The Marquette Disaster

“Ominous rumours have received sad confirmation, and it is now definitely known that at least ten New Zealand nurses (including four or five well-known and cherished in this District) were drowned in consequence of the torpedoing of the transport Marquette”.  Waimate Advertiser Weds, Nov 3rd 1915.

The sinking

The Marquette, a grey transport ship was sunk by a torpedo from a German submarine on the Aegean Sea, on October 23 1915.   Of the 741 people onboard, 167 lives were lost.

On the Marquette, along with members of the UK and NZ armies, were medical staff from the the No.1 NZ stationery hospital, they were crossing from Egypt to Greece.  It was known that German submarines were patrolling this stretch of water, but unfortunately the decision was made to go via an unmarked boat, rather than a marked hospital one, which should have been safe.

They were within an hour of their destination Salonika, when a periscope was spotted and an explosion followed soon after.  The ship sank within ten minutes, with nurses, soldiers and crew still on board. Many survivors died in the water while waiting to be rescued.

“It was pitiful to see the nurses and soldiers tiring in their frantic struggles and finally releasing the grasp of the gunwale, floating for a few seconds and then slowly sinking without a murmur”. Waimate Advertiser Weds, Nov 24th 1915.

Many of the men were saved as the nurses refused to get into the lifeboats until most of the soldiers had been saved. 

 “The nurses stayed on deck cheering the Tommies until only a few men remained to help the women into the boats”.  Waimate Advertiser 24 November 1915.  

Local tragedy

This tragedy hit the Waimate District extremely hard.  Six of the missing and killed were either from the District, or had strong connections to it.  A ‘gloom’ was cast over Waimate when the news became public, and flags were flown at half mast.

Nurses Mary Gorman, Catherine Fox, Isabel Clark, Marion Brown, Nona Hildyard and Private James Samuel Bird were all well known and loved by the people of the District.

Nurse Mary Gorman

Mary Gorman, was born in Waimate.  She trained at Waimate Hospital and worked as a sister in the Wellington Public Hospital.   According to Dr Margaret Cruickshank, Dr Barclay considered her to be one of the best nurses the Waimate Hospital had produced.  

Mary was known to be a strong swimmer.  According to eye witness reports she jumped into the sea to save her non-swimmer friend, Nurse Catherine Fox.  They were not seen again.

Nurse Catherine Fox

Catherine Fox was born at Cardrona, before her family settled in Studholme in the Waimate District. Catherine trained at Dunedin Hospital, and afterwards nursed at Waimate, Christchurch and Auckland. She was so determined to enlist she made arrangements to pay her own passage to England to volunteer for service in France. However, she was accepted by the New Zealand Government and sailed off on the hospital ship Maheno.

Nurse Isabel Clark

Isabel Clark grew up in Oamaru, attending Waitaki Girls High School.  She completed her nursing training at Waimate and Oamaru hospitals.  Isabel was working in Auckland, when she resigned to enlist.  Among other memorials dedicated to her, Waitaki Girls High School holds an annual essay writing competition in her name.

Nurse Marion Brown

Marion Brown was from Southland and nursed for a year in Waimate; six months at the Public Hospital and six months in charge of Dr Barclay's Shearman Street hospital. Dr Margaret Cruickshank wrote to her parents after the tragedy, "I could ill spare her, but when she volunteered for active service I felt she was just the kind of nurse most wanted." She is proudly remembered by the Southland community to this day.

A survivor, Mabel White, saw Brown and Isabel Clark on the deck of the ship moments after it had been hit. White saw them join hands and walk together off the deck, leaping into the sea hand-in-hand. Neither Clark nor Brown survived.

Nurse Nona Hildyard

Nona Hildyard was born in Lyttelton, near Christchurch.  She was the youngest sister of Edith Pitcaithley, who was married to Waimate High School Principal George Pitcaithley.  She spent a lot of her childhood in Waimate according to Dr Cruickshank, and although she didn’t know her in a nursing capacity she had “the happiest and most loveable of dispositions”.  Hildyard was injured by a falling lifeboat, and eventually died in the water before a rescue ship arrived.  Survivors reported that she sang while in the water, to keep spirits up.

Private James Samuel Bird

James Bird was the son of Mr. and Mrs. James Bird, of Painstown, Waimate.  Bird was born in Waimate and trained by the Queen St chemist. After he qualified he went to the North Island to work.  He enlisted, was sent to Egypt, and was posted to No.1 Stationary Hospital, Port Said.

Dr Margaret Cruickshank was asked to write an appreciation for the Waimate Advertiser about the nurses. It’s quite poignant to read the final paragraph knowing that she herself died 3 years later while unselfishly serving the community:

We are glad that New Zealand women serve so gladly, that they are proving themselves worthy to be on the Roll of Honour beside their brothers, and though we mourn the separation of their bodily presence from us, their spirits will never die, but will ever urge us to more unselfish service.
— Dr Margaret Cruickshank

These brave people are gone but they have never been forgotten. 

You can see their names memorialised in a number of places around Waimate, and across New Zealand, including:

  • Their names are on the memorial gates at Victoria Park.

  • The Waimate Museum holds the plaque that was originally in the Waimate Hospital. The Womens ward at the old Waimate hospital was named the Marquette ward in their honour.

  • In 2015 a plaque was added to the Waimate Hospital monument, near the Council buildings. This was fundraised for by a group of nurses from Lister Home, with extra funding from Waimate Rotary and the Waimate District Council Heritage fund.

  • There is a Totara tree planted at Bushtown for the nurses and other medical staff lost on the Marquette. The certificate is on the wall at Lister Home.

This Anzac Day we’ll remember the service women and men from the Waimate District, and across NZ, at memorial services.  The full list of services in the District is on the Waimate District Council website here.

By NZ Museums - Waimate Museum and Archives, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By NZ Museums - Waimate Museum and Archives, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Kate O'Connell