Unrest amongst the Royal Adelaide Hospital domestic staff had been building for a least two years, culminating in a strike that caused major disruption to the hospital.

Before World War II, job opportunities for women were limited, with working-class women being employed in such roles as cleaners, laundresses and domestics, both privately and in large institutions like the Royal Adelaide Hospital. With the onset of war and Australian men enlisting to serve their country, suddenly there were job opportunities for women not normally afforded to them. As more men left to serve overseas, women found jobs that held greater interest and opportunity. As a result, this caused an extreme shortage of manual labour in all states of Australia.

By the beginning of 1944, four years into the war, the Royal Adelaide Hospital had great difficulty attracting and then keeping domestic staff. Absenteeism was rife with often more than 20 women absent from a staff of 120 domestics. In an effort to fill the shifts, the Royal Adelaide Hospital Board tried to employ men, however this backfired and caused even more discontent among the women:

Men being employed in the Royal Adelaide Hospital is surely a paradox when in most places women are doing men’s work. Is it any wonder, when sometimes more than 20 girls are absent. That those who remain loyally on duty feel they have just cause for complaint? Men are paid £5 a week for similar work to that done by the girl. The girls recently asked for less than £4 a week, without success.’ Signed by ‘Wardsmaid of the RAH’,

The News, Monday 31 January 1944, page 4
Royal Adelaide Hospital Domsestic Staff 1938

A large portion of the domestics at Royal Adelaide Hospital were members of the Australian Government Workers’ Association, and in the following months, members of the Royal Adelaide Hospital section of the Association ramped up their meetings regarding their demands for improved working conditions. Their demands were:
1) 44 hours to be granted to all employees;
2) That the staff be brought up to its full quota;
3) That adequate pay be provided;
4) That time and a half be paid for all overtime;
5) That the male domestics be removed;
6) That the General Secretary of the Australian Government Workers’ Association be permitted to hold meetings and visit the institution; and
7) Cleaners to have a better adjustment of their work.
At the Royal Adelaide Hospital Board meeting on 2nd February 1944, the Board discussed the domestics grievances and it was decided that 1,2,3 and 4 did not come within the jurisdiction of the Board, and that on the remaining points the opinion of the Board was as follows:
5) That the Manpower Dept should be advised that definite objection has been raised to the presence of this man and the Board is prepared to transfer or dismiss this employee when a female is available.
6) That Mr Nieass has the right to interview members of the Australian Government Workers’ Association, but not hold meetings at the Hospital: this is a matter of policy which was submitted to the Chief Secretary, who gave his ruling that the Hospital was not the place to hold a Union meeting.
7) That there is apparently no shortage of cleaners, although there is a shortage of domestic staff which naturally increases the work of the cleaners.

SIR-The loyalty of a few of the old employees at the Royal Adelaide Hospital has helped us all to carry on. We girls do our best for everyone. We had 19 wardsmaids on Sunday, whereas we should have had 30. The work was done in wards and pantries and meals taken to many patients. No one grumbled, but surely conditions merit a rise in pay. Three girls were sent from the Manpower Office on Saturday, but on learning the rates of pay and working hours (6.15 a.m. to 4.45 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays included) not one cared to be a wardsmaid … many girls are resigning to go elsewhere for better money. “TIRED-OUT WARDSMAIDS.” Adelaide.

The News, Sunday 27 February 1944

In the coming months there were increasing articles in the newspapers regarding the condition of domestics at the hospital. “if manpower authorities did not take immediate steps to remedy a staff shortage at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, domestics at that institution would either walk off the job, or be carried off exhausted.” Border Watch, 4 March 1944.

Then in April, following a custom for many years, some of the wardsmaids went out to North terrace to view the Anzac procession.

Army Nursing Sisters from World War 1 marching in the 1947 Anzac Day Parade. Sister Lucy Daw, former Matron of the Adelaide Hospital is in the centre of the front row.

A report was received from the Housekeeper that on the 25th April, Anzac Day, the Wardsmaids, with exception of one or two, left the wards for two hours, without permission, presumably to see the Anzac March. Although the time was taken off in the morning, without permission, no attempt was made to make up any of the time in the afternoon, when the girls had time off. Resolved that those girls who absented themselves for 1-2 hours in the morning shall lose the equivalent pay.

Royal Adelaide Hospital Board Minutes, 26 April 1944

Extremely unhappy with the Board’s ruling, the domestic staff had gone to the Union about the matter and they had been told to go ahead with any action thought necessary.

Regarding the deduction of pay from wardsmaids who absented themselves on Anzac Day. The Chairman reported regarding the interview with the wardsmaids and the Secretary of the Australian Government Workers’ Association held on the previous day and the notes taken at the interview were placed on the table and read. It was resolved that the previous decision to deduct one hours’ pay from the wardsmaids who absented themselves without permission on Anzac Day, be adhered to.”

Royal Adelaide Hospital Board Minutes, 17 May 1944

In hindsight, this was probably the wrong action to take, due to the fact that there was already considerable dissatisfaction among the domestic staff.

May, June and into the beginning of July, continued to see the Royal Adelaide Hospital domestic staff demanding improved wages and conditions, with no satisfactorily changes implemented by the Hospital Board and Government. This culminated in 120 domestic staff ceasing work at the hospital on Saturday 29 July 1944.

Those on strike were the laundry maids, cleaners, housemaids, wardsmaids and kitchen staff. By Monday, the porters of the Royal Adelaide Hospital were also included in the industrial action, stating “they would not handle any work touched by free labor” (The News, 31 July 1944).

Adelaide Hospital Porters 1935

The strike had a profound effect on the hospital; all elective surgery stopped with only emergency operations being performed. Lack of linen was a major problem, so to help alleviate the issue, theatre nurses, probationer nurses, along with members of the office staff were rostered to work in the laundry. Normally there were 25 women working in the laundry, however, it required 40 nurses over the course of the day. The laundry presses were usually operated by four laundresses, but 6 to 8 nurses were required as they were unfamiliar with the work.

The 18 house surgeons at the hospital also gave their services voluntarily, and worked in the wards and laundries, where they operated the washing machines. They helped with the laundry, ironing and sorting out linen. A number of medical students also gave voluntary service, often going straight from the laundry to their lectures. “

The Advertiser, 9 August 1944, page 7

Nurses had no choice but to take over all the other work performed by domestics at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

The Chief Secretary (Mr McEwin) said that ‘voluntary labor could temporarily cope with the problem. There would be no need to turn away patients’ and the Premier (Mr Playford) said the ‘Government would do its utmost to prevent 700 helpless patients suffering though the results of the unlawful strike at the Adelaide Hospital and … the Government knew it would be able to count on the assistance of every right-thinking member of the public.’

The Women’s Australian National Services (WANS) along with members of the Royal Adelaide Hospital Auxiliary and Adelaide Hospital Trained Nurses Old Scholars Association volunteered and worked in the kitchen. Although the porters were refusing to carry food prepared by volunteer labour, they did consent to do the washing up and as the porters did not regard the work done by the hospital staff as ‘free labour’ the hospital was trying to utilise its employees as much as possible. This meant nurses were working on their off-days and in their free time.

Matron Maxfied said:

I saw nurses on their knees scrubbing floors, and they went into the laundry, and, with the help of the house surgeons, washed, ironed, and sorted the linen. These women often worked up to 18 hours a day. To make matters more difficult, the nurses final examinations were in progress during the strike, but the 30 probationary nurses who were taking it did their full share of the work in the hospital.”

The Advertiser, Wednesday, 9 August 1944
Matron Jessie Maxfield in the Royal Adelaide Hospital Laundry during the strike of domestics 1944

So many volunteers from the Women’s Australian National Services offered their help that all could not be accepted. As well the Hospital Auxiliary and Adelaide Hospital Trained Nurses Old Scholars Association, many members of the public volunteered and thanks to all of the volunteer assistance, patient care was not impacted.

The strike went on for 10 days before the 120 domestics returned to work.

The terms of the settlement included an increase in wages and changes in the way sick leave and overtime were calculated. The Royal Adelaide Hospital Board also gave notice that the roster would be changed dependent on whether additional domestic staff could be obtained. The current roster only allowed for one Sunday off in five and they were rostered to begin work at 6.15am; the domestic staff wanted every third Sunday off and to start at 6.45am. By September there was still delay in the introduction of a new working roster and the matter was brought before the United Trades and Labor Council. In the News newspaper on 4 October 1944 the President of the Trades and Labor Council issued an appeal for women to accept domestic staff jobs at RAH to avoid potential industrial unrest.’ The domestic staff at the hospital was still 30% below strength, and although the Royal Adelaide Hospital Board were prepared to agree to a more reasonable roster, it was on the proviso that additional staff could be obtained. Unfortunately, manpower authorities continued to not be able to provide additional staff.

Women who do volunteer [to work at the Royal Adelaide Hospital] will be doing a service to the nation and to the sick, and will, at the same time, assist a section of women who are doing a great job under adverse circumstances’.

The News, Wednesday, 4 October1944

By December 1944, enough additional staff had been procured and an amended roster for wardsmaids was in use providing a five day roster including one Saturday and one Sunday off in a cycle of three weeks.

By Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum