A legacy that began in Scotland

By Jenny Main

Until 1919 any person could claim to be a nurse.  Sick or injured people were at the mercy of a range of genteel young ladies, well intentioned women or dissolute drunkards.  In describing the disreputable Sarah Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens, confirmed the reputation of nurses as unhygienic, ill-treating patients and for stealing.  

All this was to change, thanks to the determination of a few women with vision, the foremost of these being Ethel Gordon Fenwick.  

Ethel’s father, David Manson, trained as a doctor in Edinburgh before returning to his home area to work in Inverness. He turned to farming after inheriting Spynie Farm, near Elgin, Moray and in 1857 his second daughter, Ethel Gordon Manson, was born there.  The farm is overlooked by the great ruins of Spynie Palace, in a rich agricultural area suffused with history.

When Ethel was three years old her forty-six-year-old father suddenly died.  Her mother, Harriette, returned south and re-married, enabling the children to spend their formative years in the care of a kindly step-father in Thoroton Hall, Nottinghamshire. 

Ethel ensured the best possible care for her patients and the best working conditions and standards for her nurses.”

When she was twenty-one, Ethel began her nurse training in Nottingham and, in 1881, became the youngest matron of St. Bartholomew’s hospital, London.  It was a time of medical discoveries and innovations and, working alongside the medical pioneers of the day, Ethel ensured the best possible care for her patients and the best working conditions and standards for her nurses.  

Due to the conventions of the time, once married, she was no longer able to continue nursing.  Instead, as Mrs Bedford Fenwick, she devoted her life to enthusiastic campaigning, earning the sobriquet ‘restless genius’.  

Despite antagonists such as Florence Nightingale, who saw no need for young ladies to be anything other than ministering angels, Ethel forged increasing respect and support for her proposal of a register of nurses.  She was championed by her close friend and successor at Barts, another Scottish nurse, Isla Stewart. Isla’s death in 1910 – the same year as that of Florence Nightingale – was devastating for Ethel. 

Ethel actively supported the Suffragist movement.  She was confrontational and argumentative, but these were necessary qualities in the long battle to create a recognised profession of nursing.  She took part in conferences, committees and exhibitions and founded the International Council of Nurses. She stressed the need for higher education of nurses and used her journalistic skills to encourage constant self-improvement.  

She was confrontational and argumentative, but these were necessary qualities in the long battle to create a recognised profession of nursing. 

Ethel leading a Suffragette procession of nurses and midwives in the Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions. The Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions was held in the Albert Hall in April 1909, and brought together members of the suffrage movement. These midwives and nurses took part in the procession that preceded the pageant from Eaton Square to the Albert Hall. Copyright Museum of London.

She was instrumental in organising the nursing of soldiers in wars including the Greeco-Turkish War 1887, and organising the French Flag Nursing Corps in 1914.  Subsequently she was awarded several medals acknowledging this invaluable work.

Ethel insisted on a proper training so all nurses attained a recognised standard before admission to their register; only then could they claim the title and profession of nurse.  After many political hurdles, the Government Bill of the Registration of Nurses was passed, becoming law in December 1919. In 1921 Ethel Fenwick had the satisfaction of signing the new register and becoming the first registered nurse.  Thanks to her foresight and determination, nurses were able to take their place alongside the other professionals within the National Health Service when it became operative in 1948.  

Whilst in her eighties Ethel continued to voice her opinions, lobbying Prime Minister Winston Churchill on nursing in 1943 on the subject of assistant nurses. 

A fall in 1947, resulted in a fractured femur which never healed and, after some bedridden months, she died, aged 90, and her ashes were interred in the precincts of Thoroton Church, Nottinghamshire.  Sadly, she was little known in her Scottish birthplace, but Ethel Gordon Fenwick left the world a better place than she found it.

About the author

Jenny Main trained to be SRN  at University College Hospital London and then moved up to Elgin in the North-East of Scotland. She worked for many years until a back injury prematurely ended her career at the age of forty. Jenny shared an interest for local history with her district nursing officer, the late Mary Thorogood and they both supported their local Elgin Museum.  Mary asked Jenny to write an article about Ethel because she realised that no-one in Elgin knew about this remarkable woman. Jenny has been able to include her brief history in ‘Women of Moray’ , Bennett, Byatt, Main, Oliver and Trythall ; pub Luath,2012  and more recently in A-Z of Elgin, Amberley 2019.

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