Discover Florence Nightingale’s Hampshire connections 200 years after her birth
PUBLISHED: 10:08 08 September 2020 | UPDATED: 10:08 08 September 2020
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
200 years since her birth and Florence Nightingale’s legacy is more relevant now than ever before as the world reacts to Covid-19. STEVE ROBERTS tells the story of this true Hampshire heroine
As the Covid-19 epidemic spread throughout the UK, NHS England, in conjunction with the UK Government, planned a number of temporary large-scale critical care hospitals around the country.
There was really only one person they could be named after: they became ‘NHS Nightingale Hospitals’.
A statistician, nurse and pioneer of modern nursing and hospital reform who raised the calling of nursing ‘from a menial employment to an honoured vocation’, Florence Nightingale was famously dubbed the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ by grateful soldiers of the Crimean War.
The second daughter of William Edward Nightingale and Frances (‘Fanny’) née Smith, Miss Nightingale was actually born in Florence, Italy (hence ‘Florence’) on 12th May 1820, although her infant grand tour didn’t amount to much as the family returned to England the following year.
It was a wealthy and well-connected upbringing, but also one bestowing values such as liberalism and humanitarianism (her maternal grandfather was an abolitionist). The Hampshire connection began in 1825 when William purchased Embley Park at East Wellow, near Romsey.
The family divided its time between this home and another in Derbyshire, although the Hampshire pile was always its main residence.
Although she enjoyed privilege, Florence’s childhood appears to have been frustrating and unhappy, as though the real person had yet to emerge.
Embley Park played a big part in Florence’s psyche, for it was here she claimed to have had her first ‘calling’ from God in February 1837, when she would have been aged just 16.
Whatever the experience was precisely it certainly imbued in the youngster a determination that her life would be devoted to the service of others whilst reducing their suffering.
She rebelled against any notion she should fulfil the traditional dual-role for a lady of her breeding, namely wife and mother, but put off her controversial announcement that she intended to pursue a nursing career until 1844, when she was approaching her mid-20s.
She was a lady who knew her own mind and wasn’t afraid of expressing it. Florence duly began nurse’s training in Kaiserswerth, Germany between 1850-51.
Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War began in March 1854 when war was declared against Russia, which was seeking to expand at Turkey’s expense.
After the conflict’s first set-piece battle, the Alma, Nightingale volunteered to organise a nursing department at Scutari (the Greek name for the district of Istanbul) and so was appointed superintendent of nurses in the British military hospitals in Turkey during the war.
Come October 1854 she was Crimea-bound with 38 nurses. They arrived in time to take in the wounded from the Battle of Inkerman (5 November), which saw her wards overcrowded with sick and wounded. To quote from modern parlance the place was ‘overwhelmed’.
Florence perceived the root causes of much of the mortality, such as bad sanitation, and set about removing them, becoming a leader in improved hygiene and sanitation. One of Florence’s basics, washing your hands, has become more important today than ever.
It was not easy though. As Nightingale herself said in a letter to a nurse in April 1869: ‘I have been shut out of hospitals into which I had been ordered to go by the Commander-in-Chief – obliged to stand outside the door in the snow till night – have been refused rations for as much as 10 days at a time for the nurses I had brought’.
Despite these injustices, Florence’s approach was not to be a dissident force who ‘kicked and resisted and resented’ but one who sought to cooperate and achieve reform that way.
She succeeded, as despite much initial Establishment opposition, her approach was adopted and developed worldwide.
Nightingale returned to England in 1856. A fund of £50,000 (the Nightingale Fund) was raised to enable her to set up an institution for training nurses at St Thomas’s (1860), which became the first modern nursing school.
Many years were devoted to the cause of Army sanitary reform, nursing improvement and to public health in India. It’s fair to say that Hampshire was less influential in Florence’s life once she came back from the Crimea.
She was based in London, where she lived and worked, and ill-health (she’d contracted an infection in the Crimea) restricted her excursions.
Having said that ‘Old Flo’, as she styled herself in letters, did have a profound influence on the Hampshire landscape that has persisted. Take the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley. One thing the Crimean War exposed was the urgent need for a large military hospital back home, and construction duly began in 1856.
Florence was still busy in a war zone so had no bearing on the original design, but on her return, she railed against its deficiencies, believing the whim of the architect had been more important than patient care.
Subsequent enquiries agreed the design was flawed but construction was already so far advanced it was hard to make substantial changes. The hospital opened in 1863. Just the chapel remains today from an institution that lasted until 1978.
There was no such excuse when the Royal Hampshire County Hospital had to find new premises in Winchester. The old Victorian buildings, which opened in 1868, still stand in Romsey Road, buildings whose design was influenced by Florence’s expert input.
Queen Victoria, of course, awarded the hospital its ‘royal’ prefix: Flo had visited the queen at Balmoral after returning from the Crimea. Later additions to the site include a ‘Nightingale Wing’ in 1986.
Nightingale’s main literary work, ‘Notes on Nursing’ (1859) went through many editions. The Nightingale family meanwhile continued to own Embley Park until 1896 and there is evidence Florence did occasionally visit, for example, as testified by a letter of hers dated 15 August 1872, which was written whilst staying there.
The ‘Lady with the Lamp’ was deservedly awarded the Order of Merit (OM) in 1907, the first lady to receive the honour.
Upon her death aged 90, it was her family’s choice that she should be laid to rest in Hampshire, the county that had meant so much to her, rather than in Westminster Abbey, although her funeral service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral.
You’ll find her in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, East Wellow, close to Embley Park. Only her initials and dates appear on the gravestone: that’s all that’s needed when you’ve achieved eternal fame.
Some of her letters meanwhile are preserved at the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, letters revealing another side of the passionate campaigner: affectionate, caring, compassionate, witty and a little bit wicked.
A true Hampshire heroine!