Friday 11 September 2015

A Case of Instant Dismissal

There was considerable unrest during wartime about the lack of protection afforded to nurses in their contracts of service and the risk of instant dismissal with no power of appeal. Following many protests this was changed in early 1918, but prior to that a number of nurses had the misfortune to discover how powerless they were in certain circumstances. More details of the background to this can be read on this page of The Fairest Force website:

Contracts and the Serf Clause


Mary Elizabeth Southern was born in August 1882 in Binchester, Co. Durham, the daughter of an official in a coal mine. She worked for four years at the Newcastle-upon-Tyne City Lunatic Asylum, Gosforth, before taking her General nurse training between 1910 and 1913 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Union Infirmary. She joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve in April 1915 and was quickly posted to Egypt where she served for a year before being transferred to the Lord Derby War Hospital, Warrington, in August, 1916. Her work and behaviour appeared entirely problem free, but events in the summer of 1917 were to prove her downfall. On the 29th August Mary Southern was dismissed without notice by the Matron, Maud Banfield, herself a nurse impeccably trained and with great nursing experience pre-war both in the UK and also the United States of America. That day Miss Banfield wrote the following letter to the medical authorities:

Copies of some of the photographs are contained in Mary Southern's service file held at The National Archives and one is reproduced below.

It can hardly be thought of as shocking to us today and even then was probably considered fairly mild in most circumstances, but the horror expressed by Miss Banfield knew no limits. Her letter fails to mention quite how angry she was at the time, but a letter written  the following month by Miss Southern to Ethel Becher, the Matron-in-Chief, gives a better idea of what was said by Miss Banfield:

I have served over one year abroad and on a Hospital Ship, and a year in the Lord Derby War Hospital, Warrington, and from this hospital I was dismissed, my offence being that I had given a picnic to five patients and my night nurses. I confess to the deed, at the end of my run of nights I gave that little pleasure to those people. ...  What I must complain of is the severity with which I was punished and the awful personal accusations of the Matron, amongst them the following: 

"You are a disgrace to any nursing staff"
"You are absolutely unfit to wear any nurses uniform"
"You are capable, and guilty of leading nurses astray"
"You are a dangerous woman to have about the place"
"Your familiarity with patients is contemptible."

These and other cruel and untrue things ... 

"Pack up and go as quickly as possible."   In three hours I left the institution, no longer time was allowed me or any other warning given. Thrown instantly out of employment and robbed of reputation. The sentence was as unjust as it was drastic and out of all proportion to the offence.  I was given no opportunity to speak in self defence, evidently I was to be punished to the limit of Matron's power as a warning perhaps.  But if this is such a huge crime I am not by any means the first or only offender. Altogether it does not appear to be a fair example of British mercy and justice. My patients' gratitude and enthusiasm was reward enough for the pleasure I had given them. And though I have had to pay so dearly, I can only regret in so far as it prevents me from doing any further nursing in the Army where every British nurse feels she ought to be serving if possible.

A grievously dishonoured servant, M. E. Southern.

On the 17th October, Miss Banfield replied to Miss Southern's remarks:

On leaving, Miss Banfield added a note to Mary Southern's file saying 'I regret I cannot recommend Mary E. Southern for a gratuity.'

On the 26th September 1917, the QAIMNS Nursing Board met to discuss what should be done about Miss Southern's dismissal, and whether the chance of resignation would be a fairer outcome:

The Nursing Board met to discuss a report received in regard to Miss M. E. Southern, Q.A.I.M.N.S.(R.), employed at Lord Derby Hospital, Warrington.  Miss Southern had been summarily dismissed by the Matron, Miss Banfield, Q.A.I.M.N.S.(R.), on account of flagrant disobedience to rules.  The case was referred to D.P.S. who did not concur in the action taken by the Matron.  Miss Cox-Davies proposed that Miss Southern's contract should forthwith be terminated, but on account of her previous satisfactory records of work, her resignation should be accepted. This was seconded by Miss Lloyd-Still and carried unanimously.

Miss Southern was allowed to tender her resignation rather than having the stigma of dismissal on her record and she did later receive the gratuity due to her. Unfortunately there's no service record for Maud Banfield at The National Archives, but after another intricate affair the following year, full of intrigue and complaint, the Nursing Board recommended that Maud Banfield should be moved from the Lord Derby War Hospital and reign supreme elsewhere.  My sympathies definitely lie with Mary Southern whose account throughout sounds entirely reasonable, and congratulations must surely go to the soldier who had the knowledge and enterprise to develop photographs on the ward of a War Hospital!


Details above from the service file of Mary Southern held at The National Archives, WO399/7811. Images from the file used with TNA permission and an image fee paid for web use


  1. Fascinating, as always.

  2. Thanks again - another example of nurses being flesh and blood rather than ethereal creatures :-)