From its earliest days Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service was determined to be an elite organisation. It demanded a high standard of nurse training, but even more importantly insisted on its nurses being socially acceptable. During its early years, the minutes of the QAIMNS Nursing Board (WO243/20) are full of comments noting why applicants have been rejected, and rejection was the fate of the majority of the women who wished to join. Among the reasons for rejection were:
'Apparent want of social standing and appearance unsuitable'
'Social status and behaviour not suitable'
'Her appearance and style is not at all what is required in an Army Nurse'
'Quite unsuitable. Father was an iron-plate worker'
'Unsuitable from her parentage. Father a shoemaker'
Along with the usual references from the matron of the hospital at which they'd trained, applicants also had to provide the names of two ladies who could vouch for their background and behaviour. Many of those wishing to join had no trouble in providing the most glowing background and references. With professional fathers, or indeed fathers whose wealth enabled them not to work at all, and a history of private education at home and overseas, they couldn't fail. Many spent their final school years in France or Germany, but my interest was raised when I saw one entry which showed an education first at a private school in Henley-on-Thames and later at San Diego High School, California. I wondered how a young British woman had trodden that path at the turn of the twentieth century. The trail led to a conclusion that the QAIMNS Nursing Board could be fooled and social status brushed aside if you tried hard enough.
Annie Esden was born in Paddington, London, on May 18th, 1883, the daughter of James and Annie Esden. She was the fourth surviving child of the marriage and would seem to have been very much an afterthought. At the time of her birth her father was fifty-two years old and worked as a gas inspector for the Gas, Coke and Light Company, her three older siblings ranging in age from twenty-six down to fourteen years. The elder of her two brothers, James Beckett Esden was fifteen and was to play an important part in years to come. Records show that her father had a difficult early life and both he and his brother William were raised in the Norwood Workhouse School of Industry where they received training in the tailoring trade.
Gaps in records make it very difficult to be sure about events but such an unusual surname makes it possible to find some pivotal points in the life of Annie Esden. Her elder sister, Victoria, was married in the spring of 1884 and James Esden senior died later that same year when Annie was one year old. At the time of the 1891 census Anne Esden, her mother, was living in a respectable part of East London with her two sons, James, a commercial traveller and William, a clerk. So where was Annie? The census shows that she was seven years old and a resident at the Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum, a stone's throw the family home in Leyton. Anne Esden senior may have been ill at the time as she died a year later, and perhaps her sons were unable to look after Annie due to work commitments, although I wonder why her elder married sister could not have cared for her.
By the time of the next census in 1901, things had changed for Annie Esden. At seventeen years of age she was living at a small private school in Henley-on-Thames run by a Miss Lloyds. Her status was given as 'pupil' but the other five pupils were all aged nine years and under, so it appears that she has been retained or employed there after school-leaving age as an assistant teacher or helper. The 1901 census also shows her brother James as living in a boarding house in London, his occupation given as 'Lemon Grower in California.' At last a Californian connection had turned up, but when James returned to the U.S.A. in May 1901 he went alone. In fact there is no evidence in passenger records that Annie ever left England for the United States.
Between February 1905 and June 1908 Annie Esden trained as a nurse at Salisbury General Infirmary and then studied for the Dispenser's Certificate of the Society of Apothecaries before joining Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service as a Staff Nurse in January 1909. One of the 'ladies' called upon to supply a reference was Miss Lloyds, Principal of the school in Henley where Annie had almost certainly been employed. Her army career took her through the First World War and beyond and she received the award of the Royal Red Cross for her devoted service. She resigned in 1929 and in later life she lived at Queen Mary's House, Fleet, Hampshire, a home for retired members of QAIMNS where she died in 1959 aged seventy-five years.
So she was raised in an orphanage, the daughter of a man raised in a workhouse school. There seems to be no evidence that she ever attended San Diego High School nor that her brother James returned to England again though I would love to be corrected on those points. She possessed none of the social background suitable for admission to QAIMNS. When she filled in her application form she knew what to write. Her relationship with her Californian brother would certainly give her the knowledge to fabricate information about her schooling, if that's what she did. I would guess that Miss Lloyds had trained her well - she knew how to dress, how to speak, how to behave and must have learnt all the necessary social niceties. If that hadn't been the case she would have fallen at the interview hurdle - even as a well-trained nurse she would have been rejected by the QAIMNS Nursing Board had known about her background or that of her father.
I wonder if Annie Esden kept her secrets through the following decades or if she became confident enough in later years to talk about her past life.
Unfortunately a service record cannot be found for Annie Esden. Some particulars relating to her admission are available in the Register of Admissions to QAIMNS held at The National Archives, WO25/3956.
Census and civil registration information from Find My Past