Saturday 6 June 2009

The Search

Anne Summers' book 'Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses 1854-1914' has become my bible of army nursing prior to the Great War. First published in 1988 it is meticulously researched, clearly written, and brings together such a wealth of sources that my mind spins at the thought of ever being able to track down such a treasure trove of information. However, the difficulties must have been great. Of the women who joined the Army Nursing Service in its early days she writes:

What sort of woman joined the Army Nursing Service? The records which might answer this question are extremely scanty. Those women who lasted less than three years have, with the exception of those sponsored by the National Aid Society between 1881 and 1885, vanished without trace; so have many of those for whom no pension was awarded. Those War Office registers which exist for the pre-1902 service do not list father's occupation, place of education, or nurse training school. Some nurses appear in the nursing directories that were published in the 1890s, and some can be traced through the larger metropolitan training schools, though the information contained in their registers is often disappointingly meagre.

At present I'm putting together a database of military nurses as a long term project, which should take me into retirement, and eventually accomapany me to the residential care home (!) and I've come to realise how lucky we are today, twenty years on, to have such a wealth of information so easily available, much of it accessible without even leaving home. I can remember only too well when census returns were only available with great difficulty, and when you did find them, the thought of any sort of index or search aids was unheard of. A look at parish registers meant a long trip to some far-flung county record office, and the expense of an overnight stay, and unless you could make a very accurate guess as to where your 'target' was born or residing, it was pretty pointless leaving home in the first place.

Now I sit trying to track nurses through their lives - birth, family, school, nurse training - anything I can find. Although I'm happy to travel to archives, so much can be done sitting here at home, and it's a delight to find women appearing on my screen, at work, at home, and with their families. Recently I decided to do a search for Jane Deeble, Superintendent of Nurses at Netley from 1869. Within an hour I had found details of her birth, her marriage, and of her four children. I could follow her future husband William to Bermuda with his regiment, before meeting her there and marrying; her three sons at school, one later in the Army, and two who became doctors; her daughter Ellen growing up at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, while her mother worked, and later marrying an army officer very much her senior; and then on to Jane's retirement at her daughter's home in Looe, Cornwall, and finally her death on the Isle of Wight.

Of course these tiny snapshots only form a tiny part of the whole, but what a joy to feel a connection to these women based on rather more than just a name. Are we at the peak of available information yet? I doubt it. But I have a sinking feeling that I might run out of time before all the information is gathered!