Tag Archives: histnursing

International Nurses’ Day 2018

Blog post by Anne Carey, Special Collections placement student from UCL’s Dept of Information Studies.

Brunel Special Collections is joining in on the support for International Nurses’ Day. On 12 May, we celebrate the dedicated and passionate people who commit themselves to providing excellent health care service. This year the theme focuses on health as a human right, and through this healthcare should be accessible by all, no matter the location or the setting

As the nursing profession and healthcare services have grown, nurses have become an important part of the healthcare systems by providing support to colleagues and patients. It’s impossible to imagine healthcare without nurses, but the care people have received throughout history has not always been like it is now – and it is still difficult for some to access, either financially or physically.

Looking in the Collections

Looking back into the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies here in Brunel Special Collections, we can gain an insight into the way working class people accessed health care in England, Scotland, and Wales between 1790 and 1945. This massive timeline covers significant periods in British history, from the Victorian Era to WWII. Particularly around the mid-late 1800s nursing really came into its own. This was due to the influential work done by Florence Nightingale, which is why we celebrate International Nurses’ Day on her birthday each year!

Frith nursing
Around this time, an un-official nurse and midwife named Susan Mary Firth dedicated her life to caring for others. We are lucky enough to have her personal diary in the Burnett Archive. She kept this diary during her 30 year career, between 1912 and 1942. Though never fully qualified, Susan nursed dozens of people in her community back to health, delivered their babies, and mourned losses with them. Susan often travelled to the homes of those in need, and dedicated her time to their care. Once there, she would usually spend at least a month with each patient and sometimes up to a year. In the best of times, Susan would celebrate the birth of a healthy baby as if she were part of the family or celebrate someone’s return to good health. In worse times, she would stay and mourn the loss of her patient with their family and loved ones. Compassion and empathy for patients is a characteristic of nurses that continues to shine through, and this makes them such a valuable part of health care.

Susan’s patients knew that they could rely on her in a time of need, often calling on her in a time of distress and uncertainty. She continued to provide care to the members of her community, and embodied the fact that healthcare it should be accessible to all no matter the location or situation. While she lived in a very different time, Susan’s passion for her patients remains very much a part of nursing today.

Don’t forget to show your support for International Nurses’ Day on 12 May, 2018, and share your own story. #ThisNuse

If you’re interested in reading Susan’s diary or any of the other items in the collections, they can be found in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies at Brunel University London Special Collections.

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International Nurses’ Day

12 May, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, is International Nurses’ Day, when people around the world celebrate the contribution that nurses make to society. We thought we would join in by sharing a story from our Special Collections about nurse training in the past.

A few of the autobiographies in our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies recount experiences of nursing, including that of a male nurse in the 1930-50s, plus women who worked as nurses and housemaids at different times in their lives. This post will focus on Winifred Relph, who was born in 1912.

Winifred worked firstly as a housemaid after leaving school, then as a nurserymaid. She tried applying for nurse training at several London hospitals, but was told that her education wasn’t good enough, and advised to try small, provincial hospitals instead. Eventually she was accepted for training at Todworth General Hospital on the borders of Kent/Sussex.

As a probationer nurse she earned a salary of £20 a year and also had to supply much of her uniform, including:

  • 14 linen aprons
  • 6 stiff linen collars
  • 6 stiff linen cuffs
  • black woollen stockings
  • flat laceup black shoes

She lived on-site in the Nurses’ Home and shared a room with another probationer. Nurses’ rooms were inspected by the matron and expected to be kept as neat as on the ward. In the evenings the senior nurses played the piano and sang in the nurses’ sitting room.

She describes some of her typical tasks, such as starting each day with making thirty beds, with 90 seconds allowed for each bed (including removing the patient from it and putting them back again!). Nurses worked 12 hour shifts, including two hours off each day and three meal breaks. After six months of learning practical skills on the wards (Winifred worked on both the Children’s and Men’s wards) lectures on nursing theory were started, but unfortunately Winifred never got this far, as she became ill with acute rheumatism and was unable to carry on nursing.

Nursing only forms a small part of Winifred’s autobiography. You can find out more about different aspects of her life and writing at Writing Lives. Find out more about our other autobiographies on this blog.