Florence Nightingale’s story and nursing legacy at our places
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.
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.
'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.
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.
Lady with the lamp
Florence is shown sitting on a bench and holding a lamp, an attribute for which she became famous, in this late 19th-century plaster model at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.
A Florence doll
This doll is made from cardboard, flannel, muslin and wood and it dates to the late 19th century. It's one of 55 historical dolls in the collection at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd.
Staffordshire Pottery made many figures of famous people in the Victorian era, including many Florences. This is one of a collection of 128 Staffordshire figures at Newark Park, Gloucestershire.
A 'ministering angel'
Florence was represented as a ‘ministering angel’, reflecting social impressions of women as selfless caretakers. In this Staffordshire figure from Newark Park, Florence tends to a wounded soldier.
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.
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 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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.