May 7, 2020, by Richard Bates

Nursing Lives in the Crimean War

This post comes courtesy of Darcie Mawby, a second year PhD student at the University of Nottingham working on gender, conflict and identity in women’s accounts of the Crimean War, c. 1854–56. It is based on recent research conducted at the National Archives in Kew.

[Crimean War. Women nurses tending wounded soldiers as “woman’s mission”. Lithograph by J. A. Vinter, 1854, after H. Barraud. Wellcome Collection.]

It’s rare to hear about the lives of many Crimean war nurses. Even in the most recent publications, such as Carol Helmstadter’s Beyond Nightingale (2019), most highlighted accounts are those of nurses from early training institutions such as St John’s House, members of religious nursing sisterhoods, or lady nurses – plus of course the exceptional example of Mary Seacole. But there are 218 women listed on the register of “Nurses sent to the Military Hospitals in the East”, and hundreds more applied. Who were they? What motivated them to become nurses? What were their social backgrounds? The file of nursing applications, held at the National Archives in Kew, contains an abundance of fascinating stories that provide insight into the daily lives of nineteenth-century women and nurses.

Florence Nightingale left England with thirty-eight nurses in October 1854, heading for the hospital at Scutari Barracks in Constantinople. Newspaper advertisements were placed soon after by Lady Canning and Elizabeth Herbert – well-connected figures who knew Nightingale from serving on the committee of the Establishment for Gentlewomen During Illness, which Nightingale ran in 1853–54 – to organise further parties to serve in other newly established hospitals in Constantinople and the Crimea.

Applications flooded in. They came from women of all ages and classes, from all over Britain, Ireland, and beyond – there was a letter full of patriotic sentiment from Isabel Braide, a British woman living in New Orleans, who begged to be sent as a nurse. There were also occasional applications from men to work as cooks, doctors, or chaplains. The applicants’ motives varied. Some cited Christian and patriotic duty; some wanted to put their past experience of nursing, travel, or military life to good use; and some took the opportunity to appeal to the ladies’ benevolence for assistance. One woman, Mary Ann Brown, in her letter asking to be hired, recounted the mistreatment and desertion she and her children suffered at her husband’s hands.

Applicants had to meet certain criteria, and no nurse was sent without training. Many lower-class women who were appointed were experienced in hospital work. Susan Cator, for example, had worked at the London Hospital for eleven years. She was a senior nurse in the surgical ward when she was appointed to go to the warzone in August 1855. Despite the emphasis on experience, “character” was at least as important in the selection process. Nursing as a profession in general, and paid nurses in particular, had a negative reputation in the 1850s. No woman was sent who was not deemed “respectable”, a status ascertained through multiple references – from medical professionals or clergymen, if possible – and an interview with the overseeing ladies. Sobriety, good temper, activity, and honesty were especially valued. Cator nearly lost out on her appointment when an old accusation against her of drunkenness came to light. She was redeemed when multiple colleagues leapt to her defence, stating that a disgruntled former nurse had falsely accused her. Another woman, Mary Anne Fabian, was less fortunate. When she arrived at the train station acting strangely on the morning of her planned departure for Constantinople, she was dismissed immediately for intoxication. She wrote to explain that the impression of drunkenness had been caused by toothache remedies she had taken, but it was too late – the ship she should have been on had sailed, taking her luggage with it. Given that the medicines Fabian used were chloroform and brandy, it’s no wonder she acted out of sorts!

Extract of a “Testimonials Form” for Mary Anne Boyer Davies, who worked at Koulali Hospital April–June 1855. National Archives, Nurses Testimonials, WO 25/264/844. Of interest are the desired character traits – sober, honest, cleanly, active, intelligent, good-tempered – and the note: “N.B.—This Form being general, some of the above questions will be of course inapplicable to Ladies volunteering to serve as Nurses”.

Personal circumstances were also a consideration. Women in their twenties were consistently deemed “too young”; they were too inexperienced and innocent for work in a military hospital and considered to pose too much temptation to soldiers. Many women applied to be nurses to be nearer to husbands, brothers, or sons serving at the front. Only four soldiers’ wives were accepted: three as nurses, one as Nightingale’s housekeeper. Notes written on the unsuccessful application of Anne Adams, whose husband was in the 28th Regiment, hint why there were so few: “we have been obliged to decline sending soldiers’ wives from the jealousy of their husbands & the quarrels it entails”. Such personal attachments could directly complicate the work and reputation of the nursing mission. One nurse, Martha Clough, earned notoriety after she ran away from the General Hospital in Balaclava to join the field hospital of the Highland Brigade, apparently in order to find the 79th Highlanders, the regiment of her love interest. Clough herself later succumbed to disease; one of thirteen registered nurses to die while serving.

Note on the unsuccessful application of Mrs Millington, aged 22: “much too young & pretty & totally unfit”. National Archives, Nurses Testimonials, WO 25/264/2386

Reputation was a constant concern. In the wake of Nightingale’s departure, nursing wounded soldiers was deemed by many who wished to follow her example to be one of the most noble of Christian causes. This is the image of Crimean War nursing that was quickly picked up by the popular press, and that is remembered today. However, female military nurses were considered an experiment, and Victorian social concerns imposed rigid constraints. Not only was there a backlash against nurses’ presence in military hospitals from many doctors, but applicants could face disapproval from their families. For this reason Mary Munro, a trained nurse who was ultimately sent to Smyrna Hospital, hid her application from friends and family – one of many to do this. Elizabeth Eager – another trained nurse – was convinced to withdraw her application by her sisters, who vehemently opposed the idea of her working in a military hospital.

Emily Kingston: Case Study of a Nottingham Nurse

While transcribing these applications there was one that stood out. I came across the name of the building housing my own History department at the University of Nottingham, “Lenton Grove”. I hadn’t given any thought to the history of Lenton Grove – a listed eighteenth-century building – so imagine my surprise when the name cropped up on an application from Emily Kingston, who lived there in the 1850s.

Lenton Grove, now on the University of Nottingham main campus, May 2020. Kingston’s old house has been converted into academic staff offices. Photo: Darcie Mawby.

Kingston, a middle-class woman of 32, wrote to Elizabeth Herbert in December 1854 that,

it has been for a long time past my earnest desire to join the nurses sent out to the Hospitals in the East, and having obtained my mother’s sanction to my so doing, I take the Liberty of addressing you to inquire if any additional nurses will be sent out”.

Kingston stated her willingness to submit to rules, mentioned her good health and that she “had some experience in sick rooms”. She also named respectable gentlemen as references, including Adjutant General Sir George Wetherall, and two uncles, both reverends. All proved favourable, as Kingston was sent to Smyrna Hospital in March 1855.

Her willingness to learn was important. Promising applicants lacking in experience were given training in London hospitals or at St John’s House, though there was little uniformity in this. Emily Kingston had already entered the hospital in Nottingham when she made her application in December, and so had several months’ preparation by the time she left for the war zone. Another woman, Mary Tattersall, had only just begun her training at Westminster Hospital when Kingston departed, but was herself sent out a mere three weeks later.

Emily Kingston’s character was noted on the register of nurses to be “exemplary and well suited in every way”, and one of her reference letters described her as “one in one thousand”. Her age and circumstances also worked in her favour. As an unmarried, middle-class woman of 32, Kingston could devote her time to charitable causes. She, like other “ladies”, gave her services gratuitously, but she also made application on behalf of her family’s cook, Anne Suter, aged 35, to go as a paid nurse. In doing so, Emily drew attention to Anne’s own nature as “perfectly respectable, sober, trustworthy, an excellent cook and a truly kindhearted and good tempered woman”. Suter was engaged as a cook at Smyrna Hospital, and her salary of 16 shillings per week – higher than the meagre 10 shillings for nurses – testifies to the truth of Kingston’s words.

Kingston and Suter fulfilled, in two different ways, the lady organisers’ aim to recruit the “right class” of nurse. Unquestioned superiority was given to the more inexperienced women of higher social rank, like Kingston, whose moral character was deemed sufficient qualification for them to preside over the paid nurses. Although those paid nurses were vetted, not all were appreciated like Suter. A number of the nurses from St John’s House, who went in the first party, were dismissed for “incompetency” as military nurses.

letter by Emily Kingston showing address as Lenton Grove

Letter by Emily Kingston, National Archives, Nurses Testimonials, WO 25/264/1995

There was far more diversity among Crimean War nurses and applicants than I have outlined here, and certainly more than the popular image of Florence Nightingale and the lady nurses suggests. The selection and work of military nurses were fraught with Victorian concerns about class, propriety, and female morality. But the nursing mission also provided an unprecedented opportunity for women to train, work, and travel for a good cause. Emily Kingston worked at Smyrna Hospital until it was “broken up” in December 1855, as the war neared its end. Anne Suter continued to work until May 1856, after peace had been declared. They, like numerous other women from housemaids to noblemen’s daughters, sought rewarding work and new experiences in nursing.

Sources and Further Reading:

The National Archives, Nurses Testimonials, WO 25/264.

British Library, Charlotte Canning Correspondence, Papers Relating to the Crimean War, Mss Eur F699/2/3.

British Library, Nightingale Papers, Vol. X, Add MS 43402.

Florence Nightingale Museum, Nurses sent to the Military Hospitals in the East (display item).

London Metropolitan Archives, Letters Relating to Nurses from St John’s House, H01/ST/NC/03/SU/A.

Helmstadter, Carol, Beyond Nightingale: Nursing on the Crimean War Battlefields (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).

Helmstadter, Carol and Godden, Judith, Nursing Before Nightingale, 1815–1899 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).

McDonald, Lynn, Florence Nightingale: The Crimean War: The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, Vol. 14 (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010).

Summers, Anne, Angels and Citizens : British Women as Military Nurses, 1854–1914 (London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988).

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