[Pictured above right is Florence Nightingale.]
This March, we have been celebrating Women’s History Month at The Joy Club, taking the opportunity to shine a light on overlooked perspectives both past and present. In our creative writing workshops, facilitator Grace encouraged attendees to explore the theme of honouring women from history. We were overwhelmed by the stories that came out of the class, which is why we have decided to publish them over the next few weeks as part of our ‘Unsung Voices’ showcase. Thank you to all our member writers for giving a voice to these women, reigniting the intelligence, love and resilience that burned so brightly in them.
This poem and short story were written by member, Jane, and they explore, respectively, Henrietta Lacks and Florence Nightingale.
My daughter was given a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks when she did a week’s oncology course at Oxford University when she was in the sixth form. She was so touched by this book, she gave it to me to read and the story has stayed with me ever since. I’m always amazed that, like me, so many people are not familiar with her story.
We were given a prompt to write about an inspirational woman in our creative writing class. I suppose as the NHS is in all our minds these days, I thought of Florence Nightingale and when I started researching I discovered she had set up a school to train nurses from all walks of life. I then decided to write about Florence Nightingale from the point of view of one of the students.
St Thomas’ Hospital
15th August 1860
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write to tell you that I arrived safely in London. Paddington Station was noisy, dirty and busy, as is the whole of London, but I’m beginning to get accustomed to it now. A kindly station master gave me directions to the hospital. It took me an hour to walk there.
I still can’t quite believe that Miss Nightingale refused to touch a penny of the £44,000 that was raised from the Nightingale Fund herself, but instead used it to establish the Nightingale School for Nurses. And that I am actually part of the first group to be taught there.
I am quite the youngest in this intake. In fact, some of the others are hugely surprised that I was even accepted. Apparently Miss Nightingale is rather particular that her nurses are not too young and innocent, liking them to have a little experience of life. I feel my plainness and sensibility must have greatly helped in my application, together with Reverend Wilton’s letter of recommendation adhering to my cleanliness and honesty. You will be relieved that, as the youngest, the older women are keen to mother me, so you need not worry on that count.
My teachers are most interested in my work at the cottage hospital and also about our caring for father during his illness last year. Most of the others have had some experience of medical work, so none of us are too shocked.
You will not believe it… I have my own room. It is very small and plain, but after a busy shift, I can lie on my bed quietly and read. I was quite scared to begin with, being so used to the company of my siblings.
We are a group of two halves. The larger half are like me, from simple working homes and we are referred to as the common class. We are grateful that we have somewhere to live, and all our meals provided.
The other half are called the upper class women and their families have paid for them to gain this education. I was nervous when I knew we would have ladies in our midst, but we are all happy, brought together with our desire to nurse, and chatter away in our little social area. I have heard that many ladies from these circles have been prohibited from applying. Their families feel that the occupation of nursing does not befit ladies of their class. Those luckily enough to have kindly parents are given large allowances from their families and are very generous. One lady, Emily, treated some of us to afternoon tea last week.
I did purchase a hat pin yesterday, having lost the one I had. I felt so grand wearing something bought from London.
We were given a uniform on our arrival. We all look very terribly smart and we are very proud to wear it. The patients have so much trust in us, we don’t always have the heart to tell them we are very new to this. We have simple responsibilities at present. I can’t believe that soon we will begin to learn such things as the principles of anatomy, chemistry, physiology, surgical nursing and food sanitation.
We have been told that one of the principal reasons we were chosen was that we were all deemed, in particular, to be women of good character and Matron told us that she expects us to maintain this standard.
Two of the others laughed at her when she’d left the room and said that they were going to sneak out for some fun soon. They said that what was the point of being in London if all they were doing was work.
I hope Timothy and Mary are well and are helping you now I’m no longer there. Once again thank you mother for allowing me to do this. And please tell Reverend Wilton that I read my Bible every night. Miss Nightingale is a lady of great faith and although she doesn’t preach to us, I’m sure she expects the same of us. She believes that once we are trained, we will be of such great benefit to the medical profession. I fear many of the doctors don’t feel quite the same. I hope one day that will change.
We have been told that if we work hard, that Miss Nightingale will take us all to her home, Lea Hurst in Derbyshire for a holiday. We are all most excited and determined to work all the harder.
I must say she does not look like someone who could have done all that heroic work in the Crimea that we read about as she is so slight, but she is very tall, with short rich brown hair and the sharpest and brightest of eyes. Matron tells us she has to give her reports on us, informing her of our progress and those of us who achieve the certification after a year will be invited to her London home in South Street. That will be such an honour and we will be so proud to call ourselves ‘Nightingales’ as we move on to our placements in various institutions around the country.
I miss you all.
With all my love
Ps. We have watched with horror as the two aforementioned women were marched out of the hospital this morning. They were caught inebriated last night as they returned from their evening of fun. We have all been reminded that sobriety is of the utmost importance.
What do you think? You can share your thoughts on Jane’s writing in the comments below.