Twelve Days of Christmas London Style – Day 7



The daily schedule of trainee nurses at St Thomas’s Hospital

Long, long ago, in a country far, far away, I trained as a nurse at the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh. On our first day, we were told that our School of Nursing had been founded by one of Florence Nightingale’s own nurses. And indeed, Florence’s influence was everywhere; from the long Nightingale wards we worked in, to the clear hierarchy between doctors and nurses and almost military discipline.

I’d long promised myself a visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum. Set within the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospitaldirectly across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, (the original hospital was bombed during WW2), this is where Florence established her first nursing school in 1860. The museum is divided into three sections; Her Early Life, The Crimean War and Post-War Work.


The view of The Houses of Parliament from St Thomas’s Hospital

Born in 1820 in Florence (hence her name) to affluent and well-connected British parents, Florence rebelled against the expectations of becoming a dutiful wife and mother, refusing at least one offer of marriage. Highly intelligent, she worked hard to educate herself in mathematics and science, both through traditional book learning as well as travel. Financially supported by her father, she began nursing in 1840 in Germany, later becoming Superintendent at the Institute for The Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Harley Street.


This Turkish lamp, a fanoos, is more likely what Florence carried around the wards rather than the genie lamp depicted in pictures of the time.

In 1854, at the request of the Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, Florence brought together 38 volunteer nurses (including 15 Catholic nuns) to sail to the Crimea. Arriving at the hospital in Scutari they discovered total chaos with little care offered to the sick and injured. Most deaths were caused from illnesses such as cholera or typhoid, rather than wounds sustained in battle, so through basic nursing care, good food, fresh air and adequate sanitation, she is credited with reducing the death rate amongst soldiers from 42% to 2% following hospital admission. It is during this time the legend of The Lady with the Lamp arose – although it’s more likely she walked the wards carrying a Turkish lamp rather than the one portrayed in images of that time.

Florence also met with Mary Seacole, (voted the Greatest Black Briton in 2004), a Jamaican nurse who set up the British Hotel near Balaclava for the care of sick and convalescent soldiers. Although they never worked together, the relationship between the two women appears to have been friendly, with Mary staying overnight at Florence’s hospital on her arrival in the Crimea.

nurse picturesHaving succumbed to Crimean Fever (probably Chronic Brucellosis) Florence returned to Britain where she remained an invalid for the rest of her life. Even so, she founded the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’s and continued to be extremely influential, writing and advising on nursing, sanitation and hospital design until her death in 1910.

The museum doesn’t just focus on Florence Nightingale herself, but on the evolution of the profession/vocation of nursing over the years. There are fascinating interviews with nurses of all ages, including modern military nurses who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Edith Cavell’s dog, Jack. Using him as ‘cover’ on early morning walks, she helped approximately 200 allied soldiers escape.

One exhibit includes the story of Edith Cavell, the British nurse shot in World War One, and her dog, Jack, who was often her cover for helping allied soldiers escape.

For more information on this intriguing little museum, please click here to check out its website.