Cecil Woodham Smith, when writing perhaps the biography of Florence Nightingale in the 1940s, had access to papers that earlier biographers had not – particularly Florence’s own prolific diaries and notes. Those notes are a reminder that special people are also often rather complicated.
As a child she felt herself to be ‘different’ and certainly her mother found her so. Her biographer used the words “strange, passionate, wrong-headed, obstinate and miserable…” to describe Florence. She later wrote of herself that she was afraid she was a monster, a secret that might at any moment be discovered, that if she ate at the table with guests she might suddenly do something strange with her knife and fork! At the age of six she was already recording that life at home, Embley Park, near Romsey, was horrid. She didn’t fit in, and the ‘voice’ which had told her in 1837, when she was a teenager, that she had a mission in life, haunted her, because she couldn’t work out what it was she was supposed to do.
The 1840s were difficult times in Britain, with the agricultural and industrial revolutions disrupting traditional patterns of life, and with sweated labour, disease, poverty, and appalling living conditions in many urban and rural areas. Florence discovered she had a ‘knack’ with children, and found that visiting and helping the poor and sick was not just something she could do, but something she did well. Now she knew…
In her mid twenties, she decided to ask her parents to allow her to go for three months to Salisbury Infirmary to learn nursing. The head physician, Dr Fowler, was an old friend, he held advanced views, it was a well-known hospital and when the Fowlers visited in 1825, Florence took her chance. She later wrote in a letter to her cousin “Mama was terrified…it was not the physically revolting parts of the hospital but things about surgeons and nurses which you may guess.” To be fair to her mother, hospitals were often not very respectable places. Her father bemoaned “the modern girl”. The Fowlers were embarrassed by all the fuss, went away and the chance was gone.
If her parents had let her have her way from the beginning, Florence Nightingale would have become Salisbury’s most celebrated ‘daughter’. As it is, East Wellow and Wilton will claim her, along with St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
Regarded as the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale was born, in Florence, Italy, on 12 May 1820 – two hundred years ago this year. And yes, was named after her birthplace. Her parents, from Embley Park (now a school) at East Wellow near Romsey, were on a ‘ Grand Tour’ when she was born. Her sister, Frances Parthenope, was born a year earlier when the Nightingales were in Naples. Parthenope was a Greek name for that city.
As early as 1845, Florence was pestering her parents to allow her to become a nurse at Salisbury Infirmary. In 1837 she had, she said later, a visitation from God which convinced her that something like this was to be her vocation. She was right, as we now know, but nursing then was not a profession, nurses mostly being of the ‘lower classes’ and useful for little more than removing the bodies from the wards.
Equality for women, it seems, is still an issue, particularly in the workplace. But in 1845, Florence could not easily have a career at all and certainly not without her father’s backing. He was sympathetic (her mother was not), but in the end her support came from another man – Sidney Herbert of Wilton House.
Florence became a celebrity in Victorian Britain, enough to rival any today, and mercilessly used her fame to campaign for reforms in nursing and in the conditions for the army.
She has fallen out of fashion now but deserves a revival. More about Florence in the coming weeks….
We are indebted to the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine vol XLV of 1930-32 for drawing our attention to witches’ ‘scrags’. While searching for something entirely different, the first few words of this article caught the eye:
“The Wiltshire Gazette of Nov 14th 1930… recorded the fact that on November 5th the members of Berwick St John Women’s Institute climbed the hill in darkness and let off fireworks and lighted a fire near the ‘scrag’ on the anniversary of planting the ‘scrag’ in 1929.”
What a great image!
A ‘scrag’ is a tree. In this case, an earlier one had rotted away. It had been thought a tree in that position was ideal for knocking witches off their brooms as they rode over the hills. Berwick would be protected by its presence. General Pitt Rivers had been excavating in the area in the 1880s and uprooted an even earlier scrag, much to the displeasure of the locals who didn’t like him digging up the ancient barrows anyway. He had to replace it.
The article in WANHs goes on to suggest that the tree on that hill was probably originally an old ‘marker’ on the boundary between Berwick St John and the parish of Donhead St Andrew. Apparently the local Court Rolls of the 17th century show that great efforts were taken to preserve that boundary (land owned by Wilton Abbey and Shaftesbury Abbey respectively) and that at that time a post, on top of the hill, rather than a tree, was also used as a gallows for anyone poaching on the wrong side of it!
It is a lovely part of the county. Go there if you don’t know it. And if you want to know more about scrags, click here (with thanks to Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre).
Salisbury people, Volunteers and regular readers, will know that the buildings which are now The Salisbury Museum were, from the 1840s until 1978, home to the Sarum St Michael College of Education (Teacher Training College).
Yesterday, past students were awarded Honorary Batchelor of Education degrees by Winchester University to mark their contribution to education. Some of those new graduates are Volunteers at this museum.
Three hundred and sixty four ex-students, and their relatives (lots of grandchildren!) and friends packed the Cathedral for what was a happy, sometimes moving, ceremony.
The oldest ‘student’ there was from the class of 1946 – the first post-war intake, and several posthumous awards were made.
The Cathedral authorities and Winchester University did a superb job. Thank you.
Well done. Congratulations. And as Chancellor Alan Titchmarsh said, with a smile, good luck in your future careers!
Congratulations, also, to Portable Antiquities Scheme Volunteer, Alyson Tanner, who graduated from Oxford University on Saturday with an MSc in Applied Landscape Archaeology. Today, she is back at her desk in the museum, identifying Roman coins!
Her full name was Caroline Jane Cousins (nee Bartlett), born in Lytchett Matravers around 1836. She had a chequered life but not unusually so for a working class woman of that period. At one point she ended up in the Workhouse in Wareham for a while but managed to bring up at least four children, some of whom went into the Workhouse with her.
She was working at a twine factory in Poole when she took on the role of knocker-upper, and already in her 60s. As possibly the country’s last knocker-upper* she became quite famous and a bit of a pin-up girl. A local photographer sold postcards of her – the photo we always see – and Granny Cousins shared in the profits.
When she retired sometime around the end of the First World War, she joined the Salvation Army, found lodgings with a friend and lived on to the age of 89. She always put her robust constitution down to the drinking of the water in which her vegetables were cooked.
She was probably right.
Elsewhere knocker-uppers used pea shooters to rattle upper windows, and they were sometimes also employed to snuff out the gas lamps in the dawn light. Sometimes policemen earned some extra income by taking on these duties on their early rounds.
Has anyone heard this before?
We had a knocker-up, and our knocker-up had a knocker-up
And our knocker-up’s knocker-up didn’t knock our knocker up
So our knocker-up didn’t knock us up
‘Cos he’s not up.
*Wikipedia claims the last knocker-upper finished his rounds in 1952!