Web site logo c. 123-mcc.com

 Angus and Rosemary's Miscellany

  of Malvern - Local History

History menu >

Biography of Ethel Mary Lewis (nursing sister)


Ethel Mary Lewis 1880 - 1966While researching for our page about Malvern Link we came across the story of district nurse Ethel Mary Lewis who was born at Edgcombe, near Falmouth, Cornwall in 1880, and died at Pershore Cottage Hospital in 1966 (ref 1).

From about 1926 to her death in 1966 Mary live at 30 Redlands Road and later at Hampden Road in Malvern Link, near St Matthias church, where her widowed mother lived in old age until her death in 1943.

Earlier Mary had worked as a nurse in Otaki, New Zealand; her photo, opposite, is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library in New Zealand who say it was sourced from Mrs J G Tyrer, in association with the Otaki Historical Society.

Early Life

Mary was the daughter of clergyman Reverend Thomas Lewis of Monmouthshire and Emma Watson of Over Whitacre, Warwickshire. Her maternal grandfather was an architect (ref 2).

In 1901 Mary was away from home training to be a nurse at Bristol General Hospital; about 1912, the year her father died, she emigrated from England to New Zealand and was employed by the Native Nursing Service. There she gained experience nursing in Otaki amongst the Maori population, where she was known as 'The Little Nurse' since she was only 4 ft 11 in tall (ref 3, 6).

In 1914 she returned to England and at the outbreak of war enlisted with Queen Alexandra's Military Imperial Nursing Service, where she volunteered for overseas service.

She worked for nine weeks in Belgium before being evacuated and subsequently travelling to Serbia where she worked with the 1st British Hospital attached to the 2nd Serbian Army.

While working in the trenches she was slightly wounded by shrapnel in the shoulder and was decorated by King Peter for saving the life of a Serbian officer.

When the German and Austrian armies forced a Serbian retreat she helped to evacuate the 400 patients in terrible conditions through the mountains but only the hospital staff survived, with Sister Lewis suffering frostbite - click link to read an account of the Great Serbian Retreat. The conditions were exceptionally bad with one patient dying on her back after she had carried him two miles.

After leaving Serbia Sister Lewis nursed in Woking, England, before returning to Otaki in 1916. In 1917 she joined the New Zealand Army Nursing Service.

Her service record can be found in the digital archive of the National Library of New Zealand (ref 6). It records that by 1916 her sight was impaired by a degenerative condition of the cornea, but not a bar, and that she had suffered fractures of the left forearm. Nevertheless in 1917 she was appointed to the New Zealand Army Nursing Service as a Staff Nurse, travelling as 'Sister in Charge' with 33rd Reinforcements on a troopship from Wellington to Glasgow; thence to England where she worked at No 3 New Zealand General Hospital at Codford on the edge of Salisbury Plain.

In 1919 she retired from military service and returned to nurse as a civilian in New Zealand, until 1922 when she returned to England to look after her widowed mother and then work as a district nurse for the Worcestershire County Nursing Association. On leaving New Zealand it was said (ref 5):

'she had spared neither herself, time, or energy in alleviating distress among both Europeans and Natives, and all would grieve because of her projected departure'


While we have not been able to confirm the details, it is said that for her services in Serbia, Sister Ethel Mary Lewis was awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle, the Order of St Sava 3rd class, the Serbian Retreat medal, and the Serbian Royal Red Cross 2nd class. For her work in the First World War, she was also awarded the 1914 - 1915 Star, Victory and General Service Medals, and the Croix de Guerre Belgium (ref 1).

Apparently, she did not qualify for the New Zealand Victory medal, as she did not serve on the New Zealand front line (ref 6).


Grave of Ethel Mary LewisEthel Mary Lewis (nursing sister) died on 15th January 1966 aged 85 years at the Pershore Cottage Hospital in Worcestershire. She was buried in the peaceful burial ground of St Leonard's, Newland not far from her home on 20th January 1966 (ref 4).

Her name is the first entry in the current volume of St Leonard's burial register which was started in 1966.

A tiny headstone marks her grave, on which the inscription reads:

Ethel Mary

Lewis R.R.C.

Little Sister

1880 - 1966

It appears she was short of stature, but big of heart, and well loved by those who knew her.

You can find her grave in the 9th row, 7th along on the left as you walk up the centre of the burial ground at Newland.

Newland churchyard

Burial ground at Newland

More about family

Emma Watson (mother)

Mary's mother Emma Watson was born in 1842 at Over Whitacre in Warwickshire. She was the daughter of William Arthur Watson an architect and Emma Lea. In 1861 aged 19 Emma was staying with her widowed Aunt, Sarah Goward Tunbridge nee Lea, while in 1871 she was a governess looking after the children of the Rector of Gelligair, Gilbert C F Harries.

In 1873, at Edgbaston Parish Church, Emma Watson married Revd Thomas Lewis of Monmouthshire. They had four children,

Thomas Charles Vincent Lewis

Helen Mary Lewis

Ethel Mary Lewis

John Edward Ley Lewis

The 1911 census records Emma and Thomas at The Vicarage,  Edington, Bridgwater, Somerset, with their daughter Helen, who was a teacher at a church school. Visiting them was Lucy Watts who married John Edward Ley Lewis in Canada shortly after.

About 1926 aged 84 Emma came to live in Redland Road Malvern Link, and she died in 1943 aged 101 years. It is said (in ref 1) that in her 95th year she climbed to the top of the Worcestershire Beacon, a considerable achievement for anyone of advancing years.

The centenary history of St Matthias (ref 7) records that:

In 1944 a third altar was placed at the East end of the South aisle by the family of Mrs Lewis whose tiny figure was for many years a vital part of the life of Hampden Road.

Apparently Emma was a regular churchgoer; the account goes on to say:

The altar is portable and is carried into the nave by the school children whom she loved, when it is required for a School Service.

Thomas Charles Vincent Lewis (brother)

Nurse Lewis's eldest brother, Thomas, married Ethel Gladys Moore the daughter of Tewkesbury based auctioner and estate agent Thomas Weaver Moore. Starting as a cashier he worked his way up to become a manager of Lloyd's Bank, living in Marlow. He retired to Hayling Island where he died in 1951. The couple had no children.

Helen Mary Lewis (sister)

Helen, who had been living with her parents in 1911, emigrated from England to Canada where she married Alexander Cox who had emigrated in 1896. She died at British Columbia in 1961.

Allen Coombes remembers nurse Lewis visiting her sister Nellie in Canada in the 1950s wearing her nurses' uniform and medals (ref 8).

John Edward Ley Lewis (brother)

John Edward Ley Lewis known as Jack became a farmer and married Lucy Watts at Winnipeg in July 1911, later returning to England. He died at Frith Farm, Stalbridge in Devon in 1941.

Jack and his mother Emma are buried in St Matthias churchyard, Malvern Link.

Thomas Wyndham Lewis (nephew)

When Ethel Mary Lewis died her estate was administered by her nephew Thomas Wyndham Lewis, a farmer, who was born in Canada in 1912. He was the son of Mary's youngest brother Jack.


  1. Drake Daphne, The Story of Malvern Link Worcestershire, first published about 1980 (copy in Malvern library and available from First Paige, Abbey Road; research deposited at the Worcester Record Office, at the Hive)
  2. Census of England and Wales
  3. New Zealand Military Nursing website
  4. Newland burial register
  5. Communication from Otaki Museum, March 2015 with account of her life and war work.
  6. Service record, National Library of New Zealand
  7. Bowles, Mildred and Hartley, Revd Harry, St Matthias at the Link, the story of a parish 1846 - 1946, The Priory Press, Malvern, 1946
  8. Communication from Allen Coombes, June 2016

The Malvern hills logo

Back to top

Please let us know if you can add to this story