Sister Henrietta Stockdale (1847-1911) South Africa’s Florence Nightingale

Val Wood describes the life story of Sister Henrietta Stockdale (1847-1911), her friendship with Ethel Gordon Fenwick and her contribution to nursing history.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Henrietta Stockdale is remembered as a heroic founder figure of professional nursing in South Africa, introducing the first nurse training programmes, establishing standards for this training and leading the campaign for statutory registration of nurses. In 1891, South Africa became the first country to achieve this through a Medical and Pharmacy Act, sanctioned by the Cape Colonial Government. Henrietta was born on the 9 July 1847 at Gringley on the Hill, Nottinghamshire. Henrietta’s father, The Rev. Henry Stockdale had been appointed to the nearby parish of Misterton with West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire and the family moved to live in Misterton from 1850. Determined – according to several sources – to become a missionary attached to an Anglican Mission, Henrietta joined Allan Webb, the then Bishop of Bloemfontein,  South Africa, in response to his appeal for teachers and nurses to come and work with him in the Orange Free State.  

In preparation for this role Henrietta undertook nursing training from 1873 with the convent community of St John the Baptist, Clewer, situated between Windsor and Maidenhead. The sisterhood administered nursing services to St Andrew’s Convalescent Hospital, Clewer. In 1874, Henrietta travelled with four nursing sisters to Bloemfontein, South Africa where they formed the Community of St Michael and All Angels.

Du Toit’s Pan Road Kimberley 1899
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nursing services in South Africa were dominated by religious sisterhoods in the last three decades of the 19th century. The country had been colonised by Britain in the 18th century and became a popular place for emigration from 1818 and this increased considerably when diamonds were discovered in 1867.  The rush to the settlement of Kimberley in 1871 by diggers and speculators, as well as service providers, shopkeepers, barkeepers, hoteliers and the like resulted in a population of 30,000 living in crowded and insanitary conditions. Diseases were rife and the need for a public institution for the care of the population and nurses was realised in 1875 when two hospitals near Kimberley were erected, the Diggers Central Hospital of 20 beds, run by the committee of diggers and the Carnarvon Provincial Hospital, of 14 beds, established by the government. The two hospitals stood side by side in the same compound. In 1876 the services of the Sisterhood of St Michael and All Angels, Bloemfontein, were enlisted, and Henrietta Stockdale was deployed to work in Kimberley.

“The Kimberley nurses, including Sr Henrietta were some of the first qualified nurses to be entered onto the RBNA volunteer register in 1890”

Various versions of her life exist, and dates and events are often conflated. In her own account, published after her death, which she had edited with Lady Elizabeth Villiers Loch, she outlines how she undertook district work and lived in the tents of the people in the camp from 1877. Recuperating later that year from typhoid fever, she took her vows as a nun and returned to England, spending time at University College Hospital, London, to gain additional nursing experience. She also trained as a midwife under a local doctor, prior to returning to Bloemfontein in 1878.

In 1879, she relocated permanently to Kimberley to take charge of the Carnarvon Hospital, as matron. There she initiated a two-year training programme for nurses, providing lectures and demonstrations for the women she recruited and those who successfully completed the course were awarded a certificate as a qualified nurse. The training was extended to three years by 1889. Attention was also paid by Sr Henrietta to the moral and ethical behaviour of the pupil nurses, wishing them to be ‘ladies and god-fearing women’, (Bhengu, 2016).

After qualification these trained nurses took up matron’s positions in other hospitals across South Africa, establishing small, local schools of nursing attached to Anglican mission outposts. In 1887, when Ethel Gordon Fenwick formed the British Nurses Association, Sr Henrietta joined and the Kimberley nurses – including Sr Henrietta – were some of the first qualified nurses to be entered onto the RBNA volunteer register in 1890. A branch of the RBNA had been established in Kimberley in 1888. She was also an Honorary member of the Matrons Council and the International Council of Nurses and nurses from Kimberley were present at the inaugural meeting of the ICN, held in London in 1899.

In respect of Sr Henrietta’s friendship with Fenwick, this was, as noted by the family of Ethel Gordon Fenwick, more aptly described as one of international collaboration and mutual respect. Fenwick used the example of South Africa and early nurse registration in a colony closely aligned to Britain, to exert political influence on her own campaign in Britain. There are also articles and references to Sr Henrietta in the British Journal of Nursing, written by Fenwick.

“Sr Henrietta bequeathed to the nurses of South Africa a tradition as exalted and as powerful as that which Florence Nightingale bequeathed to England”

In South Africa, Sr Henrietta’s image has been carefully cultivated by Charlotte Searle (1910 -2001), who trained at the Kimberley Hospital and became the first Professor of Nursing in South Africa in 1965. Searle propagated the notion that Sr Henrietta ‘bequeathed to the nurses of South Africa a tradition as exalted and as powerful as that which Florence Nightingale bequeathed to England. In life, a living legend, her ideals, her example, and her teaching, live on in South Africa’, (Bhengu, 2016). Sr Henrietta’s legacy is very much in evidence in South Africa, a nurse training school in Kimberley is named after her, there is a memorial stone at Kimberley Hospital and her statue stands in the grounds of St Cyrian’s Cathedral, Kimberley.

There can be no doubt that Sr Henrietta made a significant contribution to nursing, however it is important to consider the context and time frame in which her life’s work took place. She was the first to introduce model professional training standards, for white South African nurses and provided the profession with its founding charter. The training was however, as Shula Marks (1994) notes, constructed on a model of patriarchal British imperialism, resulting in subordination to an authoritarian medical profession, and reinforced by race and class. Formal nursing training for black African women emerged later in South Africa and was segregated. The first black nurse to register in 1909 was Cecilia Makowane who trained at the Victoria Hospital, Lovedale.

Sr Henrietta’s grave
Credit: Andrew Hall Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International 

Sr Henrietta’s life in many respects is only the beginning of a rich, albeit complex history, of South African nursing which was impacted by apartheid. Sr Henrietta remained in post at the Carnarvon hospital as matron until 1895 when the sisters were withdrawn and she returned to her order at Blomfontein, where she established a midwifery training school and nursing agency on behalf of her religious order. She died in Blomfontein on the 6 October 1911 aged 64 and was buried in Dutoitspan Cemetery. A memorial mass has been celebrated at Kimberley Hospital every year on the 6th October and since 2016 there has been a Henrietta Stockdale Memorial Lecture.

Val Wood is a member of the Nottingham Nurses History Group

Further Reading

Marks S (1994) Divided sisterhood, race, class and gender in the South African nursing profession. St Martin’s Press.

McGann S and Mortimer B (eds) (2008) New Directions in Nursing History, International Perspectives.

Sister Henrietta Stockdale’s biography published by Longmans, 1914 and her letters are available at as part of a digital project entitled Project Canterbury.

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