Ethel Gordon Fenwick at Nottingham Children’s Hospital

By Val Wood

Featured photo from

In 1878 – at the age of twenty -one – Ethel Gordon Fenwick (nee Manson) started her nurse training at the Children’s Hospital, Nottingham. She was one of two lady probationers 1 attached to the hospital and she joined a nursing team of a lady superintendent, two probationers, four nurses and six house servants. 

Nottingham Children’s Hospital had opened nine year earlier in 1869 and it is assumed Ethel chose Nottingham for very pragmatic reasons: it was close to her family home, Thoroton Hall near Bingham and there were family associations to the Nottingham General Hospital. 

The physician John Storer (1747-1837), the grandfather of George Storer MP (1814 -1888) and Fenwick’s stepfather, had been instrumental in establishing the General Hospital in the city and the Storer family were involved in philanthropic events at the local hospitals and made charitable donations towards their upkeep. 

Nursing at the Children’s Hospital 

When the hospital was founded it was agreed that, ‘the nursing in this establishment would be voluntary nursing, a nursing prompted by the highest religious feeling’ and viewed as essential to carry out the proper nursing of sick children. 

Miss Mary Hine, one of the daughters of Thomas Chambers Hine a renowned Nottingham architect, became the sister in charge. Known as Sister Millicent or Sister Melicent, Mary Hine was attached to St Lucy’s Home and Charity and Children’s Hospital at Gloucester which had opened in 1867. This was an Anglican order, the Sisterhood of St John the Baptist and possibly an off shoot of the London based St John Nursing Sisterhood. 

Concerns about standards of care 

In 1870 she left the hospital due to ill health and was replaced by Sister Edith from the same sisterhood. A series of incidents recorded in the Children’s Hospital committee minutes for 1870 reveal concern about the conduct of the nurses and a dialogue with the Superior of St Lucy’s sisterhood resulted in the ending of their agreement to provide the nursing service. 

By the early 1870s the hospital was without a nurse in charge and the situation was only resolved when the committee accepted an offer from St John’s sisterhood, London, to supply a sister, two nurses and probationer to take charge. 

In 1874 the arrangement with St John’s ended with the committee appointing a trained nurse, Miss Townson as the sister in charge. 

It had not been an auspicious start for the hospital in terms of nursing, however the appointment of a trained nurse suggested that the committee had recognised that ‘religious feeling’ alone could not be the sole basis on which to carry out in their words “the proper nursing of sick children”. In 1875, Miss Townson was promoted to matron and lady superintendent. 

Fenwick’s life as a lady probationer 

The Children’s Hospital was struggling financially when Ethel commenced her nurse training and an appeal for donations had been placed in one of the local newspapers, the Nottingham Journal. 

The hospital was run by a committee of mainly of local clergyman and was entirely dependent on subscriptions by individual benefactors, financial donations, including the nurse training fees of the lady probationers and from 1873 funding by the Hospital Saturday and Hospital Sunday Charity. 

The hospital minute books for 1878 refer to the fees being made by a lady probationer, whether this was Ethel is not known. The amount being paid to the hospital was 13 pounds -13 shillings for a quarter of the year, approximately 42 pounds annually. 

In 1878 when Ethel commenced her probationer training at the hospital there were 45 inpatients and 222 out-patients and the management committee were struggling to deal with the increased demand for beds. Whether Ethel was fully aware of the issues affecting the hospital during her period of training cannot be ascertained. However, one could imagine that in the day to day dealing with patients and as part of a nursing team, she must have recognised the difficulties and the demands and constraints in meeting health needs with limited resources. 

Medical matters at the hospital were overseen by Dr Ransom (1824-1907) one of the physicians from Nottingham General Hospital and the consulting surgeon, Mr Beddard (1840-1889). Both men were conservative in respect of their medical practice. It was unlikely that lectures to the nurses were provided and we must assume that responsibility for training rested solely with the lady superintendent and nurse in charge. 

Nursing management at the Children’s Hospital remained unstable with several changes of personnel noted around the time of Ethel’s training. Miss Townson resigned in 1877 and her replacement Miss Minkes, who had trained at Great Ormond Street, left during Ethel’s probationary period. 

Sick children 

There are no details of hospital admissions and patient data until 1887 but we do know that no child with smallpox was admitted. Many cases of rickets, hip joint disease, or scrofulous disease of the spine or joints were similarly refused, simply because they were either incurable or required long term rest, improved diet and access to sunshine. It was felt that to 

admit these children would turn the hospital into an asylum for sickly children instead of a place for the treatment and cure of the diseases of childhood. 

Looking at the list of conditions/ disorders supplied in the 1887 annual report for the Children’s Hospital there may be similarities to the health conditions/diseases Ethel was exposed to in her probationer nurse training (See list below). 

Childhood illnesses and diseases listed as being treated at Nottingham Children’s Hospital 1887

  • Burns and scalds
  • Abcesses
  • Laryngotomy- surgical incision to relieve breathing if obstructed
  • Tracheotomy
  • Osteotomy – deformity of the bone due to the deficiency disease-Rickets
  • Impacted calculus
  • Calculus vesicole- Kidney stones
  • Hypospadios- birth abnormality affecting the male reproductive system.
  • Amputations 
  • Circumcision
  • Necrosis of the jaw- bone disease
  • Hair lip -birth defect
  • Cleft palate- as above
  • Diarrhoea
  • Bronchitis
  • Arthritis
  • Pneumonia
  • Anaemia

The infectious disease diptheria was one of the great Victorian child killers. Children were cared for at Nottingham General Hospital. The bacteria causing the disease was isolated in 1883 by Edwin Klebs and an antitoxin developed in 1890.

Further reading – Archives of the Diseases of Children

After Nottingham 

In September 1878 Ethel left the hospital and spent a further year at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, again as a paying probationer. 

When she was appointed as Matron of St Bartholomew’s hospital in 1881 the local Nottingham papers reported this event. According to the Nottingham Guardian, Ethel’s ‘nursing ability and efficiency are excelled only by her kindness and urbanity’. What Ethel herself felt about her training was never formally recorded. It can however be assumed that her time spent as a probationer left a lasting impression and were instrumental in her campaign for nurse registration and nurse education. 

Val Wood, Nottingham Women’s History Group.

1 A Lady Practitioner was a trainee from a middle or upper -class background who paid a fee in exchange for her training. Lower class recruits – known as ordinary probationers were offered free training and were paid a salary. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *