Ann Evans worked as a midwife and nurse in the Whanganui and South Taranaki regions, reaching her patients by horseback and foot, crossing flooded rivers, slogging through dense bush and enduring harsh weather.

Young Ann, nee Clive, was a born nurse. She was in the first party of nurses who served with Florence Nightingale, nursing the wounded and ill during the Crimean War of 1854-1856. While most nurses who served in Crimea remained unknown, Nightingale was immortalised as "The Lady of the Lamp", and was to become the face of nursing.

In an interview with the Wanganui Chronicle in March 1913, Ann Evans expressed great respect for Nightingale. She is quoted as saying, "Words could not express the generosity, goodness and beauty of that woman's actions".

Evans migrated to New Zealand in 1863 and the same year married Thomas Evans, a painter, in Dunedin. The couple moved to Napier and then to Whanganui. They had five children: Katie, Sarah, William, Charles and Mary.

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Thomas died in 1871, leaving Ann with no immediate means of support for herself and her children, the youngest of whom was only 2 months old. She moved her family to the main Armed Constabulary camp at Waihi in Taranaki, where her skills as a nurse and midwife were quickly recognised. She became known as "Ann the Doctor", or "Dr Ann". In the 1870s the family lived in Hāwera where, later in the decade, she opened a boarding house.

On one occasion she was taken by toa (Māori warriors) to tend Tītokowaru, the famous Māori resistance fighter of the New Zealand Wars, then living as an outlaw. He was suffering from pneumonia and Dr Ann successfully nursed him back to health over a period of several weeks. She had been blindfolded when she was taken to her patient and she kept her visit secret for many years. It was thought Māori women looked after Ann's children during her absence from them.

In 1894 Ann Evans, with one of her daughters, opened tearooms at Hāwera Railway Station.

The original ticket that won the prize of a tapestry stitched by Ann Evans.
The original ticket that won the prize of a tapestry stitched by Ann Evans.

In 1916, Evans stitched a large tapestry, intending it as a prize in an Art Union raffle, to be drawn on September 21 of that year. The piece was described as a "Handsome Hand-worked Wool Picture", and the proceeds of the raffle were to aid the Wounded Soldiers' Fund organised by the Hawera Patriotic Committee.

An Art Union was a legal lottery where prizes were restricted to art works, mechanical models and mineral specimens (particularly gold). This was one of many fundraisers during World War I to provide comforts for sick and wounded servicemen.

Dr Ann had survived into old age, still putting others first. She died on July 4, 1916, before the raffle was drawn.

In the 2005 film River Queen there are some parallels between actress Samantha Morton's film character Sarah O'Brien and Ann Evans, who found herself, like Sarah, on both sides of the turbulent wars between British and Māori.

* Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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