Ina Nellie COSTER (1880-1958)
Ina Nellie Coster (1880-1958), known as Nellie, was the niece of Elizabeth Letitia Sladden (née Coster) who was married to Julius Sladden’s elder brother, Dilnot. Nellie Coster is referred to in two letters written by her cousin, Dolly Sladden, in reference to her nursing and surviving the sinking of the Marquette in 1915.
Nellie Coster was born at South Canterbury on the South Island of New Zealand on 26th September 1880, one of eight children of Edward Stafford Coster (1843-1914) and his wife, Agnes. Her father, known as Stafford, was the younger brother of Elizabeth Letitia Sladden. Born in Castle Cary, Somerset, he had emigrated to New Zealand in 1859 to join his older brother, Lewis. In 1865 he bought a sheep farm near Mount Hutt which he called Blackford Station (after the area of Somerset where he had come from). He married Agnes Cecil Henty in 1877, who was the sister of his brother Lewis’ wife, Jane.
Nellie commenced nurse training at Dunedin Hospital in 1903, completing her finals in December 1907. Before the war, she nursed in Invercargill and Nelson.
Nellie began service with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service Corps on 19th May 1915. She sailed from Wellington to Sydney in the Marama leaving on 21st May 1915 en route to Egypt to serve in military hospitals - this was the first contingent of nurses to be sent by the Government for service in Europe.
On arrival in Egypt, Nellie was one of the nurses given duty in Port Said on the staff of No 1 Stationary Hospital. It was decided to send the staff of this hospital to Salonika in Greece, nearer one of the war fronts; they set sail from Egypt on the transport ship SS Marquette in mid October 1915. On 23rd October 1915 the infant New Zealand Army Nursing Service suffered its greatest ever disaster, then or since when a torpedo struck the Marquette as it steamed into the Gulf of Salonika. This led to the death of the loss of 167, including ten nurses and to great feats of bravery by the 26 surviving nurses. Just as the ship was on the brink of sinking, four nurses were still on the Marquette’s deck. Two of these were Nellie Coster and Mabel Wright who had been helping two sick orderlies onto the gangway and missed their own chance of getting off the sinking Marquette. They were sucked down with the ship but surfaced and both were rescued.
After recuperation at a hotel in Alexandria, the beginning of February 1916 saw Nellie on the hospital ship Gascon, which included four other nurses who were Marquette survivors.
On 27 July, 1916, Nellie was Gazetted a Sister. In August 1916 she was working on the hospital ship Glengorm Castle and then from December 1916 she was transferred to No 1 General Hospital, Brockenhurst where she stayed for 20 months.
On 8th August 1918, Nellie set sail for New Zealand on the SS Paparoa, which was returning officers and men, most of them invalided, to New Zealand. On arrival back home, Nellie was posted to the New Zealand Army Nursing Service Temporary Reserve.
Nellie remained living in Nelson for the rest of her life. She died on 10th January 1958; her ashes were buried in her parents’ plot at Wakapuaka Cemetery, Nelson.
Further information about Nellie Coster’s life may be found on the New Zealand Society of Genealogists Nelson branch website. An article in “Nursing Review” gives an account of the Marquette tragedy.
Just as in Badsey, England, performances have been held in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to read some of the Sladden letters written a hundred years earlier, so in Nelson, New Zealand, a production called “Head above Water” was performed in 2015, being a dialogue between Nellie Coster and the Mayoress of Nelson in 1915.