Today (November 29) in London History – Florence Nightingale

London Walks is declaring November 29th Florence Nightingale Day. This Today in London History podcast explains why.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Some things just fit. They were meant to be.

For example, today – November 29th – being Florence Nightingale Day.

Well, it’s not official yet. But you gotta start somewhere. And this podcast is as good a place as any.

So let the word go forth, November 29th is Florence Nightingale Day.

Here’s why.

It was on November 29th, 1907 that Miss Florence Nightingale became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. She was in pretty distinguished company. The 20 other holders of the Order of Merit included seven lords, six knights, two marquises, two viscounts and an admiral. And the other two were the famous novelist George Meredith and the famous artist Holman Hunt. 

But you know something, you could say it was those twenty eminent men who were in very distinguished company – big hitters though they were they were arguably outshone by the new holder of the Order of Merit. It certainly looks that way from the perspective of 115 years later. Florence Nightingale is A List. The others, well, maybe Lord Lister. 

But Lord Kitchener, Lord Roberts, Lord Kelvin, Sir John Fisher, Sir Joseph Hooker, Holman Hunt, George Meredith – compared to Florence Nightingale they’re more A minus list than A list.

But then she did, after all, found the science of nursing. And no question but her labours for the wounded in the Crimean War placed her among the foremost of the world’s heroines.

Before the lady with her lamp comes our way, let’s find out a little bit about the honour, the O.M., the Order of Merit. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, the distinguished was called into existence by his Majesty Edward VII in 1902. It was ordained that the members of the Order shall not exceed the number of twenty-four. 

The terms of the Order were: Members shall be such persons as have rendered exceptionally meritorious services in Our Navy and Our Army, or who may have rendered exceptionally meritorious services towards the advancements of Art, Literature and Science. 

Florence Nightingale was 87 years old when the Order of Merit was conferred on her. 

In the words of the Telegraph, “Fifty-three years ago she won for herself undying fame for here services in the Crimean War, and for the introduction in our social system of the art of nursing.”

Well, so much for all that high flown language. Let’s go back 53 years. Let’s go where Florence Nightingale went. The Crimean War started in March of 1854. It was the crucible for modern nursing. But before that, it was the crucible for war reporting, war correspondence. In fact, one led to the other. Reporting for the Times, the journalist William Howard Russell described the neglect of the wounded and the lack of nurses. There was much public indignation. The government turned to Miss Nightingale. She was in her 30s. She’d had considerable hospital administrative experience. And she was a determined, forceful character. She needed to be. Anyway, the government asked her to take a party of nurses, at its expense, to Scutari. She assembled a team of 38 nurses – 14 professionals and 24 from religious sisterhoods – and off they went. 

Florence Nightingale and her contingent of nurses arrived at Scutari on November 4th. Miss Nightingale got stuck in immediately. Though, inevitably, I suppose, there was resistance. Not least from the doctors. She wasn’t having it. She sorted them out in no time. As she did the Turkish workers. 125 of them struck for more pay. She sacked them and hired Greek workers. And pretty much everything else was also out of kilter. There were problems with provisions. She got that straightened out. The place was a sty. Hygiene non-existent. She tackled that. Feeding arrangements – both supplies and food preparation – were in a terrible state. She sorted that. Incredibly, she arranged for Alexis Soyer, the chef at the Reform Club, to come out and get that house in order.

The statistics are jaw-dropping. Florence Nightingale and her team were nursing four miles of patients. 

Florence Nightingale did it all. She administered the operation but she was also on the wards. Years later a Chelsea pensioner recalled, “Miss Nightingale was always coming in and out. She used to attend to all the worst cases herself.”

In the words of biographers Monica Baly and H.C.G. Matthew, “Her insistence on uniform, discipline, and orderly procedures in the midst of considerable squalor set a standard that permanently affected the self-esteem of what became the British nursing establishment.”

What became her defining image could be glimpsed in a piece that ran in the Times in February of 1855. Describing her midnight vigils, the Times man wrote, “She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.”

Henry Longfellow of course turned that into four immortal lines of verse:

Lo! in that hour of misery

A lady with a lamp I see

Pass through the glimmering gloom,

And flit from room to room.

A few months later she went over to the Crimea to vet the war hospitals there. She fell desperately ill with Crimean fever. Word got back to London. And that led to a public meeting at Willis’s Rooms in St James. The aim of the meeting was to raise funds for the training of nurses and other hospital workers. That was the beginning of what became the Nightingale Fund. Which in turn gave rise to the Nightingale School of Nursing. And no, we haven’t lost sight of our date, November 29th. The meeting at Willis’s Rooms in St. James’ was held on November 29th, 1855.

Put those two November 29ths together – the Nightingale Fund germinating on November 29th 1855 and Florence Nightingale getting the Order of Merit on November 29th, 1907 – and there you have the twin reasons November 29th is Florence Nightingale Day, London events both of them. London History at its best. 

A final point, Florence Nightingale never stopped. As a youngster she’d developed a passion for statistics. That facility helped her in her administrative duties. But come the end of the Crimean War she got a hold of the statistics. She was horrified. 94,000 men were sent to the war. 4,000 of them died of wounds. That was bad. But much worse, 19,000 of them died of disease. And another 13,000 were invalided. That was a preventable death rate. Florence Nightingale set out to make sure it never happened again. As she said, “I stand at the altar of the murdered men and while I live I fight their cause.”

Let’s all raise a glass to Florence Nightingale. No better day to do it – because today, November 29th, is Florence Nightingale day.

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, it goes without saying – a visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum. At St Thomas’s Hospital, just over Westminster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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