Peggy, the push-bike nurse
In the last of a series of profiles to mark Nurses Month, Cecille Snaith-Simmons recalls Margaret “Peggy” Ridley Watson
Margaret Ridley was 27 when she made the bold decision to board a passenger liner, and sail to Bermuda. She had never left England and was looking forward to a warm climate and the experience of living on a small island.
She was met by members of the Bermuda Welfare Society, her new employer, and settled in as the new district nurse/midwife for the parish of Devonshire.
Margaret was born in County Durham, England, in 1919 . At 17, she went off to train as a general nurse and midwife at the West Middlesex Hospital in Isleworth, West London. She completed her general training with honours and was awarded the silver medal for her achievements. In 1939, she went on for an additional year to train as a midwife, which required six months of training, under supervision, to deliver babies in a hospital and six months delivering babies at home. Margaret found working outside the hospital setting more rewarding and decided to complete additional training as a Queen’s Nurse — a requirement for district nursing.
West Middlesex Hospital was opened by Princess Mary of Teck as the Brentford Workhouse Infirmary in 1896. By 1920, it became known as the West Middlesex Hospital and by 1932 a maternity ward was added. Today this hospital is affiliated with the Imperial College, London.
In 1905, a British magazine, The Nursing Times, was first published, specifically for nurses. It carried all the trends in nursing as well as advertisements for nursing positions. Margaret, always interested in upgrading her skills, routinely read it. She had not planned on leaving home but she spotted an advertisement placed by the Bermuda Welfare Society seeking a nurse/midwife for the island of Bermuda. She realised she had the qualifications requested and decided to apply. After weeks of waiting, she received a positive response and prepared for an adventure into the unknown.
The majority of the people in Devonshire to whom she rendered service were extremely poor, and in many cases could not pay for the services provided. Payment with bags of vegetables was not uncommon. Margaret had a kind, understanding personality, which was an asset in her ability to be readily accepted by families in the parish. Frequently, her rest was interrupted by a young boy who would be sent to call her in the middle of the night to attend a delivery. Her only mode of transport at that time was a pedal cycle with her delivery bag strapped to the back. There was no lighting and the terrain often unfamiliar. Her only other company would be the sound of the buzzing mosquitoes, the whistling frogs and the fluttering moths surrounding the light on her bicycle.
Many deliveries were complicated by there being no running water and no electricity. She became proficient at delivering by flashlight and using water dipped from the tank and heated on an open fire. For the next ten days, she was required to visit mother and baby twice a day. She also had numerous visits to other parishioners and children with various medical problems. It was tiring work but she loved it.
In the late 1940s when cars were introduced to Bermuda, Nurse Ridley was the first district nurse to be issued one. At last, her push-bike days were over!
If you were born at home in Devonshire between 1946 and 1950, you were probably delivered by the petite nurse Margaret Ridley.
Eventually Margaret, called Peggy by her friends, was introduced to Alan Watson, a young Englishman who was the chief engineer on the Queen of Bermuda. They were from the same part of England and had much in common. It was no surprise when they went to New York in 1950 to marry at the Church of the Transfiguration, also called “The Little Church Around the Corner”. The newlyweds returned to Bermuda to make their home.
The Little Church on the Corner was built in 1850 to serve the needs of the poor and marginalised. It is still located at 1 East 29th St between Manhattan and 5th Avenue. It welcomes all, regardless of race, class or background, and was a stop for the Underground Railroad sheltering escaped enslaved people on their journey north. In 1863, it became a place of refuge for African-Americans during the New York Draft Riots.
By 1956, their daughter was old enough to attend school and Margaret decided to return to work. She joined the staff at the Department of Health where she supervised nine school nurses, well baby clinics held in all parishes, the general clinic at Victoria Street and the busy travel immunisation clinic. This was the era of glass syringes and needles, which had to sterilised and reused. Eventually, they were replaced by disposables and blunt needles became a thing of the past.
In 1981, after 25 years with the Department of Health, Margaret Eleanor “Peggy” Watson retired and became the recipient of the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour. When asked whether she would be returning to England to accept the award she said, “I’ve lived in Bermuda for 34 years and the award is for the work I’ve done in Bermuda. It would be nicer for me to accept it in Bermuda.”
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons SRN, SCM is a retired nurse, writer and historian. Many thanks to Cathy Cattell, Margaret “Peggy” Watson’s daughter, for the photograph and helpful information