect, Lavender made the first substantial change to her advertisements since she had established her business in Sydney in 1886. She remained in business despite her advancing age, but styled herself simply as ‘Nurse Lavender’, and offered merely ‘a Res[idential] home for mild cases of mental derangement or invalids’ in ‘bright airy rooms or flats’, from premises she had first set up in 1890.[34] Her name does not appear in the state’s first register of private hospitals.[35] In her seventieth year, it is likely that the new Private Hospitals Act 1908 had made it too difficult to continue her work: either she was now ineligible to run such a facility or the paperwork was too bothersome. Fifteen years earlier the Sydney medical establishment had sought her out as an exemplary source of care, but she was now a casualty of its determination to regulate medical and nursing training and practice.

Photographs of Lavender in middle age reveal a woman with a round, soft face, gentle mouth, small wire-rimmed spectacles, hair tied tightly back in a bun behind, and with high, buttoned up collars. Her simple and modest dresses with puffed sleeves show nothing of her form. She looks with a tranquil but deliberate gaze to the side of the camera. These images project order and quiet respectability. Along with the evidence of her career, they suggest a woman of intense focus, determination, and independence. Her granddaughter – seventeen when Elizabeth died – remembered her as ‘extremely hot-tempered’, but also ‘independent to the end, scorning to accept help even from her children’.[36] Certainly her two sons are unlikely to have provided significant financial support: she had endorsed a promissory note for one in 1893 and been sued by the creditors for her trouble when it was not honoured.[37] The other son was declared bankrupt in 1901.[38]

Elizabeth Lavender was an energetic businesswoman who provided critical health services in Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She served as a point of intersection between patients – mainly women – and the medical establishment, as an adjunct to hospitals, contributing her abilities as carer and midwife through a period of transition towards a more regulated and medicalised system. She died of heart disease at her daughter’s home in Randwick on 22 April 1911 aged nearly seventy-two, with net assets of £238 consisting mainly of furniture, and was interred beside her husband in the Church of England section of Waverley cemetery. Her headstone bears the epitaph: ‘She abounded in good works’.[39]

[1] Elizabeth Williams, birth certificate; England and Wales Census, 1841, 1851.

[2] Marriage certificate.

[3] England and Wales Census, 1871, 1881.

[4] Assisted Immigrants Index 1839-1896, State Archives and Records New South Wales (SARNSW), NRS-5317, Reels 2142, 2495.

[5] Sands Sydney Alphabetical Directory 1885, p. 527; Sands Sydney and NSW Directory 1887, p. 710.

[6] George Lavender, death certificate.

[7] For example, Evening News, 15 March 1889, p. 2; Daily Telegraph, 19 July 1890, p. 4; The Dawn, 1 July 1891, p. 30; Australian Town and Country Journal, 7 January 1893, p. 1.

[8] Judith Godden, ‘Hospitals’, Dictionary of Sydney,, accessed 22 April 2022.

[9] Judith Godden, ‘Nursing’, Dictionary of Sydney,; Judith Godden, ‘A “Lamentable Failure”? The Founding of Nightingale Nursing in Australia’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 32, No. 117, 2001, pp. 276-91; Beverley Kingston, My Wife, My Daughter, and Poor Mary Ann: Women and Work in Australia, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1975, pp. 81-91.

[10] New South Wales, Parliamentary Debates, Twentieth Parliament – Third Session, Legislative Council, 22 November 1906, pp. 3938-9.

[11] Daily Telegraph, 17 December 1906, p. 5; Lisa Featherstone, ‘Birth’, Dictionary of Sydney,, accessed 22 April 2022; Catherine Bishop, Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2015, pp. 167-71.

[12] New South Wales, Parliamentary Debates, Twentieth Parliament – Third Session, Legislative Council, 22 November 1906, p. 3937.

[13] Dungog Chronicle: Durham and Gloucester Advertiser, 8 May 1900, p. 3.

[14] Evening News, 15 March 1889, p. 2; Daily Telegraph, 26 March 1906, p. 2.

[15] Truth, 14 July 1895, p. 5.

[16] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1903, p. 6.

[17] Report of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales for the year ended 31st December 1893, Samuel E Lees, Sydney, 1894, p. 5, Benevolent Society of New South Wales – Records, 1813-1995, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 6091; Brian Dickey, No Charity Here: a Short History of Social Welfare in Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1987, first published 1980, pp. 12-18; Ron W Rathbone, ‘The Establishment of the Lying-in Hospital of NSW and its Subsequent Transfer to Paddington as the Royal Hospital for Women’, in History Committee of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, History of the Royal Hospital for Women, [papers presented at a] Seminar, 28 October 1989, Royal Hospital for Women, [1989], pp. 6-7; Paul Scifleet, Guide to the Records of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, 1813-1995: in the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Benevolent Society of New South Wales, [Sydney], 1996, pp. 6-17.

[18] Report of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales for the year ended 31st December 1893, p. 17.

[19] It was named Botany Street at that time. Minutes of the Board of Directors, 12 September 1893, p. 499; W Edward Warren MD to the President, Board of Directors and House Committee, Sydney Benevolent Asylum and Lying-in Hospital, 21 November 1893, Minutes of the Board of Directors; Report of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales for the year ended 31st December 1893, p. 19; Ian Cope and William Garrett, The Royal: a History of the Royal Hospital for Women, 1820-1997, Royal Hospital for Women, Sydney, 1997, p. 11; Tanya Evans, Fractured Families: Live on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2015, p. 173.

[20] Eg, Australian Town and Country Journal, 3 June 1893, p. 1.

[21] Australian Star, 20 November 1894, p. 5, 28 November 1894, p. 5; Evening News, 7 December 1894, p. 5; Daily Telegraph, 8 December 1894, p. 5.

[22] Evening News, 23 July 1894, p. 5.

[23] Golden Age, 8 June 1896, p. 2.

[24] Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 May 1896, p. 5; Albert Gaston, Coolgardie Gold: Personal Record, Stockwell, London, [1940], pp. 123-5.

[25] Mrs Arthur H Garnsey, Scarlet Pillows: an Australian Nurse’s Tales of Long Ago, [Melbourne, 1950], pp. 58-61; Maitland Daily Mercury, 23 May 1894, p. 4; West Australian, 8 February 1895, p. 3, 30 July 1895, p. 3; Cumberland Free Press, 13 July 1895, p. 4.

[26] Coolgardie Pioneer, 24 June 1896, p.17; Coolgardie Miner, 17 December 1896, p. 5, 13 July 1897, p. 6; Goldfields Morning Chronicle (Coolgardie), 10 August 1897, p. 1.

[27] Coolgardie Miner, 24 October 1896, p. 4.

[28] Coolgardie Miner, 13 July 1897, p. 6.

[29] ‘Aunt Patience’ [Nina Corsellis], Poultry, c October 1939.

[30] Advertisements – Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 October 1898, p. 52; Dungog Chronicle: Durham and Gloucester Advertiser, 8 May 1900, p. 3; Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January 1902, p. 16. On the Royal Hospital for Women – Benevolent Society of New South Wales, Report of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, Year Ended 31st December 1905, [Sydney, 1906]; Scifleet, Guide to the Records of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, 1813-1995, pp. 13-17; Rathbone, ‘The Establishment of the Lying-in Hospital of NSW and its Subsequent Transfer to Paddington as the Royal Hospital for Women’.

[31] Ann M. Mitchell, ‘Mackellar, Sir Charles Kinnaird (1844–1926)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 April 2022; Parliament of New South Wales web site, Former Members, ‘Sir Charles Kinnaird Mackellar, K.C.M.G.,M.B.,Ch.M. (1844 - 1926)’, at, accessed 16 April 2022.

[32] Daily Telegraph, 17 December 1906, p. 5.

[33] New South Wales, Parliamentary Debates, Twentieth Parliament – Third Session, Legislative Council, 22 November 1906, pp. 3936-42, 5 August 1908, pp. 421-37; Private Hospitals Act 1908 (No. 14), paragraph 10(1); Lisa Featherstone, ‘Birth in Sydney’, in Sydney Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2008, (last accessed 1 March 2023).

[34] Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 1909, p. 23.

[35] Register of Licensed Private Hospitals, 1 January 1910 to 31 December 1928, SARNSW, NRS-606.

[36] ‘Aunt Patience’ [Nina Corsellis], Poultry, c October 1939.

[37] Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 1894, p. 3; Daily Telegraph (Launceston), 9 November 1898, p. 5.

[38] Supreme Court, Registrar in Bankruptcy: bankruptcy files (1888–1929): file number 14868 (John William Lavender), SARNSW, NRS 13655.

[39] Elizabeth Lavender, death certificate; Elizabeth Lavender, probate packet, SARNSW, NRS-13660; Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 1911, p. 8.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Peter Woodley, 'Lavender, Elizabeth (1839–1911)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Elizabeth Lavender, n.d.

Elizabeth Lavender, n.d.

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Williams, Elizabeth

14 May, 1839
Tipton, Staffordshire, England


22 April, 1911 (aged 71)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

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