Florence Nightingale, famous for her work as a nurse and social reformer, was born 200 years ago on 12 May 1820. This is the first of a two-part blog exploring the records at The National Archives that shine a light on her incredible life; from birth through to her nursing endeavours in the Crimea War and beyond.
During the Crimean War (1854-1856) Nightingale improved the sanitary conditions of the British military hospital in Scutari, showing through data collection and analysis that these efforts helped to reduce the death toll. Returning home a hero, she spent the rest of her life driving reforms in nursing and hospital design, writing books, and corresponding on public health, theology and politics.
Florence’s early life
Born to wealthy parents in Florence, Italy, Nightingale was bought up following the Unitarian religion on her family’s estates in Hampshire and Derbyshire. Florence’s birth certificate can be found among The National Archives’ non-conformist records in RG 5, available online (£) 1.
Nightingale was born during the period of the first industrial revolution, a time when the textile industry and transportation links were developing. It was from industry that her father’s wealth derived. An industrialist and lead mine owner, Peter Nightingale left the bulk of his estate to his great nephew, William Edward Shore, who was required to:
‘take upon himself…the Sirname of Nightingale and by the said Sirname of Nightingale only and no other from thenceforth for ever thereafter continue to name stile and write himself…in all Deeds Instruments and Writings” 2.
The will of Peter Nightingale can be downloaded from the record series PROB 11 in Discovery, The National Archives’ catalogue. The announcement of Florence’s father’s name change under Royal Warrant can also be found in the London Gazette 3.
Census records highlight the family’s wealth. In 1851 the Nightingale household included a ladies maid, a footman, two waiters, two housemaids, three laundry maids, and a cook 4. As a result of the family’s high social standing, Nightingale had a broad education and travelled widely. Her interest in nursing came at a young age and, influenced by her religious convictions, she visited infirmaries at home and abroad. In this period, nursing as a profession was not considered a respectable vocation for the upper-classes. Despite provocations from her family, in 1851 she trained as a sick nurse in Germany. Two years later she secured the position of Superintendent of a hospital in Harley Street, London and nursed cholera patients during the London epidemic.
Florence ‘Called Up’
The Crimean War, a military conflict between Russia on one side and Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia on the other, was fought over a period of 18 months between 1853 and 1855. New technologies, like the steam-powered rotary press and railways, made print cheaper and easier to distribute than ever before, allowing for the conditions of the war to be reported to wider audiences.
Following some scathing reports about the state of hospitals and lack of nurses in the East, the Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert, appointed 34-year-old Florence Nightingale to take a party of 38 women over to the military hospital in Scutari, including professional nurses, upper-class ladies, and woman from religious nursing orders. A copy of a letter from Herbert is found in War Office correspondence files (WO 43) outlining Nightingale’s authority: ‘every thing relating to the distribution of the Nurses, the hours of their attendance, their allotment to particular duties’ was placed in her hands ‘subject of course to the sanction and approval of the Chief Medical Officer’ 5.
With the support of the War Office, Nightingale left England on 21 October 1854 to travel to the war zone. Evidence of the journey can be found in the passport registers held at The National Archives. The register, dated 20 October, shows that ‘Miss F Nightingale’ (passport number 17990) was given “gratis” passage to Constantinople 6. The government covered the nurse’s cost of passage, and the ongoing cost of house rent and subsistence as well as up to two months sick leave 7.
Florence was off to war but, as will be explored in the next blog, she would find her task difficult and her authority challenged, as she and the nurses under her command worked to save lives.
- RG 5/83. Florence Nightingale’s birth certificate from a collection of original parchment and paper certificates from which the entries in the registers of births from the Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist registry at Dr Williams’ Library were compiled. ↩
- PROB 11/1399/3. Will of Peter Nightingale of Matlock, Derbyshire. ↩
- The London Gazette, 25 February 1815, p. 338. ↩
- HO 107/1485. 1851 census, Registration District: 6 St James Westminster. Available to download from Ancestry.co.uk. ↩
- WO 43/963. Nurses in the Crimea. Correspondence and memoranda of Florence Nightingale, Sidney Herbert et al. Letter from Sidney Herbert to Florence Nightingale, 20 October 1854. ↩
- FO 610/8. Entry book of passports issued, July 1854–March 1855. ↩
- WO 43/963. Nurses in the Crimea. Correspondence and memoranda of Florence Nightingale, Sidney Herbert et al. ‘Rules and Regulations for the Nurses Attached to the Military Hospitals in the East’. ↩