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Life and legacy of first state registered nurse celebrated

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The life, work and legacy of the woman who successfully campaigned to become the UK’s first state registered nurse is being celebrated in a special church service on Sunday.

Ethel Bedford Fenwick campaigned for over 30 years, from 1887 to 1919, for the establishment of a register for nurses.

“She was a real pioneer and agent for change”

Bryony Wood

This month marks the 70th anniversary of her death in March 1947, having worked all her life for the recognition and regulation of nurses.

Only four years prior to her death, Ms Fenwick was seen frequently in parliament lobbying against the introduction of a nurses’ roll, viewed as a lesser form of regulation than full registration.

At a time of concerns among some over the introduction of the new nursing associate role, one of her great principles was that there should be no compromise in nursing education, with one portal of entry to the profession and no two-tier system.

A woman of great energy, drive and determination, her legacy to the nursing profession – and in particular her work in securing state registration – is deemed by many as incalculable.

She is buried in the Nottinghamshire village where she grew up. A service to celebrate her life and contribution to nursing will be held at St Helena’s Church in Thoroton on 12th March at 2.30pm.

Ethel Bedford Fenwick

Life and legacy of first state registered nurse celebrated

Revd Bryony Wood with church warden Nick Finlay by Ethel’s grave at St Helena’s

Senior nursing professionals will be attending, including Professor Anne Marie Rafferty from King’s College London, as well as local nurses and parishioners from the surrounding villages.

Liz Howard-Thornton, a member of the Royal College of Nursing and the History of Nursing Society, is also attending in order to follow up her interest in the early nursing history within the UK, specifically in relation to Ethel Gordon Fenwick.

She said: “The nursing register will be 100 years old on the 23rd December 2019 – and it is in my opinion mainly thanks to Ethel that we have this and also our current system of three years training for registered nurses, plus good working conditions – she pioneered all of that!”

The Revd Bryony Wood, vicar at St Helena’s, said: “I’m so pleased we can mark the life and legacy of this formidable lady here in Thoroton where she spent her formative years and is laid to rest. She was a real pioneer and agent for change.

“I’m delighted too that this gives us a chance to celebrate the wider vocation of nursing today,” she said. “Virtually all of us will experience the care and compassion of professional nurses so we all benefit from the role that Ethel played and her passion for nursing.”

Esther Sheardown, church warden at Thoroton Church and former a nurse, midwife and health visitor, can remember the day of Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s funeral.

Ethel Bedford Fenwick

Life and legacy of first state registered nurse celebrated

Ethel Bedford Fenwick

“I think I was about 11, my father told me that there was to be a funeral of a very important nurse happening in our village and, as he knew I wanted to be a nurse one day, I should go along,” she said. “But I was a child and didn’t want to go to a fusty old funeral of someone I didn’t know.

“In those days, village people stood in the streets as the funeral procession went by,” she said. “This was a very grand affair and my father told me afterwards about the black horses and the carriage that went by.”

Ethel Bedford Fenwick – biography (1857-1947)

Ethel Gordon Manson’s father died soon after her birth and she was brought up in Nottinghamshire by her mother and her step-father who was a wealthy Member of Parliament. She decided to enter nursing at the age of 21, and became a paying probationer at the Children’s Hospital, Nottingham, from April to September 1878. A paying or special probationer 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.

They could not, however, expect rapid advancement in their careers. Specials, by contrast were likely to be promoted to positions as sisters in charge of wards very soon after their probationary period. In Ethel Gordon Manson’s case, after having spent a further year at the Manchester Royal Infirmary – also as a paying probationer – she was taken on as Sister of Charlotte Ward at the London Hospital. In 1881, at the age of 24, she applied for – and was given – the position of Matron of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, one of the oldest and most influential London hospitals.

Ethel Bedford Fenwick

Life and legacy of first state registered nurse celebrated

Thoroton Hall, where Ethel spent much of her childhood

At the age of 30, Ethel Gordon Manson married Dr Bedford Fenwick (a surgeon of the London Hospital), retired from nursing and began the work for which she was to become famous – the campaign for the state registration of nurses. Initially, she began to work with the Hospitals Association, but soon lost patience with their policies, which she saw as supporting the interests of hospital administrators rather than those of nurses. She formed the breakaway group known as the British Nurses’ Association (BNA) at a meeting in her drawing room at 20, Upper Wimpole Street, London.

Her husband was a close supporter of her campaign, and took on the role of President of the BNA. In 1893, she bought and began to edit the journal Nursing Record, which had been founded in 1888. Fenwick used this journal, which she re-named British Journal of Nursing in 1903, as a mouthpiece for her views on the development of nursing and as a campaigning-tool to secure state registration. She was a prolific writer and keen journalist, and from 1910-11 acted as the President of the Society for Women Journalists. She was also an ardent suffragist and devoted a column in her journal to the campaign for votes for women.

In 1893 Fenwick and her husband both lost their official positions on the council of the Royal British Nurses’ Association. With her influence waning, Fenwick founded, along with Isla Stewart (her close friend and successor as Matron of St Bartholomew’s) the Matron’s Council of Great Britain and Ireland. Over the next two decades she founded a number of organisations designed to support legislation to establish the nurses’ register.

Notable among these were the Society for the State Registration of Nurses, founded in 1902 and the National Council of Nurses of Great Britain and Ireland founded in 1904. She and her co-campaigners lobbied tirelessly, ensuring that Bill after Bill for the introduction of state registration was brought before the British Parliament. Eventually, in 1919, with the passing of the Nurses’ Registration Act, the register was opened, and Ethel Bedford Fenwick’s name was entered as State Registered Nurse Number 1.

Ethel Bedford Fenwick

Life and legacy of first state registered nurse celebrated

Details from the headstone

In 1899, Fenwick embarked on the other great project of her career, the establishment of the International Council of Nurses (ICN). She first formed the idea of an international organisation that would promote the cause of nurses worldwide in the mid-1890s, and then announced her plan at the meeting of the International Council of Women in London in 1899. Membership was through national associations, which organised rapidly.

Fenwick created the National Council of Nurses to represent Britain. When elections were held, she herself was made President of the ICN, and her close friend, the influential American nurse, Lavinia Dock, became its Secretary. Congresses were held in Buffalo (1901); Berlin (1904); London (1909) and Cologne (1912). The work of the council continues today, having survived the disruption of two world wars and the many political upheavals of the twentieth century.

Accounts of the life and work of Ethel Bedford Fenwick can be found in: Hector, W. The Work of Mrs Bedford Fenwick and the Rise of Professional Nursing (London, Royal College of Nursing, 1973); McGann, S. The Battle of the Nurses (London, Scutari Press, 1992)


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