This year marks the centenary of the death of Florence Nightingale, and in the world of nursing and nursing history this is a reason for celebration of a woman who is regarded by many as the founder of modern nursing. Countless events have been organised around the world to mark the occasion, including two major conferences in the UK. The announcement that this year has been designated as International Year of the Nurse is surely no co-incidence. But while it is indisputable that Nightingale’s vision for nursing was highly influential in the direction it took it the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it can be argued that her iconic status and dominance of nursing history has led to equally important contributions being overlooked.
It could also be contended that her views of nursing, so uncritically propounded by many, led directly to the problems it still faces today, in its relationship to medicine and in being taken seriously as a profession. Most importantly, Nightingale’s dominance of nursing’s history has led to its almost complete neglect by women’s history. The history of nursing is so closely associated with women’s history, yet it features very rarely in discourses of the latter. With its history so dominated by the views of one or two iconic figures, everything else is forgotten or goes unnoticed. Until very recently, almost no attempt had been made to discover if the image of late 19th century nurses as meek, pure and obedient young acolytes of Nightingale could truly be realistic. In the last few years, a new trend in nursing history is emerging, to lift the veil on ordinary nurses, their working conditions, ambitions and lives.
It is a difficult challenge, but historians such Christopher Maggs, Stuart Wildman and Helen Sweet have started to employ techniques of social history and ‘history from below’ to uncover these stories. My own doctoral thesis was predicated on a prosopographical approach – using records from one particular hospital, combined with census records and letters and announcements in nursing journals – to reconstruct the lives of some of the nurses who worked during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The results show how, far from being an occupation undertaken by eager young middle class women, looking for a way to spend their time before marriage, or for an opportunity to prove their devotion to God and their fellow man through the sacrifice of their lives to the work, many women chose nursing out of a range of occupational options opening up at that time. In fact, for women who had to work (through lack of male financial support, as a result of widowhood or spinsterhood) nursing could be an attractive option, offering them the opportunity to acquire valuable skills which could be transferred into a number of different environments, and which provided a level of financial and personal independence quite out of reach of most Victorian women.
Lucy Luckett’s story which follows, is derived from my doctoral work, now published by Routledge as Nursing and Women’s Labour in the Nineteenth Century: the quest for independence, and is just one example of how the lives of ordinary 19th century women can be reconstructed using this technique.
Lucy Stevens was born 3 April 1841 in New Inn Yard in Tottenham, where her father worked as a coach smith. By 1861 Lucy had left home and was working as a maid in the house of a cork merchant in Hammersmith, and in 1870 she married Henry Luckett (an omnibus conductor), also from Hammersmith. Their only child, Ben, was born in 1871. Henry died a year later from pulmonary tuberculosis, leaving Lucy to fend for herself and her baby son. Ben was sent to relatives in Gloucestershire, and needing to work, Lucy enrolled as a nurse at the West London Hospital. In 1876, she moved to the more prestigious St George’s Hospital, situated in the heart of Belgravia, where she took the position of Assistant Nurse. By this time major hospitals had rudimentary nurse training schemes, but Lucy was considered knowledgeable enough to be employed directly, although without sufficient experience to be appointed to the more senior role of Head Nurse. Her wages were c.£20 a year, which sounds low, but with her board, lodging and uniforms provided, she would have had enough to send money to her relatives in Gloucestershire asa contribution towards her son’s keep.
The work would have been fairly monotonous, assistant nurses were the gofers in the hospital hierarchy and spent much of their time fetching and carrying between the kitchens, the laundry and the pharmacy. At one point (during Lucy’s time) a group of nurses complained to the Management Board, ‘[We] have so frequently to leave the ward for the purpose of fetching various things from the Kitchen, Dispensary, &c, that the strictly nursing duties which [we] are able to discharge are few [and our] office [is] rather that of a servant than of a trained nurse.’
The hours were long and gruelling (14 hours a day, with only a couple of breaks), and with very few whole days off it is doubtful that Lucy was able to see her son more than once a year. She was good at her job though, and was soon promoted to night nurse, a move which would have earned her an additional couple of pounds a year. Experienced and trustworthy women were preferred on the night shifts. The strict hierarchy of the daytime was much reduced; and night nurses worked alone, responsible only to the night superintendent. In June 1880, Lucy was commended by the Committee of Nursing for her good performance, but was reprimanded in 1882 for eating in the scullery and leaving her ward unattended. She resigned from the hospital ‘at her own desire’ in 1883.
It is possible that she left St George’s to take care of her son, who may have been very sick by this time. He died in 1886, in the hospital where his mother had worked, from a tubercular infection of the bones of the skull, which led to meningitis and the actual cause of death. Having lost her family, Lucy turned again to nursing to sustain her. Many nurses used hospitals to gain experience before setting up as private nurses, a much more lucrative and less controlled form of nursing. By 1891, Lucy was working in a private capacity, and continued to do so right up to 1911, and the ripe old age of 70.
Dr Sue Hawkins is a researcher in the History Department at Kingston University and is a member of The UK Centre for History of Nursing and Midwifery at Manchester University. Her book, Nursing and Women’s Labour in the Nineteenth Century: the quest for independence, will be published by Routledge on 25 March 2010. It contains more stories like Lucy’s and discusses the conditions which enabled nursing to develop into an occupation for women which provided them with an element of independence few Victorian women were familiar with.