Upper: The nurses crossing the swamps of the Pungwe River on the journey from Beira.

Lower: Arriving at Beira and the building of the hospital at Penhalonga.

Motif: Wild Clematis.

Embroidered by the Penhalonga Women's Institute.


There is scarcely an account of the early days of Umtali which does not pay tribute to three nursing sisters who ministered there to the sick from July 1891 to May 1893.

After the occupation of Mashonaland and Manicaland, Bishop Knight-Bruce engaged two nursing sisters, Blennerhassett and Sleeman, who had been employed at Kimberley, to work in one of the Chartered Company’s hospitals. The Bishop advised them to enter Manicaland from Beira and the two sisters sailed from Cape Town on 21 April 1891. They were joined at Durban by Sister Welby and disembarked at Beira on 26 May 1891. The sisters then went by launch up the Pungwe River to Mpanda’s and on 30 June set out on foot to walk the 140 miles of wild uncharted country to Umtali.

The journey along native paths was undertaken in appalling weather conditions, their porters deserted them and Sister Sleeman went down with a severe attack of malaria. On 14 July they reached Sabi Ophir Hill where Bishop Knight-Bruce was awaiting them. The local community had need of their services: at the time members of the disbanded Pioneer Column were building a settlement at Old Umtali while 200 police were camped nearby at Penhalonga.

As soon as they could the sisters opened up a hut as a hospital. Its furnishings consisted of two or three iron spoons, two tin mugs, a few jars of meat extract, and a packet of maize flour. Luckily the police presented the sisters with a table, chairs, candlesticks and a bath, while some rough pallet beds were constructed. The first patient was admitted on 26 September 1891; two weeks later Mr. Rhodes visited the hospital and at once wrote out a cheque for £150 to buy medical comforts.

A move to a new hospital capable of taking thirty patients was made in December 1891 and there the sisters worked until their two-year appointment ended in May 1893.

The tapestry depicts the original huts on Sabi Ophir Hill, beside an old figtree which has now disappeared. A plaque was set up in 1941 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the nurses’ arrival and a memorial garden has been planted around it.


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