Florence Nightingale’s Hampshire links
- Credit: Getty Images
As emergency hospitals bearing her name open across the UK, we remember a Romsey woman who transformed Victorian nursing care.
May 2020 will see the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale.
Living for 90 years she was to find fame as the “Lady with the Lamp”, mother of modern nursing and architect of the British Army’s reformed medical service.
Born into a wealthy family, with homes in Derbyshire and Hampshire (at Embley Park near Romsey) the early years were very comfortable for Florence and her older sister. The family enjoyed a typical upper-class lifestyle, socialising with a wide circle of friends and relations. Once into her teens, however, Florence tired of the routine and constant letter writing, recording in her diary: “I craved for some regular occupation, for something worth doing instead of frittering away time on useless trifles.”
In 1837 Mrs Nightingale decided Embley was too small for her social ambitions. Plans were drawn up for major conversion and the family decided to tour Europe for the duration of the building work. It was during this busy period that Florence recorded in a private note: “On February 7 1837 God spoke to me and called me to His service.” No indication was given as to what form that service would take but she felt at ease, knowing she would find her calling.
Five years later Florence had the first indication of where her calling would take her. While in Derbyshire she visited a rural village and recorded: “In the black filth of rural cottages all the people I see are eaten up with care, poverty or disease.” She knew her destiny lay among the miserable of the world.
In the summer of 1845 she gained her first practical experience of nursing, caring first for her grandmother in Derbyshire then for the old family nurse at Embley, before taking an active part in nearby Wellow during a period of unusual and extensive sickness. That convinced her that professional nursing training was necessary.
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Over the following years she taught herself the theory and science of nursing, visiting hospitals in London and Europe, researching all she could on health and hygiene. Her work was opposed by her family who thought nursing: “Unsuitable for a lady.”
In 1853, on the recommendation of influential friends, she found a full-time nursing post as superintendent of a medical facility in London. There she might have stayed, channelling her prodigious energies into training nurses and lobbying Parliament for improvements in areas of public health, hygiene and sanitation, but for the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854.
Early reports from war correspondents, particularly William Russell from The Times, drew unfavourable comparisons between the appalling medical neglect suffered by British casualties and the superior care for the French allies. “Their medical arrangements are extremely good, their surgeons more numerous and they have the help of the Sisters of Charity.” A letter to The Times asked: “Why have we no Sisters of Charity?”
Florence’s friend and neighbour Lord Palmerston (who lived at Broadlands in Romsey) raised the issue in Parliament and secured government funding for a team of nurses in the Crimea. When it came to deciding who should select and lead them another close friend, Sidney Herbert, then Secretary at War, wrote to Florence in October: “There is but one person in England who would be capable of organising such a scheme”.
Florence gathered a team over several weeks and the entourage reached Turkey in November 1854. She was accompanied by two close female friends, ten nuns, 14 Anglican Sisters and 14 experienced hospital nurses. The resident Army doctors resented the “interfering amateurs” but their objections were overruled at a higher level.
The Scutari hospital, established in former barracks loaned by the Turkish army, presented the team with “four miles of rotting floorboards covered with straw mattresses, open sewers running through and rampaging vermin.” All this before they could start to pick their way through rows of sick and wounded men crammed side-by-side into every hint of floor space.
Wounded troops in the hospital had only a slightly better than 50 per cent chance of survival, with the ratio of five deaths from disease to one from wounds. Improvements in sanitation and hygiene instigated by Florence reduced the death rate to nearer two per cent but the ratio remained the same.
Florence worked in the wards by day then at night worked by lamplight, writing letters for the patients and reports to her political allies in London. When she returned from the Crimea in 1856 Florence was a popular heroine. She was shrewd enough to take advantage of this. She raised £50,000 by public subscriptions for the foundation of a nursing school. She was invited to visit Queen Victoria and thereafter received enthusiastic royal support for her campaign to reform the military medical system. She was opposed every step of the way by Lord Panmure (Secretary of State for War) and the head of the Army Medical Staff. When Panmure lost his job he was replaced by Sidney Herbert. With his help a Royal Commission was established to enquire into health and sanitary conditions in the Army.
The Queen’s involvement was enough to persuade the Treasury to find the money for the first new military hospital. The site was at Netley, alongside Southampton Water. The Queen laid the foundation stone in 1856. By 1861 all of the improvements recommended to the commission by Florence had been put into place and the Army Medical Department was reorganised.
Most of Florence’s later work, including writing Notes on Nursing, was carried out from her new London home but she continued to visit Hampshire whenever she could.
In the 1870s, as her parents’ health declined, she spent longer at Embley. Her father died in 1874, after a fall. On his death his properties passed to his sister, who wanted possession, so in August 1874 Florence and her ailing mother left Embley for good.
Florence’s writing and her nursing school in London (opened in 1860) were the bedrock upon which modern day nursing was founded but what of now? A straw poll of nurses at Southampton General showed that Florence is still an inspiration but computers and machines have taken over much of the hands-on nursing. Nurses are too short of time and numbers to spend bedside time and nursing rounds talking to patients – the basis of the Nightingale principle.
Florence died in London on 13 August 1910. An offer was made for her to buried in Westminster Abbey but her family refused, abiding by her wish to be laid to rest in the family plot in East Wellow. Of all the honours bestowed on her, the most prized was a brooch, designed by Prince Albert and given by Queen Victoria. A cross of St George in red enamel, with the Royal cipher topped with diamonds, circled with the inscription: “Blessed are the Merciful.”