Prof. Alannah Tomkins, Keele University The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 7 (1) 2019

My current research project into the lives of nurses up to 1820, ending in the year of Nightingale’s birth, takes within its remit the military, disability, and geriatric nursing offered at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The Hospital was opened in 1692 to cater for men permanently disabled or worn out in military service, and housed the residents for the rest of their lives. This involved caring for them in sickness and old age, and required a specific skill-set from the women employed to nurse.

Chelsea Hospital has benefitted from institutional histories of a military character, not least a richly-illustrated work by architectural historian Dan Cruickshank (2003). It has attracted fewer treatments as a philanthropic enterprise or as an employer. Therefore my own research starts afresh with the Hospital’s muster rolls, to identify the women employed as nurses, and fans out to other sources of information. My ambition is to provide a prosopographical history of Chelsea nurses: I will not be able to offer full biographical details for all of them, but by aiming at a collective biography of women working in the ‘long’ eighteenth century, I hope to go beyond the typical characterisation of such women as simply ‘widows of servicemen’. I also hope to overturn the reputation of pre-Nightingale nurses as illiterate, incompetent and drunk.

The muster rolls for Chelsea Hospital are held at the National Archives and are available online via They contain lists of the nurses, giving first name, surname and occasionally other details, from the early years of the hospital and in a virtually-continuous run from 1728 to 1820 (missing only 1750, and 1760-2). In 1728 there were 24 women denoted ‘matrons’ in the annual list, but by 1820 the number had risen to 28. By collating the names of women in the rolls, it is possible to identify the vast majority of individual women working at the Hospital in a nursing capacity.

The muster rolls alone can offer the identity, length of service, and miscellaneous other snippets about these women. We can know or infer, for example, where in the Hospital they worked. The earliest lists and the very latest within my period (1703-11 and 1818-20) indicate the wards to which women were allocated, and circumstantial details suggest that the women were listed in ward order even in years when the wards themselves were not specified (NA, WO 23/124, 12/11591). Therefore we can know whether women, who served on one of the sixteen to eighteen ordinary wards, were ‘promoted’ to the Light Horse or Officer wards (long-serving nurses literally moved ‘up’ the list to these postings) or whether they were allocated to the infirmary (a hospital within the Hospital). We can also estimate with some accuracy the number of months or years of their service, and are typically informed in the musters when they experienced periods of sickness and if they died in post.

The addition of extra datasets yields more information for selected groups of the nurses. Burials of women in the Chelsea grounds were recorded in the Chelsea burial register, giving a specific date of end of service (rather than the blunter indication of presence or absence from an annual muster roll). Inventories of Hospital wards suggest the equipment routinely associated with a nurse’s duty and salary lists give their remuneration. Wills from a very small proportion of women point towards their material wealth and circles of acquaintance. Lastly intensive searching of all of the sources available to genealogists can unearth longer chains of family connection including women’s parents, spouses, children, and lateral kin.

All of this takes a great deal of time – this is work in progress – but some early findings are available. The multiple muster lists and the burial register combined yield the names of 205 women who worked as nurses at Chelsea Hospital between 1728 and 1820. The average tenure of service stood at twelve years four months, which compares favourably with that for nurses at Chelsea’s sister institution Greenwich Hospital (Hudson, 2018). Burials at Chelsea can be found for 85 women, meaning that a minimum 41% of all nurse employees died in service (and therefore did not choose to leave their employment or suffer removal for wrong-doing) (NA, RG 4/4330). Others may of course have died in service but been buried elsewhere at their own or their family’s request.

The Hospital may have favoured the employment of widows as nurses, but this rule was not applied rigidly. Some nurses were the wives of other Hospital officers, such as Elizabeth Lilly née Stinson. Elizabeth was married on 21 August 1811 to Abraham Lilly, variously listed in the muster rolls as a sweeper or under-scullery man at Chelsea (so a lower-ranking Hospital servant but not himself a resident old soldier). The couple had a son William, born 14 June 1812 and baptised at the Chelsea Hospital, and a daughter Eliza born 13 May 1821 also at Chelsea (NA, RG 4/4387). Intriguingly Elizabeth senior’s job as a nurse to the 17th ward began on 17 July 1818, so between the births of her two children and before her husband’s death. She remained employed at the Hospital at the time of the 1841 census (when she was still the nurse of ward seventeen, but was by that time a widow) (NA, HO 107). Also, rules of thumb about employing widows did not guarantee that women would remain widows forever. A subset of women (proportion as yet unknown) married soldiers in the Hospital after their work began. Chelsea Hospital seems to have contrasted with Greenwich in that it did not forbid marriages between male residents and nurses.

Women’s employment was maintained during their own perhaps repeated periods of sickness. Elizabeth Berry was first listed in the muster of 1805 but was listed in subsequent rolls as ‘sick’ in 1806, 1808, and 1818. Her service only ended with her death in 1836 when she was buried at the Hospital. Frances Downs worked at the Hospital for 30 years 1754-84, but her declining health was tolerated by the Hospital as she was first sick, then lame, and finally sick and lame from 1782 onwards. Similarly women were not necessarily expected to serve on their allotted wards when severely ill. Muster rolls might list women as ‘absent with leave’, typically in the year or years before their death, and the benefit could be extended to long-serving women and newcomers alike. Mary Newman was only listed in one muster, 1803, where she was also annotated as absent with leave. She was buried by the Hospital in December 1803. Nurses were even allowed to visit their friends who lay ill outside of the Hospital, at least in the early years. In July 1714, Mary Owen and Mary Overton visited their friend Mary Whitton who was suffering terminal decline at the house of Mrs Wade at King Street near Bloomsbury. All three women were nurses at the Hospital, and a trip from Chelsea to Bloomsbury must have entailed notable absence from duty for Owen and Overton: it was not merely a question of visiting a house next door to the hospital (NA, PROB 18/33/33, 1714).

For most of the period under study, women received a salary of £8 per year in addition to their bed and board (NA, WO 245/5-7). Equipment associated with their duties was purchased out of other Hospital funds. Cleaning equipment, for example, was purchased and stored by the Hospital and collectively allocated to the nurses, including in the early 1780s 24 hair brooms, 48 birch brooms, and 24 mops (NA, WO 247/9, 1780-2). Each ward also had cleaning and fire-lighting equipment listed under the nurse’s responsibility including scrubbing brushes and tinder boxes. It seems fairly conclusive, therefore, that ward nurses were responsible for sweeping and cleaning their ‘own’ wards, and possibly keeping the fires, as well as for tending to the male residents. The inventories of the 1770s also show that the nurses slept in twelve rooms, two women per room, each with her own bedstead, mattress, three blankets and one coverlid (or bedspread) (NA, WO 247/8, 1775-6).

The nurses of the infirmary ward were granted additional leeways and privileges over and above the other women (sometimes after they had been demanded by the women in post). In 1738 the Hospital surgeon William Cheselden (a high-status London surgeon in his own right) complained about the infirmary nurses embezzling coals and candles (NA, WO 250/459, 25 October 1738). The Governor General promised to make an inquiry and make an example of the guilty, but this assurance notwithstanding Cheselden petitioned the Hospital’s Commissioners in 1739 to allow the infirmary nurses an extra allowance of coal, given their increase in business. Similarly a special case was made on behalf of the infirmary nurses in 1743 in relation to the rules about their access to food. The Hospital’s surgeon and apothecary desired that the four infirmary nurses be allowed additional wages for their board as ‘they cannot conveniently leave the sick to dine at ye Nurses Hall that their business is sometimes so great that they are forced to hire helpers at an expense more than they can afford which makes all the nurses in the house refuse the Infirmary when a nurse is wanted’ (NA. WO 250/459, 24 February 1742/3). This led on to additional money being reserved for both the surgeon and apothecary of the infirmary to remunerate nurses (although whether for the employment of temporary unnamed nurses, or for additional benefits to the existing four infirmary nurses, is not known). The capacity of the infirmary became a problem in the 1780s, at which time the 19 beds were regarded as too few (NA WO 250/475, 4 August 1783).

Contrary to the squalid reputation of pre-Nightingale nurses per se, there is only one instance so far of Chelsea nurses being discovered in unequivocal wrong-doing. In November 1779 the Hospital Board was informed that Nurse Bradford had been turned out of the Hospital for ‘grossest misbehaviour and unpardonable insult offered to the Lt Governor’. Adding injury to insult, as it were, the unusually-named Benedict Bradford and two other nurses (the latter two recently deceased) were found to have embezzled hospital property including blankets, pillows, chamber pots and candlesticks. Inexplicably there was also one chair missing (although this might feasibly have been burned, rather than filched under Bradford’s skirts!). Nurse Bradford seems not to have been prosecuted, though, for the losses during her employment. Instead money owed to her for salary was withheld to the value of the missing goods (NA, WO 250/462, 24 November 1779).

Only a small proportion of the Chelsea nurses have wills that can be identified. These are spread across the period, with seven wills found so far representing women who died between the 1710s and 1803. The wealthiest of these nurses was Catherine Burchill (who worked on the Light Horse ward) who left £210 to her daughter also Catherine in 1803, cannily specifying ‘her husband John Ramsey nor eldest son James Ramsey to have any part or share thereof’ (NA, PROB 11/1390/133). The most interesting details allude to ties of friendship and affection within the Hospital community. Burchill named two of her fellow nurses, Rachel Lucas and Mary Ball, as trustees for her daughter (who lived in Scotland), while Frances Burnham who had died nearly 80 years earlier in 1733 left £1 10s to be distributed among all of the residents of ward four where she had been nurse (with different amounts allocated to the privates, sergeants and corporals) (NA, PROB 11/657/263). Sarah Bishop made her friend and fellow nurse a legatee and her sole executrix in 1762 (NA, PROB 11/872/387).

If there were disputes between the nurses, these are not now visible to the historian’s eye. A fatal disagreement between two Hospital inmates in 1801, however, gives a final side-light on the experiences of nurses. William Lamb was admitted to the Hospital in 1795, and two years later James Legg was similarly admitted. Both were Ensigns (NA, WO 23/134). On the morning of 2 October 1801 James Legg shot fellow ward resident William Lambe in the Chelsea Hospital killing him immediately. The 73 year-old Legg was subsequently tried at the Old Bailey, and among the witnesses called to give evidence was Ann Grant, nurse to the Hospital’s infirmary. She testified to Legg’s being in the infirmary from approximately January to May 1801, and undergoing a discernible change in character. He developed ‘a lowness, a melancholy, a deranged state’ and when she asked him the reason for his mood Legg replied ‘his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing’. Grant became concerned that he might commit suicide but thought he was harmless to others. She confirmed that Legg’s confusion of mind seemed to persist until the time of the murder (Old Bailey Online, t18011028-39). Despite this clear attempt to secure mercy by dint of disordered senses, Legg was found guilty, sentenced to death, and hanged at Newgate on 2 November 1801. In this way the nurse’s testimony was sought as valid, but ultimately disregarded as a route to greater leniency.

The Chelsea Hospital offered secure employment and accommodation to its nurses. In doing so it supplied significant benefits to working women, as well as to its male inmates. A study of these women’s careers within the Hospital, and retrieving of shreds of data for their previous or subsequent lives, provides some unexpected side-lights on the prehistory of professional nursing, and the social milieu of Chelsea’s nurses. Ongoing work on Chelsea, and on other forms of nursing up to 1820, aims to recast the experience of the pre-Nightingale nurse in a positive and inclusive light.


Primary Sources

National Archives:
HO 107 Census 1841
PROB 11/544/217, 11/590/365, 11/623/304, 11/657/263, 11/833/142, 11/872/387, 11/1390/133 wills
PROB 18/33/33 probate dispute Walker versus Kay 1714.
RG 4/4330, 4387 baptisms and burials at Chelsea Hospital
WO 12/11589-91 Chelsea Hospital muster
WO 23/124-34 Chelsea Hospital musters
WO 245/4, 5, 6, 7 Chelsea Hospital salaries books
WO 247/6, 7, 8, 9 inventories of Chelsea Hospital
WO 248/30 Chelsea Hospital warrants of William Cheselden for nurses and watchmen
WO 250/459, 462, 463, 469 Chelsea Hospital journals
WO 250/475 Chelsea Hospital board minutes

Old Bailey Online, t18011028-39, viewed 23 July 2018.