Florence Nightingale’s story and nursing legacy at our places

Catherine Troiano, Photography Curator Catherine Troiano Photography Curator

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) is a national heroine, known for her pioneering role in nursing. As 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of her birth, Curator Catherine Troiano takes a closer look at Florence's legacy and her connections to our places and collections.

A life-long calling

Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, in 1820 to a wealthy English family. From a young age she harboured ambitions to become a nurse. She cared for the sick on her family’s estates and believed her godly calling in life was to reduce human suffering.

Florence’s family, however, were not supportive of her ambitions. At the time, nurses did not receive proper training and nursing was not considered a suitable occupation for a woman of Florence’s status.  

Florence Nightingale on her mother’s knee, watercolour (c.1822) after Alfred Edward Chalon, from the collection at Trelissick, Cornwall
Florence Nightingale on her Mother’s Knee
Florence Nightingale on her mother’s knee, watercolour (c.1822) after Alfred Edward Chalon, from the collection at Trelissick, Cornwall

Her mother eventually changed her mind and between 1850 and 1851, Florence received basic nursing training in Kaiserworth, Germany.  She was only allowed to attend for short stretches of time, however, and had to keep her education a secret. By 1853, Florence freed herself from her restrictive family and, using her connections, took an unpaid position working in a nursing home for gentlewomen.

‘Kingdom of Hell'

In October of 1853 the Crimean War began, fought between the Russian Empire on one side and an alliance of British, French and Turkish Ottomans on the other. Newspapers regularly reported on the poor conditions and lack of medical care for soldiers.

In 1854, at the request of the British government, Florence went to Crimea. She led a group of nurses to Scutari, the site of a British hospital now in Istanbul. Her party was not welcomed by officers, however, and she quickly realised how bad conditions were, from insufficient supplies to dirty, overcrowded rooms. She even called the Barrack Hospital the ‘Kingdom of Hell.’

An engraving published in 1859 reproduces a history painting of 1856 documenting the Crimean War by Thomas Barker. It depicts a panoramic view of troops at Sebastopol, the largest city on the Crimean Peninsula. Florence made numerous trips to Sebastopol from her base at Scutari. In the engraving, she is identified in text (not visible) as one of the figures on horseback, checking soldiers with the Sanitary Commissioner.

The Allied generals with the officers of their respective staffs before Sebastopol, mixed media engraving, 1859
The Allied generals with the officers of their respective staffs before Sebastopol
The Allied generals with the officers of their respective staffs before Sebastopol, mixed media engraving, 1859

'Lady with the Lamp'

Under Florence’s watch, wards were properly cleaned and standards of care were established. This included attending to dressings and feeding and bathing soldiers regularly. She also recognised the need for psychological care and became known as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’, checking on patients at night.

Florence’s work was widely reported in the press at the time, shared through soldiers’ letters. She quickly gained fame and was credited with reducing the mortality rate in the Scutari Barracks Hospital to two per cent. Later, it was learned that the death rate was actually much higher than this, but the numbers had been doctored by the government.

Left: Florence in 1855, London Stereoscopic Company (Smallhythe Place, Kent); Right: Florence in 1856 on her return from Scutari (Claydon, Buckinghamshire)
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) in 1855
Left: Florence in 1855, London Stereoscopic Company (Smallhythe Place, Kent); Right: Florence in 1856 on her return from Scutari (Claydon, Buckinghamshire)

A national heroine

By the time Florence returned home in August 1856 – seriously ill – she was an icon. The Victorians had a vibrant celebrity culture and active print media which was fanned by industrial advances in publishing and the invention of photography. Florence’s persona was particularly popular, with her often being represented as a ‘ministering angel’, mirroring common social impressions of women as selfless guardians and caretakers. Such was Florence’s celebrity status, that her signature is included in an autograph album belonging to Helen Leach, Beatrix Potter’s mother, alongside the likes of the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel and even King George IV.

Many photographs of Florence were made, shared and collected, and Florence figurines, dolls and models were produced as popular objects. Examples of these are in the collections at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire and Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. The Staffordshire Pottery, known for making figures of famous people in the Victorian era, produced many different ‘Florences.’ These can be found at both Attingham Park, Shopshire and Newark Park, Gloucestershire showing the extent of their popularity.

Florence figurines

Campaign for better healthcare

Florence did not enjoy her fame and was reluctant to be in the spotlight. Instead, she used her influence to campaign for better healthcare in England and to encourage public respect for nursing. Her efforts were high-profile, and she even met with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to champion the need for reform.

The Nightingale Fund, set up in 1855, raised money to open the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, in 1860. St. Thomas’s is still an important hospital in the NHS landscape of today, and Nightingale’s nursing school taught skills that went on to form the basis of modern nursing as we know it.

In 1859, she published the book 'Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not', held in the collection at Claydon. This canonical work of nursing brought care principles into households across the country. In 1883, she was celebrated with dedicated Red Cross medals that show the long-term importance of her work.

A copy of 'Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not' by Florence Nightingale at Claydon, Buckinghamshire. It was first published in 1859 by Harrison of Pall Mall
'Notes on Nursing' by Florence Nightingale
A copy of 'Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not' by Florence Nightingale at Claydon, Buckinghamshire. It was first published in 1859 by Harrison of Pall Mall

Florence's connection to Claydon

Florence Nightingale has a special relationship with the National Trust. Her sister, Parthenope, married the English politician and soldier, Sir Harry Verney, of Claydon, Buckinghamshire in 1857. Florence visited them regularly and was later given rooms by Harry to work on her nursing books and hold important meetings.

Florence Nightingale and Sir Harry Verney in 1880 in the grounds of Claydon, Buckinghamshire
Florence Nightingale and Sir Harry Verney in 1880 in the grounds of Claydon, Buckinghamshire
Florence Nightingale and Sir Harry Verney in 1880 in the grounds of Claydon, Buckinghamshire

Florence spent many years at Claydon, especially during the summer. Her rooms have been preserved and include numerous objects that belonged to her. Many of her things remain with the Verney family, including an orange she was given by a soldier in the Crimea and a lock of her hair.

Florence's legacy

The essential status of the Red Cross – greatly influenced by Florence – is seen in armbands, ribbons, aprons, medals and letters held across our places.  

Florence’s legacy still shines brightly, just like her lamp. Four hospitals in Istanbul are named after her, various care facilities in Derby pay tribute to her, and the new emergency hospitals that have opened in response to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic have been named NHS Nightingale. With the ongoing relevance of her nursing career now especially poignant, Florence Nightingale is not to be forgotten.

" Nursing is an art: and if it is to be an art, it requires as exclusive a devotion, as hard a preparation, as any painter's or sculptor's work"
From country houses to hospitals

Clandon Park Hospital, 1915-1918

Many of our places were repurposed as hospitals during the First and Second World Wars, adopting the inspired approach to medical care that Florence pioneered in the Crimea.

Clandon Park, Surrey, was used as an Auxiliary Medical Hospital during the First World War. It was transformed from the Onslows' family home to a fully functioning military hospital, complete with an operating theatre.

Photographic postcards showing nurses at Clandon Park

A series of photographic postcards from 1915-18 document how Clandon Park, Surrey was transformed into an Auxiliary Medical Hospital during the First World War. This postcard shows the Marble Hall converted into a hospital ward.

Photographic postcards showing nurses at Clandon Park

Live-in nurses trained by the Red Cross treated over 5000 soldiers at Clandon Park. This photograph shows one of the nurses in the garden.

Hospital patients at Clandon Park

In April 2015 a fire at Clandon Park caused significant damage, effectively leaving the house a shell. Amongst the objects rescued from the fire were photographs documenting Clandon's role as a hospital. In this photographic postcard from Sawyer's Photo series, patients gather on the porch.

Black and white archive image of Stamford Military Hospital patients and staff during the First World War

Dunham Massey, Cheshire

During the First World War, Dunham Massey became the Stamford Military Hospital, opening its doors to wounded soldiers between 1917 and 1919. Dunham's Saloon was transformed into a hospital ward known as 'Bagdad' (sic), the area near the Grand Staircase became an operating theatre and the Billiard Room became a nurses' station.

Daphne Bankes and ambulance, c. 1940

Kingston Lacy, Dorset

Kingston Lacy in Dorset was used as an American Hospital in the Second World War. Daphne Bankes (1898–1967) – sister of Henry Bankes, the last owner of Kingston Lacy – volunteered as an ambulance driver and caregiver.

Purpose-built hospitals

Florence Nightingale’s ideas influenced the design of purpose-built workhouse infirmaries, such as Firbeck Infirmary in the grounds of Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire, and Belton’s First World War military hospital in Lincolnshire.

Firbeck in the early 20th century

Firbeck Infirmary

Built in 1871, Firbeck Infirmary had long, open wards, with beds aligned against the wall with the corridor down the middle so that all patients could be seen easily by nurses at any time. The windows were large and the ceilings high to ensure good ventilation.

Belton Hospital Grantham, nursing sisters with their officer patients at tea

Belton military hospital

Belton’s military hospital was run by the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). With several wards, operating rooms, an X-ray room and dispensary, it was a modern hospital for 670 patients. Doctors, nurses and volunteers helped soldiers rehabilitate using a range of techniques, including physiotherapy.

Other nursing and medical pioneers

Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

Florence Nightingale wasn't the only woman of her time to defy societal expectations and to make great accomplishments in the burgeoning field of modern nursing. Jamaican-British Mary Seacole was a nurse and entrepreneur in the Crimean War whose contributions have often been eclipsed by Nightingale’s.
 
From a young age, Mary had an interest in medicine and learned about tropical illnesses and herbal remedies from her mother. As an adult, she travelled a great deal in the Caribbean and Central America, gaining practical nursing experience in Jamaica, Colombia and Panama during epidemics of cholera and yellow fever.

Mary Seacole depicted on a poster from the National Trust Museum of Childhood in Derbyshire, published in 2006 by Nubian Jak, an African and Caribbean community organisation based in London
Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole depicted on a poster from the National Trust Museum of Childhood in Derbyshire, published in 2006 by Nubian Jak, an African and Caribbean community organisation based in London

When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, she decided to sail to England where she offered her services to the War Offices, which were declined. Undeterred, Seacole financed the trip herself. With help from others, she established a combination store/restaurant/nursing station, two miles from Balaclava on the Crimean Peninsula. She treated cholera, dysentery and war wounds while selling sundries to officers.
 
When the war ended, Seacole returned to England bankrupt. In need of funds, the ever-resourceful Seacole published her autobiography, 'Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands', in 1857, which proved to be a commercial success and is still in print today. Seacole died in London in 1881.

Painting of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762)

Lady Mary lived at Middlethorpe Hall, Yorkshire, between 1713 and 1715. She was responsible for introducing Britain to a smallpox inoculation from the Ottoman Empire that she’d come across during her travels. She promoted this medical breakthrough widely. Although it was later superseded by Edward Jenner's vaccination, it was the first time in Western medicine that antibodies were created to secure immunity from disease.

The 8th Lady Berwick sitting in front of the house with six Dachshunds

Teresa Berwick (1890-1972)

Teresa Berwick of Attingham Park, Shropshire, worked with the British Red Cross and was awarded the Italian Cross of Military Valour for her service in Italy during the First World War. Her medal, along with her Red Cross armbands and cap, are part of the collection at Attingham.