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Florence Nightingale laid the foundations of professional nursing, exposing the abysmal care afforded sick and wounded soldiers. Queen Victoria in 1860 ordered a hospital to be built to train Army nurses and surgeons, the Royal Victoria Hospital. The Army Nursing Service (ANS) oversaw the work of the nurses starting in 1881. These military nurses were sent overseas beginning with the First Boer War from 1879 to 1881and other campaigns abroad. They served in tented field hospitals many from Britain lost their lives from disease outbreaks and fighting.


By the beginning of the First World War in 1914, military nursing still had only a small role for women in Britain; 10,500 nurses enrolled in Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and the Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service. These services dated to 1902 and 1918, and enjoyed royal sponsorship. There also were 74,000 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses who had been enrolled by the Red Cross.

The First World War provided the final impetus to the establishment of nursing regulation, partly because of the specific contribution made by nurses to the war effort and also as a reflection of the increased contribution of women more generally in society. The College of Nursing (later the Royal College of Nursing) was established in 1916. The Professional Union of Trained Nurses was founded in 1919.


The Labour Party produced its first draft policy statement on the profession in 1926, advocating a 48-hour week, the separation of training schools from hospitals and advocating that the profession should be organised on Trade Union lines.

In 1937 the Trades Union Congress adopted a "Nurses’ Charter", demanding a 96-hour fortnight, improvement of the amenities of nurses’ homes and arguing that nurses should be able to live out. At that time the average nurse was working 104 hours per fortnight. The Earl of Athlone was appointed to chair a committee of inquiry into the arrangements for "recruitment, training and registration and terms and conditions of service" for nurses. It found that about 12,000 new recruits were needed each year. It recommended higher pay, a 96-hour fortnight and four weeks holiday a year, and the removal of unreasonable restrictions on nurses life.


The armed forces estimated at the beginning of the second World War that they needed more trained nurses. Up to 67,000 were thought to be needed to care for the expected air-raid casualties. This was more than the number of trained nurses in employment. A Civil Nursing Reserve was set up - 7000 trained nurses, 3000 assistant nurses and also nursing auxiliaries. The auxiliaries were given fifty hours training in hospital before they started work. After protests it was agreed that they should not do domestic work. 6,200 from the Civil Nursing Reserve were working in hospitals in June 1940.


During the war nurses belonged to Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), as they had during World War I, and as they remain today. (Nurses belonging to the QAIMNS are informally called "QA"s.) Members of the Army Nursing Service served in every overseas British military campaign during World War II, as well as at military hospitals in Britain. At the beginning of World War II, nurses held officer status with equivalent rank, but were not commissioned officers. In 1941, emergency commissions and a rank structure were created, conforming with the structure used in the rest of the British Army. Nurses were given rank badges and were now able to be promoted to ranks from Lieutenant through to Brigadier. Nurses were exposed to all dangers during the War, and some were captured and became prisoners of war.


There has always been a shortage of nurses. Two categories of nurse had existed from the nineteenth century.

Alongside the trained nurses, who were ‘state registered’ (i.e. their names were recorded in a register as having completed the required 3 year training and were eligible for promotion to ward sister etc. ), were the very caring nursing assistants. In 1943 the Nurses Act granted legal status to assistant nurses, establishing a ‘roll’, and a system of examination, admission and removal of names. In 1948 there were some 20,000 of these state-enrolled nurses (SENs). Their presence not only added to the workforce but also made it possible to improve the training of students for the register. Nurses and their professional organisations were always ambivalent about auxiliaries, holding divergent views of their teaching and the length of their training. SENs were needed, often encouraged and valued – but sometimes rejected as ‘dilution’ of the professional nursing workforce. The position of SEN has now been replaced by the healthcare assistant of today.


The First Cigarette!

In June, 1944, Ena Rimmer Made The Decision To Leave London and return to her home city of Liverpool.


Ena had been nursing in St. Thomas’ Hospital, London since the beginning of the war in 1939 and had, on many occasions, to help patients down to the cellars of the hospital and sit through night after night of bombing in the period of the London Blitz during the early years of the war.

It was on one of these nights, that a Doctor offered her a cigarette to help her to keep calm and because of this; she smoked for the next fifty two years!! 

In the early summer of 1944 the Germans started to send over the V1 and V2 bombs, better known as Doodle Bugs from the coast of France to London. After one really bad period of continuous bombing for two days and two nights, Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation “That if anyone could get out of London, to do so”.

My Mam then left London, and did not return until 1947.   She went home to continue to work as a nurse, however, although she was safe from the V1 and V2 bombs, Liverpool was also getting bombed night after night and later on during the day because of the docks and the North Atlantic Fleet which was based there.


Joy Chivers, (daughter of Ena Chivers nee Rimmer)

Diane Stevenson, Maryport and Jack Henderson , Glenrothes

Aunty Eva was part of the Expeditionary Force to Norway, whilst serving with the Queen Alexander's Nurses. They were sent in April 1940 and evacuated in July 1940. She served in most theatres of the war and sometimes related details of her experiences, but being a very private person, this was usually after a late evening nightcap. Her most incredible tales were of her experiences during her postings to Malta when it was under siege, however she came out of it and in her words, "lived to tell the tale".


From Old Maryport Facebook page 29/10/21

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My Grandmother

My grandmother, Leah was working as a nursing auxiliary before the war, this was the equivalent of a maid with very little in the way of nursing duties. She mainly emptied bedpans, changed beds, cleaned and helped feed patients incapable of feeding themselves.


With the outbreak of war the men who normally worked in factories were called up to fight and women were pressed into taking up factory jobs to help with the war effort. The problem was that many women had babies and small children and child care was a problem.


Before the start of the Second World War, provision for childcare by the government was hardly considered. The expectation was that women would be engaged in domestic work in their homes from their marriage onwards, so that all of the duties of caring for children would lie with their mother. For mothers who, through necessity or choice, did go out to work, their main childcare options were:


1. Day Nurseries.

For children under the age of 5, the Ministry of Health provided Day Nurseries for the children of working women, but only where the work was seen as ‘necessary’ and the women was the sole adult wage-earner, for example for unmarried, separated or widowed women. But these nurseries were far from plentiful - in 1938 there were only 104 Day Nurseries in Great Britain, providing care for 4291 children.


2. Nursery Schools.

These were provided by the Local Authorities, for 2-5 year old children but governmental policy on how many places were provided was open to interpretation, meaning that the Local Authority was not obliged to provide this option. In 1938, there were 118 Nursery Schools running, but these only provided care for children between 9am until 3.30pm which did not take in to account the needs of many working women.


3. Elementary Schools.

This was the preferred choice of many working women as it meant that, for those with larger families, the elder children could be responsible for taking the younger children to and from school, assisting with the incompatibility of childcare and working hours. In 1938, 170,000 children between 3-5 years old were attending school, at that time more than either of the nursery institutions took.


4. Child-minders.

Women in full time work often paid for relatives or friends to care for their children. Although this offered them greater flexibility in terms of obtaining care for the hours needed, the care was more unreliable (with greater risk of being let down by the minder) and was often more expensive than the government-funded care options. There were also a class divide on the opinions of society on child-minding. Middle and upper-class nannies were lauded as wonderful carers for children, but for the working classes, child-minding was denigrated as resulting in juvenile delinquency.


The Ministry of Health began the process to open more Day Nurseries, for women working in government factories or having government contracts but due to demand this was swiftly expanded to include anyone engaged in war work.


Leah worked in one of these state run daycare nurseries mainly looking after the babies. The day would start at 7am with the little ones being dropped off at the centre only to be collected over 10 hours later by tired working mums. For that reason the children wore clothes supplied and laundered by the nursery, which meant their hard-working mums were spared a lot of washing. All the children were given three meals a day so you can imagine the number of bibs and feeders that they needed. There were also large coppers to launder all nappies every day.


My grandmother enjoyed the work and at the end of the war the state run nurseries for such young children were closed, so she went back to hospital nursing. To begin with working on the children's ward and later the women’s ward.


Nursing had become a very respectable profession with the setting up of the nursing colleges and proper training. With all her experience my grandmother was awarded the title of State Enrolled Nurse, SEN. Leah never wanted to complete any more training and stayed at this grade for the rest of her working life, retiring in 1960.

Jane Robinson nee Shaw - West Cumbria

Healthcare and Medicines

Healthcare in the first part of the twentieth century was very different to the NHS we know now. There was a ramshackle structure of competing and overlapping services with lots of gaps which meant real hardship for a significant proportion of the British Public.


For the wealthy and middle classes it was easy to pay for a doctor’s services privately. For workers who paid a small sum from their wages their needs were met by the companies ‘panel doctor’. This did not cover the worker’s family and the ‘panel doctor’ was often busy with his private patients.


Working class families could also sign up with ‘Friendly Societies’ who provided sickness, funeral and other benefits for a weekly subscription and contracted a GP doctor full filling the medical needs.


Money bought healthcare but for the poor the options were limited to home remedies, consulting the Poor Law doctor, a visit from the ‘union doctor’ or being sent to the Workhouse to be cared for or to die.

Many dedicated doctors often worked for small wages and where patients couldn’t afford to pay they would accept payment in kind, especially in rural communities. During WWI many doctors enrolled in the army medical corps and were sent abroad. There was a labour shortage in the country and this fuelled the acceptance of women to train as doctors although it was still only 5 % of the medical profession.


My fathers aunt Muriel was married but had no children, she helped with her husbands medical practice in Lincolnshire. In her 40’s she decided to train to be a doctor herself and went to the Royal Free Hospital in London in 1930. By 1939 she was a fully fledged GP which was just as well as her husband went off to work in the Army Medical Corps along with her brother, the other doctor in the practice. She single handedly ran the medical practice, with the occasional help from my father who by this time was a medical student himself.


When he stayed in Lincolnshire my father Jim was pressed into joining the Home Front as the Lincolnshire coast was thought to be very vulnerable to German invasion. Apparently as the only able bodied man he was asked to carry the one and only riffle they had but I think my Aunty Joan had more of an idea of how to use it.

Jane Robinson nee Shaw - West Cumbria

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