Sunday 28 September 2008

Researching a Nurse

For some time I've had a page on the Scarletfinders website which offers some ideas for people who are trying to trace nurses who served during the Great War, and I thought it might be useful to repeat it here. It outlines some of the main sources of records, most of which are not available online, and could lead on to some travelling and footwork, but hopefully a worthwhile cause.


It's often the case that the only thing you know about a family member is that she was 'a nurse in the Great War', but have no inkling of where to look for more information. Hopefully this page will give you some idea of where to start. The term 'nurse' is used frequently and rather loosely in connection with the Great War. Women who worked as nurses could have been trained, partly trained or untrained. They could have been employed by the War Office; the Joint War Committee (British Red Cross Society and St. John Ambulance Association); the French Red Cross (Croix Rouge); any number of independent organizations such as the Scottish Women's Hospital, or in ordinary civil hospitals in the United Kingdom. They might also have worked with the military nursing services of Canada, South Africa, New Zealand or the USA. If you're looking for a trained nurse, the first thing to do is check the Catalogue of The National Archives to see if she is included in class WO399, which contains all surviving files of women who served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service:

The National Archives Catalogue

Put the surname in the 'Word or Phrase' box, and in the 'Department or Series Code' box put WO399. If you're searching for a common surname, remember to scroll through the complete results, as although they will be displayed as one continuous list, there are two separate alphabetical runs combined. If you find the right person, you will find her service file number, but the records themselves are not online. Not all files have survived, some being destroyed during the 1930s. If your nurse served overseas with the Army medical services, the British Red Cross or one of the recognised independent organizations, she would have been entitled to service medals, and should have a medal index card at The National Archives. These cards, in themselves, do not give a lot of information, but if you're working in the dark they are particularly useful for finding which organization a woman was attached to, and her position or rank. Start with this page on TNA website:

TNA Documents Online

Follow the 'Search' link and on the next page choose 'WW1 Campaign Medals' to access the search page. For trained nurses it's always worth searching the archives of the British Journal of Nursing, which are complete and online for the period from 1888-1956. This is a wonderful resource both for tracing nurses, and for general information on the history of nursing:

British Journal of Nursing

Use the 'Search Journals' link, and try to keep it as simple as possible - just surname if it's unusual to stand alone, and remembering to insert a full stop after initials if you're using them. Not all trained nurses get a mention, but it's often possible to trace a woman's career for many years. Fully trained nurses who continued to work after 1922 are likely to have registered with the General Nursing Council following the Nurses Registration Act of 1919, and their details might be found in the Registers of the GNC. A run of these are held at The National Archives in class DT10, and also by the Royal College of Nursing. These volumes contain details of name, number on the Register, training school with dates, and permanent address at time of publication. Registers for women trained in Scotland are held by the National Archives of Scotland, and also by the Royal College of Nursing in Edinburgh.

Untrained nurses (VADs) and trained nurses who worked for the Joint War Committee often have service records held by the British Red Cross Society in London, and it's always worth an enquiry. Information and contact details are here:

British Red Cross Society personnel records

Going back a bit further, there are limited service records available for women who joined the Army Nursing Service between 1870 and 1891, and which are held at The National Archives in class WO25/3955. Unfortunately there are none for those who joined between 1891 and 1914 unless they went on to serve during the Great War and have a file in WO399 (see above). However, their postings to different hospitals can be found by tracing them through copies of the Army List, available at The National Archives and many other large libraries and archives. Many nurses who served during the Boer War, either in the Army Nursing Service or Princess Christian's Army Nursing Service Reserve, can be found in the database on this website - it's been updated recently and seems a little more difficult to navigate, but persevere:

Boer War Nurses

If you know where your nurse trained, there might still be records held of her time there. The location of all surviving hospital records are held on a national database jointly held by The National Archives and the Wellcome Library:

Hospital Records Database

Note that none of these records are acutally held at TNA - the details of each hospital will give you the current location with scope and dates. For more advice about tracing nurses in civil hospitals see this page on the Royal College of Nursing website, which contains much useful information, addresses and links:

Tracing Nurses

I get asked increasingly about tracing members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service who served in the Second World War. All service records for these women are still retained by the Ministry of Defence, and are only available to the nurse herself, her next of kin or their representatives. Full details and the address for all enquiries is here:

Ministry of Defence personnel records

Happy hunting!