The early colonial situation of ‘accidental midwives’ was followed by what was called the ‘Aunt Rubina’ period. The pioneer woman had to make do with help from whomever was at hand to provide it, and if no help was forthcoming, they had to birth alone. Older married women helped younger women in childbirth. A local Indigenous Aunty might help a pioneer woman to birth her baby. Women relied on a neighbour to assist at childbirth, often referred to as ‘neighbouring’.

Commonly, one of these helpful neighbours would eventually become more experienced and skilled, and be recognised as ‘the midwife’ in the community. They were often known simply as ‘Granny’. Many were widows, often with children to support. The character, compassion and courage of the midwives or neighbours who went by foot, horse back or sulky; often great distances; regardless of payment, weather conditions or terrain is truly humbling.

Throughout the early 1800s, untrained or ‘lay’ midwifery care continued, alongside the ‘trained’ midwives who had begun to arrive as free settlers. Lesley Potter has identified these women as the second and third type of midwife that was found in Colonial Sydney. These early midwives of Australia, unlike their British and European sisters, lacked organisation, cohesion and consistency. Although it was not uncommon for babies to die in other countries such as Britain at that time, the conditions the Australian pioneer women were living in and the lack of skilled support during childbirth, contributed to the high level of infant mortality in the new colony.

  • 1858-59 Nine midwives listed in the first Sands Directory for New South Wales
  • 1862 Melbourne Lying-In Hospital begins training monthly nurses in midwifery
  • 1870 Nurse Eliza Blundell introduces first formal midwifery training in New South Wales at Sydney Benevolent Asylum. By 1877 they are training around 7 midwives a year.

There are very few records from this period, and many of the working-class women would have had little to no literacy skills. There are some records that have survived, however, in the diaries and letters of the middle and upper-class pioneer women and from the histories of pioneering families. These show that women had help in childbirth from anyone who was available at the time, and birth took place in the home.

Many historians use the term nurse, nurse midwife, and midwifery nurse interchangeably. Attendants at births were also often referred to as ‘nurses’ and this has contributed to the lack of awareness of the distinct role of the midwife.

Midwives as working women and the arrival of overseas ‘trained’ midwives

As the population expanded more midwives were available in the colony, by the 1860s women had begun to earn a living as midwives, advertising their services in the newspapers. These ads attempted to differentiate between the accidental, granny, and Aunt Rubina midwives, and the more affluent professional midwives. Advertising their services in a newspaper had associated costs; indicating these midwives had the funds to promote themselves and their midwifery services. They were advertising their services to women who could afford to buy and who could read the newspapers, and who were willing to pay for attendance at their births (unlike the reciprocal neighbouring which would not have attracted a fee, or might be paid ‘in kind’).

The arrival of the Nightingale nurses

Formal nursing was introduced into Australia in the 1860s, when Lucy Osborne, a Nightingale trained nurse, established a training school at Sydney Hospital in 1868. Previously, hospitals existed only as charitable institutions for the destitute, and care was provided by untrained men or Catholic nursing sisters. The arrival of the Australian Florence Nightingale trained nurses, who worked within hospitals, led to nursing being accepted as a suitable type of employment for middle-class young women.

This new style of nursing began to change how nursing was understood previously—care provided by untrained and uneducated workers— to a profession of ‘ladies’ that required education and training. The new nurses had to attain a certain level of education, but also to maintain certain social and moral standards. In contrast, the independent midwife was more likely to be older, working-class and ‘untrained’, having learned her trade by experience. Unlike the autonomous community midwives, nurses were not expected to make independent clinical decisions but rather to observe and report their findings and observations to the medical doctors.

As the population expanded there were not enough trained midwives or doctors to attend all births. The experientially trained granny’s and Aunt Rubinas continued to provide midwifery along with the formally trained midwives until the early twentieth century.




In many areas, colonists found help for birth in the local Indigenous community.

“When children were born, it was always the Aboriginal female Elders that would deliver the children into this world and not only that, even today some of the real older people in the white community that will still tell you stories of some old Aunty turning up and delivering their people and so these Elder midwives, they not only delivered children in our community at Framlingham, but they also delivered all round in the surrounding areas.”

Uncle Lenny Clarke

Mission Voices Melbourne: Koorie Hritage Trust, State Library of Victoria, 2003 

as cited in Adams, Faulkhead, Standfield & Atkinson 2018

Mary Ann Amor © Les Dolin

Mary Ann Dollin © Wendy Dollin

Granny Mary Ann Dollin {St Mary’s Sydney NSW, 1831 – 1922}

Born Mary Ann Amor in Somerset, England, 1831.

Mary Ann, husband Thomas and their small son, set sail on the Hertfordshire to NSW in 1857, having failed to gain a passage on the Dunbar which sank off Sydney Heads with a huge loss of life. Granny Dollin was recognised as a midwife before her migration. The family first settled in the New England district and then moved to St Mary’s in 1859.  She lived there until her death in 1922 when she was 90 years old.

Unless a horse and trap came to convey here, Granny Dollin walked. She was very highly respected but was a stern disciplinarian. Many interesting stories have been related about her method of dealing with larrikinism, stealing fruit from orchards, disobedience and such like- mostly by wielding a sturdy broom. She attended her daughter in law in seven healthy children, the last when she was 64 years old. She was still attending births 6 years later. One was born during the big flood of 1901 on a makeshift table balanced on boxes, with the floodwaters swirling around Granny’s feet.

Les Dollin family history page. The pedigree of the Dollin family ancestors back to Dunster, Somerset, England in 1820. (Mary Ann is his great-great-grandmother)

Greg Dollin family history page. Dollin family history from Dunster, England to St. Marys, NSW. Australia. Arrived May, 1858.

Hannah Watts © Watts, Burns, Tarleton, & Hogg families

Grannie Hannah Jane Watts {Melton Vic, 1831 – 1921}

Hannah Jane Lynch began life as a farmer’s daughter in 1831 in Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.  She worked in the linen trade, as an overseer in a flax mill in Lurgan, and became a farmer’s wife when she married George Byrns in 1853.

Hannah learnt midwifery and nursing skills in her three-months at sea working in the ship hospital while emigrating to Australia, arriving in Geelong, Victoria, in August 1854. Their first child was born in September 1854, and Hannah was pregnant with their 4th child when George was killed accidentally in 1860.  It can only be imagined how Hannah must have felt; widowed with three very small children and another shortly on the way.

Hannah again took on the life of a farmer’s wife when she married former convict William Watts in November 1863, and by 1866 they had added two more children to the family before William died suddenly in 1874.  Hannah was left with 15 cows, 14 yearling cattle, a horse and a dray, household furniture, and her immense ability and willingness to control her family affairs.  All the while she continued dairy farming, and continued to provide midwifery services in the ‘reciprocal neighbour’ model common at the time from her home Rosebank at Toolern Vale.

Eventually, Hannah progressed from dependable neighbour, to skilled handywoman, to a recognised midwife with a volume of work sufficient to generate a viable income and midwifery became her full time profession.  Around 1886, she began to have her births recorded in an exercise book (Hannah was illiterate and unable to document them for herself). “Grannie Watts’ book” primarily acts as a record of practice in the form of a list.  It documents the names and dates of 442 births  in and around Melton, Victoria, 1886-1921, along with some of the deaths in the area 1886-1920. The book also serves a secondary function as a diary or notebook, noting such things as the changing addresses of Hannah’s sons, significant social events, personal family details, and some marriages in the district 1888-1915.

Known to all as Grannie Watts, she attended births mostly in Melton and around the district, but travelled as far as 45km from home. An extension was built on Rosebank, thought to be an area for women ‘lying in’. Hannah built a second home and private hospital in Melton, Lynch Cottage. In 1915, it became the first registered private hospital in the district. Following the introduction in Victoria of the Midwives Act 1915, Hannah registered as a midwife in 1917. The book was used to provide the evidence that she needed to register under Section 14 (b) of the Act, which was that she had been in bona fide practice as a midwife for at least two years before the commencement of the Act, and the number of births she had attended.

The last birth in Grannie’s book is to Mrs Tom Minns, a son, in July 1921. Hannah died on October 21, 1921, age 89, and is buried in Melton Cemetery with George and William.

She was mourned throughout the district, and is still remembered in her community, with ‘Hannah Watts Park’ and the electoral district of Watts both named in her honour. She lived a remarkable life for an illiterate, Irish, immigrant, twice widowed, mother of six woman; a journey from farmer’s daughter to farmer’s wife to farmer, landowner, and beloved local midwife.

Explore a selection of items belonging to Grannie Watts, including her book, in the eHive digital collection of her great-great granddaughter Rebecca Hart

Listen to the talk ‘Hannah Jane ‘Grannie’ Watts’  given at Melton City Library, 5 July, 2019, introducing new information about Hannah’s midwifery practice arising from the thesis ‘Send for Grannie: Midwifery in rural Victoria 1886-1921’

In 2022, Melton City Libraries hosted an exhibiton Hannah Watts: Midwife, mother, matriarch as part of the Heritage Festival. This article describes the exhibition and Hannah’s 100 year journey home to Melton. At the same time, artist Christian Hansen exhibited Elements of Hannah Watts, exploring the life and impact of Hannah.

Mary Ann Webb {Tumut, NSW, 1833-1905}

Mary Ann Parmenter was born on 11 May 1833 to parents James and Mary McEvoy, in Oldbury, NSW.

She married Thomas Undey Webb in Berrima in 1850. They settled at Bombowlee (Tumut), NSW, at ‘Churchill’ and had a family of 9 children: Eliza Mary 1851, Emma Lander 1853, Henry Churchill 1856, Emily Sarah 1859, James Undey 1861, John Whiteman 1864; Edith Rose 1868, Arthur Thomas 1871, and Esther Jane 1874.

Mary Ann died 19 January 1905. She is buried with Thomas in the Tumut Pioneer Cemetery, under a headstone erected by their great-grandchildren.

Mary Ann Webb:
The Tumult Advocate and Farmers and Settlers Adviser Tue 24 Jan 1905



One by one the pioneers of the disrict (the ancient landmarks) are stepping off the stage and leaving the younger of their generation to carry on the enterprises they so nobly started. The last to quit the scene on Thursday last at 5.30p.m. was Mrs. Mary Ann.Webb, who came from Berrima, where she was married in 1853, and with her husband (the late Mr. Thomas Webb) settled down on Bombowlee on what has ever since been known as ‘Churchill’, from the fact that the land whereon she resided was at one time applied for by the Church of England as the site for a church. Matters went so far that the foundation was dug out, but nothing further was done, and Mr.Webb eventually became the owner. With the true pioneer spirit, they lived on and maintained their holding.
The deceased for years, and almost to the time of her death, was regarded as one of the most skilled nurses in the neighborhood, and as an accoucheuse held the palm, having attended the principal families in the district. In her later days the subtle hand of Time told mercilessly upon her, and the kind spirit that ministered comfort and consolation to many a sufferer from early Tumut, onwards had to submit. She was in a very decrepid state two months before her death, which was a peaceful one.
She leaves behind her four sons, viz.: Messrs. H. C. Webb (Micalong), James Webb (Micalong), John Webb (Bombowlee), and Thos. Webb (Tumut) – all married and comfortably settled in life; four daughters, viz : Mrs. Jas. Hargreaves, Mrs. A. W. Levett, Mrs. A. Boyd, and Miss Esther Webb, together with about 45 grandchildren, to mourn the loss of a kind and indulgent mother and grandmother.
The funeral took place on Friday last, and was very numerously attended. Mr. W. Himsworth was the under-taker, and the Rev. T. E. Owens-Mell officiated at the grave.

Among her many descendants, Mary Ann has a family of nurses and midwives in Victoria, in Lorna, her daughter Therese Smyth, and her daughter Nicole Semmler. Therese’s mother in law was also a nurse, Matron McCulloch. You can read their story here.

Family tree by Geoff Bell

Catherine McAnulty © Janet Evans & Max Solling, courtesy of Lesley Potter

Catherine McAnulty {Glebe, NSW, 1835-1895}

Catherine Hart was born c1835 in Ross Trevor, County Down in Northern Ireland. In 1854 she married John McAnulty and as newly weds John and Catherine immigrated to the colony of New South Wales. As assisted immigrants on the Ebba Brahe they arrived in Sydney in early January 1855 taking up residence in the suburb of Glebe.

Catherine McAnulty fits the familiar features of many early colonial midwives as she took up midwifery as a mature woman after her children had grown and as a widow after her husband’s death in 1884.

Catherine advertised her services as a midwife in the Sands Directory for eight years, from 1887 to 1894. There is no evidence to suggest that Catherine was a trained midwife, nevertheless, the fact that she advertised indicates she expected to be paid for her midwifery work. She was not simply performing this midwifery service as a neighbourly duty but as a source of income. As a widow she needed economic support.

The other interesting fact about Catherine is she had other midwives providing maternity care at all her six confinements. Of special note is midwife Honora Crowley who attended four of these confinements. Honora too was an Irish immigrant and the connection indicates the close knit bonds between immigrants with similar backgrounds.

Catherine died 13 September, 1895, and is buried at Rookwood Old Wesleyan Cemetery.

Reference: Lesley Potter, (2020), Born in Glebe: Mothers, Midwives and Medical Men.

THE FRIENDS of the late CATHERINE McANULTY, relict of the late John McAnulty, are kindly invited to attend her Funeral; to move from her late residence, 30 Francis-street, Glebe, TO-MORROW (Tuesday) MORNING, at 8.45, for Rookwood.

C. KINSELA and COMPANY, Undertakers, 765 George-street, city, and Rockdale, Tel. 993.

THE FRIENDS of WILLIAM and JOHN McANULTY arc kindlj invited to attend the Funeral of their late beloved MOTHER, Catherine , to move fiom 30 Francis street, Glebe, TO-MORROW (iucsdav) MORNING, at 8.45, for Rookwood. C. KINSELA and COMPANY, Undertakers.
THE FRIENDS of Mr. and Mrs. WILLIAM REILLY aro kindlv invited to attend the Funeral of their late beloved MOTHER, Catherine McAnulty to move from 30 Francis-street, Globe, TO-MORROW (Tuesday) MORNING, at 8.45, for Rookwood. C. KINSELA aud COMPANY, Undertakers.
Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sept 1895, p.8

Mary Wilson {Fremantle, WA, 1847-1941}

Born Mary Smith at Chain of Ponds, Adelaide, SA, on 13 July 1847.

Married Samuel Oliver Wilson, a Norwegian ship’s carpenter, at Beachport SA, on 18 October 1864. and raised a large family of 11 children before Samuel was killed in a shocking accident in May 1896.

(From our own Correspondent.)
May 29.
An accident occurred this morning which resulted in the death of Mr. Samuel Wilson, foreman For Messrs. French and Co. Mr. Wilson was coupling trucks on the railway line when he was knocked down and killed instantly. Mr. J.B. Carr, the local justice, viewed the scene of the accident and decided that an inquest was unnecessary. Mrs. Wilson, wife of the deceased, is sister to Mr. Robert Smith, who was drowned in the capsize of a boat at Beachport on January 23rd last.
(From our own Correspondent.)
June 8
The sad death of Mr. S. Wilson, foreman for Messrs. French and Son, has cast a gloom over the place. His remains were interred in the cemetery here on Sunday last. The funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Beachport, the numerous wreaths sent from his many friends showed the respect they had for the deceased. The Rev, W. J. Mortimer conducted the funeral service. Mr. Wilson was born at Transburgh, Norway, and was 63 years of age at the time of his death. He was 16 years in the employ of Messers. French and Son. He leaves a widow and nine children to mourn his loss. He was highly respected by everyone, that knew him, and great sympathy is felt for the family in their sad bereavement. Mrs. Wilson was a sister of the late Robert Smith, who was drowned here a few months ago.
Following Samuel’s death in 1896, Mary moved with some of her family to Fremantle, WA. 
Mr. McCourt held a sale of the effects of Mrs. S. Wilson to-day. Mrs. Wilson, who has been a resident of Beachport for many years, is proceeding to Western Australia. She will be much missed, as she has been particularly kind, especially in cases of illness.
(From our own Correspondent.)
April 12

The Institute Hall was a scene of activity on Monday afternoon, the occasion being a farewell social to Mrs. Wilson and her family, who are leaving for West Australia. The social was a great success. Mr. Murphy, on behalf of the residents of Beachport, presented her with a purse of sovereigns, as a small token of their appreciation of her services, and with an address which was signed by a representative of every family in the place. Mrs.Wilson, who was much moved, briefly thanked the people for what they had done. Mr. Attiwill supplemented what Mr. Murphy had said, as also did Mr. Jarrett. The proceedings terminated with the singing of “God be with you till we meet again.” Mrs. Wilson and family sailed in the Helen Nicol, which left the Jetty about midnight on Monday.

Border Watch, 15 April, 1899, p.3

April 12.
A farewell social was tendered to Mrs. Wilson in the Institute Hall on Monday afternoon. Mr. Murphy, on behalf of the residents of Beachport, presented Mrs. Wilson with an address and a purse of sovereigns. Mrs. Wilson has been a resident of Beachport since the place was first laid out, and was always ready to do a kindness to any one.

It is unclear if Mary was working as a midwife or perhaps nursing in South Australia, however the references above to her being “particularly kind, especially in cases of illness” and “their appreciation of her services” implies she may have been. What is clear is that she was a valued and respected member of her community.

Following the Health Act of 1911, Mary registered as a midwife in WA on 8 November 1911. She can be found here, on the last page of the WA Midwives Registration Board, Register of Midwives, Feb 7, 1913 – her registration number is 128. The register records that she was not formally trained, but qualified for registration by practice experience.

Mary died 08 January, 1941 in Fremantle, WA., age 93. She is buried in Fremantle Cemetery, F-ME-BB-0335

WILSON.- On January 8, 1941, at Fremantle. Nurse Mary Wilson, widow of the late Samuel Wllson, dearly beloved mother of Thomas (Fremantle), Martha (Mrs. Davey, Fremantle), Mary (Mrs. Bates, South Perth), Amanda (Mrs. Yarick, Fremantle), Samuel (Perth) and Sarah (Mrs. L. Cull. Beaconsfield); aged 93 years.
WILSON.—In loving memory of our dear Grandma, who passed away January 8, 1941. Inserted by Eric, Ethel, Ella, Rus, Ida, Bert, Harold, Bons, Marj, Gwen; also loved children Sarah and Leo Cull, daughter-in-law Jennie Wilson.
WILSON. – The Friends of the late Nurse Mary Wilson. of 32 Davis-street. Beaconsfield, widow of the late Samuel Wilson, are respectfully informed that her remains will be interred in the Wesleyan Cemetery, Fremantle, THIS (Thursday) AFTERNOON. The Funeral will leave the Private Chapel of Messrs. Prosser. Scott and Co., 37 Adelaide street, Fremantle, at 3.45 o’clock, arriving at the Cemetery at 4 o’clock.
PROSSER, SCOTT and CO., Undertakers, 37 Adelaide-street, Fremantle Subiaco, Leederville, Cottesloe. Tel. L2682. B3680. B3399. P1066.

Headstone of Elizabeth ‘Granny’ Floyd and Madline Floyd at Condobolin © Lawrence Floyd

Granny Elizabeth Floyd {Condobolin, NSW, 1870-1939}

Born Elizabeth Tanswell in Kilmore, Vic, in 1849, to convict James and free settler Sarah Peddle. Elizabeth married Samuel Floyd in 1867. They settled in Condobolin, NSW in 1870 and had a family of 12 children.

Granny Floyd established a hospital in Denison St, next to the Police Station. Her daughter Madline trained as a nurse and midwife, and joined her mother attending births (you can read Madline’s profile here). Between them, mother and daughter delivered 3000 babies, including 27 sets of twins. The heaviest baby they cared for was 16lbs and the lightest 2lbs. Granny Floyd died on 29 January 1939, at her home in Condobolin.

“Birth Certificate” Victoria BDM Registration: 16225/1849

TANSWELL Elizabeth Father: TANSWELL James Mother: Sarah PEDDLE District: KILMORE

Elizabeth FLOYD, nee TANSWELL:
Lachlander and Condobolin and Western Districts Recorder Thu 2 Feb 1939


The death of Mrs. Elizabeth Floyd, at her residence in William street, Condobolin, on Sunday, 29th January removes from our midst yet another of our old and highly esteemed pioneers.

Up to three weeks ago this very respected old lady, who was endeared to all for her many acts of kindness, appeared to be in good health. During the heat wave she became ill and was confined to her bed and it was expected that serious consequences would result.

Deceased, who would have been 90 years of age next March, was born in Bendigo (Vic.). Before her marriage she was Miss Tanswell, of Grenfell, and was married to Mr. Samuel Floyd, at the age of 18 years. They came to Condobolin from Grenfell during the 70 flood in a canoe with their three small children, the youngest (Jim) being three weeks old. Their first landing place was on Scott’s Hill.

Deceased followed her profession here as a nurse for 40 years, until her daughter (Madeline — Nurse Floyd) took her place.

Her husband pre-deceased her 18 years ago.

The late Mrs. Floyd had a family of 12 children 10 are still living, 5 daughters and 5 sons. The daughters are Mrs. Forland (Burwood), Mrs. Miller (Forbes), Mrs. Quince (Strathfield), Mrs. Hogan (Leeton), Nurse Madeline Floyd (Condobolin). The sons are Messrs. Charles Floyd (Balmain), James, Dave, Sam and Frank, all of Condobolin. There are 117 descendants, 44 grand children, 54 great grand children and 9 great great grand children.

The casket was covered with many beautiful floral tributes and taken to the church of England on Monday afternoon and after a short service the large funeral procession moved to the Church of England portion of the local cemetery. The Rev J. S. Richards being the officiating clergyman, Mr. Bob Marlin had charge of the funeral arrangements.

We extend our sympathy to the bereaved ones.

The Forbes Advocate 17 Feb 1939 Page 4

Mrs. Elizabeth Floyd.

The death occurred at Condobolin, on January 30, of Mrs. Elizabeth Floyd, a lady well-known through the Central-western districts, and who leaves many to mourn their loss in Forbes. She would have celebrated her 90th birthday next March.

She first went to Condobolin in 1870, during the big flood, with her husband the late Samuel Hart Floyd, who predeceased her some eighteen years ago. She was a native of Kilmore, Victoria, being formerely Miss Elizabeth Tanswell, the daughter of one of the earliest families to settle in the Kilmore district.

Mrs. Floyd and her husband, with their two eldest daughters, had lived in the Parkes district prior to going to Condobolin in 1870. At the time of the record flood they were on the river and they made their way to Condobolin in a bark canoe. Since that time, with the exception of a short period of five years spent at Gundagai, Mrs. Floyd has resided at Condobolin. It was in 1867 that she married the late S. H. Floyd in Grenfell.

It was only recently, on the 9th January, that the only living member of her family, her brother, died in Queensland at the ripe old age of 86.

Mrs. Floyd leaves to mourn her departure five daughters and five sons. Mrs. Forland (Burwood), Mrs. J. Miller (Forbes), James Floyd (Condobolin), Mrs. A. Quince (Strathfield), David Floyd (Condobolin), Nurse M. Floyd (Condobolin), Mrs. S. Hogan (Leeton), and Frank Floyd (Condobolin). There are 30 grand-children, 22 great-grand-children and 10 great-great-grand-children, the latter all residents of the Forbes district.