New research reveals dispute over nurses’ pay at the Foundling Hospital

New research reveals dispute over nurses’ pay at the Foundling Hospital

Museum volunteer Thomas Aird has uncovered an amusing anecdote from 1896 about nurses’ pay, showing that the Foundling Hospital was not to be crossed lightly

New research has revealed a dispute over how much the Foundling Hospital paid its nurses, conducted through successive issues of The Nursing Record & Hospital World in March 1896. In the ‘Nurses Echoes’ pages of the 14 March edition, digitised by the Royal College of Nursing, amid news of speeches and hospital openings are scathing critiques of nurses’ pay, that would not be out of place in a twenty-first century debate. An announcement by The Bury St. Edmunds Town Council that ‘Mrs Brett’ has been appointed ‘assistant Nurse at the Sanitary Hospital’, receives this cutting rejoinder: ‘Has she been trained? If so, why is she offered such starvation pay.’ Another paragraph reproduces a job advertisement placed by the Foundling Hospital:

Foundling Hospital nursing advertisement

The writer takes great offence at the minimal difference in pay between a housemaid and a nurse:

‘a trained Nurse is worth only £2 a year more than a housemaid. Nothing is said about the training of the Nurse, but presumably the authorities at the Foundling Hospital would not put a Nurse in charge of 42 girls who had not had Hospital experience – and £16 seems very poor pay.’

This outrage at an imbalance between training and remuneration remains, over 100 years later, a key feature of current debates on medical professionals’ pay. However, it seems the Foundling Hospital did not take criticism lightly, and in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the journal the following week, Thomas discovered a curt reply from W.S. Wintle, Secretary of the Hospital. The confusion, they claim, was down to semantics:

‘the term “Nurse” as used in the advertisement applies only to the Superintendent of a dormitory, and it has been used in that sense since the foundation of the Hospital…I may state that the trained Nurse of the Infirmary here receives £80 a year.’

Whilst accepting the correction, the editor of The Nursing Record & Hospital World couldn’t resist having the last laugh. She appends a postscript advising that in future ‘the term “Dormitory Maid” or “Attendant” should be substituted.’ Thomas, himself a retired nurse, was able to place this squabble within a wider social context: ‘It was a time when there was a very active campaign to implement nurse registration and a national training curriculum. The editor of this journal, Mrs Ethel Bedford-Fenwick, was the leading campaigner.’

Lesson learned – choose your words, and your adversaries, carefully!