“When I am no longer a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.”
Florence Nightingale, 30th July 1890
Situated behind St Thomas’ Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament, is a small museum devoted to the most influential Victorian woman, second only to Queen Victoria. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) reformed the methods of nursing and saved the British army from medical disaster during the Crimean War. Now, largely remembered as the “Lady with the Lamp”, the Florence Nightingale Museum aims to deepen the understanding of her achievements and legacy. With a whole range of “Nightingalia”, the museum delves deeper into the life of Florence Nightingale to discover the true woman beneath the sentimental image of a ministering angel.
Split into three main sections, the museum takes visitors through a journey of Florence’s family life, her work during the Crimean war, and her campaign for better health care. Additionally, photographs, posters, medals, and certificates are displayed around the room in tribute to those who followed in her footsteps. Florence Nightingale left an enormous legacy behind her and it is partially due to her industriousness that health care has become the safer and respected field it is today.
Florence was born in the Italian town of the same name on 12th May 1820 to an upper-middle-class British family. Her older sister, Frances Parthenope (1819-90) who later married Harry Verney, 2nd Baronet, was also born in Italy. The wealthy family spent a lot of time travelling as well as residing in two homes on the British Isles: Lea Hurst in Derbyshire and Embley Park in Hampshire.
The Nightingale girls were educated at home, firstly by a governess and later by their father, William (1794-1874). Although Florence and Parthenope may not have had the opportunity to attend a school, their education was equal to that of any boy. William taught his children mathematics and statistics, which was not considered a lady-like subject during that era. Florence thoroughly enjoyed these lessons, which soon developed into a passion for health sciences and nursing.
Both sisters were very keen writers and also learnt to speak Greek, Latin, German, French and Italian. Parthenope was less scholarly than her younger sister, however, she developed a passion for art and literature and often produced sketches of Florence, including one with her rescued pet owl. Athena was a cantankerous owl who Florence found on the Acropolis in Athens. She became Florence’s constant companion and her stuffed body is on display at the museum along with a selection of Parthenope’s artwork.
Women in the 19th-century had very little job prospects and those in the middle classes were also restricted by their status. When Florence announced her desire to become a nurse, her family were horrified. Only working-class women were nurses and hospitals were unsanitary, dangerous places. The reputation of nurses at the time was also very demeaning, however, believing that it was God’s calling, 17-year-old Florence was adamant to become a nurse.
After studying nursing in secret, Florence was given permission from her parents to go to the Deaconess’s Institute of Kaiserswerth in the city of Düsseldorf, Germany where the Protestant pastor, Theodor Fliedner (1800-64), owned a hospital, orphanage and college. Here, Florence received a proficient education in medicine, how to dress wounds, and how to care for the sick.
Without this education and experience, Florence would have been in no position to become so heavily involved in the hospitals during the Crimean War. British soldiers were sent to the Crimea (modern-day Ukraine) to join the French and Ottoman Turks to fight against the Tsar’s Russian army for dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. The conflict began in October 1853 and, by the following year, details of the horrific conditions of the army hospitals appeared in reports about the British troops: more soldiers were dying from diseases than enemy action.
Appalled at the news being reported in newspapers, Florence Nightingale was determined to do something about the state of the hospitals. She got her chance when the Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert (1810-61), asked her to be in charge of a group of 38 nurses being sent out to help. On arrival at the base hospital in Scutari, Constantinople (now Istanbul), the nurses discovered an overcrowded building without enough beds for the wounded, a shortage of blankets, and barely enough food. Many of the soldiers were worse off than when they first entered the hospital with four times as many dying from cholera and dysentery than their original wounds.
A lack of management in the hospitals meant that no improvements could be made, so Florence Nightingale quickly took charge, instructing the nurses and doctors as well as looking after the wounded. She also wrote to newspapers back home requesting donations to purchase supplies for the hospitals, however, she also used a significant amount of her own money. Gradually, things began to change for the better, the hospital was cleaner, better equipped and a much safer environment.
On 24th February 1855, Florence Nightingale reached celebrity status after a drawing appeared of her in an edition of the Illustrated London News labelling her “Lady with the Lamp”. Florence treated the soldiers as equals regardless of their ranks and cared about both their physical and mental health, their welfare, and their families back home. Soldiers wrote letters about the nurse, describing her as a guardian angel of the troops. At night, she would stride up and down the ward, lamp in hand, making sure everyone was okay. The sound of footsteps can be heard in one area of the museum, suggesting what the soldiers may have heard every evening.
The “Lady with the Lamp” connotation inspired many artists of the time and numerous drawings began to appear of the exemplary nurse. Most of these artists had never met Florence before, therefore, the imagery looks nothing like her. There was also a misunderstanding about the type of lamp she carried. Artists mistakenly showed Florence holding a Greek or genie lamp, however, this would not have been the case. The type of lamp Florence had access to was a Turkish lantern or a fanoos, which would have been easily obtainable in Scutari. An example is on display in the museum.
Florence hated the celebrity “buzz fuzz” and never believed that she deserved the fame; she cared much more about saving men’s lives than her reputation. In fact, she felt like a failure because so many men died, however, the rest of the world did not agree. Known throughout the world, Florence was honoured with souvenirs and pottery figures, which members of the public could purchase. Many examples are displayed in the museum showing the variety of artistic portrayals, none of which were completely accurate. Florence refused to sit for portraits, therefore, these souvenirs were based upon description or memory.
As well as these physical mementoes, a number of songs and poems were written about Florence Nightingale, solidifying the analogy of the lady or angel with the lamp. One of these was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) in 1857, titled Santa Filomena.
Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom,
And flit from room to room.
And slow, as in a dream of bliss,
The speechless sufferer turns to kiss
Her shadow, as it falls
Upon the darkening walls.
Although Florence Nightingale was a significant figure during the Crimean War, her fame has greatly overshadowed the others who helped to improve the lives of the British troops whilst they were fighting overseas. The museum attempts to acknowledge a few of these names, including the French Chef, Alexis Soyer (1810-58) who improved the hospital kitchens and army rations. He also helped to train the army cooks but, unfortunately, became ill due to exposure to the unsanitary conditions and died at the age of 48.
Another person who deserves recognition is the Jamaican-born herbalist, Mary Seacole (1805-81) who went to the Crimea on her own volition, determined to use her skills to aid the troops and the locals. Initially, she had applied to travel as a nurse, however, her application was rejected with the explanation that her methods of nursing were not appropriate. It is also likely, although rarely alluded to, that she was turned down because she was black.
After travelling independently, Mary Seacole set up a surgery near Balaclava named the British Hotel. In her own words, the establishment was “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.” She used the natural, herbal remedies she had learnt in the Caribbean to relieve the pain and sickness of the wounded. The museum provides details about the herbs and compounds available to her and what she used them for. Although these may not be seen as conventional as the medications available today, Mary helped hundreds of men and earned the affectionate title “Mother Seacole”.
Unlike Florence who was well known and funded, Mary Seacole did everything from her own resources. Unfortunately, this meant that after the Crimean War ended in 1856, she found herself bankrupt and unable to return home. Propitiously, she was well loved amongst the veteran troops who organised benefit concerts to raise funds to get her back on her feet. Seacole also wrote a record of her experiences, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which she published and profited from.
Most likely due to her race, Mary Seacole was forgotten about after the war and never received the same recognition as Florence during her lifetime. Due to the Black Civil Rights Movements of the 20th-century, the world is beginning to learn of the figures who had been whitewashed out of history. In 1991, she was posthumously awarded the Order of Merit – an honour that Florence had been presented in 1907. Seacole was also listed as the favourite black Briton in 2004 and, more recently, a formidable statue of the pioneer nurse was erected outside St Thomas’ Hospital in 2016.
It may seem unfair that Florence Nightingale achieved worldwide fame, whereas Mary Seacole received nothing, but as the museum proves, Florence did far more than carrying a lamp up and down a dirty hospital ward. When she returned to England she was critically ill with what doctors labelled the “Crimean fever”. It is thought now that Florence had contracted the bacterial infection brucellosis from consuming infected meat or dairy products whilst abroad. The illness recurred throughout her life, leaving her at the point of death on more than one occasion, however, she did not let this stop her from continuing to campaign for health reform.
A year after the Crimean War, British troops were once again fighting, this time in India. Although she was unable to visit the country, Florence investigated the hospital situations and wrote many letters demanding that the conditions be improved. Whilst confined to bed, Florence penned over 200 books, pamphlets and articles about nursing, hospitals, hygiene, and sanitation. Her Notes on Nursing, published in 1860 was greatly received by ordinary women wishing to provide the best care for their families. Queen Victoria was also an appreciative reader.
As well as nursing, Florence Nightingale wrote about religion, philosophy, statistics, India, travel, and the frustrations of life for educated women. Despite this, reforming the public health system was at the forefront of her mind. During the war, funding was raised to open the Nightingale School in her honour at St Thomas’ Hospital. Here, aspiring nurses could be educated properly and the profession soon became a respectable position for women.
Florence Nightingale died at the age of 90 in 1910, but her legacy remains. Although nursing has moved on from the methods that Florence introduced, her insistence that prevention through cleanliness was better than cure, radically changed the ways hospitals were managed.
The Florence Nightingale Museum was opened in 1989 by the Honorable Lady Ogilvy (b1936) and later modernised in May 2010 in acknowledgement of the centenary of Florence’s death. With unique methods of display, the museum provides an enormous amount of information about Florence, the war, and her legacy. Suitable for adults and children, visitors come away far more knowledgeable than when they entered.
The museum is by no means large, however, it is easy to spend over an hour reading the information, looking through drawers, discovering hidden peepholes, watching videos, admiring stuffed animals, and playing Florence’s favourite word game. It is a hidden treasure of London and well worth discovering. It is also a fun place for school parties to attend, complete with an actress dressed up as a rather convincing Florence Nightingale.
The Florence Nightingale Museum is open from 10am and is located at parking level on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital. Tickets are priced at £7.50 for adults (£4.80 concessions) and £3.80 for children, and allow you to return throughout the day should you wish to do so. Do not forget to find the Mary Seacole statue whilst you are there, too.