Hospital Library Visitors' Association

1887 –

Hospital Library Visitors' Association

1887 –

Theme: Service

Known as:

  • Hospital Lady Visitors' Association
    1887 – 1984
  • Hospital Library Visitors' Association
    1985 –

This essay written by Patricia Sargison was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Patricia Sargison in 2018.

1887 – 1993

The Hospital Lady Visitors' Association (HLVA) was founded in Christchurch in 1887 'to bring cheer and brightness into the lives of patients while in hospital and to give temporary relief and assistance to destitute and needy persons when they leave'. [1] One hundred years later, the president stated, ’Although the requirements of patients have changed gradually with changes in society in general, the essential nature of the Association remains . . .' [2] In 1993 it was still working for hospital patients in several public hospitals in Christchurch, having changed its name in 1985 to the Hospital Library Visitors' Association.

The work which led to the forming of the association began in 1882 when Flora Acland, wife of a Canterbury runholder, became a regular visitor at Christchurch Public Hospital. She was followed by Sybilla Maude, who later trained as a nurse and founded the Nurse Maude District Nursing Association. Maude also enlisted Edith and Amy Rhodes and Edith and Adeline Turner, the daughters of wealthy Christchurch businessmen, as hospital visitors. A Destitute Patients' Fund had been established in 1879 by hospital doctors to supply various needs of patients, and on 30 April 1886 the women were invited to participate by organising a sewing party.

Difficulties between the hospital board and the doctors over the management of the fund led to a separate ladies' committee being elected in October 1887, with Emma Banks, wife of merchant and city councillor Enoch Banks, in the chair. Advertisements were placed in local papers inviting 'the ladies of Christchurch to register their names as members of the Hospital Lady Visitors' Association, not necessarily for active work' but to assist with fundraising. [3] Subscriptions were instituted in 1892, and these, together with the proceeds of occasional garden fētes, provided income until the association received its first bequest from Hyman Marks in 1895. Further bequests, fetes and annual sales of work resulted in a healthy income, which gradually necessitated a more formal organisation. An external male treasurer was appointed in 1915, with a paid accountant taking over in 1937. Sub-committees responsible for each of the association's activities were established in 1930, and in 1957 it became an incorporated society. The association's first male member joined in 1988.

In the days before modern drugs and social security, hospitalisation and convalescence could be both lengthy and expensive. The HLVA's members were middle and upper class women who saw themselves as carrying out God's work by providing charity for those less fortunate than themselves. Those who became ward visitors were expected to discover patients' circumstances and recommend assistance where necessary. Nonetheless, 'The distinction between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor was fundamental . . .' [4] The minutes of HLVA meetings refer constantly to 'respectable', 'hardworking', 'delicate' or 'decent' persons who might be helped. A patient whose 'character was somewhat doubtful' was rejected. [5] Men, women and children were all given assistance, with servant girls and widows being frequently mentioned.

Garden Party at hospital

The Weekly Press, Christchurch City Libraries, CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0053.

Garden Party held by the Christchurch Hospital Visitors’ Association in the hospital ground to raise funds, November 1910.

The association, by helping 'those recovering from illness to return more quickly to their work', aimed to make them self-supporting. [6] Usually it paid fees for two to four weeks (later one to two weeks) at a convalescent home; other relief included fares to return home where employment was available (occasionally even to Australia or Britain), board and lodging until work was found, or the purchase of tools for a trade. Only in very rare cases was money given, and then it was doled out in small weekly sums. In April 1894, members formed a sewing circle which made warm clothing to be used by patients in hospital or given to them on discharge. Other gifts included spectacles, tobacco, groceries, artificial limbs and bedding.

Over the years the association found many ways of fulfilling its objectives. From May 1891, members provided weekly concerts for the patients, ceasing only after the introduction of the wireless in 1927. They presented Christmas gifts to every patient in December 1887, and continued to do so in 1993, although increasing costs resulted in a number of proposals to abandon the practice. Successive matrons noted this 'particularly happy feature of the work [which produces] an atmosphere of friendship and goodwill'. [7] The association made major contributions to hospital building projects, including a maternity ward opened in 1926, and the Nurses' Memorial Chapel.

In the aftermath of World War I the association branched out in several directions. In 1920 it introduced professional occupational therapy services to help invalided soldiers in the hospital. Mrs Templar and Alice and Mabel Cuthbert were paid to teach knitting, needlework, basket-making and leatherwork to long-term patients, allowing them 'to amuse and occupy themselves [and] to earn money . . . so that even those who are . . . helpless might assist in earning their living . . .' [8] This service, like all the association's activities, was extended to other public hospitals in Christchurch: in 1939 to the Sanatorium, in 1941 to Burwood Hospital and in 1943 to Coronation Hospital. It was taken over fully by the hospital board in 1948.

During the 1918 influenza epidemic, Adeline Turner had noted that poorly paid, convalescent nurses were unable to take holidays away from the hospital. She proposed that the association provide a suitable house for nurses to use free of charge. The Adeline Turner Rest Cottage at Sumner was opened on 6 March 1920, the first facility of its kind in New Zealand. In 1942 a bathing annex was added, so that off-duty nurses might spend a day at the seaside. Gradually, however, the cottage was used less, and in 1969 it was sold. The proceeds were invested to assist retired nurses, and later to provide travelling expenses for nurses attending overseas conferences.

Although the association had placed bookcases filled with reading material in hospital wards as early as 1890, it was not until 1918 that library services were seriously considered and £50 was allocated to the project. The library was opened in January 1920, with students distributing books. Library trolleys were first installed in 1929, and ward visitors took over the distribution. A library with a librarian paid by the association opened at Burwood Hospital in 1948. During the 1950s, increasing concern was expressed over the large numbers of books being lost, and successive committee meetings agonised over ways to reduce this. By 1957, a far more professional system had been instituted. It was 'a very difficult time for us all,' noted the convenor of the library subcommittee, 'as we were trying to do specialised work which we knew very little about . . . we were upsetting a long established regime and it was naturally not easy to convince distributors . . . that a more modern system was long overdue'. [9] Libraries were opened at Princess Margaret Hospital in 1960, Coronation Hospital in 1965 (closed 1991) and Christchurch Women's Hospital in 1971 (closed 1989). By 1974 the association acknowledged that 'the libraries are [our] biggest concern . . .' [10] and the name change in 1985 reflected this shift of emphasis. With book distributors doing the work of the old ward visitors in dispensing humour and encouragement, members could 'remain confident of keeping a personal approach in this present age of electronics and computers . . .' [11]

The advent of social security in 1938 had led to a gradual decline in the demand for patient relief; the association made fewer referrals to convalescent homes, and refocused its sewing activities on items for the annual stall. Nevertheless, as the 1968 annual report noted, 'there will always be the sick to visit and the needy to help'. The association's flexibility 'meant they were able to meet demands where no one else can . . .' [12] 'If we are asked today', said the president in 1973, 'we give tomorrow.' [13] By the early 1990s patient relief still included assistance for individuals, but also encompassed gifts to wards ranging from wheelchairs, television sets and hairdryers to tropical fish, toys and wall hangings.

1994 – 2018

From 1993 on, the association continued to assist patients and make donations to hospital wards, the Christchurch Hospital Chapel and the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel. Its focus,  however, was chiefly on its library service to patients; a demand for books remained, even though hospital stays became shorter. In 1996, the library catalogue was computerised. From 2002, library rounds were adjusted to accommodate the hospital’s compulsory ‘rest period’ between 1 pm and 3 pm.

The 6.3 earthquake which devastated Christchurch on 22 February 2011 and the thousands of aftershocks (still continuing in 2018) impacted on the association’s work. Volunteers were just completing their rounds when the earthquake struck; fortunately no-one was seriously hurt. The library remained closed for three weeks, but normal service then resumed; only one volunteer chose not to return. In the following months, the library benefited from many donations, as residents packed up and left their damaged homes. By 2016, however, hospital reconstruction work forced the closure of the library room, which was required by another department. In August 2017, with its collections in storage at Princess Margaret Hospital, the distribution of library material ceased and the association went into recess [14].

For over 130 years, the Hospital Library Visitors’ Association worked in the interests of Christchurch hospital patients. Whatever lay ahead, the association hoped 'to be able to adjust to these changes and continue to serve patients and be constant to [its] objectives'. [15]. It had been promised a room in the new Hagley building, scheduled to open in 2019, and planned to resume library services then. As Edith Kidd had said in 1967, ‘It may not be spectacular work, but it is very rewarding.' [16]

Patricia Sargison


[1] Rules of the Hospital Lady Visitors' Association (Inc).

[2] President's address, minutes of the annual general meeting, 1987.

[3] Minutes of the monthly meeting, November 1887.

[4] Tennant, 1986, p. 37.

[5] Minutes of the monthly meeting, June 1890.

[6] Annual report 1919–20.

[7] Minutes of the annual general meeting, 1946.

[8] Annual report, 1920–21.

[9] Minutes of the monthly meeting, March 1957.

[10] Minutes of the annual general meeting, 1974.

[11] Minutes of the annual general meeting, 1987.

[12] Principal nurse's address, minutes of the annual general meeting, 1980.

[13] Christchurch Press, 8 December 1973, p. 6.

[14] Christchurch star, 5 October 2017, p. 16.

[15] Minutes of the annual general meeting, 1989.

[16] President's address, minutes of the annual general meeting, 1967.

Unpublished sources

Hospital Lady Visitors' Association papers, 1887–c. 1971, Canterbury Museum Library

Hospital Library Visitors' Association papers, c.1971–2017, HLVA, Christchurch

Published sources

'Another Century', Pulse, Vol. 15 No. 10, December 1987, pp. 4–5

Bennett, F.O., Hospital on the Avon, North Canterbury Hospital Board, Christchurch, 1962

‘Future of Christchurch Hospital Volunteer Library uncertain’, Christchurch Star, 5 October, 2017, p. 16

'Hospital Visitors' Association still has very important role', Christchurch Press, 8 December 1973, p. 6

'Library Service for Patients in Hospital', Christchurch Press, 18 June 1958, p. 2

'Major Change for the HLVA', Pulse, Vol. 14 No. 4, April 1986, p. 12

'Patients Appreciate Work of Association', Christchurch Star, 22 June 1963, p. 6

Tennant, Margaret, '"Brazen-faced Beggars of the Female Sex": Women and the Charitable Aid System, 1880–1920', in Brookes, Macdonald and Tennant (eds), 1986, pp. 35–54

Turner, A.M., 100 years with the Hospital Lady Visitors' Association, 1887–1987, HLVA, Christchurch, 1987

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