Myth and reality: uncovering and discovering the nurses of St George's Hospital, London 1850-1900

Hawkins, Susan (2007) Myth and reality: uncovering and discovering the nurses of St George's Hospital, London 1850-1900. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The history of 19th century nursing reforms has focussed almost entirely on the activities and lives of nurse leaders, to the exclusion of the ordinary nurses. The lives of such nurses at one London hospital, St George's, have been investigated using a methodology based on prosopographical techniques. It was found that by the end of the century, far from becoming the exclusive preserve of middle class women, as some historians have argued, the Nursing Department at this particular hospital had become a melting pot of social classes. Appointment and promotion depended on ability rather than social position, and many women at the Hospital viewed nursing as a career, rather than a stop-gap before marriage. Evidence has also been accumulated which challenges the image of late 19th century nurses as being meek and docile women. The nurses at St George's were prepared to challenge the authorities to gain recognition for their various causes. Between 1850 and 1900, the Hospital Managers focussed increasingly on improving conditions of employment (including wages, accommodation and holidays) as a means of achieving stability within the Nursing Department, and of attracting a 'better quality' of woman. Nursing training was introduced during the fifty years of this study, although this was a slow process compared to its introduction at other hospitals. Financial considerations appeared to play a greater role in the development of probationer schemes, than a desire to improve the quality of nursing within the Hospital. The study of a group of Victorian nurses, such as this, provides insight into the development of nursing during the period, and reveals details which contradict the writings of nurse reformers. It also aids in the understanding of wider issues, including the changing role of women in Victorian society, and in particular their increasing participation in the labour market.

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