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Norah Elizabeth Hughes née Kirk




22 March 2024 at 15:23:44

22 March 2024 at 16:14:28

Written for her children, date not known - possibly late 1950’s, after she was widowed. Typed ‘verbatim’ by her granddaughter Marianne from a hand-written notebook. Comments and corrections in brackets [ ] are by her Grandson Ian W in 2024. Additional material including letters and tributes also provided by Ian.

Excerpt from Norah Kirk’s Memoir – immediately after her Hong Kong wedding. Most of her memoir was about childhood and family life in Dublin, then, three years at Mildmay and a few months back in Dublin before travelling to Hong Kong.

"… There was an uproar [in her family] when I mentioned ''The Mission field', but a compromise when I suggested training as a nurse first; this was accepted as also [was] a year at C.M.S (Church Mission Society) missionary institute as I was not old enough for the hospital, minimum then being 23.

I was a year at the institute and made some grand friends. When I went to interview [with] Miss Cattall at the Mildmay Mission Hospital in Shoreditch, I was still a few months under age, so I remember her saying, "You are not old enough yet, so what will you do?" I said, "Oh, I’ll apply somewhere else"! she gave me a piercing look and replied, "Well then, we'll take you"! Little did any of us know how I was being "led" and the pathway beinq opened.

I joined the staff in August 1902 [Sept. 1904 on her Certificate], and a few days later, John Kirk from Edinburgh joined the same hospital as Junior Medical Officer! Dublin … Edinburgh, who could for[e]see?

I enjoyed every moment of my training. Children, men, women, outpatients. I was not paid any salary until within 6 months of finishing where [when] as staff nurse I got the princely sum of £1 a month, father was very good and sent me £1 a month during all the previous time, and that had to cover shoes, stockings, laundry, and any outings. I often did not go out on off [free] times, as I had no bus money left even though you could go a long one [ride] for 1d. There were no open spaces near or park, except the churchyard nearby with a few iron seats. Miss Cattell sometimes sent me [on] a message to some surgical shop and paid my way [there] and back, that made a good outing.

After 18 months, I was suddenly taken with acute appendicitis and operated on. During my stay in bed, John (Kirk - 'Dads') gave me a present of a book with a small note inside. I was questioned by the ward sister about the book, and she wanted to see the note, which I refused, so she reported it to the matron.

While doing this, I called a patient who was up and about and tearing it in pieces, asked her to put it in the fire, which she did (not knowing anything about it). Sister and matron demanded it on arrival back in the ward and I was harangued on the impropriety of receiving it, and J.K. (John Kirk) impugned for lack of etiquette! But nothing said to him, of course. I recovered! and when up and back in my own room, Matron handed me a letter from J.K. and there as I read it in her presence had to ask to see it and know how I would answer it!! (What cheek!) I was bold and said I would answer him in person, poor old maid that she was, but she then gave in and said we could use her private room that evening to have a talk! She turned trumps in the end and made things easy, only reserving the honour to herself personally and, in my absence, to announce our engagement [first] in the sister and nurses' dining hall and then in the servants' dining room. So she said to me, "Here ends our nurse, Norah". "Not at all I replied I am going to finish my training."

Dads [J.K] sailed to New Zealand when he finished his term as House Surgeon, and I remained another year at Mildmay Hospital, and everyone was most kind and considerate. During my convalescence, I had gone home for a month’s holiday, and John joined me there and met the family. Mother, of course, was sweet, father a bit dubious as if J.K went to N.Z. he might break his leg and father didn't want a lame son-in-law. They compromised by Dads saying well, may I give her a ring, "Oh yes", said father, "as long as it is a nice one!" and so it came about.

During my last year at Mildmay, I was given a lot of responsibility, for which I was very glad, especially in the operating theatre. For this, I got an increase of from £12 per annum up to the magnificent sum of £20 per annum rate, i.e. £10 for 6 months instead of £6!!

All said and done, I was happy there, and the training was sound and thorough in every department. One very funny thing I was informed of was that during the time of the previous matron, all the nurses had a small train at the bottom of their skirts (which were at shoe level in any case!!). This was so that when a nurse leaned forward to help a patient in bed, the train covered her ankles at the back so that no doctor or male patient could see any part of her ankles or legs (preserve us all)!!

When I was finished in Sept 1902 [Oct.1907 on her Certificate], [I] went home and arranged for 6 months maternal work and training in Dublin, but when about to start, father took very ill with flu, and they all begged me to nurse him as he was apt to throw the plates and food at either mother or Aunt Elsie [Norah’s younger sister] if he didn't like it!! Nothing mental! but just his impatience at being laid low, the funny part being that he took all like a babe when I brought it up and fed him, which was a great help to dear mother, the most patient of women.

We spent 3 weeks on honeymoon at a small hotel on ‘the Peak’, Hong Kong being all hill except round the bottom edges. We purchased the necessary furniture for our future house in Canton and up-country. John had had a year’s tuition in Cantonese so could get about everywhere.

It was a full night's journey by river steamer up to Canton but quite pleasant. I got a great welcome from the older missionaries, and we soon settled into our home. There was a young boy as cook, and armed with a Chinese English dictionary, I started to order the food and meals, it was slow work, but gradually, I became vocal, and a good teacher was given to me. I just tried to make the same noises he did!! He didn't know any English. To the end, I was never a good Chinese scholar, but I got there by coping with the women and servants, which was my job.

Once, just before leaving Canton [in 1928], I read a graduation oration to qualifying nurses from all the Canton hospitals, and my teacher afterwards said it was "good". It had taken weeks to prepare in English and then translate into Cantonese and then mostly memorise the Chinese Characters which my teacher had written out in full and beautifully clearly."

2014 Postscript

John Kirk left London in July 1906, paying for his passage to Australia by working as a ship’s doctor. He then visited relatives in New Zealand and, soon after his arrival, learned of the death of the first doctor appointed by the Presbyterian Church to lead a medical mission venture – the Canton Villages Mission (CVM). John applied and was accepted to replace him, the church agreeing to fund Norah’s travel to join him in due course. He remained in NZ, learning Chinese via both study and church activities among Chinese immigrants, then moved to Canton in late 1907.

Norah left Dublin a year after completing her training at Mildmay, sailed from London to Hong Kong, and they married there in October 1908. They set up home in Ko Tong village the following month and began their CVM service as missionary doctor and nurse. They were with CVM until 1928.

Norah's experiences at Mildmay were used both for work with patients and training local nurses, in addition to caring for and initial home education of their three children.

Two letters to the Mission Committee in Dunedin – originals in Presbyterian Church of New Zealand Archive, Knox College:

Canton Hospital

July 24th 1915

Dear Mr. Don,

I enclose three Chinese newspapers which will give you an idea of the flood and fire here last week. All of the Mission band are well including Mrs Milne now out of danger & only weak & easily tired. John is frightfully tired after his fight with the flood & fire & we’ll be glad to go to Hong Kong next week. Our mission property has not much suffered, the new site at Kong Ts’eun (sic) had water over the verandah of first house. The old Hospital was wobbly but held. Taan Po’ chapel has fallen & probably Koon Yin & Kin Tau when we can hear will have met with trouble excuse [no?] more. Kind regards to Mrs Don in which John joins.

Yours faithfully

Norah Kirk

Canton Hospital,


Sept. 20th 1915

Dear Mr Don,

John sends you the enclosed photographs taken during the flood and fire. All the mission are back & well with the exception of Mrs Milne who you will hear about from the Council. We look forward to the arrival of the MacNeurs. John would write but he can’t find time he says to tell you that if he survives this year he hopes to have time for some letter writing in the future. The work here is appalling in dimensions and overwhelming when you are a missionary as well. With kind regards to Mrs Don & the others

Yours v. sincerely

Norah Kirk

Tributes to Norah Kirk’s Nursing and Mission work

PCNZ General Assembly March 1930, Foreign Missions report

p159 – 2-page extract headed Dr. John Kirk: Only mention of Norah Kirk is:

Mrs Kirk brought her own practical mind and thorough training as a nurse to the partnership in service. During the pioneering years she gladly accepted most difficult conditions in the old hospital for the sake of her husband’s work.


Soon after my arrival in Kong Chuen I heard this story about Dr. John, and it reveals, I think, something of the secret of his life. The story goes that during the early period of Dr. John's service in the Poon Yue district, when the Hospital was situated in the Ko Tong market, one day a patient was waiting in the Operating Theatre, with the nurses all "scrubbed up" awaiting only the surgeon's arrival. The nurses included Dr. John's wife, red-headed, Irish Sister Norah Kirk - a grand person. After waiting some time, Mrs. John marched upstairs to find out what was detaining her husband. She found Dr. John on his knees beside his bed, committing the patient and all concerned into the loving Hands of the One from whom Dr. John received his directions and guidance. As my informant ended the story she asked, "What could she do?"

Shall I ever forget the numerous occasions on which I have seen Mrs. John marching determinedly down the compound from her house to the Hospital in an effort to draw Dr. John from his absorption in work to his meals!! He was devoted to his work, and such things as meals for himself took a very secondary place in his thoughts.

Printed in the PCNZ magazine ‘Outlook’, 1962, after her death

From her brother-in-law, Dr. Edward Kirk (John’s younger brother who also worked for the Canton Villages Mission - CVM).

“What an amazing life she had lived. We know the hard work she did in the early days at the little hospital at Ko Tong and then at Kong Chuen. The Nurse Training School was founded and how well she trained those girls, who worked so valiantly under Norah’s direction.

Helping the Doctor

It was characteristic of her whole life that, when she wrote about her early experiences on the mission field, she should have headed it “Helping the Doctor”, for she regarded her main task to be to safeguard her husband, who was so selfless in his devotion to his patients, that he constantly needed her devotion to his welfare.

Those who knew her as a missionary colleague gratefully remembered her loyal wise friendship, her practical good sense, her delightful Irish wit and the generous spirit in which she lived out her strong Christian faith."

Compiled by Ian W

March 2024

Norah's entry in Mildmay's register of nurses


We are grateful to Norah’s grandson, Ian W, for the invaluable contribution of his grandmother’s story and archival materials to the Mildmay collection. Thanks to his generosity, future generations can learn about Norah’s remarkable life and dedication to serving others.