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Messages to Margaret

Messages to Margaret

By Auckland Museum staff
Sun, 4 Dec 2016

Margaret Swarbrick was a dressmaker turned nurse who worked at a hospital in England that tended more than 20,000 New Zealand soldiers. She asked the men in her care to write in her 'autograph books'. Their sketches, photographs and messages reveal the lighter side of life in a WWI military hospital.

First World War volunteer nurse Margaret Swarbrick asked the men in her care to write in her 'autograph books'.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira MS 1468

Learning on the job

At 25 years of age Margaret (b 1892) left her home by the sea in Lancashire and joined the British Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Soon after she was posted to New Zealand’s No. 1 General Hospital at Brockenhurst, a small village in the South of England.

Brockenhurst: The No. 1 New Zealand General Hospital​

Though Margaret and many of the other volunteers were untrained, they provided essential help to hospitals short of staff. VADs such as Margaret began by assisting with jobs such as cooking, cleaning and washing patients, but soon progressed to more significant medical tasks, including bandaging wounds and preparing men for surgery. Margaret would have learned on the job, and at speed.

The hospital where Margaret worked had beds to accomodate just over 70 people, which wasn’t nearly big enough for the number of patients arriving. In just four years, from 1916 through to 1919, the hospital admitted more than 20,000 New Zealand soldiers [Footnote]. The trained nurses in New Zealand’s Army Nursing Service would have been grateful for the extra assistance from the volunteers.

To win Margaret’s heart

While Margaret was at Brockenhurst she asked the Kiwi boys to write a note or draw a picture in one of her autograph books, something for her to remember them by. The men’s messages to Margaret suggests that despite their injuries, they somehow managed to retain their humour and their gratitude.

This from Richard Lockheart of Greymouth:

Oh would that I were a teacup
In which you sip your tea
For every time you raise the cup
It would be a kiss for me

And from John M Munro:

Maggie Swarbrick be her name
Single be her station
Happy be the man
Who makes the alteration

A young man by the name of Gibbs composed a lengthy ode that included these lines:

Who fills my chart at morn and night?
And switches on the electric light?
And sees that everything is right?
My Margaret

T.P. Connell from Hawera wasn't one for poetry, preferring instead the direct approach:

Meet me, 8pm, at the Royal Hotel tonight!

TP Connell from Hawera employed the direct approach.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira MS 1468

On page after page, there are similarly earnest, humorous endeavours to win Margaret’s heart, accompanied by small flattering portraits of the young nurse herself.

Margaret’s collection

When Margaret’s nephew donated his aunt’s books, photographs and postcards to the Museum he noted that among her treasures a couple of names recur. One is Private Wiremu Karati.

Entering Karati’s name in Online Cenotaph and looking at his service record we learn he was a shearer from the Coromandel who enlisted in the First Maori Contingent almost as soon as the war broke out.

Online Cenotaph
View Wiremu Karati's record​

Karati was away the full five years, during which he survived Gallipoli and the Western Front not to mention mumps, bronchitis and a bullet wound in his jaw. How fitting that he drew for his nurse Margaret Swarbrick an image of a warrior.

Karati’s sketch from one of Margaret's autograph books.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira MS 1468

The sketches, words and photographs in Margaret’s collection bring the service records of individuals such as Wiremu Karati to life. They give us a glimpse inside this busy military hospital – a place where some found cross-cultural friendship, even romance. 

Margaret nursed at Brockenhurst for 13 months, from May 1917 until June 1918. She lived until the age of 92 (d 1983) and as far as we know, she never married.


  1. Rogers, 152. There were New Zealand hospitals at Walton-on-Thames, Codford and Hornchurch, and additional convalescent homes for soldiers and nurses.
  • Post by: Auckland Museum

    Auckland War Memorial Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its people, and their place in the Pacific.

Visit the Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre

Visit Pou Maumahara and explore the stories behind the photos, diaries and military collections. While you're there you can browse Margaret Swarbrick's four digitised autograph albums and read more messages from the troops she cared for.

Find out more