Musical Nurses

Although not a music journal, The Girl’s Own Paper (TGOP), published in London by the Religious Tract Society beginning on 3 January 1880, clearly considered music a worthy topic, which readers encountered in music scores, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, illustrations and replies to musical correspondents. Music in The Girl’s Own Paper: An Annotated Catalogue, 1880 – 1910, lists the many musical references found in the magazine, some of which are linked to nursing.

At the end of 1889, A Templar’s commentary in Volume 11 of TGOP on ‘The Girls of To-day’ introduced the magazine’s readers to the modern woman and modern girl, forerunners of the New Woman whose birth was discussed so widely in the periodical press during the 1890s. The author rejoiced that a thorough education, broader interests, sounder judgments and more lively outdoor exercise and recreation set today’s young women apart from their predecessors.

The debates about women who sought higher education raised the troubling issue of their marital status. Much was made of female graduates’ desire not to marry because the domesticity and household management it entailed would inconvenience their intellectual pursuits. A parallel discourse in the press centred on those spinsters in need of gainful employment often requiring prerequisite education or specialised training to prepare them for the world of work.

While not a focus of TGOP, the spinster nevertheless was encountered in nonfiction and fiction about the most popular employment opportunity among the magazine’s readers – professional nursing. In its first two decades of publication, TGOP included occasional articles about employments for girls, such as millinery, pharmacy and sanitation and hygiene. Judging by the number of replies in the Answers to Correspondents columns during the 1890s, civil service employment was on the minds of many readers, particularly clerkships in the post office. If replies in the Answers to Correspondents columns offer a representative sampling of the employment that TGOP readers most desired, however, visions of becoming a nurse topped the list.

Professional nursing had entered the public’s consciousness in 1854 when 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 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

‘Nursing has become one of the fashionable crazes of the day,’ wrote Amy S. Woods in ‘Modern Girls’, printed 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 these who enter them, and masculine society is not prohibited.’ 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. [Volume 14, p, 500]

As Woods hinted, the reality of nursing was in stark contrast to its idealized image. A minimum age of 23 for probationers assured that nursing candidates would have maturity and some education. A literacy test and 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. 2 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. 3

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. As the ranks filled with gentlewomen, nursing shifted from the military metaphor to a maternal one. 4 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.’ 5 But nursing was not for the faint hearted or physically frail. All probationers were plunged into a grueling 15-hour hospital day ordered by a regimen ‘clearly intended to weed out all but the most determined’. 6

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 columns beginning in the magazine’s first volume when ANNIE was given information about lady probationers, Saint Thomas Hospital and Westminster Training School for nurses. [Volume 1] Most correspondents were told that they were too young to enter training as probationers. The editor soon tired of repeating himself. ‘We give answers to such questions as yours nearly every week,’ he told NETTA in 1886. [Volume 7, p. 703] Three years later, an exasperated editor 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.’ [Volume 11, p. 79] By the end of the magazine’s first decade, the editor told MAUDE P., MARY HOPE, CLYTIE, CARDEW and others that the nursing profession and training hospitals were ‘now much over-stocked’. [Volume 11, pp. 256, 688] With a waiting list of applicants desiring such work, it was ‘almost useless our recommending a hospital now’. [Volume 11, p. 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 two thousand applications in the year,’ the editor told MAY and M.E.H. in 1897; he noted one thousand applications refused yearly at Westminster Hospital alone in 1893. [Volume 18, p. 239, Volume 14] Rather than repeat the details in replies to letters arriving on almost a weekly basis, he began referring readers to the book How to Become a Nurse by nursing and child-care reformer Honnor Morten. As the editor told TOYDONIA in 1894, he was ‘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”’. [Volume 16, p. 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 first on their spelling. NELL GLEN had made 12 mistakes in only a few lines written to the editor in 1886; [Volume 7] ONE IN EARNEST, MARY F., ANXIOUS TO SERVE ARIGHT and J.T. were given the same advice in 1892. [Volume 13] 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.‘ [Volume 13, p. 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.’ [Volume 13, p. 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. [Volume 18, p. 559] EMBRYO’s letter brought to his 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.’ 7

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. [Volume 12, p. 416] The next year, Caulfeild, who included professional nursing among the ‘New Employments for Girls’ considered it ‘trite’ to say much, since the subject had been exhaustively discussed – much of it by Caulfeild herself. [Volume 13, p. 362]

Nursing was also the subject of serialized 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’, ‘In Monmouth Ward: A Story of Night-Duty’ and ‘”Sister Warwick”: A Story of Influence’, all by H. Mary Wilson, and ‘The Wards of St. Margaret’s’ by Sister Joan, describe hospital nurses at work and off duty. [Volume 14, Volume 18, Volume 20, Volume 15] Another theme focuses on why young women choose nursing. In ‘Marsh Marigolds’ by Ada Trotter, 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. [Volume 16, p. 327] The episode reinforces the 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.’ [Volume 12, p. 245]

A nurse topped the list in a competition in Volume 18. 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 in Guildford received honourable mention.

‘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.” [Volume 18, p. 412]

She described the routine of her 12-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, she became a private duty nurse, a choice made perhaps because of the better pay and longer working life. 8

Nursing, both amateur and professional, continued to capture the attention of TGOP and its correspondents in the first decade of the twentieth century, but correspondents were particularly interested in asylum nursing. Why asylum nursing? Strides had been made in the last half of the nineteenth century to replace containment and coercion of patients in asylums with care and cure instead. A reform was underway to recognize mental illness as a disease and to make care for those patients more like that given in general hospitals rather than the less than commendable care associated with Britain’s treatment of the insane. Just as the introduction of trained nurses into general hospitals in the previous century had brought a more humane approach to the care of medical patients, likewise the introduction of trained nurses into asylums could, it was hoped, do the same for the care of mental patients.

When in 1901 ANXIOUS wrote TGOP asking ‘Is there any demand for asylum nurses? How could I find out where they are wanted?’, the correspondent’s question and the magazine’s reply were printed in a Question and Answer column. The demand for asylum nurses was considerable, ANXIOUS was told, but training in a good asylum that offered certification by the Medico-Psychological Association was important. Annual salary as an asylum nurse would amount only to £20 to £25, but the field offered good employment opportunities. [Volume 22, p. 715] In a follow-on Questions and Answers column, TGOP reassured A LOVER OF USEFUL WORK, who asked if asylum nursing, like so many other occupations, was overstocked, that vacancies did exist in that line of work. [Volume 23]

Perhaps to set the record straight on training and work opportunities in asylum nursing, in 1903 Anna contributed ‘An Occupation for Girls That Is Remunerative, Interesting, and Not Over-Crowded’. Healthy women aged 18 to 30 and at least five foot three inches tall with a fair education, an aptitude for nursing, and ‘some knowledge of music and singing’, should consider working in an asylum, she said. The author appealed especially to those Christian women with a missionary spirit to ‘Take up this work, my sisters!’ to prevent unnecessary suffering. ‘When discouraged, think of Him Who cured the sick in mind as well as the sick in body, and pray that His coming be not long delayed.’ [Volume 25, p. 243]

Anna explained the curious musical prerequisites in ‘The Duties of an Asylum Nurse’ that appeared later in the same volume. The asylum chaplains who directed the choirs for worship services were glad to have nurses with good voices as choir members. In addition, each ward had a piano, and the patients appreciated musical nurses. But the accomplishment was not a necessity, Anna explained – perhaps to the relief of nonmusical readers – since some patients were professional musicians who sang and played exceptionally well. [Volume 25]

Judging by replies in the Answers to Correspondents column, readers took Anna’s suggestion to heart. MABEL, A READER OF THE ‘G.O.P.’, M.C. and ROTHA all asked about asylum nursing. [Volume 23, Volume 24, Volume 25] A.K.’s inquiry about the ‘best way of getting into a private mental asylum, and at what age, with no experience’ left the editor confused. Did the correspondent mean as a patient, as a nurse, as a maid or as a pupil? His advice to apply to the Medico-Psychological Association and to consult her family physician covered all possibilities. [Volume 23, p. 80]

Perhaps A.K. stood a better chance of getting into a private mental asylum as a musician.



1          Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850–1920 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 96.
2          Vicinus103–104.
3          Vicinus, 97.
4          Vicinus, 87–88, 101.
5          Vicinus , 112.
6          Vicinus, 91.
7          Punch, 7 December 1889, 267.
8          Vicinus, 118.




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