Finding Ethel and my own ‘nursing history’

By Liz Howard-Thornton

In 2016, whilst following my own family history, I learnt that after my great grandfather had been killed at the Battle of the Somme, my great grandmother – Lizzie – left their baby son with her family and went out to serve as a ‘nurse’ at the No 3 British General Hospital, Le Treport, France.  

Lizzie signed up to be a British Red Cross ‘VAD’ which stands for Voluntary Aid Detachment, a voluntary post often taken up by many middle-class women during WW1. 

Lizzie – my great grandmother – in her British Red Cross VAD uniform

Like Lizzie, many women volunteered to become ‘partially trained’ nurses or ‘ward maids’, serving in hospitals at home and abroad.  There were an estimated 100,000 VADs by the end of WW1 and this is where Lizzie’s story led me to find Ethel.  

In 1917 anyone could call themselves ‘a nurse’ and seek employment in private homes, cottage hospitals or larger hospitals and infirmaries, regardless of whether they had three years training, three months training, or no training at all.  There was no protection for the public against poor practice and few employment rights for nurses.  

As I searched deeper into the history of nurse regulation, I became intrigued and increasingly impressed at the 32-year campaign for registration. It was led by a nurse, Ethel Gordon Fenwick – also known as Mrs Bedford Fenwick – and ended with the Nurses Act which passed in 1919.

“The standards Ethel fought for, are as relevant for us today, as they were 100 years ago”.

I wanted to find out more about this amazing woman, I wanted to say thank you.  

In my search for information I discovered a small article from a Nottinghamshire newspaper which suggested that her remains lay in the Churchyard of St Helena’s Church at Thoroton in Nottingham, next to Thoroton Hall, her childhood home. 

On 21st August 2016 I was attending an event nearby and while chatting with some local nurses told them I was going to find Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s grave. They looked puzzled and their reply was “Ethel who?”.  I realised then I wasn’t alone and  I wondered how many nurses, like me had never been told about her and her significant contribution to the modern profession of nursing.

“I took a small bunch of flowers and set off to find her grave.  When I found it, I was upset and ashamed.”  

A stone building

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On 22nd August 2016, I took a small bunch of flowers and set off to find her grave.  When I found it, I was upset and ashamed.  

Her grave was unkempt and I noticed that the headstone tilted forward at a precarious angle and some of the letters were missing from the inscription.  

One of the founding pillars of our modern nursing profession, lay seemingly forgotten by the profession she served so faithfully.

The part that really touched me was her epitaph; “I have fought a good fight”. 

I vowed I would do all I could to make sure she was not forgotten by the modern nursing profession that owes her a huge debt of gratitude for its existence.  

Where to start?

On the church noticeboard I discovered an old local newspaper article about Ethel and I decided to contact the Vicar and Church Wardens.  By December, I met with church representatives, one of whom was a very kind and knowledgeable retired nurse, who had known Ethel’s grandson and worked with the author Jenny Main, on one of only two publications ever written about Ethel and her work (Main, 2003).  

We agreed that on the 70th Anniversary of her death in March 2017 we would hold a ‘Service of Thanksgiving’ and invite as many people as we could.  I contacted Ethel’s great grandchildren, The League of Saint Bartholomew’s Nurses, – where Ethel Gordon Fenwick was a matron- and the Dean of Southwell Minster, herself a Saint Bartholomew’s trained nurse who were all wonderfully supportive.  The current owner of Thoroton Hall – Ethel’s childhood home – invited me to visit him and his family, accompanied by Ethel’s great granddaughter and a few other guests on the day of the service.

On Sunday 12th March 2017 the ‘Service of Thanksgiving’ was held in the small, beautifully decorated historic church at Thoroton. Over 80 people attended, the ladies of the village provided refreshments and the enthusiasm was palpable. 

Many eminent nurses showed support and by the end of the day it was agreed that this enthusiasm to ‘celebrate, educate and commemorate’ the life and legacy of Ethel Gordon Fenwick must continue and the idea of the Ethel Gordon Fenwick Commemorative Partnership was suggested.  The planning took a full year and an inaugural meeting was held on 14th April 2018. 

Ethel’s legacy

Ethel and her supporters achieved registration though the Nurses Act which was passed on 23rd December 1919.  The national register was opened and on 30th September 1921, Ethel Gordon Fenwick became State Registered Nurse No.1. 

The standards Ethel fought for, are as relevant for us today, as they were 100 years ago. Ethel’s ‘Good fight’ goes on and we must continue to carry the baton that not only protects patients and the public through self-regulation, but also upholds the legal status of the title ‘Nurse’.

I hope you all enjoy reading the articles on this website and please ensure from this day forward that every student and registered nurse knows about Ethel Gordon Fenwick – The First Nurse. 

We owe thanks to her for our modern profession of nursing.

You can read more about the service of thanksgiving here https://southwell.anglican.org/life-legacy-first-state-registered-nurse-celebrated-thoroton/ and also view photographs here https://southwell.anglican.org/campaigning-nurse-first-srn-recognised-special-service-notts-church/

Liz Howard Thornton is secretary of the Ethel Gordon Fenwick Commemorative Partnership.

References and Bibliography

Howard-Thornton L (2016) Lest we forget…?.  The Bulletin of the UK Association of the History of Nursing’ (UKAHN) v5 pp72-74.

Main J (2003) Ethel Bedford Fenwick – The First Nurse. Anthony Rowe Ltd: Eastbourne (Available as an e-book)


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