For most people, the word “courage” brings to mind images of soldiers charging enemy-held positions and firefighters rescuing children from burning buildings. Seldom is it associated with tall, solidly built women who go about their business with little fanfare.
The life of Louise Clara Preston, Registered Nurse, is a testament that courage comes in different forms. While she likely did not consider herself a hero, Miss Preston—as she preferred to be called—was in her quiet way every bit as brave as Canada’s most decorated servicemen.
We would know little about Miss Preston if not for her nephew, Dr. Preston Robb. In the early 1990s, Robb discovered a box of letters and other materials Clara had written over the years, and decided her story was worth telling. The resulting book, entitled Flowers Amongst the Debris: A Biography, gives us a glimpse into this woman and her extraordinary life.
Born March 23, 1891, in Boisevain, Manitoba, Clara was the fourth child of industrialist William Preston and his wife, Elizabeth Jeffrey. The family hailed from Brantford, Ontario, and moved back to Stratford not long after Clara’s younger brother was born.
The Prestons had money, and Clara wanted for little during her childhood. She loved to dance and attend parties, and was active in the Presbyterian Church. She wasn’t a snobby rich kid, though, and learned the importance of service from her parents, both of whom were active in the community.
When she was still young, Clara attended a lecture given by Dr. Daisy Macklin, a local physician who had served four years as a medical missionary in China during the Boxer Rebellion. The event, held during a snowstorm, had a profound effect on the young girl.
Her dream, from that moment, was to become a nurse and enter “the foreign field.”
Near the end of the First World War, Clara applied to nursing school at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Much to her disappointment, there was a long waitlist for the program, so she took a bookkeeping course at the local community college instead.
It was during this period that Miss Preston first showed a willingness to put herself in harm’s way for the sake of others.
Pen friends in England, Clara said, told her of a strange epidemic sweeping the countryside. The mysterious illness arrived in Canada not long after, and laid entire families low.
Despite her lack of medical training, Clara volunteered to work with those stricken with the 1918 flu. She visited many families, helping when and where she could, staying with her charges for hours or days. On some nights, her bed was three chairs shoved together in someone’s kitchen.
The woman from Stratford entered nursing school in Montreal not long after. In the fall of 1922, after graduating from Royal Victoria as a registered nurse, she became a missionary and was assigned to a hospital in the Chinese province of Honan (now Hunan).
She took a train to Vancouver, and there boarded a steamship for the ocean voyage. Crossing the Pacific was not one of her life’s highlights. She became violently seasick within hours of leaving port, and stayed that way through much of the journey. It caused her to doubt the choice she had made.
Clara got another wakeup call when she landed in China. Her first trip ashore in Kiukiang (now Jiujiang) gave her an indication of the poverty and deprivation faced by most of the country’s citizens.
“We walked up the street, the centre of attention, but instead of seeing the many interesting sights, we saw the blind groping along, children’s scalps covered in sores, the lame hobbling along, mothers carrying children who were dirty and suffering from malnutrition,” she wrote. “We went back to the boat. Mrs. King wept and I vomited most of the evening.”
After a riverboat ride and a short train trip, Clara arrived in Changte (now Anyang), an ancient city with a population of approximately a hundred thousand at the time. The United Church of Canada operated two hospitals there, and Clara’s new home was a walled compound about ten minutes from the city’s main train station. The mission’s medical staff (two doctors, eight graduate nurses, and twenty student nurses) were responsible for more than a hundred patients.
Clara served in Changte hospital for several years, and spent much of her time in the children’s ward. While she adjusted well to her surroundings, and even learned to speak Mandarin, it was a time of great change in China. Citizens were growing increasingly disenchanted with colonial forces, and several political factions (including Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party) were fighting for control of the country.
The Chinese people suffered, as the poor and oppressed usually do during times of political upheaval. As a missionary nurse, Clara witnessed their misery. Letters written to her friends and family in the late 1920s described the deprivations inflicted on her long-suffering patients.
For their first few years “in-country,” Clara and her colleagues were insulated from the turmoil. But by the spring of 1927, she said, “you could feel unrest and tension in the air.”
In April, Clara and her colleagues in Changte were ordered to leave. She joined the flood of refugees heading north, escaped through Manchuria and Korea, and returned to Canada. After taking another nursing course at McGill and working for two years in London, Ontario, she returned to Changte in November 1931.
Clara’s second stint as a missionary lasted six years and was equally tumultuous. She was on holiday when war broke out between China and the invading Japanese army in July 1937. Cut off from Changte by the war, she worked for several months in another Chinese hospital before going home to Canada a second time.
Two years later, in 1939, she was back. By this time, the Japanese controlled Changte, and Westerners were no longer welcome. The Japanese went out of their way to make life difficult for missionaries, fomenting anti-British demonstrations in the city and restricting supplies. Church officials tried negotiating, but it was pointless.
Most of the missionaries left after the Japanese threatened them with grievous bodily harm. Not Clara. She and two of her colleagues stayed, barricading themselves in the mission compound each night as violence in the city increased.
When supplies inside the hospital began to run out, Clara took it upon herself to find more.
“One family of our hospital staff lived in the next yard to the hospital, and each night after dark, I locked up the dog, took a stool, a basket, and a rope, and went to the east wall [of the compound],” she wrote. “I put the rope over the wall and wriggled it, and if they were alone, they would respond. Each night, they had milk for the next day, and letters that had come, and any supplies that we were in need of. I pulled these up in the basket. I was always relieved when this chore was done for the night.”
The stoicism displayed by the remaining missionaries infuriated the Japanese. A few nights later, the army requisitioned kindling from people in the neighbourhood and set fire to the mission gates. When Clara, undeterred, organized a bucket brigade, the Japanese responded by lobbing hand grenades into the compound.
Negotiations between the missionaries and occupying Japanese eventually collapsed. Clara ended up in Peking (Beijing), where she worked at Yenching University until the Women’s Missionary Society transferred her to Western China in July 1940.
Stratford’s wandering nurse spent the war years in Chungking, where she worked at a large mission hospital. She experienced her first air raid the day she arrived, and spent a good portion of the next fourteen months caring for patients and running for the city’s bomb shelters.
Stress and poor living conditions took their toll on Clara. In January 1943, after doctors told her it would be at least two years before she could “work again or take much responsibility,” she decided to return to Canada. After a brief furlough, she accepted a nursing position in Northern Ontario.
The posting kept Clara busy, but her thoughts were elsewhere. She returned to China for a final time in 1946.
Her last overseas tour of duty was as event-filled as the earlier ones. She worked at the mission hospital in Weiwei under appalling conditions. Food, medicine, and other essentials were in short supply, and Mao Tse Tung’s communist guerillas were regularly sabotaging critical infrastructure.
In March 1947, China’s civil war finally reached Weiwei, forcing Clara to return to Canada. After visiting with family, she was transferred to the Women’s Missionary Hospital in Burns Lake, where she served as matron until her retirement in May 1952.
Most locals expected her to leave Burns Lake because her surviving family members were all in Ontario and she had never married. She proved everyone wrong. Despite her declining health, she built a house on Third Avenue near the United Church and continued to serve the community as a volunteer. She was a member of so many organizations between 1953 and 1959 that her name appears in almost every edition of the Review newspaper.
Miss Preston made an impression on everyone who met her. “[She] had the ability to earn the devotion and love of those she worked with,” said one local woman.
Eunice Patterson Keefe, also a nursing graduate of Royal Victoria Hospital, worked with Clara in Burns Lake for a time. She described the older woman as a “ mother hen” who did her best to look after everyone in the facility.
“She gave her best to everything and everyone in the hospital and in the church. Whatever emotional crises any of us were experiencing, whether in love or falling out of it, she cared and was genuinely happy for us when we were happy. I have always said Miss Preston was a spinster, never an old maid.”
On the afternoon of December 5, 1959, Miss Preston visited seniors in the rest home on Gerow Island. After spending several hours with them and speaking briefly to resident Fred Stanyer, she decided to walk home.
She never made it. The woman who had devoted her life to helping others suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died in W. M. S. Hospital shortly before six o’clock that night. She was sixty-eight.
The community mourned her passing and gave generously to a memorial fund established in her name. The initiative generated enough money to furnish a chapel in Burns Lake’s third hospital.
Clara, who devoted her life to community service, would have approved.