Sister Mary WARD BEM (1885-1972)

Sister Mary Ward
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A Medical Life

Examining the medical profession

THIS IS YOUR LIFE - Mary Ward, nurse, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the audience of the BBC Television Theatre.

Mary’s early family life centred on Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire, one of the major junctions of the English canals. Although never professionally qualified as a nurse, Mary spent ten years travelling to convents in Europe and the USA before returning home, where she established an unofficial surgery administering medicine and care to the boat people.

By the late 1930s the canal companies (precursors to British Waterways) began to recognise the importance of Mary’s work and she was appointed as a "consultant sister" to the long-distance boatmen and their families.

Over several decades she acted as nurse, midwife, and even amanuensis to the mostly uneducated, illiterate boat people. She was a significant figure in the history of the British canal system and was awarded the British Empire Medal in the 1951 New Year Honours.

Sister Mary Ward

Sister Mary Ward and guests on This Is Your Life

Waterways of Northamptonshire

In his book, Waterways of Northamptonshire, writer David Blagrove mentions Sister Mary Ward and her appearance on This Is Your Life...

For forty years Sister Mary Ward’s name was synonymous with Stoke Bruerne. She was born in the village in 1885 and tried to train in London as a nurse in the early days of the century, but was prevented from doing so by an attack of tuberculosis which left her with a slight deformity of the foot. Not to be denied, she trained in Belgium, under Edith Cavell who was shot by the Germans in 1915.

After the First World War in which she nursed behind the lines, she returned home and married Charles Ward, who ran a shop on the canalside at Stoke Bruerne in Sister Mary’s family house. She began ministering to the boat people, and eventually received a grant towards her medicines from the Grand Union Canal Company and FMC. She gave her services free and was universally loved by these people.

She retired in 1962 and, unable to face the catastrophic decline in canal carrying in her retirement, moved away to relatives in the London area. Sister Mary was awarded a well-earned B.E.M. She never returned in her lifetime, but following her death in London, her body was brought back to be buried at Roade, a few miles from Stoke Bruerne.

In 1958 however, Sister Mary received the surprise honour of being chosen as a subject for Eamonn Andrews’ programme ‘This Is Your Life’. In the studio were many of those people from the canal and elsewhere who had known her and her work.

From left to right in the above photograph: Leslie N Morton, Manager, Willow Wren Canal Carrying Co. A survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Morton was at sea in sailing ships at the age of thirteen. He was manager of the Grand Union Canal Carrying Co. 1934-6.

Jack Monk, senior boat captain of the Willow Wren fleet and, at the time, captain of Avocet and Dabchick, a very competent and versatile boatman who had served his time coasting vessels.

Roy Peters was fostered by Sister Mary after his father, a Canadian soldier, was killed at Vimy Ridge.

Mrs Lilian Monk, is partly concealing Neil Ingram whose life was saved as a child by Sister Mary’s devotion.

Behind Sister Mary are a couple, Mr and Mrs Williamson for whom she worked as a nanny, and on her left is her daughter, Olive Drage.

Next, behind her is Eric Smith of Stoke Bruerne, later foreman bricklayer for British Waterways until his retirement in 1989. Eric was recalling Sister Mary’s contribution to the war effort from 1939, when she rounded up the village lads to form a volunteer fire brigade (their moment of glory came when the Rectory roof caught fire, at a time when the incumbent, the Revd Newton, was storing Home Guard ammunition in the house!).

Next are two boating couples, Alf and Frances Best of Sudbury and Argo and Bill and Doris Bellingham of Alton and Slinfold (both British Waterways pairs). Mrs Anna Ingram, mother of Neil, and Miss Beatrice Woodward, who was born in the Boat Inn at Stoke Bruerne, and grew up with Sister Mary, complete the group.

The programme was made on Sunday 7 September 1958. (BBC)

programme details...

  • Edition No: 94
  • Subject No: 94
  • Broadcast date: Mon 13 Apr 1959
  • Broadcast time: 7.30-8.00pm
  • Recorded: Sun 7 Sep 1958 8.30pm
  • Venue: BBC Television Theatre
  • Series: 4
  • Edition: 29

on the guest list...

  • Olive Drage – daughter
  • Alfred Best
  • Frances Best
  • Beatrix Woodward
  • Roy Peters - adopted son
  • Eric Smith
  • Marjorie Williamson
  • Henry Cecil Williamson
  • Anna Ingram
  • Neil Ingram
  • Leslie Morton
  • Doris Bellingham
  • William Bellingham
  • John Monk
  • Mrs Monk
  • Filmed tributes:
  • James Thay
  • Mrs Thay
  • Steve Dulson
  • Jo Skinner
  • Mrs Skinner
  • Ronald Withy
  • Sam Beachy
  • Mrs Beachy

external links...

production team...

  • Researchers: Peter Moore, Ronald Vivian
  • Writers: Peter Moore, Ronald Vivian
  • Director: Vere Lorrimer
  • Producer: T Leslie Jackson
Series 4 subjects: Jo Capka > Jimmy Edwards > Andrew Milbourne > Bella Burge > Tommy Steele > Ronald Shiner > James Edward Wood > Margaret Rowena Jones > John Griffiths > Freddy Bloom > Bransby Williams > Miriam Moses > Elsie Mullock > John Vidler > Florence Desmond > Noel Duckworth > Alfred Daniel Wintle > Ted Heath > Andrew MacDonald > Harriet Cohen > George William Hall > Reginald Blanchford > Kenneth More > Hugh Llewelyn Glyn Hughes > Miriam Jowett > Ted Willis > Alfred Southon > Tiger Sarll > Mary Ward > Roy Gill > Stirling Moss > Ethel Goldsack > Tommy Trinder