Southland's nurse Marion Brown - the Marquette angel gallery

JOHN HAWKINS/FAIRFAX NZ JOHN HAWKINS/FAIRFAX NZ JOHN HAWKINS/FAIRFAX NZ JOHN HAWKINS/FAIRFAX NZ

Nurse Marion Sinclair Brown, painted from a WW1 photo

Treasured letters home.

Nurse Marion Sinclair Brown was on the SS Marquette when it was torpedoeD IN 1915.

The 1914-15 Star awarded to nurse Marion Sinclair Brown.

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At least she didn't descend alone.

Amid the tilting chaos of the Marquette's last moments Sister Marion Brown came to her own titanic realisation that it was time to jump.

Around her, bravery had been subsumed by bedlam. Having taken just a few steps down a gangway leading nowhere good, Marion and nurse Isabel Clark did what nurses do. As best they could, they comforted each other.

They took each other's hand.

And, together, they jumped into the water.

Another nurse, Mabel White, survived to describe that moment. It was the last thing we know for sure about Marion Sinclair Brown except that she and her companion were among the 10 New Zealand nurses. the 32 New Zealanders - mostly medical orderlies - and the 167 souls lost when the transport ship was torpedoed en route from Egypt to the northern Greek port of Salonika.

Back home the nation was both scandalised by the attack and moved by accounts of the nurses' bravery; their much-reported refusal to go early into the lifeboats. From such calls the 10 became known as the Marquette Angels.

When first word of the sinking reached Marion's Waimatuku hometown, it fell to storekeeper Bill Strang Sr to call on his close friends John and Maggie Brown and break their hearts.

Theirs was a large family. Marion had 14 brothers and sisters, but the news was all the more shocking because three of her brothers were in the trenches in France. The Browns hadn't realised their daughter might also be in deadly danger.

She'd been born Lesmahagow, Larnarkshire, Scotland, and was the third of five children when the family came to Southland.

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After working as a domestic servant in Thornbury, Marion had moved to Riverton to train as a nurse in 1908. After qualifying she moved to Palmerston North then back south to Waimate where she worked for six months in the public hospital before joining a Dr Barclay's private Shearman St hospital in the same town.

She enlisted aged 33.

"I could ill spare her," Matron Cruickshank, from Waimate wrote to Maggie afterward word came of her death.  

"But when she volunteered for active service I felt she was just the kind of nurse most wanted."

In her letters home, Marion described being duly sworn in "arrayed in bonnets, coats and uniform" . The Governor's wife, Lady LIverpool, hadn't been able to be there to pin their badges on them in person, but had provided them each with a box of chocolates.

"Made you feel like school kids," Marion lightly confided to her family.

"Had our photographs taken several times but we look such sights". (Or the word might even be frights, such are the mysteries of cursive handwriting).

From Adelaide she wrote with that familiar lament of the tourist: "We have spent more money that was good for us. I am afraid it just seems to melt away. Oh, but we were sick the first few days and after these three days in port I quite expect we will be as bad as ever.

On the journey she developed a friendship with Victor Baker.

After landing at Port Said, Egypt, she wrote: "My patients are in the tents and mostly English Tommies.They have had some awful experiences."

Mid-October they nurses and medical orderlies of the 1st New Zealand Stationary Hospital sailed on the Marquette to Salonika.

The myth occasionally surfaces that the Marquette was a hospital ship. It wasn't.

Maddeningly, however,  the same day it left port, so did a hospital ship, the British Grantilly Castle, painted white to mark it as exempt from attack.

But it left empty. Instead, the Kiwi medical staff had been put in an unmarked transport in a convoy carrying troops and ammunition - legitimate targets.

"The authorities unnecessarily risked their lives," says Ministry of Culture and Heritage chief historian Neill Atkinson.

"The New Zealand government acknowledged as much in November 1915 when when the Governor, Lord Liverpool, told the War Office that his minister wanted future transfers of medical units to be done by hospital ships where possible.

From the book Growl You May But Go You Must   compiled by Sister Mary Damian, comes an account by Tosti Murray of the sinking.

An accompanying destroyer had departed three hours earlier, leaving the Marquette unprotected.

Though much is made of the sparkling waters of the Aegean, this morning it was grey under a leaden sky as some nurses went on to the deck hoping to see Mt Olympus come into view.

"Oh, look at that funny green light in the water," one said.

The ship's siren and a bugle sounded almost the same instant as the almighty crash tore the air and the ship started to lean to its port side. 

There had been rumours of U-Boats as well as mines in the area, which had helped focus minds during lifejacket drills. Though the incline made it hard to replicate the drill manoeuvres, nobody panicked.

The same couldn't be said of the 540 animals, mostly horses and mules, below deck. Two soldiers took their rifles and positioned themselves to shoot any of the beasts that might reach the deck and cause further ructions.

That's where one of them saw the sub's periscope and - why wouldn't you? -  took aim at it.

No, his mate said. It'll need to see to know when to surface and pick up survivors.

That didn't happen.

At the rapidly rising stern scores of men, most from a British ammunition column, found themselves rising high from the water.

Some jumped and hit the hull with sickening thumps. Worse, some with arms and legs splayed in flight, met ungentle fates from the propeller.

The lifeboats were not easily lowered. The Lascar crew (from the Indian subcontinent) were inexperienced and inexpert and amid the horrors, one boat was dropped on to the shrieking nurses in another.

Before long the sea was littered with people and wreckage, rafts and capsize-prone boats.  

Everyone who could turned to look as the stern of the Marquette rose further then slid down through the grey waters.

Writes Murray: "There was a terrible, unforgettable sound as hundreds of mules, wagons, heavy machinery and cargo rolled down inside the ship . . .

"And as the vessel disappeared there came also the sound of a strange moan from the survivors.

"It rose from 'an aloneness feeling' said one of the men, remembering it a long time afterwards."

In the water people strove to stay afloat. Someone yelled "shark!" but that panic was shortlived. The fin proved to be the ear of a struggling mule.

As the hours passed and people succumbed to exhaustion. the ranks of survivors from the 741 people on board had thinned by 167 before rescuers arrived more than seven hours after the attack.

An account printed in Southland, quoting an unnamed writer, said: "It was pitiful to see the nurses and soldiers tiring in their frantic struggles . . .  slowly sinking without a murmur."

Marion's name is recorded at the Nurses Memorial Chapel in Riccarton Ave Christchurch and a memorial window in York, England. For years her photo graced the entrance to Riverton Hospital and her story is told at the town's Te Hikoi Heritage Museum, alongside those of two surviving Southland nurses, Annie Mackay and Mary Looney. 

Many of Marion's family records, including her original letters, are in the care of Faye Gray in Invercargill, whose mother-in-law Grace was Marion's sister. 

It's a memory "very much in our hearts," she says.

From some of the letters, some of the reports "you read little things, little words, and wonder what they went through".

Particularly touching is the letter from Matron Cruickshank.

"I cannot write words worthy enough to be written of Nurse Brown, who was just my ideal of what a nurse should be."

To illustrate, the matron wrote of a small child, aged five or six, who after one night in her care was "terribly put out that she never knew the name of the 'nice lady who was so kind to her when she was in hospital'."

The  matron also confided the particular distress of a nursing trainee. 

"The little probationer, Miss Roulston, who loved her, has been quite desolate."

Marion, the matron wrote, "has left behind a name and memory that any mother might be proud of".

For all the posthumous awards that Marion received, the most vibrant acknowledgement of her life was that four baby girls were named after her.

Nieces Marion Sinclair Gray, Marion Robbie and Wilma Marion Brown and a daughter of her great friend who gave her child the full name Marion Sinclair Brown McFetrich.

Ceremonies are being held in Christchurch - the home of Christchurch Hospital Nurses Memorial Chapel  - on Labour Weekend to commemorate the Marquette Angels. Family members will also gather in Riverton.

At Te Hikoi , on the anniversary of her death, a poppy will be put on display in the courtoom.

 - Stuff

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