National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

Matron “Momma” Lewis

Carved wooden box belonging to Matron Edith Lewis

Carved wooden box belonging to Matron Edith Lewis

Amongst the many heroes of the wars were the nurses who endured hardship and gave devoted care to the war sick and wounded often displaying great courage for the benefit of others. Matron Edith Mary Lewis (later Rudd) is being remembered at the National Army Museum with the recent donation of a special carved box given to the Matron during World War II.

Born in 1882 Matron Edith Lewis had an outstanding career serving as a nursing sister in both wars, first in Egypt in World War I and later at aged 59, for four years as Matron on the Hospital Ship Maunganui in World War II. Her career spanned over 30 years, with well over 9,000 sick and wounded and hundreds of medical, nursing and orderly staff coming under her influence during this time.

Matron Lewis was a much loved nurse affectionately known as ‘Momma of the black dressing gown’ which she wore for rounds at night during blackout conditions on board the Maunganui. She was always ‘on hand’ particularly in tense times to comfort, help and direct.

Matron Lewis also had a great sense of humour that endeared here to ‘her boys’. She apparently told the “boys” as they got off the hospital ship that they were to “Remember – never let me pass you by. There is only one of me but there are hundreds of you. I see you now in your pyjama shorts and no tops. If I meet you in the street with a bowler hat how am I going to know you?” She needn’t have worries. When she was coming out of a well known Wellington hotel two men approached her “Each put an arm in mine and walked me down the street. ‘Here we are Mum’, they said. I had to accept it.”

Carved box gifted to Matron Edith Lewis by the staff of the Hospital Ship Maunganui in WWII

Carved box gifted to Matron Edith Lewis by the staff of the Hospital Ship Maunganui in WWII

Matron Lewis was awarded the highest military nursing award, the Royal Red Cross (1st class) for her wartime service in 1944, and later in 1961, the Florence Nightingale Medal for civil nursing and devotion to the Red Cross.

At the end of her service on Maunganui she was touched to receive a parting gift form the Ward Masters and staff, a lovely carved box from Kashmir. The silver tablet in the lid is engraved with the message, “NO>1 N>Z> HOSPITAL SHIP. TO MUM – FROM HER BOYS”. In her autobiography, Joy in the Caring she said, “It has an honoured place in my home, and when I look at it I am proud to have been so named.”

Matron Lewis died on 7th May 1967 aged 85 in Blenheim and was active and selfless until the end. In her words, “Joy in the caring and happiness in the sharing” from her autobiography of the same name. A copy of the autobiography can be found in the museum’s Kippenberger Research Library.