Matron Annie Laidlaw

By Patricia C Vines

Annie Ina Laidlaw was born on 23 January 1889 at Lake Wallace, near Edenhope, Victoria, second of three daughters of native-born parents James Adam Laidlaw, grazier, and his wife Annie, née Gilchrist. Ina was educated at Alexandra Ladies' College, Hamilton. On 11 November 1913 she started training at the (Royal) Children's Hospital, Melbourne; three years later she was retained as a staff nurse.

Appointed to the Australian Army Nursing Service on 30 June 1917, Laidlaw was immediately sent to India where she served in military hospitals at Bombay and Poona. She returned to Melbourne in March 1919 and her army nursing appointment terminated on 21 May. Back at the Children's Hospital, she worked as a ward sister until 1925 when she was granted leave to undertake midwifery training at the Royal Hospital for Women, Sydney. She resumed her post at the Children's Hospital and in January 1926 became Assistant Lady Superintendent (assistant-matron). In 1930 she was promoted to Lady Superintendent of the hospital's orthopaedic section at Frankston, Victoria where she worked under the medical superintendent Dr John Colquhoun.

The Royal Australian Naval Nursing Service (RANNS) was formed in 1942. Surgeon Captain WJ Carr, who knew Miss Laidlaw socially, nominated her to head the new service; on 20 April she was appointed Superintending Sister, with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant Commander. She assisted in the selection of qualified nurses suitable for recruitment as RANNS officers. Initially, twelve were chosen in Melbourne and twelve in Sydney. Their numbers rose to sixty before World War II ended. They served in naval hospitals in Sydney and Darwin, at Milne Bay, Papua, and at Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria; they staffed naval sick-quarters in Brisbane and Canberra, at Townsville and Cairns, Queensland, and at Fremantle, Western Australia; some of them were attached to Army and Air Force hospitals. Laidlaw visited her staff at their various postings.

Based at Flinders Naval Depot, she had charge of the establishment's hospital in addition to her responsibilities for the whole of the RANNS. In March 1943 she was promoted Matron. Laidlaw and her colleagues shared their living-quarters with officers of the WRANS, but had their own officers' mess where meals and services were provided by WRANS cooks and stewards. The nurses' duties included training men as sick-berth attendants to prepare them for employment at sea. There was some resentment among male members of the Medical Branch who felt that their positions were being usurped. Laidlaw overcame the difficulty. One nursing officer recalled that she "was of sterling worth...a born leader, a woman of tremendous courage".

After Laidlaw's RANNS appointment ended on 15 March 1946, she returned to her position at the orthopaedic division of the Children's Hospital and remained there until 1950. She had a large circle of friends, belonged to the Peninsula Country Golf Club, Frankston, enjoyed a game of cards and drove a baby Austin motorcar.

In 1951-52 Laidlaw was Home Sister at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, London. She then worked in Melbourne as Resident Matron at the Freemasons' Homes of Victoria, Prahran. Following her retirement in 1957, she lived in the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia's home for nurses at RSL (St Kilda) House. She died on 13 September 1978 at McKinnon and was cremated with the forms of the Uniting Church.

Image: Portrait of Annie Laidlaw by Nora Heysen, 1944
Australian War Memorial collection