Cape belonging to Riverina midwife, Nurse Catherine Burke.

Contributed by: Museum of the Riverina

Nurse Catherine Burke, unknown photographer, c1940, Museum of the Riverina Collection Nurse Burke's cape, side view. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 31.10.12 Nurse Burke's cape, front view. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 31.10.12 Nurse Burke's cape, back view. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 31.10.12 Nurse Burke's cape, buttons. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 12.12.11 Nurse Burke's cape, side view. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 31.10.12 Nurse Burke's hat with Voluntary Aid Detachment badge, Wagga Wagga. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 15.12.11 Nurse Burke's Gladstone bag, early 20th century. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 01.12.11 Midwife's note book, Wagga Wagga, 1930-1933. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 31.10.12 Lecture notes, Sydney, 1916. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 31.10.12 Damage to fabric around the hem of cape. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 31.10.12 Tear in fabric at the neck of cape. Photographer, Rachael Vincent, 19.01.12 Nurse Burke appears in Gaff-Smith, M (2004) Riverina Midwives: from the Mountains to the Plains, on pages 191-196.
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Museum of the Riverina
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

    1920 - 1940
  • Place of origin:

    Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

As part of the Nurse Burke Collection, this garment holds historic and aesthetic significance. The long, navy blue cape, Gladstone bag and navy felt hat were powerful symbols of a profession that carried the tools to save the lives of both mother and child. Midwives were well known and respected members of the community, and with their large bag and distinctive uniform, they were instantly recognisable. Nurse Burke's cape, along with its associated collection, enables the museum to explore early 20th century women's experiences of childbirth from a local perspective.

This garment is an important piece of social history. The cape is significant as it is connected to a named individual who was born in the Riverina town of Tumbarumba, and who became one of the first staff members of the new maternity unit at Wagga Wagga base hospital when it opened in 1938. The cape also showcases working women's costume of the 1920s-1940s, and offers a 'way-in' to learn about the vital role played by the rural midwife. As an iconic social object relating to women's history in the Riverina, it serves to highlight one woman's contribution to a local community, and the ways in which women's skills were used to serve their district during World War II as Voluntary Aids.

In conjunction with associated items in this small collection, Nurse Burke's cape contributes to our understanding of the many important roles played by Riverina women in the early to mid 20th century. Women's history in museums is often very patchy. The Nurse Burke Collection can be used to dissolve many of the stereotypes aligning the display of women's history to domesticity and passivity through collections that divide rural life into work (a male environment) and the home (the female domain).

Author: Rachael Vincent, Regional Museum Officer, Museum of the Riverina, Wagga Wagga, 31.10.12.


Navy blue midwife's cape in fine, unlined cotton. The cape has a simple round neckline finished with deep brown binding. It fastens at the neck with a single metal hook and eye. Two press studs below the hook and eye secure the cape above the chest. The cape then opens out over the chest and rests at calf length. The neckline is decorated with two burnished gold shank buttons that conceal the two press studs. This garment is representative of a trained nurse's uniform of the 1920s-1940s in its colour, style and length. Midwives were not allowed to wear cardigans; the policy was for them to be bare above the elbow so as not to carry germs from one patient to another. Nurses would wear their capes when going to and from work for warmth, and to protect their uniforms.

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Nurse Burke was born in Tumbarumba in 1883. She was one of nine children. In 1930, the Electoral Roll shows her living in 49 Crampton Street, Wagga Wagga with her mother, Johanne, who died in Wagga Wagga in 1933. By 1936, Nurse Burke had moved to 70 Crampton Street. After her death in Orange in 1965, her nephew Mr Arch Brayshaw donated her cape and other items relating to her midwifery career to the Museum of the Riverina.

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

From October 1915 to August 1916, Nurse Burke trained at St Margaret's hospital in Sydney, where she was registered as an obstetric nurse in 1917. She later moved to Wagga Wagga, and delivered babies in private homes and hospitals. When the maternity section of Wagga Wagga Base Hospital opened in 1938, Nurse Burke was among the first staff members. The Daily Advertiser (1997), records how Nurse Burke came to The Rock by train from Wagga Wagga in 1919 to deliver Ken Beddgood, as she had done with his five brothers and sisters. The article describes how 'a sulky and driver was sent to the station to pick her up and take her the 8km to Avondale Station where Ken's father was the manager'. Ken went on to serve in the 7th Australian Division during World War II and survived the Kokoda trail.

Nurse Burke's lecture notes and birth record book from when she trained at St Margaret's (1915-1916), and later her birth record book as a Wagga midwife (1930-1933), offer detailed notes concerning the women she attended and the babies that were born. During World War II, Nurse Burke joined the Wagga Wagga Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). VADs were first established during the First World War by members of the Australian Red Cross and the Order of St John. The aim was to have a trained body of women who could take their place among sickness, accidents and injury in times of peace or war.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

Formal training for midwives became available in Sydney in 1887. By this time, district hospitals were being established throughout the state. However, many families in rural NSW lived in isolated areas with few doctors. In 1911, regional Australia's dependence on untrained local midwives was replaced by the trained nurses of the NSW Bush Nursing Association. The first Bush Nursing Centres were at Jindabyne, Euston, Lake Cargellico and Carinda. With the support of the community, the system spread throughout remote areas of the State. These nurses would travel day and night in all weathers to reach women in the towns and country. When the Country Women's Association was founded in 1922, one of its first achievements was the setting up of maternity centres in areas of need, the first being Bingara and Binya. The maternity ward at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital was built in 1938. The ward's construction was due to the Wagga Wagga Branch of the Country Women's Association.

Where did this information come from?

Adcock, Winifred et al (1984) With Courage & Devotion: A History of Midwifery in New South Wales. Anvil Press: Wamberal, Australia.

Deitrich, June (2010) Voluntary Aid Detachment in Wagga Wagga. Online:

Gaff-Smith, Mavis (2004) Riverina Midwives: from the Mountains to the Plains. Triple D Books: Wagga Wagga.

Morris, Sherry (1988) A Delicate Balance: A History of Wagga Wagga Base Hospital. Wagga Wagga Base Hospital: Wagga Wagga.

Shuter, Louise (1997) A Humble Hero: Wagga war veteran recalls Kokoda campaign, The Daily Advertiser

Museum of the Riverina object files.

This garment has been exhibited

In 2002, the cape featured in the Wagga Wagga leg of a touring exhibition from the Powerhouse Museum called Births of a Nation. From October 2012, Nurse Burke's cape, hat, midwifery bag and selected contents have been put on display at the Museum of the Riverina's Botanic Gardens Site as a stand-alone two-case exhibit, called Nurse Burke: Riverina Midwife.

  1. Place of origin:

    Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Cost:

    The Museum has no records of the cost to make this garment when new. No purchase was made in recent times as the Museum acquired the cape through donation.

  3. Owned by:

    Nurse Catherine Burke (also known as Kathleen), a Wagga Wagga midwife. Now part of the permanent collections of the Museum of the Riverina, Wagga Wagga.

  4. Worn by:

    Nurse Catherine Burke

  5. Occasion(s):

    Worn attending home and hospital births in Sydney and the Riverina in the early 1920s-1940s.

  6. Place:

    Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, private homes in the Riverina, and the maternity wards of St Margaret's hospital, Sydney.

  7. Designed by:

    The cape's design is typical of a trained midwife's uniform dating from the 1920s-1940s.

  8. Made by:

    The cape was possibly made by Nurse Burke herself.

  9. Made for:

    Nurse Catherine Burke.

Trimmings / Decoration

The cape has a plain functional design with little decoration. Two uncovered, burnished gold shank buttons provide some decorative detail at the neck. Adding to this detail, deep brown bias binding covers the edge of the neck. The same binding has been used on the inside of the cape to cover the edge of the two long seams from shoulder to hem.

Fibre / Weave

The cape is made from navy blue cotton, woven in a plain weave. A rich brown bias binding features on the neck and the two inside seams that run from each shoulder.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


The cape has been hand made, possibly by Nurse Burke herself. The main body of the garment has been machine sewn, inclusive of all seams and the hem. The hook and eye fastening at the neck, along with the two press studs and the two decorative buttons have been hand sewn onto the fabric.


The cape does not have a manufacturer's label because it is hand made.


There appears to be no alterations to this garment.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


  1. Bias
  2. Straight


The cape fastens at the neck with a wire hook and eye. A further two metal press studs sewn into the fabric secure the cape below the neck. Two uncovered decorative shank buttons sewn onto the front of the cape hide the press studs.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The cape is unlined. Bias binding at the neck serves to slightly stiffen the edge of the collar.


Neck 300 mm
Chest 1040 mm
Hem circumference 1430 mm
Front neck to hem 1365 mm
Back neck to hem 1417 mm
Cross back 4200 mm
Convert to inches

This cape has a very small neck (girth 300mm). It is also very narrow across the chest (1040mm). Research has yet to uncover images of Nurse Burke wearing the cape, but from the dimensions of the garment, she must have been tall and very slightly built. The cape is both handmade and machine sewn, possibly made by Nurse Burke herself.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

The Museum of the Riverina's collection of objects relating to Nurse Burke is mentioned by Dr Mavis Gaff-Smith in two of her books on midwifery in the Riverina:

Gaff-Smith, M (2010) No Births on Monday. Triple D Books: Wagga Wagga.

Gaff-Smith, M (2004) Riverina Midwives: from the Mountains to the Plains. Triple D Books: Wagga Wagga.

Information about Nurse Burke's family history was sourced from

Other related objects

This cape forms part of a small collection of items associated with Nurse Burke and her midwifery career:

A navy felt hat, part of her winter uniform, bearing a badge from the Wagga Wagga Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Her leather Gladstone bag with a washable lining inside, probably made by Nurse Burke. Here, a series of pockets of differing sizes have been designed to hold items needed to assist with the birth. Many original pieces remain including: measuring cups, collapsible needles, a bath thermometer, a catheter, apparatus for administering an enema, protective face masks, umbilical cord dressings, and a bag of huckaback absorbent towels.

Her Lecture notes from training at St Margaret's Hospital, Sydney (1915-1916), and midwife's notebook from Wagga Wagga (1930-1933).

The Best of Everything Recipe Book (1927), compiled for the Disabled Men's Association of Australia. The book has a section on 'invalid cookery'. Nurse Burke would have used recipes from this well-used book to build a new mother's strength and appetite.

A framed photograph of Nurse Burke, c1940.

Link to collection online


There are a number of small holes in the fabric at the bottom of the cape near the hem. Fabric has started to tear below the binding around the neck.


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor


  1. Crease
  2. Holes
  3. Torn
  4. Worn
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