A Fenwick by any other name

By Christine E. Hallett

Born Ethel Gordon Manson in 1857, the nurse-reformer we now know variously as “Ethel Gordon Fenwick”, “Ethel Bedford Fenwick” and “Mrs. Bedford Fenwick” had a profound influence on the nursing profession globally.  So why do so few people know about her? And why do those who have heard of her disagree on a subject so central to her identity: her name?  Perhaps a brief glance at her life story will enable us to better understand.

Fenwick (let’s call her by her marital surname for now) spent her early childhood in Morayshire, grew up in Nottinghamshire, trained as a professional nurse in Nottingham and Manchester, and worked in two of the most prestigious London hospitals: The London and St Bartholomew’s.  She campaigned for a professional nurses’ register from 1887 until the passing of the Nurses Registration Act on 23 December, 1919, and then continued to be a vocal champion for a single portal entry nursing profession until her death in 1947. But none of that helps us with her name – or does it?

“In the last decades of the twentieth century, the nursing profession was one of the few avenues for independence and advancement for women”.

Fenwick’s Christian and middle names cause very little difficulty: the name Ethel was quite popular for girls throughout Britain in the late nineteenth century, whilst “Gordon” was a significant Scottish family name.  Ethel’s father, from whom she, naturally, took her maiden name, “Manson” (That’s confusing – another name?!), was a prominent well-to-do physician in Eastern Scotland, and Ethel’s early childhood at Spymie House was comfortable and settled.  Had her father not died an early death, she might have spent her entire life in the secluded comfort of a country house in Morayshire. As it was, on her mother’s second marriage – to the Conservative politician, George Storer, she acquired both a new home, in Thoroton, Nottinghamshire, and a new stepfather – one from whom she appears to have learned a strong political consciousness – though not, it appears, the most diplomatic approach to political relationships.

“Fenwick became known as “Mrs. Bedford Fenwick”, her own identity becoming subsumed within that of her husband”.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the nursing profession was one of the few avenues for independence and advancement for women who, for whatever reason, wanted to work and earn their own living.  Yet, it was not an easy choice for a gentlewoman; a lingering taint of dishonour still clung to it, as a role for women of the servant-class, or, worse, for army camp-followers regarded as little other than prostitutes.  Entry into nursing was, therefore, a brave decision, and one usually born out of a genuine desire to give service to others. Fenwick was a classic example of a gentlewoman who desired independence and a life of value and service.   She was also a forceful and determined woman, who moved rapidly through the ranks of the nascent profession, becoming the Matron of one of the most prestigious London hospitals, St Bartholomew’s, at the age of only 24.

Matron Ethel Gordon Manson’s name was, thus far, uncomplicated (if lengthy), but, in 1887, Fenwick married the London Hospital surgeon, Bedford Fenwick.  The norm for women of the late nineteenth century was to adopt their husband’s names. Hence, formally, Fenwick became known as “Mrs. Bedford Fenwick”, her own identity becoming subsumed within that of her husband. No longer is there an “Ethel”, a “Gordon” or a “Manson” – just a name belonging to a doctor with the prefix “Mrs” attached to it.  This left subsequent historians with a dilemma. It would have been quite correct in many ways to have referred to Fenwick as “Mrs. Bedford Fenwick”.  This was, indeed, the name she often applied to herself. Yet, women’s historians in particular have balked at such adoption of patriarchal nomenclature – particularly for a woman who identified herself as a suffragist, and whom later writers have seen as essentially proto-feminist in her approach.  

The problem is that the adoption of the name “Ethel Bedford Fenwick” would simply be incorrect – a name that Fenwick herself would not have recognised.  For this reason, modern historians refer to her as “Ethel Gordon Fenwick”: a solution which uses her Christian name, restores her middle name to her, and acknowledges her married name as well.  Perhaps for purposes of nursing history, it is useful to remember that Fenwick herself used this name when submitting the application for entry into the British nurses’ register, which resulted in her being entered as “Nurse No. 1” in the year 1921.  But not even these three words can convey a true sense of who “Nurse No. 1” really was: the complexity of her life and the multiplicity of her aspirations, along with a sense of just how “modern” she appears to our twenty-first-century gaze.  

There is a need for serious and extensive research on both the life and work of Ethel Gordon Fenwick, in order to enable us to better understand her involvement in one of the most turbulent episodes in the history of the nursing profession.

Christine E Hallett is Professor of Nursing History at University of Huddersfield.

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