On a sunny Saturday afternoon in a Hunts Cross sitting room I was riveted by a wealth of photographic history of one of the most significant public health programmes of the twentieth century; District Nursing.
The original model for ‘District Nursing’ was pioneered by William Rathbone (1819-1902), a Liverpool Merchant and Philanthropist. He had the noble intention of mobile nurses going to some of the poorest districts in the city, ‘nursing the poor’ and ‘to relieve suffering and teach the rules of health and comfort’. Inevitably the charity driven work grew and spread to other cities across the UK, long before the NHS even began. A lot of the work relied upon wealthy donors or funds raised directly from the patients.
Retried district nurse, Audrey Walsh, rescued a mini-archive of images of the history of her work. She found that the source of these images had them marked to be destroyed and were simply stored in a storage gas cupboard of a nursing group in London. In looking at them together, and there are at least a hundred, they collectively end up spanning several decades and eras of the profession. Yet despite the variety, one constant theme emerges; the duty to treat people overrides all other personal considerations.
One such example being of one nurse getting into a rowing boat to serve island residents off the Welsh coast. It is easy to imagine the challenges she may have faced in keeping her equipment sterile, and the potential dangers of conducting a journey, alone, and in inhospitable conditions, did not override the duty of care these brave nurses had. The nurses played a vital role serving poorer individuals in rural areas, and the creativity they employed to accomplish this task must not be understated.
It was a privilege to meet one of these nurses, and hear the anecdotes she had to tell. In one instance she points out that nurses like her often had to physically lift patients themselves who had fallen or needed to be repositioned. The rigorous medical equipment we are so used to today is largely absent from the images, instead I found only simple instructions on how to reduce the injury caused in such manoeuvres for the nurse undertaking them.
The bravery and resilience of these nurses was recognised throughout British society, and the prestige of belonging to a nursing group such as the one Audrey Walsh worked for is still a source of pride. Walsh said,“We are the only nursing group allowed to call ourselves Queen’s nurses. That came about from (Queen) Victoria’s Jubilee when she decided to award us and honour the work we did, making us officially Queen’s District Nurses”.
What left me haunted then was that all this history can seem to be so easily forgotten. Audrey and I marvelled that the visual evidence of it could be so carelessly discarded. Audrey glanced at the shabby box I was about to take home in the boot of my car to scan, “Look at the state of it, that was in a gas cupboard, with all this in it.”