It was late evening when Ann Evans answered a knock at the door of her little Hāwera home. Her children were fast asleep in bed as she opened the door to find a group of Māori on her porch. A man stepped forward and asked her to accompany them to treat a sick friend. Unquestioningly she agreed.

Wrapping a shawl around her shoulders and grasping her medical bag tightly in her hand she mounted a horse and followed the group through the little township, and out into the mist covered fields of the surrounding farms.

By the gurgling Waingongoro River Ann was blindfolded with a piece of cloth and her horse was led into the bush. At last, after a long walk, the blindfold was removed and Ann found herself in a bush clearing. In front of her, lying seriously ill on a stretcher was the mighty warrior Titokowaru, now an outlawed resistance leader hiding from the Armed Constabulary.

Ann Evans was a brave and determined woman who didn't shy from adventure. She nursed in the Crimean War alongside Florence Nightingale, travelled to New Zealand alone and single-handedly brought up her family. But who was this woman who did not shy away from Titokowaru - a man claimed as one of the most successful opponents of the British Empire?

Nursing calls

Ann Clive was born on 12 November 1832, into a world of ‘genteel accomplishment’. She lived comfortably in the industrial city of Birmingham, England. But at the age of 18 Ann gave this world up - choosing instead to pursue a life as a nurse. Nursing was still a relatively new career option in the mid-19th Century - the idea of training women to care for the sick had been introduced by Germany in 1836.

Ann's timing was perfect - in 1854 the Crimean War began when Britain and France joined forces to help protect Turkey from the Russians. But those wounded on the battlefield faced an even bigger fight when they got to the hospitals in Scutari (now Üsküdar). Conditions for the sick and wounded were appalling. The hospitals were dirty, smelly, rat infested, and lacked basic requirements. There was no soap, no towels, no nurses - just untrained orderlies who had to do their best to tend to the sick and wounded in trying conditions. In the two-year war more British troops died of disease than were killed in action.

A lady of the lamp

Florence Nightingale, also a newly trained nurse, heard of the appalling conditions and vowed to help in whatever way she could. Ann heard of her plans and, along with 37 other nurses, joined forces with Florence and set off for Turkey to improve conditions and care for the wounded and dying men in Scutari.

The women arrived on 4 November 1854 - the day before the Battle of Inkerman and did not even have time to unpack before wounded men began pouring in the hospital doors and they had to begin the gargantuan task of caring for them all. Britain suffered over 2000 casualties in that battle alone, it was said that ‘miles’ of beds were filled with wounded and dying men that day. The 39 nurses had to care for them as best they could.

In an interview with the Whanganui Chronicle in March 1913, Ann recalled Christmas 1854, when “soldiers, nurses and everyone else” was half starved. They were reduced to rations of just three ships biscuits a day.

Men were dying by the hundreds for want of food and adequate clothing - yet just offshore in the Black Sea, ships were laden with "every comfort that could be desired" said Ann. "Miss Nightingale went down to the commissioner and said to him 'My men are dying by the hundreds for want of food and clothing.' Before an hour had passed mule loads of comforts were brought in." Such was the respect for Florence Nightingale.

Words could not express, Ann told the Chronicle reporter, the generosity, goodness and beauty of that woman's actions. While the others, including Ann, remained anonymous, Florence Nightingale was to become immortalised as ‘a lady with a lamp’ in a poem by Longfellow. Florence and her nurses struggled to introduce basic hygiene and patient management to the hospitals, comforted the dying and brought in new ideas of convalescence for the living.

Ann told the Whanganui Chronicle that the Crimean War “would stand as a blemish to England” in that she was unprepared when war broke out.

New Zealand calls

After the war Ann gained work as a relieving nurse but could not settle in England. Perhaps her home country seemed dull after the trials of war, maybe she wanted more than the genteel life that stretched before her.

Whatever the reason, in 1862, against her father's wishes, she joined the throng of emigrants heading to New Zealand. She had big plans to set up a hospital in the little colony. But when the John Duncan berthed at Dunedin in February 1863 Ann discovered that inflated costs meant she could not afford to set up her dream hospital - she had to abandon her plans. She was in dire straits and quickly running out of money when she was offered a job as a housemaid for a Queenstown farmer. Years later she told a reporter for the Whanganui Chronicle how surprised she was to find her pay was £34 a year - as a nurse in England she had received only £10 and two dresses a year.

On 22 September, later that year, Ann married Thomas Evans, a painter, at St Paul's Church in Dunedin. They settled in Napier for six years before moving to Whanganui. The couple had five children: Katie, Sarah, William, Charles and Mary.

It's here that things get a little murky - one version of the story adds a twist. It is said that Ann and her family, along with other townspeople were forced to flee for their lives across the rolling sand dunes at Whanganui when Māori forces lead by Titokowaru attacked the settlement. Ann was later to meet the warrior himself in very different circumstances.

Life in Whanganui was good, but it came to a slow and painful end. As a painter Thomas often came home covered in paint, he inadvertently breathed in the fumes and inhaled paint dust. Lead was a primary ingredient in paint manufacture and it wasn't long before he was suffering from lead poisoning. As well as raising five children, Ann now had to nurse her husband. He died on 25 October 1871. The couple's youngest child was just two months old.

Ann the doctor

In 1872 Ann loaded her five children and the household goods onto a wagon and rode north to Waihi, the Armed Constabulary camp situated near today's town of Normanby. Military life was something Ann knew well, and the family settled in easily to their new home.

To begin with she ran a store, but as there was no doctor between Pātea and New Plymouth, her skills as a nurse were soon required. ‘Ann the Doctor’, as she became known in south Taranaki, cared for injured and sick soldiers, settlers and Ngāti Ruanui, and acted as midwife to many expectant mothers. Years later she told the Whanganui Chronicle that during her time at Waihi the family “never wanted for potatoes or pigs thanks to the generosity of the local people”.

As a nurse she felt duty bound to help those in need - going out in all weathers, late at night, often travelling long distances on horseback. As a regular, and respected, face along many of the bush tracks in south Taranaki, Ann often carried money for settlers to the Bank of New Zealand in Pātea, before an agency was opened in Hāwera.

It's here another story of Ann's bravery and courage appears: early one morning, while riding to a seriously ill patient, the nurse was stopped in the Manawapou Valley by two men, obviously intent on robbing the lone woman. Recognising her, one of the men exclaimed ‘It's Nurse Evans!’ ‘Yes it is,’ she answered. ‘And you know what I always carry. Touch me and I'll blow your brains out!’ She rode on unharmed, no doubt breathing a sigh of relief as the only weapon she carried was a riding crop.

Nursing a wanted man

In the late 1870s, Ann was thrown from her horse, badly breaking her arm. The Evans family moved their house and its contents into the little township of Hāwera where they settled on High Street and Ann set up a boarding house. Ann had plans to set up Hāwera's first hospital with a Dr Cole - but that didn't eventuate.

It's in Hāwera that she was approached by a group of Māori to treat a sick man whom she later discovered was outlawed resistance leader Titokowaru. The chief was a wanted man - he had a £1000 bounty on his head - so the nurse was blindfolded and led by the hand to his hiding place near Te Ngutu o te Manu. During the six to eight weeks Ann was nursing him and others, regular messages and gifts of food were delivered to her family.

The story goes that when Titokowaru recovered he thanked Ann for what she had done and handed her some folded notes. It was £100. ‘I don't want it,’ she said. ‘Take it,’ replied the chief. ‘My life is worth more than that!’

As doctors set up practice in Hāwera and around south Taranaki, Ann's services were less in demand. In 1894 Granny Evans, as she was known, gave up the boarding house and her nursing and opened tea rooms at the Hāwera Railway Station. With the help of one of her daughters, she served weary travellers with tea and scones.

A remarkable reunion

In February 1901 Neville Thornton stepped off a train and came face to face with Ann Evans the woman who had nursed him back to health 46 years before. Neville had been seriously injured in the storming of Sevastopol in the Crimea, after planting the British flag on top of the walls of Sevastopol. Picked up the next day from among the thousands of dead and dying men he was taken to the hospital at Scutari. Over six months Ann nursed him back to health. Neville was awarded the Silver Cross of the Legion of Honour by Napoleon III for his actions.

The meeting at Hāwera was purely by chance - Neville had travelled from his home in Whanganui to paint the scenery for the Hāwera Dramatic Society's forthcoming production. The pair resumed their friendship that they had left nearly 50 years before.

Granny Evans died on 4 July 1916 after living a remarkable life serving the sick and suffering. She was buried in the Hāwera Cemetery.

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