Florence Nightingale didn’t ‘fit in’ to conventional society as a young woman, though she had many admirers and suitors and enjoyed social life and travel, to a degree. Through her parents and wider family, and eventually through her own connections, she came to know many of the great and good of her day – the Palmerstons, the Shaftesburys, the Bonham Carters, The Herberts at Wilton, and on her travels she met many European intellectuals and reformers.
It was Lord Ashley (Shaftesbury) who suggested she read the Blue Books – government reports on Public Health compiled after the cholera outbreaks, and general concern about disease which had convinced those in power that something had to be done. Florence was a great list maker and note taker and spent the early hours of the day, in secret, reading and compiling her own notes on the situation. She wrote to friends on the Continent who sent her reports from Germany and France. She became an expert. Her mother put her in charge of the house keeping which she did very well. It was all to serve her well later.
Amongst the foreign material she was sent was a report on the Institute of Deaconesses at Kaiserwerth – a religious order where nursing was the focus. Five years after her abortive attempt to be allowed to work at Salisbury Infirmary, Florence managed to spend a fortnight at Kaiserwerth while on a holiday in Europe. She was thirty-one years old and desperate to fulfil what she now knew was her destiny. She defied her parents, and with the backing of the Herberts amongst others, she went back to Germany for several months.
She lived like a nun and loved it. She didn’t approve of the standards of nursing, but at least Kaiserwerth smelt better than the hospitals at home. She made friends and admirers and learnt a great deal, including from attending operations., but her family, particularly her mother and sister, made her life a misery on return. Her father became weary of the perpetual upsets and began to side with Florence a little. Florence effectively left home at this point, and stayed some time with the Herberts at Wilton House and in London. Her father supported her to the point of making her an allowance of £500 a year. And it was Sidney Herbert’s wife, Elizabeth, who found an opening for Florence – to take over The Institution for Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances, in London, which had fallen into difficulty, unable to find someone efficient enough to run it.
Florence was in her element. She ordered hot water be piped to every floor. Patients were to have bells to call for help. Systems were to be installed to lift meals to the different floors so that food was hot and nurses did not have to waste time and energy running up and down stairs. She took over financial control from a well-meaning but useless committee . She raked the coal when it was delivered to see that it was good quality and stopped purchases of items such as jam which she knew could be made at a fraction of the price in the institution’s kitchens. She secured other food at wholesale prices and had bed covers made from old curtains sourced from friends. She halved costs and created such comfort in the place that the elderly patients didn’t want to leave! She had proved herself and she had crushed all opposition.
But her greatest challenge was yet to come. If anyone is wondering why our new hospitals in this pandemic are called ‘Nightingale Hospitals’ , read more next week.