Stratford Guild - April 2018

"Florence Nightingale, her local life and death" - Guest Speaker Russ Foster 

Many members may not know that the school at Embley Park was once the home of Florence Nightingale and, surprising as it may seem, our speaker Russ Foster who had taught at the school for 20 years, told us that not one of his fellow tutors was aware of this fact. Now to go back to the beginning: Florence's family were wealthy and enjoyed travelling, being particularly fond of Italy.  In 1820, while staying in Florence, our baby heroine was born - hence the name, and here I might add that her sister who was born in Naples a year earlier, was also given a name to remember - Parthenope which is the Greek name for Naples (how fortunate for the Beckham children that their parents had chosen names without their exciting foreign variations).

The Nightingale family owned large estates in the country but they needed another house nearer to London and when Florence was one, they bought Embley Park, a lovely estate near Romsey.  In those days, most children did not go to school, the poor ones worked in the fields or in factories and children of the wealthy were tutored at home, girls being taught only sewing, music and reading. Mr Nightingale wanted his daughters to learn more and taught them himself, so they learned about the world around them and things that happened in the past as well as being able to speak several languages. As Florence grew older her mother would take her to visit the poor and sick people, both   in London and the country, and on her own she tried to help people living in terrible conditions. She also became interested in helping to cure sick animals; in fact, later on when in Italy she rescued a baby owl which was being kicked by young boys; it became her pet and she called her Athena (she found her in Athens, so family logic once more!).

Florence was a pretty girl and her parents expected her to marry - she had plenty of suitors -  but she always felt different from other girls and her faith was very strong.  She knew that God wanted her to do something more with her life.  Our speaker told us that Florence kept diaries, and the fact is well documented and letters also highlight this. She told her parents of her plans to help others and they were angry and upset, and refused to let her go to Germany for training.  She became unwell and was allowed to travel to Italy and Egypt with friends, calling at Greece on the way back, which is where she found the owl.  She did not give up her desire to care for the sick and studied reports about common diseases.  Her mother finally relented and allowed her to go to Kaiserwerth in Germany for training as a nurse.  When she returned, and determined to gain her independence, with help from her friends she obtained an unpaid post as Superintendent of a Nursing Home for gentlewomen in London. Of course, she made a great success of this by working hard, and so her father relented and provided her with an annual sum of £500 so that she could have her own home in London. A year later war broke out in the Crimea and Florence was desperate to help, which she was able to do after a lot of persuading of the authorities.

On her return to England she found that she had become famous for her work in the Crimea but refused a grand 'welcome home' ceremony; however, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert wanted to meet her and invited her to Windsor Castle where she was presented with a brooch specially designed for her by Prince Albert.  She continued her work and by knowing many influential people was able to get considerable programmes of work passed through Parliament.  Her greatest supporter (who became known as the Member for Miss Nightingale) was Sir Harry Verney M.P., the husband of Florence's sister Parthenope. Florence visited them frequently at their estate in Buckinghamshire, Claydon House, in fact she was given her own rooms there.

Through Florence Nightingale, bills were passed improving  conditions for men in the army, hospitals were built on her advice and the training of nurses was greatly improved.  She lived a long life and died in 1910 at her home in London aged 90.  She did not want to be buried in Westminster Abbey but has a simple grave in the country church at Wellow.  Russ Foster illustrated his fascinating talk with slides ending with a poignant photograph of many friends of Florence paying their respects to this wonderful lady.

Our next meeting in May will start with a short AGM followed by a talk by Judith Tallis recounting her healthy stroll from Land's End to John O'Groats.

Daphne Ponsford