The war in the Crimea dragged on. At the end of February 1855 a Commission was sent out to review conditions. Things were more orderly in the hospital at Scutari but the death rate still high. Eventually over 500 handcarts full of the foulest rubbish (including dead animals) were removed from the open privies. Old wooden furniture, which harboured rats, was removed and the walls limewashed. An unlikely hero, Alexis Soyer, famous French chef from the Reform Club in London, arrived. He was an odd figure but a genius with nutritious food and could produce it in bulk. He and Florence Nightingale became firm friends. At last the death rate began to come down. By May that year it was down to 5%.
But opposition to Florence Nightingale re-emerged as officials began to look for ways to avoid the blame for what had happened.
The soldiers meanwhile, loved her. When giving evidence to a later Commission back home they recorded that had she been in charge of the war, it would have been won much earlier. It was given in evidence that the men really did kiss her shadow as she tirelessly passed through the wards at night. She never allowed a man to die alone. She wrote letters for them. She frequently did not sleep for days at a time, dressing wounds, standing by men who were undergoing operations. She became ‘the lady with the lamp’ and described herself as ‘the mother of 50 000 children’.
In addition, she dealt with constant requests, gave endless advice, received and dealt with complaints and vexatious or openly hostile colleagues by day, and little water or food and cold and wet quarters at night. Somehow she managed, in the midst of all this, to continue sending home detailed private reports to Sidney Herbert, full of ideas as to how hospitals and the army could be reformed. These was to be the basis of her future work.
She became seriously ill but refused to go home. A sergeant wrote home that the men wept when they heard. “All their trust was in her”. Two leading military figures spitefully had her put on a ship for England but two other officials took her off and put her on a boat to the British Embassy villa in Turkey where she was able to convalesce.
At home she became famous and was lauded in popular songs, sent money and parcels from collections at home. Queen Victoria sent a brooch. The Staffordshire potteries produced a figure of her, wearing an unlikely flowered skirt, and red slippers. A lifeboat was named after her. Madame Tussaud modelled her in wax. A race horse was named after her…..
By the summer of 1856 she had been back at work for some time, the war was coming to a close and the numbers in hospital drastically reduced. She made sure her nurses were provided for and her family, army regiments and the government hoped to honour and fete her on her return. She was not interested in celebrity however, and she came home incognito via Marseilles, Paris, the Channel, Southampton and train to the family home in Derbyshire – Lea Hurst.
The family were in the drawing room. The housekeeper, at the front of the house, saw a lone figure in black walking up the drive, looked again, and rushed out to meet her.
Florence Nightingale was still only in her thirties…
‘Florence Nightingale Comes Home 2020′ is a project being run by Nottingham University. If you are interested in this, click here.
Lea Hurst is, today, a private home but does offer bed and breakfast to visitors, and the link to Nottingham University (above) allows a virtual tour.