Nurse Training in Victorian England

In a week’s time Effie found herself an inmate in the great hospital which, for present purposes, we will call by the name of St. Joseph’s. It was situated in the east of London. Dorothy had been trained here, and was now superintendent of one of the wards.

Effie was to go up for a month’s trial. At the end of that time she would be paid at the rate of twelve pounds the first year, and twenty pounds the second. Her training would take two years. A certain amount of her uniform would be also provided, and everything found for her with the exception of washing.

She did not soon forget the evening of her arrival. She had said good-by to her mother, had kissed the children, had given Agnes all final directions, and at last found herself in the cab which was to take her to St. Joseph’s. It drew up presently outside one of the large entrance doors.

A lady, who was called the Home Sister, received Effie very kindly, and offered her a friendly cup of tea. The hour of her arrival was about four in the afternoon. She was then taken up to her own room, and instructed how to put her cap on, and how to wear her new uniform in the neatest and most compact way. Her dress was a pretty lilac check, and she wore a cap with a frill round it, and long tails at the back. Her apron bib was high to the collar in front, and fastened with straps which crossed at the back. Nothing could be neater and more serviceable than the dress.

The kind Sister, having seen that Effie was all right, gave her a friendly smile, and then led her along several dim passages, up and down many stairs, until she finally found herself in a long, light ward, where from thirty to forty women were lying in bed. The Home Sister introduced Effie to the Sister of the ward, who went by the name of Sister Kate. Sister Kate nodded to her, said a word or two in a very busy voice, and then Effie found herself practically on the threshold of her new life.

The Sister who had been kind to her during tea, who had shown her to her room, and instructed her how to dress, had vanished. Sister Kate looked far too busy and anxious to be worried by questions; and Effie, capable and active as she always was, found herself, for the first time in her life, with nothing to do, and overcome by strange nervousness. She was too much embarrassed to be of real use. Her face was burning with blushes. Sister Kate was tired with her long day’s work.

There was a great deal to be done to put the ward straight for the night, and she really had no time to devote to the probationer. The women lying in their beds seemed to have eyes and ears for no one but Effie. Between sixty and seventy eyes turned on her wherever she moved, whatever she looked at, whatever she did. Some of the eyes in the pale and harassed faces looked kindly and interested, some of them merely amused, some of them cross and discontented. Effie knew that these women would be querulous and even rude under the touch of strange and untutored hands.

At last the night nurses arrived, the bell rang, and Sister Kate came forward to show the new probationer the way to the dining hall.

Here were several long tables, where the nurses, all dressed exactly alike, sat down to supper. Effie took her place, and quickly discovered that the others were far too tired and hungry to pay any attention to her. She felt too excited to eat, and sat watching the faces of those around her.

Supper was immediately followed by prayers, and then came bed. Effie’s first evening as a probationer was over.

She did not know whether to cry or to laugh as she laid her head on her pillow. The reality was sodifferent from anything her fancy had painted. The practical character of the work, the absence of all sentiment, the real illness, the real burden of humanity, seemed to press down upon her.


The next morning she was awakened by a bell, at what seemed to her something like the middle of the night. She had to dress herself quickly, and then go into the ward and begin her duties.

She found, somewhat to her surprise, that she had to begin her nurse’s life as a sort of maid-of-all-work; she had to scrub floors, to clean grates, to polish handles—it seemed to her that she never had a moment to herself from morning till night. Her feet felt very sore, her back ached. Once or twice she felt so dreadfully fagged that she wondered if she could keep up. But through it all, growing greater and greater as the days went on, there came a sense of full satisfaction, of something accomplished, something done, of the feeling that she was being trained thoroughly and efficiently, so that at the end of her time of probation she might be able to say, “There’s one thing which I can do well.”



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