Remembering Aikenhead Stories
As we say goodbye to the Aikenhead Wing in 2021, it is important to acknowledge the special place the building holds in the hearts of thousands of our current and former nurses. Here are some of those special memories and photos that people have shared.
I started as a student nurse in August 1986. My memories of living on level 9 in the Aikenhead Wing are among the most fun of my life. We were forty-four 18 year olds, almost all of us straight out of school, living in a great big share house in the best real estate in Melbourne.
It was the late eighties, but in those dying days of hospital training, the older nurses and nuns who ran the nursing school were still trying to hang on to the traditions of discipline and control. We were essentially treated like school-girls, and in our uniform we still looked it. We still wore hats in our first year, but they were abolished in our second after the huge nurse’s strike. There was always a supervisor sitting at the front desk downstairs. Some would sneak in alcohol and risk instant dismissal if our rooms were unlocked and checked while we were on a shift. I remember once sneaking past the desk with my little dog in a bag and keeping her in my room for the night.
We paid $9.00 a week board and that included all of our meals from the cafeteria downstairs. My mother was the world’s worst cook, and being straight out of home, I’d never eaten anything as good as that macaroni cheese from the bain-marie in the caf. Everyone else would tell me I was mad and head out for food in Bourke St. I didn’t know what was wrong with them.
The four boys in our group, (one, Martin Griffin, I later married), all lived on level 12 and they weren’t allowed on our floor. They weren’t even allowed in our loungeroom! The girls would all cram onto the floor of our lounge every evening and watch Scott and Charlene on Neighbours over the top of each other’s perms. I remember sunbaking on the roof listening to John Farnham and Meatloaf.
I adored my room. It was the first place I ever had to myself. It looked out over the operating suites and we could watch operations from the distance. I decked it out in Laura Ashley everything. We had a huge bathroom with three baths in separate cubicles. Some of us would run a deep bath and chat over the walls of the bath stalls until the water was cold.
We went out more nights than we stayed in, usually to the nightclubs in King Street, and raced home to get to the tunnel door on the hour. If we missed it, we had to wait another hour, so we’d often just head back out again. Some nights it was so ridiculously late that we’d still be up at 6am, just in time to ring the scary night admin, to say we’d been up sick all night and couldn’t do our early shift. The thing that stays with me was how hard we really did work though. And we always had each other to come home to.
- Donna Reis
Health Information Services (HIS) has been a permanent fixture at level 3 of the Aikenhead building since 1982 when it was known then as Medical Records. I’ve worked in HIS and the Aikenhead building for 15 years and there are many other long serving HIS staff who have called Aikenhead their home.
The Aikenhead building holds many memories for all of us who have worked inside it. I will miss sitting at my desk with beautiful views across the park watching the seasons change, hearing the noises from the busy streets below, cold drafts in winter and having to sit with a blanket over my knees and the hot summers where the building would retain all of the heat. I remember standing on the balcony in 2006 waving to Queen Elizabeth II as she was driving past.
Level 3 has seen many celebrations in HIS with our famous morning teas where we would congregate in the front work area around a large table of food. We will continue to celebrate and come together as a group but the Aikenhead building accommodated us perfectly.
The floor has held the weight of 100s of thousands of paper medical records in the filing bays before we converted to a scanned medical record. The location of the HIS department in many other hospitals is the basement so we were lucky that Aikenhead was a strong building to accommodate the weight of the records and allowed us to work in natural daylight.
Farewell Aikenhead. HIS is moving to a new home but we will always reminisce about you.
- Lisa Galea, Health Information Manager
My mother, Lesley Bell, died in November 2014. She was a student nurse at St Vincent’s in the early 1960s. Twenty years later, in the mid 1980’s, so was I.
Before she died, she wrote down her life story in a long letter for me, including a section on her time as a student nurse. These are Mum’s own words, from this letter:
My father wanted me to follow him into teaching, and he was very upset when I chose nursing. At the time it was difficult to be accepted into nursing, but in late November 1961, I received notice by letter that I could start my nursing career on 18th January 1962. I was thrilled. Three others from Catholic Ladies College also started on that day. I remember the day so well. My mother came with me and I was shown a room overlooking Victoria Parade. It seemed so modern. It was pale blue, had a large wardrobe and built-in dressing table. After unpacking we were ushered into a large room where we were given a lecture about our expected behaviour, especially in relation to boys, by Mother Rectoress.
I remember that first night, staying awake due to the noises of trams outside the window and ambulances going into casualty. I got up at 4am and had a shower - I was nervous and tired and worried that I would sleep in. I need not have worried, because at 6am a deafening siren sounded into every room to wake everyone up. None of us knew that this would happen.
We would be in PTS for eight weeks. If we failed we could sit a supplementary exam, but always had to have over 60 as a pass rate. We were given our uniforms at the end of PTS. It was so exciting, as we wore really lovely uniforms- blue and white check dresses under a white starched apron. We wore a stripe on our belts, designating the year we were in. This was a big pride issue at the hospital. There was a hierarchy for getting in the lift- no first year would dare get into the lift without letting a third year go in first.
Our group of 35 got on really well together and it was easy to make friends. Life as a student nurse was wonderful- plenty of company, movies, cafes, plays, balls and dancing. The Beatles were on the top of the charts.I remember waking up for an early one morning in 1963 to hear crying all around my room. One of the Aikenhead matrons had been working her way up the floors to tell us all that JFK had died. We were all crying at work that morning.
My mother made me several ball dresses. We always wore long gloves, and of course had our hair done especially. Normally we had to be in by 12 midnight, but we could apply for late passes. We were given so many each year and if we were late back to the hospital, we couldn’t imagine what our fate would have been- none of us wanted to find out.
Our group went together on holidays to Tasmania and Coolangatta, where I wore my first bikini and a muu muu.
I look back with wonderful happy memories. I wish I could have it all again.
- Donna Reis - PTS August 1986 for her mother, Lesley Bell - PTS January 1962.
Maria Sfendourakis was a new immigrant from Greece in need of a job. She reached out to one of the sisters at St Vincent’s who was in charge of catering.
“Sister, I am here looking for a job. Is there anything available for me?” It was urgent for Maria as her husband was out of work and they had 2 young children. The sister responded “come in tomorrow dear, and I will let you know.”
Next morning she went in. Maria was hired as Food Services Supervisor at Aikenhead. And that is where she worked for 27 years, from the ages of 28 to 55.
Maria saw generations of nurses graduate, decked out in their hats and uniform, over the years. “I saw all the young girls come in, like white birds… I still have them in my heart.”
“It was the best time of my life. I would work and I was tired, but I never felt it because I was happy,” Maria said.
- Maria Sfendourakis, Food Services Supervisor at Aikenhead
My memories of moving to the "new" nurse's home in Victoria Parade 66 years ago are dim but I am happy to share what I remember.
The move happened in early January 1956. About twelve of us moved from a terrace house/nurse's home in Princes Street to the second or third floor of the new building. It felt like being part of history to be among the first group to live there. I certainly would not have imagined that I would live to see the building demolished so many years later. Only one floor was ready and as I finished my training eight weeks later, I was not there when it was fully occupied.
Entry was via the underground tunnel that connected the main hospital with Brenan Hall and the new nurse's home. I recall a rumour that someone climbed up the fire escape and in through a window with a visitor (strictly not allowed). The rooms were bright and fitted with a built in wardrobe and drawers a chair and bed and there may have been a desk. Bathrooms were a shared facility and distinctly superior to what was available in the "old" nurse's home above Brenan Hall, which they were replacing. There was a ban on preparing food snacks in our rooms so a tea room was available. I have no memory of why so few of us moved in there, they may have had other plans for the Princes Street house.
Curfews were enforced as part of the regime for nurses. We were limited to one midnight curfew and two or three ten o'clock curfews per week. The night superintendent was at the front desk of the hospital and would witness the nurse's signing in on arrival. A night watchman would be contacted to take the nurse to the tunnel where he unlocked the gate and she could make her way to the door which led to the stairs. Signing in after the official time was met with a threat of being "grounded" for a time but the rule was not too harsh. I was guilty of over staying my freedom on three occasions in my last week. The night before I was to leave, Sr. Zita noted the recurrent offending and warned that there would be consequences. I must admit to feeling a bit smug - no threat could harm me by then.
For me it was a "heady" time. I had recently met the love of my life, and I was about to end my time at St Vincent's and head back to my home town in the country for a few months before starting a midwifery course. If the memories of that time are sketchy I blame those distractions.... and a touch of seniority.
- Leonie Croatto (nee Allman)
September 60 PTS: I recall the suitcases that contained our uniforms and were distributed every Thursday to our room. The blue and white check dress was made of impenetrable material that never wore out! Shank buttons had to be assembled every time we had a change of laundry, and we attached the rigid starched collars to the uniform , which would result in a sore red rash around our neck, a soothing , soft scarf would often be surreptitiously tucked in for relief. Were they lisle stockings , worn with our practical Hall’s brown lace up shoes? The long white starched apron covered all! As the courage grew , the length of the apron reduced, rolled up at the waist and firmly held in place by our one blue stripe belt and the buckle. So proud of the buckle! Everything had to be assembled! I nearly forgot our cap, with the drawstring to pull into shape and the SVH emblem on the front, and nary a strand of hair to be seen! Stand us up, the blue cape slung around our shoulders and off into the unknown. The rigidity of our uniform also reflected the lifestyle we led, rules and regulations abounded with fear of dismissal a constant threat.
Throughout the first 6 week period at the Mary Aikenhead Home, we observed strict lights out by 10! Mass every day, no access to the "caf", as we learnt about ethics, hygiene, anatomy and physiology, cross infection etc, We also learnt how to smoke, what dances to attend with free admission, what our wage was, and how to wash our own clothes. We shared a communal bathroom, and announcements we had an incoming phone call, or a visitor in the foyer, were disseminated throughout the home!
- Jenny McKenna
I arrived at St Vincent’s Hospital to commence my training in August 1984. I was the first of many family members to follow my parents to the hospital.
I was lucky enough to get one of the rooms to the left of the lifts on the 6th floor at the very end of that short corridor. It really was very spacious and a good spot, as the months went on, for congregating.
When we would go out in the evenings, as the hour became late, there was always much discussion about leaving in time for the hourly escort through the tunnels by the night security guard. I spent many an hour waiting in casualty as these calculations had not really been very accurate. There were certainly always many characters in casualty to entertain a young country girl.
I guess the most endearing outcome from my time in the Aikenhead Wing was the friendships I forged. Living together as young people embarking on our lives as adults, and the emotional highs and lows. We supported each other as we dealt with sickness and death, which made these connections even more meaningful. After 36 years I still remain dear friends with many of my Aikenhead co-tenants, celebrating marriages and births with them and supporting each other through deaths and other difficult times. I will always remember my time in the Aikenhead Wing with much joy and appreciation for the career it lead me to, but mostly the precious enduring friendships I made.
- Gemma Short (nee Croatto)
I've worked in Health Information Services for 12 years. When I first started work at St V's at orientation we were told the building would be demolished "soon". This year, in April, it's finally happening. I will miss the quaint old building, with it's bright blue bathroom and watching all the generations of pigeons (squabs) that have been born and raised on the balcony outside my window. Farewell Aikenhead Building!
- Donna Pascoe
I heard the news just recently which brought a wave of nostalgia to my heart. Aikenhead Nurse’s home is soon to be demolished and will disappear to the ground.
For anyone else driving past the 1950’s orange brick building, it may just appear to be just an old building, stately and silent, long past its use and time. But to me it is so much more, and represents a significant moment in time.
Arriving in August 1984, a tentative 18-year-old, with suitcase in hand, the day I moved from the beach to start nursing.
Walking down long linoleum corridors. Discovering our rooms with pale wooden furniture, narrow beds with views over Melbourne city. Nervous smiles, introductions and helping each other how to place our first-year caps on our heads.
Aikenhead was our home for our first year of nursing. The large cafeteria, the brick lined balcony with city views, the roof top where some sun baked and others drank forbidden bottles of gin. The creaky lifts than often broke down leaving nurses stranded. The myth of the haunted level 5 where we dared each other to run through its dark passages in the early hours.
The deep baths in the pink tiled bathrooms which soaked away the exhaustion of long busy shifts. The end living rooms where we gathered, someone playing the piano, discussing our shifts, favourite patients or debriefing after a long night nursing a dying patient and supporting a family through their grief.
The long tunnels connecting Aikenhead to the hospital, the only entrance home after a night out in the city and that sinking feeling missing the hourly door opening from the tunnel by only 5 minutes.
The kindly strict home supervisors who checked the floors for any visitors and were constantly busy keeping excitable first year students in-check. The large religious statues that mysteriously ended up in bedrooms or when the piano was moved into my room, baffling the supervisors to wonder how could someone possibly steal a piano.
Way beyond the physical attributes of the building, the most significant part of living there and nursing at St Vincent’s is the life long, enduring friendships forged there. I count nurses from my group as some of my dearest friends today. I also met my life partner of 35 years, one of the three males in our PTS intake. We point out Aikenhead to our children in passing, reflecting a life defining meeting.
So, it is with a heavy heart, we bid farewell to Aikenhead, an iconic building of such significance to many.
Vale Aikenhead. Your stately presence will be no longer, yet all the experiences and collective memories of every nurse who lived there, will always keep the spirit of Aikenhead alive.
You are definitely more than just bricks and mortar to me.
- Carmel Cotter
Please share your Aikenhead memories and stories
To celebrate Aikenhead, please share your special memories and photos with us. We will publish your stories and photos on this website page and preserve them in the collection of SVHM Archives. There are also plans to create a special presentation to commemorate this landmark building. Stay tuned for more information and details about 2021 celebratory events.
Please share your stories – up to 300 words in length - and photos.