Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Female Collectors: Mother Bertha

Hawaiian Kahili
PRM 1887.1.158 
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Hawaiian pandanus fan PRM 1887.1.155 © Pitt Rivers Museum
There are many remarkable women connected with the Museum collections. One of these is Mother Bertha, who gave a collection of Hawaiian objects to the Natural History Museum that were transferred to the Pitt Rivers in 1886.

Of Scottish descent, Elizabeth Bertha Turnbull was an Anglican Nun who dedicated her life to caring for others. During the Crimean war she travelled to Turkey with Florence Nightingale to nurse the ill and injured soldiers.

Then known as Sister Bertha, she worked mainly in the General Hospital in Scutari, and then at the Castle Hospital in Balaclava. Unlike the civilian nurses, Bertha received no pay. She was given a railway rug before leaving England, which  served her at various times during the Crimea as a blanket, carpet, mattress, screen and shawl.

After the war, she continued working with the poor and the sick in England before travelling to Hawaii in 1864. In Lahaina, on the Island of Maui, Sister Bertha tended the sick during an outbreak of leprosy and helped establish St Cross School. Operating a free dispensary for the poor, she was popular with the local people and gained a reputation for her skill in doctoring to the sick.
Hawaiian gourd vessel PRM 1887.1.159© Pitt Rivers Museum

In 1867, along with Mother Sellon, Sister Beatrice and Sister Albertina she helped set up St. Andrew's Priory School. The three Sisters were the first teachers at this all girls school founded by Queen Emma Kaleleonalani. They had a close relationship with Queen Emma and regularly had tea with her in the grounds. In 1874, when there was a threat to Queen Emma's life, the Sisters hid her overnight in the Priory. Bertha and an Hawaiian Lady-in-Waiting kept watch over the Queen until the danger had passed.

Following Mother Sellon's death in 1876 Bertha became her successor. She returned to England in 1877 to take up the role of Mother Superior at Ascot Priory.  Her work caring for others continued until her death on 15 September 1890 at the age of 67. Florence Nightingale, when informed about her death, noted of Mother Bertha: "She was a kind of hero."

You can see the Hawaiian objects in the Museum from Mother Bertha using the online object database. Simply enter 'Mother Bertha' in 'Other Owners' and then perform your search to find the records for all 17 objects in this collection.

Hawaiian barkcloth, from right to left: PRM 1887.1.162, PRM 1887.1.165, and PRM 1887.1.164 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Suggested further reading:

Carol Helmstadter and Judith Godden, 2011, Nursing Before Nightingale, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Ellen Jordan, 1999, The Women's Movement and Women's Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain, England: Routledge.

Lynn McDonald (editor), 2010, Florence Nightingale: The Crimean War: Collected Works of Florence Nightingale Volume 14, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

John Field Mulholland, 1970, Hawaii's Religions, Rutland: C.E. Tuttle Co.

Henry Phillpotts, 1849, The Sisters of Mercy at Devonport, England: W. Wood.

Thomas Jay Williams, 1965, Priscilla Lydia Sellon, London: S.P.C.K.

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