Penelope Gertrude Veysie was born on the 18th August 1807 at Plymtree, in Devon, the daughter of Reverend Daniel Veysie, Rector of Plymtree, and Mrs Anne Veysie. Her older brother, William Veysie went on to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the 7th Bengal Cavalry, in India. She trained as a nurse at St John’s House in London.

St John’s House was founded in 1848 as a ‘Training Institution for Nurses for Hospitals, Families and the Poor’. It was a religious community run by a Master, who was a clergyman, and a Lady Superintendent. The aim was to improve the qualifications of nurses, and also to raise the character of nurses by providing moral and religious instruction.

The Institution opened at 36 Fitzroy Square, in St Pancras, and was named St John’s House because it was in the parish of St John the Evangelist. It provided training for both the ordinary working-class nurses, who today we would call Staff Nurses, and for upper-class ladies who were to be the unpaid Sisters and Lady Superintendents.

As they were a religious sisterhood the trainee nurses were called probationers. Although this was an Anglican Sisterhood the nurses did not take vows of celibacy, religious obedience or seclusion. The Church wanted the nurses to have a free and willing devotion to the care of the sick as part of Christian charity.

St John’s House had a centralised nursing department with the staff nurses reporting to the Sisters, and the Sisters to the Lady Superintendent, a model which was to eventually become the norm throughout the English-speaking world.

The probationers received board, lodging, medical assistance, laundry, and clothing, and were paid one pound a month for their services. They nursed in hospitals and private houses, and when required attended the sick poor. If at the end of five years they had proved themselves worthy, they received a certificate and were entered on the St John’s House list of certified nurses.

The Sisters paid for their training and if resident, also for their board and lodging.

In 1854 six nurses from the St John’s House went out to the Crimea with Florence Nightingale, since St John’s House was at that time one of the few sources for trained nurses. In 1856 the Sisterhood took over the nursing of King’s College Hospital and from 1862 to 1868 a six-month training in midwifery nursing was given there, with the help of a grant from the newly founded Nightingale Fund Council.

Nursing Service in the Crimea

When people think of nursing in the Crimea they usually think of Nightingale at Scutari, however there were many other nurses, many of whom were not under the jurisdiction of Nightingale, and many other hospitals as you can see on this slide.

In November 1854, following Florence Nightingale’s success at Scutari the Admiralty decided to send out “tried and approved nurses” selected by a Ladies Committee in London, and establish a 40 bed hospital at Therapia. Many of the patients were to be marines and men of the Naval Brigade from the Siege of Sevastopol. In January 1855 the Reverend & Mrs McKenzie arrived with a small party of ladies and nurses. Mrs McKenzie, an experienced nurse, having trained at the Middlesex Hospital had as one of her three assistants Miss Gertrude Veysie.

A number of the nursing staff proved inadequate or incapable and soon left or were dismissed. Later many tributes were paid to the quality of the management of the small hospital and the ensuing parliamentary report stated:

“They shrank from no kind of employment however dangerous or laborious nor was there any office connected with the sick which they deemed to be low or demeaning … Miss Veysie remained behind until the termination of the war happily brought her labours to a close … their services will live long in the grateful remembrance of the officers, seamen and marines who fought before Sevastopol”.

This is an extract from a letter sent home from Therapia by George Waller to his father:

“I have come down here for change of air & it is a delightful place. From about 200 yards to the left of the Hotel you can see the opening of the Bosphorus where the Black Sea runs into it consequently we get the sea breeze every day as regular as possible. I am afraid I shall have to go back to Scutari tomorrow but I shall try to be allowed to come here again as this place is so infinitely superior to the other. We bathe almost out of the Hall door of the Hotel every morning.”

Gertrude Veysie’s work in the Crimea was acknowledged by the Sultan of Turkey who gave her a gold and diamond brooch which its in the QARANC Association Heritage Collection. We know that Nightingale and also Mary Stanley had similar brooches awarded, but we are not sure who else might have received one. In all 29 were made by Hunt and Roskell, a renowned jewellers and silversmiths on Bond Street in London.

Miss Veysie also had a very poignant letter sent to her by a group of English Sailors in the form of a flag puzzle. The puzzle is in the form of the union jack. The flag is made up of different components and the sailors explain what they all mean and how to create them with the puzzle pieces.

Contribution to Army Nursing

We cannot claim the nursing reform movement at this time was solely due to the influence and example of Florence Nightingale, or assume that the training she started at St. Thomas’s Hospital was the first training provided for nurses in Britain.

There were earlier English nursing reformers like Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker philanthropist who founded the Training Institution for Nursing Sisters in 1840, and several Anglican sisterhoods, all of which had been established by 1848. One of these was the Sisterhood of St John’s House. Monica Baly, in her work on Nightingale, also indicated that in the earlier part of the century the standard of nursing had been improving. She, too, acknowledges the contribution of the Anglican sisterhoods, specifically mentioning St John’s House.

The St John’s House nursing system was a primary model for Nightingale when she set up her school at St Thomas’s, and the Lady Superintendent of St John’s House, Mary Jones, was to become one of Nightingale’s dearest friends.

Gertrude Veysie and the other St John’s House nurses who had worked in the Crimea returned and brought back their experiences, skills and knowledge to add to the discussions and discourse taking place.

We know that during the Crimean campaign the nurses moved from location to location either to visit, or to work, or to be cared for when they themselves were sick. Gertrude Veysie and Mary Erskine nursed Florence Nightingale at Therapia when she became sick with a fever which we think was caused by brucellosis.

There is ample evidence of correspondence between the nurses working in different locations. The letter on this slide is from Nightingale to Mary Erskine at Therapia. Nightingale herself acknowledges that she gained many ideas about nursing by seeing the ways in which nurses in the other hospitals worked and were managed.

A large number of nurses went to the Crimea and brought back ideas and experiences. Many were not in a position to influence nursing reforms either in nursing generally or nursing in support of the military. Many of the more educated and well-placed ladies were able to be part of the discourse that followed the Crimea and each used different avenues or different people they knew to get their views across.

The sharing of ideas and experiences both during the war in the Crimea and afterwards when the nurses returned was an important factor in shaping the ideas of Nightingale and others taking forward nursing reforms. It was also an important factor in the shaping of nursing support to the British Army.

In 1857 a Royal Commission investigated the medical and nursing support to the Army. It did consider the deployment of female nurses to military hospitals, but existing military hospitals did not have the resources to accommodate female nurses. This was to be incorporated into the design of new military hospitals like that at Netley.

Nightingale remained very interested in Army nursing and during this period wrote three important texts including, “Subsidiary notes as to the Introduction of Female Nurses into Military Hospitals in Peace and War.” She also drafted the section on, “the duties of Officers, Attendants and Nurses” in the War Office draft regulations for Military Hospitals.

In Nightingale’s view Army nurses should be:

“strong, active women, of not less than thirty, nor more than sixty years of age, of unblemished character, and should be irreversibly dismissed for the first offence of unchastity, drunkenness, or dishonesty”

Their duties were to be, in Nightingale’s view:

“all that pertained to the bedside of the patient; his cleanliness, and that of his linen, bed, and utensils; for all the minor dressings, not performed by Surgeons or Dressers; for the administration of medicines; and of the meals; for the obedience of the patient and orderlies to the orders of the Medical Officers.They should receive the orders of the latter, and always attend him in his visits.”

By the time of the Boer War this was indeed what Army nurses were doing.

While discussions on the future Army Nursing Service continued, Religious Orders provided nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers in many subsequent wars.

In April 1879 the Principal Medical Officer of British troops in Natal, South Africa, requested the support of sisters from the community of St Michael and All Angels, to nurse the sick and wounded in the military hospital at Ladysmith. One of these ladies, Sister Louisa, knew several of the doctors at Ladysmith through family connections, and this helped the Sisters find acceptance.

The same community of St Michael and All Angels was also involved during the Transvaal War, in 1880. The sisters that volunteered were stationed at Fort Amiel alongside two Army Sisters from Netley.

Formation of The Army Nursing Service

In 1881 the Army Nursing Service was formed. Nurses wore military uniform and were employed directly to care for military patients. The Army Nursing Service, although nominally a military formation was not an established part of the Army and did not sit within any of the directorates of the War Office.

Nightingale was influential in the appointment of the first two Lady Superintendents of the Army Nursing Service – Miss Jane Shaw Stewart and Mrs Jane Deeble. Both of these Lady Superintendents encouraged the appointment of nurses who came from military families thinking they would have a better understanding of both the patients and the systems in military hospitals. Mrs Deeble was herself the widow of an Army Medical Officer. Interestingly this idea also goes back to the Crimea where Florence Nightingale had been impressed by the Russian nursing care. In the Russian system the bedside nurses were the widows of Army officers.

Army Nursing Sisters served in support of many of the campaigns that took place between the Crimean War and the Boer War. The Army fought campaigns in Abyssinia, a series of campaigns against the Ashanti on the Gold Coast; The Anglo-Basuto War; the Zulu War; the Transvaal War; a long campaign in Egypt and the Sudan; the Matabele War; and another campaign in the Sudan.

There are records of the service of Army Nursing Service Sisters in the medal rolls for these campaigns, as well as some accounts of their activities in nursing journals and official reports of the time.

During the Zulu War there were a number of base hospitals including Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, Utrecht and Newcastle. Most of the sickness that occurred was from enteric fevers, something that was to be repeated in the Boer War.

During the Egyptian campaigns there were eight Field Hospitals and two Base Hospitals. Two Hospital Ships were stationed at Ismailia – the Carthage, and the Courland. A total of 25 Army Nursing Service nurses were sent out from the United Kingdom to support the medical care to the sick and wounded.

As nurses were now part of the Army they were entitled to campaign medals in the same way that the soldiers were. We have brought with us today the medals awarded to Sister Cross who nursed soldiers in Egypt and the Sudan.

The disease they saw most of was dysentery. Infectious cases were sent rearwards to Gozo and Malta to keep the Base and Field Hospitals clear as much as possible, and to offer a milder climate to recuperate in. The heat also caused a significant number of casualties along with the wounded from the campaigns.

The regularly published Army Lists show that the turnover amongst the Army Nursing Service nurses was significant and so by the start of the Boer War in 1899 only a few of the nurses employed in the Army Nursing Service had any military experience.