Nursing and Music in The Girl’s Own Paper
Part 1 Professional Nursing

The Girl’s Own Paper (TGOP), a popular weekly magazine published in London by the Religious Tract Society beginning in 1880, included information and advice about employment opportunities for young women in its issues. If replies in the Answers to Correspondents columns in the magazine offer a representative sampling of readers’ desired employments, other employments – including music – paled in comparison with readers’ visions of becoming professional nurses.

Professional nursing had entered the public’s consciousness when in 1854 Florence Nightingale took 38 female volunteer nurses from England to Turkey to provide care to ill and injured soldiers in the Crimean War. Highly publicised in the British press for her successful venture, Nightingale next opened a school of nursing at Saint Thomas Hospital in London in 1860. Nursing did not attract many recruits, however until the 1890s, but its popularity already had been reflected in the pages of TGOP. 1

In Volume 9 of TGOP, the editor proposed to award three gold medals yearly to girls or women who distinguished themselves in actions or in words. Subscribers to the magazine would vote for winners in the categories of good deeds, fine arts and literature, and science or education. Not surprisingly, he took it for granted that his readers would want to award the first medal to Her Majesty the Queen. [9: 8, 275] * Following a reminder to readers, the magazine was inundated with suggestions that Laura Finnis, Head Nurse at Saint William’s Hospital, Rochester, Kent, should receive the next medal. After TGOP staff had investigated the incident that prompted the letters, Finn was awarded the Girl’s Own Order of Merit for having risked her own life in hope of saving that of a five-year-old child dying from diphtheria. [9: 558, 631, 689–90]

‘Nursing has become one of the fashionable crazes of the day,’ wrote Amy Woods in 1893, ‘and almost every girl seems to imagine she is a born nurse. As a refuge for discontented and dissatisfied women, the hospitals and training institutions seem to have taken the place of the sisterhoods, possibly because no vows are enforced on those who enter them, and masculine society is not prohibited.’ [14: 500] She continued:

Because a nineteenth century maiden can bind up a cut finger and does not faint at the sight of a severed artery, she imagines she is cut out for a hospital nurse, and fondly pictures herself as a sort of ministering angel, who, wearing a most becoming uniform, smoothes the pillows and watches by the bedside of interesting patients, or performs miracles of Herculean strength in lifting and supporting burly costermongers and colliers, and is the wonder and admiration of doctors, nurses, and patients. Fortunately, if she carries out her intentions and enters a hospital, she is speedily awakened to a sense of her folly and incapacity by the hard work she has to do, and the scant consideration with which her inexperience is treated, and in many cases she gladly resigns her post and returns to the home she has learned to appreciate. [14: 500]

As Woods hinted, the reality of nursing was in stark contrast to its idealized image. In its first decades, nursing was organized along military lines in a battle on two fronts – one to create a respectable professional occupation for women of impeccable moral standards and one to wage war against illness and filth. Nightingale, the ‘supreme commander’, turned over the daily operations to her ‘generals’ – the matrons [senior-ranking nurses] of the large hospitals – who in turn oversaw the work of the ward nursing sisters. All gentlewomen from the upper classes, they were the officers in charge of the troops – the probationers and the nurses from the lower middle class. The ‘battle plan’ emphasized cleanliness and discipline as the weapons with which to carve out a distinct space for women that focused on care of patients and their environment within the male-dominated medical world. 2

From its very beginning, nurses met with resistance from both men and women as they worked to gain a foothold and justify their existence in the hospital. Ironically, their sisters who sought entrance into the medical profession swayed opinion in favour of female nurses as the lesser of two evils. To Mater, who wrote to the editor of The Lancet medical journal in 1870, the thought of lady doctors was ‘repugnant’, but a lady nurse in sickroom or hospital ‘is seen at her holiest and best work’. 3 Nursing, not the masculine domain of doctoring, was the ‘legitimate province’ of women, an anonymous contributor to the same journal wrote in 1879. The policy of ‘lady doctors’ was a ‘misdirected enterprise’ and a ‘monstrous mistake’ against which all womanly women should be warned. 4

A minimum age of 23 for probationers assured that nursing candidates would have maturity and some education. A literacy test, lengthy application, recommendations regarding maturity and character from two or three ladies and a minister, and an interview with the matron weeded out unsuitable young women. 5 Successful applicants entered a two-tier system of training: regular probationers, mostly from the lower middle class, were paid a stipend with uniforms and board for a three-year course of training, while lady probationers from the upper classes paid for the privilege of a year of training. Despite their shorter course, these latter probationers were placed on the fast track to become the ward sisters and matrons. With gentlewomen assuming command, the profession would be recognized as respectable, thus attracting applicants from the sheltered upper-middle and upper classes. 6

As the ranks filled with gentlewomen, nursing shifted from the military metaphor to a maternal one. 7 The image captured the hearts of the Victorian public who ‘adored womanly self-sacrifice’ and imagined nurses as their surrogates. As Martha Vicinus explains, ‘In an age that was widely condemned for its materialistic and self-seeking character, women – and especially nurses – carried the burden of morality for others. Nurses were as close to saints as a Protestant country could have.’ 8 But nursing was not for the faint-hearted or physically frail. All probationers were plunged into a grueling fifteen-hour hospital day ordered by a regimen ‘clearly intended to weed out all but the most determined’. 9

Despite the potential drawbacks to the work, the most determined TGOP readers, many of whom no doubt saw themselves as self-sacrificing saints, deluged the editor with their questions about nursing. Replies to such questions could be found on a regular basis in the Answers to Correspondents column beginning in the magazine’s first volume when ANNIE was given information about lady probationers, Saint Thomas Hospital and Westminster Training School for nurses. [1: 192] Most correspondents were told that they were too young to enter training as probationers. The editor Charles Peters soon tired of repeating himself. ‘We give answers to such questions as yours nearly every week,’ he told NETTA in 1886 [7: 703] Three years later, an exasperated Peters told NURSEY, ‘We have given every information to our girls on the subject of nurses, but multitudes never read our answers under the above [Employment] heading.’ [11: 79] By the end of the magazine’s first decade, Peters told MAUDE P. [11: 256], MARY HOPE, CLYTIE, CARDEW and others that the nursing profession and training hospitals were ‘now much over-stocked’. [11: 688] With a waiting list of applicants desiring such work, it was ‘almost useless our recommending a hospital now’. [11: 256]

As the letters poured in to TGOP requesting information about nursing, so did the number of applicants for nurses training. ‘Some of the great hospitals have as many as 2,000 applications in the year,’ Peters told MAY and M.E.H. in 1897; [18: 239] he noted 1,000 applications refused yearly at Westminster Hospital alone in 1893. [14: 257] Rather than repeat the details in replies to letters arriving on almost a weekly basis, Peters began referring readers to the book How to Become a Nurse by nursing and child-care reformer Honnor Morten. He was, Peters told TOYDONIA in 1894, ‘a little less than “amused” at the never-ending questions on the subject of “Training as Nurses”, to which we as often give replies, and we mentally exclaim, as you do, “if they would only take the trouble to read” what we have said – “but perhaps they won’t”’. [16: 480]

TGOP readers were not to be deterred from their cherished goal. The letters from correspondents interested in nursing increased during the magazine’s second decade. Some hopefuls were told to work on their spelling first. NELL GLEN had made twelve mistakes in only a few lines written to the editor in 1886; [7: 736] ONE IN EARNEST, MARY F., ANXIOUS TO SERVE ARIGHT and J.T. were given the same advice in 1892. [13: 400, 784] A worried MIGNON was told she ‘need not fear that she will be made to open her mouth and show her teeth in offering herself as a hospital nurse. Not being exactly treated and examined by horse-dealers, her few false teeth will preserve their strict incognito.‘ [13: 176]

In a more serious vein, two correspondents were advised to do some soul-searching before they pursued hospital nursing as a vocation, for their motives were questionable. Twenty-eight-year-old ROSE BUD, who longed ‘for something more exciting than cooking’ was told: ‘Such a vocation [as nursing] should be adopted with a willingness to deny yourself in all and every way for the love of God and man – not for the self-gratification to be found in such painfully exciting sights.’ [13: 287] EMBRYO, who thought hospital nursing would be more fun and exciting than nursing her delicate mother at home, was upbraided for being ‘almost too selfish for us to believe it is meant in earnest. We have unfortunately, however, met your counterpart in real life.’ Duty bound Embryo to her mother’s side, as did the Fifth Commandment, the editor admonished the correspondent. [18: 559] Embryo’s letter brought to Peters’s mind the 1889 Punch cartoon ‘Charity That Beginneth Not Where It Should’ that pictures a young woman saying: ‘Well, you see, it’s so dull at home, Uncle. I’ve no Brothers or Sisters – and Papa’s paralysed – and Mamma’s going blind – so I want to be a Hospital Nurse.’ 10

Much had appeared in TGOP about nursing and its training, beginning in the first volume, and, as the editor told UNCONTROLLABLE D. in 1890, readers would be wise to ‘read up the subject’ in the magazine. [12: 416] The next year, Sophia Caulfeild, who included professional nursing among the ‘New Employments for Girls’ [13: 362] considered it ‘trite’ to say much, since the subject had been exhaustively discussed – much of it by Caulfeild herself. [13: 362] Other contributors about nursing included nurses and physicians in articles that focused on professional nurses in the hospital as well as amateur nursing in the home.

Nursing was also the subject of fiction and a competition in TGOP. Fiction presented readers with two themes – the work of nursing and the motives behind it. ‘In Warwick Ward: A Story of Routine’ [14: beginning 232], ‘In Monmouth Ward: A Story of Night-Duty’ [18: beginning 89] and ‘”Sister Warwick”: A Story of Influence’ [20: beginning 153], all by H. Mary Wilson, and ‘The Wards of St. Margaret’s’ by Sister Joan [15: beginning 321] describe hospital nurses at work and off duty. Another theme focuses on why young women choose nursing. In ‘Marsh Marigolds’ by Ada Trotter [16: beginning 1] Miriam’s selfish reasons for becoming a nurse contrast sharply with the selflessness of Ruth who takes over her father’s farming duties when his eyesight fails him, and Ritchie, her younger sister who takes over her father’s organist duties. ‘I see with real pain that you are worshipping a wrong ideal of duty,’ Ruth tells Miriam in confidence during a visit. As a nursing student, Miriam thought only of the many patients whom her services would benefit rather than of her invalid aunt at home who needed her. [16: 327] The episode reinforces the Religious Tract Society’s belief that young women should look for their duty close to home. Writing of the current ‘crazes’ of women in 1891 to be masculine in appearance, poets and nurses or missionaries, Caulfeild’s advice to aspiring missionaries had relevance to aspiring nurses as well: ‘Be faithful with your conscience, and beware of “running where you are not sent,” and seeking new work, and new temptations and difficulties, in the place of God-given duties that you may propose to leave behind.’ [12: 245]

Mary Wilson offered a variant of that theme in ‘Contrasts’, a short drama with hospital nurse Sister Christian, her married sister Mrs Haley, a young friend Joan Layland and a servant maid as characters. Christian, who was on summer holiday, was chatting with her sister on a Surrey lawn when Layland, who had recently taken up the ‘fad’ of hospital nursing, came to visit. Layland, asks Christian what hospital nursing is like and gets a detailed description of all the trials and tribulations as well as the joys and satisfactions of the work. Christian believes that although she has been described as flighty, has fainted a the sight of blood and is prone to bad headaches, Layland has the makings of a nurse, since she was not needed at home and was amenable to overcoming these defects in the two years before she could enter hospital training. ‘Joan a hospital nurse! That would be a contrast indeed!’ Mrs Haley concludes. [15XS: 51]

A nurse topped the list in one of the magazine’s competitions in 1896. Agnes Eugenie Smith of the Nursing Institute in Sunderland described her work in an essay that won first prize in a TGOP Competition for Professional Girls; two other nurses in Wakefield and Guildford received honourable mention. [18: 57, 347, 412]

‘It is no play – far from it! downright hard and earnest work,’ Smith wrote.

There are those (a shame that it is so!) who dabble in the work, but these never stay long at it, and perhaps best so for all parties concerned, so we will pass quickly over them, and if you want to be a nurse, do make up your minds to give up the worship of such gods as “Pleasure” and “Self” and let your high ideal henceforth be – “I was sick and ye visited Me.” [18: 412]

She described the routine of her twelve-hour days during her hospital training and the importance of spending her two-hour breaks on alternate afternoons, tired though she was, on her bicycle or at the piano or in a chat over tea rather than in bed. On obtaining her nursing certificate, smith became a private duty nurse, a choice made perhaps because of the better pay and longer working life. 11

* The first number in brackets is the volume number, followed by page number(s). XS refers to the extra Summer issue.


  1. Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850–1920 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 96.
  2. Ibid., 92
  3. ‘A Lady on Lady Doctors’, Lancet, 95 (7 May 1870): 680.
  4. ‘The “Graphic” on Lady-Doctors’, Lancet, 113 (8 March 1879): 350.
  5. Vicinus, 103–104.
  6. Vicinus, 97.
  7. Ibid., 87–88, 101.
  8. Ibid., 112.
  9. Ibid., 91.
  10. ‘Charity That Beginneth Not Where It Should’, Punch, 97 (7 December 1889): 267.
  11. Vicinus, 118.

To be continued

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