History is fun, but it’s even more fun with archives which provide us with that tangible connection to fascinating stories of amazing people and places who have shaped our history.
And this year we have so many reasons, if reasons were needed, to go searching through the Wiltshire & Swindon Archive to see just how connected the county is to some of the major national commemorations that are taking place in 2020.
Already garnering national attention are the 800th birthday celebrations for Salisbury cathedral and the city of Salisbury. And Salisbury can also lay claim to ties with another 800th anniversary – that of the unveiling of the shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury cathedral. This year is also the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder.
In a busy year Wiltshire will also be marking the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Most people will know of her as ‘the lady with the lamp’ – a phrase and image made famous in her lifetime following her pioneering work during the Crimean War – but how many know of her connections to Wilton House and the Pembroke family?
Florence was born in Florence, Italy, on 12th May 1820 and named after the city of her birth. (Her older sister Frances Parthenope was named after her birthplace of Parthenope in Naples.) The family moved back to England in 1821 and Florence grew up at Embley Park in Hampshire, just 15 miles from Salisbury. She wanted to be a nurse from an early age and had hoped to take up the career at Salisbury Infirmary – then in Fisherton Street – but her family opposed the idea, believing nursing to be an inappropriate activity for a young woman of her social standing.
She spent much of her twenties travelling and it was in Rome, in November 1847, that she met Sidney Herbert, the younger son of the Earl of Pembroke, and so began a lifelong friendship that was to prove so important to her work.
In 1853 Florence began her nursing career as the superintendent of a women’s hospital in London but it was the outbreak of war in the Crimea in 1854, and reports of horrendous conditions endured by sick and injured soldiers, that propelled Florence into spotlight.
With the support of Sidney Herbert, the minister for war, Florence Nightingale led a group of nurses to the Crimea and so began her campaign to improve conditions at Scutari hospital. Her work, alongside the work of a government Sanitary Commission, transformed the survival rates for the soldiers treated at Scutari.
Accounts of her work in her own words and the words of others are held here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and form part of the Pembroke archive (WSA 2057). There are two series of correspondence and documents – 2057/F4 and 2057/F8 – which include letters sent by Florence to Sidney Herbert and others.
In a letter written from Scutari in January 1856 (WSA 2057/F4/64), Florence attempts to explain to “dear Mr Bracebridge” how she will use the money given to the newly established Nightingale Fund. “The people of England say to me by their subscriptions ‘We trust you, we wish you to do us a service’. No love or confidence can be shown to a human being greater than this – and as such I accept it gratefully…” She goes on to say: “And if I have a plan in me, which is not battered out by the constant ‘wear and tear’ of mind and body I am now undergoing, it would be simply this – to take the poorest and least organised hospital & putting myself in there, see what I could do…”. She concludes that she is “overwhelmed at present not with plans but work.” And adds that she wishes she could say “how much I feel the love & confidence of the people of England, in whose service I have lived, so I shall die.”
Florence’s work, and that of her nurses, had made headline news in Britain and the public began giving money for a gift honouring her efforts, but so much money was given that the Nightingale Fund was created, with her friend and support Sidney Herbert its honorary secretary.
Florence’s uncertainty about the details of what to do with the fund did not last long and in July 1860 the first school of nursing was opened at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. As well as transforming and professionalising the training of nurses, Florence also influenced the design of new hospitals, introducing the eponymous Nightingale Wards.
Following on from her work during the Crimean war, Florence campaigned for improved sanitary conditions at home and went on to work on improving conditions for the British army in India. Florence was an effective social reformer and campaigner, making the most of her friendship with Sidney Herbert and not afraid to use the media of the day. But she was also careful to support her work with evidence, especially statistics, and became the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.
The Florence Nightingale letters in the Pembroke archive, and letters written by others about Florence’s work, are a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most iconic Victorian figures and it is fitting that we mark the bicentenary of her birth on 12th May this year.