Dr. Janet Hargreaves, University of Huddersfield The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 7 (1) 2019

In 1913 a young woman walked through the centre of Sheffield, approached the post box outside the town hall and planted a number of letter bombs. During the ensuing mayhem, she mingled with the crowd, watching the fire brigade and police whilst carrying several more of the ‘little trouble makers’ in her handbag. She was Molly Morris, 23 years old, suffragette and manager of the Sheffield Branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This was the first, but not the last period in her life when socialism and politics disrupted her childhood aspiration to be a nurse.

Born in 1890 in Lancashire, Molly was the oldest of seven children. Her father’s radical views lead to unemployment and the slums of Salford, but her mother found new work and a new life for them in Eccles. Her mother’s greater independence lead to social and political awakening, just as the WSPU was formed in 1903. Volunteering in Manchester, Molly and her mother supported the founding members of the WSPU, by chalking pavements, selling ‘Votes for Women’ and heckling at meetings. Her mother saw nursing as unsuitable and was pleased when at 22 Molly left for Sheffield.

As a suffragette Molly met many socialists, including a steel worker and trade unionist, Jack Murphy, turning down his offer of marriage three times. The outbreak of war in 1914, and a visit to a hospital in 1915 changed everything:

‘the sight of the ward, the nurses, the matron, the doctors, the rows of patients in their beds and the quiet yet intense activity so stirred me. I stood there and then swept all considerations aside and determined on becoming a nurse and would no longer listen to the arguments against it’. (Darlington 1998:31)

Molly started nursing at the Knightwick TB sanatorium near Worcester. She loved the work there, but quickly took an opportunity start full training at the West London Hospital. Although the pace, regulation and speed of the work and vast size of the West London contrasted with the tranquillity of the sanatorium the poverty of most of the patients and the capriciousness and snobbery of the hospital hierarchy was similar in both institutions:

‘Oh dear! How many rules and regulations there were! I felt sure that the only way I would every learn them was by breaking them’. (Murphy ND:35)

After five years of nursing, now qualified but tired from the long hours and poor war-time food, Molly planned to join a nurses’ co-operative and seek private nursing for a while but in 1920 her life took a remarkable turn.

Jack Murphy, having crossed Europe illegally to see the Russian Revolution first hand returned, proposed to her again and asked her to come with him to Moscow when he returned as a Trade Union representative, also taking books and medical supplies for Dr Semashko, the Soviet Commissar for Health. Thus, Molly found herself in a deep Moscow winter, meeting Lenin and mixing with communist leaders from all over the world. Although she delivered the medical supplies and saw terrible post-revolution public health challenges first-hand, she believed her nursing career was over. Molly’s life now revolved around the upbringing of her son, born in 1921 and Jack’s unique career, as one of the founding members of the British Communist Party (BCP). This included his imprisonment with several other BCP leaders in 1926, living in an international community in the Lux hotel in Moscow whilst Jack was the BCP representative and witnessing the leadership challenges following Lenin’s death which culminated in the rise of Stalin. Returning to England in 1928, controversies within the BCP finally led to Jack’s resignation in 1932. At this point Molly returned to nursing.

Molly offers no explanation of her choice to work privately in exclusive west-end nursing homes. Her patients were rich and privileged but it was also a very privileged nursing role which may have been her motivation: she chose her shifts and work as she pleased, she worked directly for highly respected doctors, such as Lord Dawson of Penn, physician to the British Royal family, she had ample time to give good care and, if requested, to continue to nurse her patients to full health in their own homes afterwards. However, when in 1936 the call came for help from Republican Spain:

‘it reverberated through our home and rang a bell in my heart. I suddenly felt it to be nauseating to continue this kind of nursing when splendid young men were dying on the international battlefield of Spain’. (Darlington 1998:131)

At 42, and not in the best of health, Molly volunteered. On the 19th January 1937 Molly left London for three days and nights travel across France and Spain, to arrive at the fighting front near Madrid. Molly nursed in Spain for a punishing eight months, in nine improvised hospitals in terrible conditions:

‘for about 5 days we were on duty 16-18 hours a day without time to eat anything but a mouthful of bread and cheese between the biggest rushes of wounded men … at night we just dropped on our mattresses on the floor with all our clothes on, too tired and weary to know which parts of our body ached most’. (Darlington, 1998: 43/4)

Despite this she is remembered as strong and feisty, bringing humour and comradeship to their arduous work (Jackson 2002). On her return she shared her experiences through public speaking and fund raising but the toll on her health was great: It took her several years to recover, and the memories of that time remained with her for the rest of her life.

The final episode of Molly’s career came with the outbreak of World War 2. Her time in Spain and the Soviet Union meant that the fight against fascism was important to her so she volunteered as sister in charge of a mobile medical unit, based at near St Pancras. She vividly recalls the night-time air raids:

‘buildings gutted, shattered crumbled, piles of debris, broken stairways and rafters, freak effects of blasts, buried men, women and children, wonderful escapes, horrible mutilations, death beautiful as sleep, death as ghastly as could be ‘(Darlington 1998:155).

Her strong sense of justice led her into conflict over misappropriation of supplies, and although her complaints were upheld, the stress of fighting the authorities, plus her own failing health led her to retire, at 52 years old, in 1942. Prior to her death in 1964, Molly and Jack collaborated on a memoir which remained unpublished until Ralph Darlington’s edition in 1998.

Molly Murphy was not a famous nurse but her career, influenced by her socialist views, is nevertheless interesting, unusual and insightful. Bookended by the two world wars, she started nursing before state registration and finished just before the National Health Service. She nursed both the poorest, and the richest people in London, and worked under fire in war zones in Spain and England. She witnessed life, politics and health care in the early Soviet Union, was a suffragette, a socialist and an early member of the BCP. Perhaps most interestingly as a woman and nurse, her life story illustrates many aspects of nursing care and significant events of the twentieth century.


Darlington, R (1998) Molly Murphy: Suffragette and Socialist. Institute of Social Research, University of Salford. Salford.

Jackson, A (2002) British Women and the Spanish Civil War. Routledge. London

Murphy, M (ND) “Nurse Molly” An Autobiography by Molly Murphy. Unpublished Manuscript, People’s History Museum, CP/IND/MURP/1