Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Not what is required

Having written about nurse training, and the Army's insistence on only the best, I thought I'd say a bit about the other half of the picture - social status. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, even the London teaching hospitals employed some women of dubious character and morals to care for their patients. It was hard, dirty, and unrewarding work, and not until the late nineteenth century did it become an acceptable profession for educated, middle-class women, and then only slowly.

From the first days of the Army Nursing Service, the Army had insisted not only on a good training, but in addition, that their candidates should have good social standing. After the formation of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1902, and the expansion of the military nursing service, many women applied to enter, but so few were considered acceptable that it was always a fight to maintain the required establishment. With their form of application they had to supply three references, one from the Matron of their training institution, and at least one other from a 'lady' known personally to the candidate, and who could vouch for her suitability.

Some candidates fell by the wayside because her even her 'lady' was not considered adequately furnished with the right qualities, but many, having been invited to interview, fell foul of all sorts of social prejudices. The minutes of the Nursing Board, held at the National Archives, report in detail on the reasons for non-acceptance of candidates in 1902-4:

* Miss L. D. Apparent want of social standing, and appearance unsuitable.
* Miss M. F. Social status and behaviour not suitable.
* Miss M. M. Social status unsuitable from all reports, and education imperfect.
* Miss L. V. Her appearance and style not at all what is required in an Army Nurse.
* Miss M. M. Quite unsuitable. Father an iron-plate worker, mother cannot sign her name.
* Miss E. S. Unsuitable from her parentage. Father a shoemaker.
* Miss M. B. Common style and manner.
* Miss W. Unsuitable for the service. Is a coloured lady from America.

And so on - columns of them. Many of these women had already served with the Army Nursing Service Reserve during the Boer War, but mention of their past nursing abilities rarely occurs. Perhaps this lack of tact and discretion finally dawned on them, as in June 1904, an entry in the minute book states:

The Board resolved that in the remarks as to the cause of rejection of candidates, observations as to their social status should in future be replaced by a statement such as 'Not considered suitable' or 'Not recommended'.

The practice continued, of course, but was simply no longer written about. And it continued right up to the Great War, that great comma, that changed a lot of things in British life. But it always amuses me to realise that perhaps not as much changed as it seems. When I joined Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps in the 1970s, my father, an ex-Army Warrant Officer, was working as a stores manager at Vauxhall Motors. Looking over my shoulder, while I sat filling in my application form, my mother jumped six feet:

'No dear, you can't possibly put that - it sounds so common'.

So after much deliberation and discussion, my form was submitted, and written in the space for father's occupation was 'Account Manager, Motor Company'. Definitely not the first, and surely not the last to supply a white lie to the War Office?

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