Victorian cats, medieval hospitals & frontline nurses

Illustrator Louis Wain changed the way we think about cats and dedicated his life to improving their welfare. Richard Whittington is the real man behind the story of Dick Whittington and his cat, and his 15th-century charity helped ensure that St. Bart’s hospital in London would survive for another 600 years. Brave young Nellie Spindler lied about her age in order to serve as a frontline nurse in the First World War before her tragic death.

In our final episode on heroic deeds, we tell their stories.

Documents from The National Archives used in this episode:

C 66/434; COPY 1/221 (314); COPY 1/229A (187); COPY 1/243(i) (173); COPY 1/280 (327); PRO 30/69/1491; PROB 11/3/468; PROB 11/10/229; SC 8/25/1235; SC 8/26/1255; SC 8/121; WO 95/345/2; WO 399/7850.

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Sarah Castagnetti: If The National Archives had an ancestor, it would probably be a monastery or convent. Before archives like ours existed in Britain, these medieval institutions kept important records and maintained libraries of manuscripts on history, language, and science. Besides the esoteric concerns of subject matter, these book-keepers would have also faced the challenges of weather, bugs, and rodents threatening their precious manuscripts.

One method used by medieval monks and nuns to keep mice and other small book-eating animals away was keeping cats in their libraries. Our repositories today are climate controlled and experts help us keep paper-eating pests away, but….believe it or not, we still have cats…

Matt Norman: You’re listening to On the Record at The National Archives, a show that uncovers the stories hidden in our collections, stories of famous monarchs and spies…and stories of everyday people like you and me.

I’m Matt Norman.

Sarah: And I’m Sarah Castagnetti.

Here at The National Archives, we’re the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history.

We’re the paper trail of a nation, and our original documents have some incredible stories to tell…if you know where to look.

Matt: In this three-part series we’re exploring stories in our collection with the theme of heroic deeds.

Katherine Howells: So we have some illustrations of cats, like portraits of cats, and we also have some cartoons depicting cats in various situations like playing cricket, for example. We have an advert for Tom Smith’s Crackers; this was the company that invented the Christmas cracker, and they produced a special type of cracker with cats in it. So that’s one of our advertising records in the copyright collection.

Matt: This is Katherine Howells, cat person and Visual Collections Researcher here at The National Archives.

Katherine is talking about the cats in our archives. Actually, she’s talking about the illustrations of cats made by Victorian artist Louis Wain that are held in our copyright and advertising collections.

Sarah: Just to be crystal clear, we don’t have any real cats. I’m sorry if you thought that’s where this was going; we had to get your attention somehow. But stick with us, because the story of Louis Wain the cat-lover is perhaps just as quirky and endearing as a real cat in our archives.

Louis Wain was an illustrator and artist, born in London in 1860 and educated at the West London School of Art. His adorable depictions of cats had a big impact, changing the way society saw these animals. Like Matt just mentioned, some of Louis Wain’s illustrations made their way into our collections as evidence for copyright registrations and as part of advertising campaigns like Tom Smith’s crackers that hired Louis for the artwork.

Matt: Sarah, you’re a cat person, right?

Sarah: I have two cats at the moment, and I suppose I do rank them just a little higher than my three children, but I suppose that’s pretty normal, wouldn’t you say?

Matt: Oh yeah, that’s very normal.

In fact our obsession with cats and their internet stardom wasn’t inevitable. Cats have been revered and owned as pets in some places for thousands of years, but their status in Europe and Britain in the past was as helpful mousers at best and, at worst, plague carriers that should be destroyed.

Katherine: I think we forget that cats weren’t always considered the kind of lovable pet like dogs that we might think of today. Before the 19th century and even early 19th century, the cat was a rat catcher. It would be used on ships and it would be used in farms to catch mice. And they weren’t very well treated often, there were lots of stray cats. They just weren’t thought of in the way that we think of them today. They weren’t a sort of animal you would keep in your house.

Matt: But Louis Wain loved cats, and he wanted everyone else to love and respect them as well. It’s fair to say cats were at the center of Louis Wain’s world….alongside his beloved wife Emily.

Katherine: Well Louis Wain is definitely a hero to cats and cat lovers. I mean, if we think about the way we talk about cats, the way we depict cats today, he changed everything. He had a real love for cats throughout his life. So he did start out drawing other things. He was drawing animal animals and country scenes for publications. But he got really interested in cats, and it’s quite a sad story about how this came about. His wife, Emily, became ill soon after they got married in 1883. And he started drawing their cat, Peter, to cheer her up. And she loved the drawings of Peter and she encouraged him to sell some of his drawings and publish them, which he started to do. And it really rocketed from there. His success was amazing. He started at first drawing cats that were quite realistic and then he slowly went into kind of more human-like cats. So cats doing human things with sort of bigger eyes and more stylised depictions of cats. And these became really, really popular. And he had them in the Illustrated London News, and he did illustrations for children’s books. And he also produced an annual, the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. So he was really prolific. He did loads and loads of drawings of cats. And they were really, really popular. Sadly, his wife died before she could really celebrate his success. She saw the beginning of it, but sadly she died in 1887.

He had a lot of problems after that. He suffered from mental health problems throughout his life and these worsened over his career since the death of his wife. Despite this, he was incredibly popular, incredibly successful. But his interest in cats wasn’t just drawing them and selling drawings of them. He really cared about cats. They were a huge part of his life. And he was president of the National Cat Club. He was a member of the Society for the Protection of Cats, and he was a judge at several national cat shows. So he was just a really enthusiastic cat lover and everything he did in his life seemed to sort of revolve around cats in some way.

So Louis Wain really was an advocate for cats and I think made a huge impact in terms of the way people think about cats. Louis Wain’s drawings of cats were not just something to look at, to enjoy. They really did change the way people thought about cats. He depicted them in very human ways with big eyes, very sort of lovable…what we might be used to today in terms of cartoons of cats. But at the time this changed everything. People started to think of cats as cute and something lovable that they’d want to keep in their homes and especially his work on cat welfare as well, combined with his drawings really helped that. And so I think without him, we may not have pet cats in the same way that we do today. So he is a massive hero to all cat-kind.

Matt: And it wasn’t just cat-kind who appreciated Louis’ efforts. When his mental health declined and he found himself in bad circumstances, the cat lovers of London rallied support to give this kind-hearted man the care and comfort he deserved.

Katherine: Understanding of mental health at the time was quite poor. So we’re not exactly sure what he did suffer from. Some say it may have been schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, we’re not sure. But this suffering in his life did lead to him being admitted to a mental hospital in 1924, which was very sad, but what’s quite interesting when you’re looking in the archives, you find evidence that he was still supported by a lot of people. And when people realised that he was in a mental hospital, in poverty, they worked to try and get him out of that situation. And there was a newspaper campaign that was started to raise funds to help him.

So at The National Archives, we hold a file from the collection of Ramsey MacDonald, who was Prime Minister in 1929. Because Ramsey McDonald was involved in the Louis Wain campaign in terms of trying to raise money for his care. So we just happen to have a file all about this fund. This campaign was supported by famous people, including H. G. Wells and two prime ministers, Stanley Baldwin and Ramsey MacDonald. And they raised quite a bit of money and eventually they were able to move him to a more pleasant hospital in the later years of his life, where apparently he was able to spend his time with cats, surrounded by cats and continuing to draw, continuing to illustrate them. So it’s quite a nice end to his story, but it is an amazing story. And you can still see his works all over the place; they’re still very popular.

Matt: If you look up Louis Wain’s cats online, I can bet you’ll have seen them or something like them before, in old books or antique shops maybe. But Louis’ cats weren’t the first of their kind to become fixtures in popular culture.

Sarah: Perhaps you’ve heard of Dick Whittington and His Cat? This famous story from English folklore has been told from parent to child, in books, and in plays…most widely as a popular Christmas pantomime.

The legendary Dick Whittington is based on Richard Whittington, a real person who lived in the 14th century. Both the legendary Dick and the real-life Richard accomplished quite a lot in their lifetimes, including some rather heroic deeds. But only one of them did so with the help of a cat.

Euan Roger: Well the folklore story dates from the early 17th century, and it becomes increasingly popular later. And that features Dick Whittington, who’s a boy from a poor Gloucestershire family heading to London where the streets are paved with gold to make his fortune. And he’s generally either accompanied by his cat, either at the start of the story or the cat joins him. And he has his various adventures in London becoming a servant to a wealthy merchant, but later making his fortune, marrying his master’s daughter, Alice Fitzwarren, and becoming Lord Mayor of London three times.

Sarah: This is Euan Roger, Principal Records Specialist on the medieval team here at The National Archives.

Euan: Now, while some of this is true, much of it isn’t true. For a start his family was poor. It wasn’t undistinguished. He was the youngest son of a minor Gloucestershire landowner, but because he was a youngest son, he couldn’t expect to inherit any property. And so he instead turns to trade and moves to London by 1379 to make his name as one of the leading merchants in the city, providing luxury goods to Richard II and the court and later also to Henry IV. Now he does marry a woman called Alice Fitzwarren, although he’s not the servant to her father. And he does serve as Mayor of London on several occasions, as well as sitting as an MP in 1416. Though, unfortunately, there is no evidence of him having a cat.

Sarah: The folklore and pantomime focus on Whittington’s younger escapades, but what interests us in this episode is Whittington’s post-mortem contributions to the City of London, because when he died, he left his fortune to charity….a portion of which helped ensure the continued existence of London’s St. Bart’s hospital for the next 600 years, from 1423 right up till today.

Euan has pieced together the story of Whittington’s bequests and their impact from a number of different sources in our collection, including records of disputes between the executors of Whittington’s will, information found in the wills of other wealthy 15th century Londoners, and various records from St. Bart’s.

Euan: Towards the end of his life, he’s a very, very rich man. And he dies in 1423. And he hasn’t got a son to inherit his wealth. So he ends up giving huge, huge sums of money to various charitable causes in London, kind of founding new institutions, supporting old institutions. And he gives out approximately £5,000 in ready money and jewels, et cetera, which is equivalent to over 3 million pounds today. He gives money to rebuild Newgate Prison, he builds a library at the Guild Hall. He gives money towards the rebuilding of his parish church, St. Michael Paternoster, with the foundation of alms houses and a college of secular priests attached to it. One of my favourites is he builds a public toilet near Walbrook near the Thames, called Whittington’s Longhouse, which could apparently seat 128 people and was divided by gender, which is a kind of first time that’s happening in London. And it also had alms houses above it.

Sarah: Mmm, yes, he did say that…one of Whittington’s legacy projects was a toilet that could handle 128 people in one go relieving themselves directly into a tributary of the River Thames…with lodgings for poor people above it.

It was a different time.

Whittington also leaves money for the improvement of drainage and water access around London.

Euan: But one of the bequests that I’m particularly interested in is a request to the leading London hospital at the time, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in West Smithfield, and that’s the same St. Bart’s that’s still there today. Now he leaves the hospital a hundred shillings for the use of the poor there, which is to be distributed by the discretion of the master, John White, who’s also one of his executors, as well as giving them plates and other expensive goods as well.

Sarah: Donating to a hospital in 1423 was very different than chipping in to help the NHS today. Present-day St. Bartholomew’s Hospital specialises in cancer and cardiac care, boasting advanced technologies like robotic surgery. But in the late medieval period, hospitals served a very different role.

Euan: So medieval hospitals aren’t hospitals in the way we might think of them today. So care is focused much more on hospitality and spiritual care rather than medicine or surgery, but it’s also providing places for the sick poor to be cared for through prayer and charity. So sometimes this might include the provision of gardens. So that’s an important part of the healing process in the late medieval hospital. St. Barts has 13 gardens in the middle of the 15th century, but St. Bart’s also had a reputation for looking after the children of mothers who had died in childbirth and also single mothers from Newgate Prison– sometimes described as fallen women–and they, they care for their children and care for them until they’re about the age of seven, at which point they try and find them a suitable job.

Sarah: It was a different time.

Euan: As a religious house, St. Barts is quite small, but as a hospital, it’s one of the largest in terms of capacity and one of the oldest and best known in medieval England. And at the beginning of the 15th century, hospitals across England are in quite a perilous position because there’s been years of abuse, years of malpractice, and there’s this desire for reform across the board. And in England, this really kind of reaches a peak by the early years of the 15th century. And in particular, the kind of ramshackle nature of these hospitals and the failure to improve them had led the mercantile elite to kind of vote with their feet and move their patronage away from hospitals into the new era of growth area of smaller alms houses. So there’s a kind of need for hospitals and their masters to fight back and regain the trust of this wealthy social group, particularly in areas such as London.

And so Whittington’s giving money to St. Barts in his will for the care of the poor. Although ultimately his bequest is kind of hijacked by the hospital, because his estate owed them money. But I’ll come back to that in a little bit. Because Whittington is not the only one concerned with improving the hospital around this time and making it a nicer and more sanitary place.

Shortly after he’s making his bequest, the hospital gets a new master. Who is a guy called John Wakering, who’s also known as John Blackbird or possibly John Blackbeard, the spelling kind of varies. But this guy is also really involved in kind of working with Whittington’s bequest to improve the hospital.

Sarah: John Wakering has bigger plans for Whittington’s money than just caring for the poor, and he appears to be a bit of an entrepreneur when it comes to restoring stability and prestige to St. Bart’s…qualities that attract more donors.

Euan: So John Wakering is a really interesting guy because he essentially brings in a huge investment program at St. Bart’s, rebuilding large parts of the hospital’s property portfolio to make it a nicer place to live. He’s actually described by a member of his staff, his rent collector, John Cock who wrote, “It’s memorable to recollect his wondrous wisdom and extraordinary discretion.” Cock is a bit of a fan, I should say. He likes to comment about how good his master is. But one of the first changes he makes…Wakering….is related to Whittington’s bequest.

So he essentially convinces Whittington’s executors to invest in a huge new south gate at Bart’s, which would display his coat of arms as a sign of patronage to the hospital, with an expensive window included. And it’s a huge cost of 64 pounds for the gate and 44 pounds for the window. So that’s a huge sum of money that’s going to be invested in the South Gate. And this is quite indicative of what Wakering does overall.

Sarah: This job Wakering has given himself isn’t so different from what fundraising staff at a charity might do today: convince donors that the institution is worth their money, which being associated with the institution will reflect well on their legacy, and that their contribution won’t be wasted on an unsustainable cause.

Euan: So one thing he tries to improve on is the provision for education at the hospital. There’d been a school or schools there for some time and by the 15th century, it’s gone and got a master of Latin, but he’s really keen to continue this tradition. And he even poaches a schoolmaster from St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is a place he’s very keen to emulate. And certainly by the end of his tenure as master, the hospital has multiple schools to teach these children who have been brought in from places like Newgate, from mothers who died in childbirth.

And he also gets his rent collector John Cock to write a history of the English kings, which copies from an existing list at St. Paul’s, although entertainingly, he can adds himself into the story. So he tells us he was present at Henry V’s coronation, and he says it rained a lot. So he’s kind of saying I was there, and it was really rainy the whole time I was there. And the other kind of programs that Wakering is involved with is trying to provide access to fresh water for the hospital. So in 1433, he does a deal with his neighbour, St. Bartholomew’s priory–with whom he has a kind of a long running dispute–to extend the priories’ water supply, and secure piped water into the hospital.

And the way he does this apply to become damaged and needed to be repaired, which the priory can’t afford, but because the hospital has money available, he agreed to repair the pipes as long as he can siphon off half the water. And this in turn encourages further charity. So members of his community then want to extend this kind of access. So some members grant the hospital lands and buildings in order to extend that water supply down to Newgate and Ludgate prisons to provide piped water for the prisoners.

And he funds all of this generally by diversifying the hospitals property portfolio. So he’s really interested in, rather than just having a house where someone lives, he is interested in developing or accumulating breweries and bake houses. So a building that serves a multipurpose, and he’s also interested in the people living in his close improving their buildings rather than allowing them to deteriorate.

So we actually have the kind of Wakering and Cock’s remarks about tenements. So Thomas and Alice Portalyn “built in stone a kitchen, rooms, and other pleasing items and who improved it very much” is kind of one comment. And that’s in comparison to another tenant who was described “as a counterfeit gentleman and never thrifty”.

Sarah: So the question is ….is John Wakering is doing all this because he thinks it will help more people or is it a self-interested endeavour. Of course, it’s risky to speculate on the motivations of historic individuals, but Euan believes it’s ultimately a good thing that Wakering is doing, whatever his intentions.

Euan: Now he does have a bit of an ulterior motive here, which comes out in some of the records, because he’s essentially creating a fancy gated community. The center square is known as Paradise, and you see him making effort to attract some of the most important men and women in London, including lots of lawyers, because it’s essentially always handy to have some friendly lawyers around, to help out any dispute you find yourself in. And this does become a quite exclusive gated community. So at first glance, it might seem a very self-interested move by Wakering rather than a kind of heroic or noble action.

But then you look at the tenants living there, and a large proportion of them are elderly or widowed. So Joan Astley, for example, who was Henry VI’s chief nurse in his early years, lives in her old age above the Smithfield gate and the precinct. And she may have sought safety and security within the hospital’s walls because wealthy widows were often a target for sexual violence and forced marriage outside of the safety of that walled community. And at the same time, he’s really improving the hospital as an institution, which you see reflected in the wills of those, with connections to Bart’s. So there are bequests which improve the hospital’s physical and spiritual legacy, provide charity and help for the sick and poor in the hospital, and Wakering is often named in these wills as acting as a witness or an executor. So you do get this impression of him turning up at your deathbed and asking you to remember the hospital in your final days, but at the same time, these bequests–in the same way that Whittington did– they’re kind of feeding the provision of charity for the poor, the sick, and the needy of medieval London.

He’s encouraging others to invest because he’s saying there’s this kind of lovely community. And he really fosters that kind of community spirit so that people give each other things in their wills, but they also give towards the hospital. And it’s always been a thing that to give to a hospital is a very good charitable thing in your will, but he’s taking that to the next level by really investing these people. And you see them as a community there, but also in other places, you see the same groups of people interacting in other places as well. So they are very much this tight knit community.

So in one sense, I think they’re probably to thank for the continued existence of St. Bartholomew’s to the present day. So through Wakering’s efforts in particular, that community he builds up and the perhaps unwitting endorsement of the hospital by Whittington’s gate and window, he leaves the hospital in a really strong position by the end of his tenure, which, along with the support of those leading civic officials that he’s fostered, really allows the hospital to make it through the events of the Reformation relatively unscathed. And after that, it gets taken on by the City of London and kind of evolves slowly but surely into the hospital that it is today. And while much of the medieval structures haven’t really survived, you can still visit that site of the original hospital church and view for yourself the 15th century bell tower, some of the original structures that are still there. You can also see, the hospital has a few surviving commemorative brasses. So you can kind of see the legacy that this community has left behind.

In a way, I think both men are also really to thank for encouraging the spirit of charity in medieval London and in providing some of the things that we might take for granted today, such as the provision of fresh water, particularly to the poor, the needy, and the imprisoned.

And I think people sometimes think of medieval London’s being this kind of smelly, filthy, backwards environment, which in some cases it could be, but the evidence of Whittington and Wakering, I think, shows that those in charge were aware of the problems. And were actively trying to provide resources to make everyday life better for all levels of society. And even those on the edges of society, the prisoners, for example, they are trying to make their lives better. And I think in particular, Whittington’s charity and generosity to the city is the main reason he’s become immortalised in the folk stories and the pantos around the country every year, which tell his kind of story.

Sarah: In three years, St. Bart’s Hospital will be 900 years old. Today, it’s the oldest hospital in Britain still on its original site.

In 1423, when Richard Whittington died, the tallest structure visible from St. Bart’s would have been the spire of the old St. Paul’s Cathedral–one of the tallest in the world at the time. Today, patients receiving chemotherapy in St. Bart’s 7th floor day ward can look out of the window at the dome of the new St. Paul’s.

Last year, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital had 220,000 outpatient appointments. It’s hard to imagine that one person could have helped ensure that the medieval hospital would survive to become what it is today. But as we can see from the story of Richard Whittington and John Wakering, individual deeds of heroism and charity can add up over time.

Matt: Speaking of hospitals and saving lives, our final story for this episode is about a young nurse named Nellie who risked her life–and ultimately lost it–helping wounded soldiers on the front line during the First World War. While Richard Whittington’s heroic deeds were accomplished after his death, Nellie Spindler performed one heroic deed after another up until the very moment she was killed in the line of duty.

When we invited our different departments to submit ideas from their research for this mini-series on heroic deeds, Nellie Spindler’s story was nominated by our Head of Military Records, Will Butler. Our military records are full of heroic individuals–like the ones we told you about in our previous episode–but Will’s research into Nellie revealed two particularly interesting facts that we thought you’d like to hear about: a brave lie that took her to the front line and a gravestone inscription revealing what her family thought of her sacrifice. We’ll get to these details soon, but first, here’s Will to share more about the documents in our repositories that shed light on Nellie and her short but heroic life.

Will Butler: We’ve got her family’s entry in the 1901 census. So we have the nine year old Nellie living in Wakefield, Yorkshire with her parents George, who’s a Police Sergeant, and her mother Elizabeth and younger sister Lily. And we’ve also got her entry in the 1911 census where she’s listed as a hospital nurse, and she’s actually living in the hospital in which she works, and she’s recorded as 19 years of age. And I sort of mentioned her age here for a specific reason, and that’s quite significant. And I’ll return to that in a little while.

And then perhaps the two most significant records we have here for the story I’m going to talk about today are Nellie’s service record from her time in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, and The National Archives holds over 16,000 of these personal nursing records for the First World War period. And they are found in the WO 399 series. And then the second document is a war diary of the Number 44 Casualty Clearing Station for the period starting in July 1917 to October 1919, which is also available in The National Archives and in the WO 95 series.

Matt: When war breaks out in 1914, Nellie is 22. She’s been living and working at The Township Infirmary in Leeds since 1911. As thousands of men return from the front wounded and needing care, medical facilities and other buildings in Leeds are converted to war hospitals to accommodate them. Nellie transfers to the East Leeds War Hospital, recently converted from an old workhouse. And for two years, she would have spent her days caring for sick and wounded soldiers sent back from the front line to recover.

Will: And this is where I think Nellie’s journey to the Western Front begins. And we see from her personal record in the WO 399 series that she applied to be one of the 6,000 or so nurses serving abroad at any one time in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. As part of her application form, which is dated the 8th of October 1915, she was obviously required to give a number of personal details. So she gives her name, her address.

But one of the other pieces of information she gives is her date of birth, which she lists on the form as the 10th of August, 1889. Now if we look back to the census records, both the 1901 and 1911 census, her age on those documents would indicate that she was born in 1891 and not 1889 as she declares in her nursing form. So why would that be? Well, in order to join the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, an individual had to be at least 25 years of age and have had prior experience in nursing. So Nellie, again looking at the census records, certainly had the latter, but had only recently in reality, turned 24 when she applied to serve abroad. So what’s quite clear is that Nellie has lied about her age in order to join the nursing service.

I think she’s making a very conscious choice to lie about her age. So, if we look at the document, you can sort of say, well, perhaps she put the year down incorrectly, but she actually also changes the month and the day of her birth. And I think that’s an indication really of, of perhaps someone who wants to be closer to the front in order to be of more help than perhaps she felt being back in the United Kingdom, despite, you know, already helping injured service personnel in that setting. It’s that frontline setting that she is signing up for and knows that’s what she’s signing up for as well.

Matt: Nurses like Nellie–and the other 16,000 nurses whose personnel files are here at The National Archives–would have worked in one of two settings: at hospitals and military encampments in unoccupied areas of Belgium and France–a safe distance from the front line–or at casualty clearing stations.

Will: Casualty clearing stations were situated much closer to the frontline. So normally a few miles away, and often then in range of enemy artillery. So they could be quite dangerous places to work.

And that’s where we sort of pick up Nellie’s story really in the documents is in August 1917. July, August, 1917, they’re the opening months of what became the Third Battle of Ypres, which is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, and these were taking place. So the casualty clearing stations at this point would have been a hive of activity. So, you know, injured service personnel were being brought back from the front by car, stretcher, train, any way that you could get them back in order to be treated.

During these periods, the work that they’re doing is relentless. Men were being admitted, diagnosed, and operated on before then being sent further away from the frontline, hopefully to recover. And, specifically to Nellie and looking at her service record and what the document tells us from there is that she served in two of the general hospitals in the spring and early summer of 1917 and then arrived at Number 44 Casualty Clearing Station in July 1917, so just before the Battle of Passchendaele begins. And it begins actually on the 31st of that month. And over a period of four and a half months, there are between 250,000 and 400,000 British casualties. And Nellie obviously ends up being one of those.

Matt: Nellie worked at Number 44 Casualty Clearing Station for about six or seven weeks before she died. Entries in the war diary for the station can help us understand what she and her fellow nurses were dealing with in the weeks leading up to the attack that took her life on 21 August 1917.

Will: I’ll read out the entry here for the 16th of August, just to give you a bit of a flavour of what’s going on. So that the diary records the following: “Opened at 7:00 AM cases did not begin to come in until after 8:00 AM. And by 10:30 AM, 50 had been admitted. The second take in began at 1:00 PM, by which hour all the cars had been cleared. Second 50 admitted by 3:00 PM. Cars unloaded by 7:00 PM. The third take in began shortly after 7:00 PM and was finished by 9:00 PM. The total admitted for the day was 153, 64 with injuries to the abdomen and 49 with chest injuries.”

And Number 44 Casualty Clearing Station actually specialised in abdomen and chest injuries, hence why there’s a disproportionate number being admitted with those injuries. And I think this entry paints a rather vivid picture about the sorts of activities being carried out. And particularly at this time in July and August 1917, the often sort of chaotic scenes that were being experienced by those close to the front line.

And so on the day of Nellie’s death on the 21st of August, there’s another entry in the war diary. And again, I think it’s, it’s interesting to quote what it says in the war diary here. And what specifics it says about Nellie, partly because of how casual actually the entry is in the war diary about her death. And really, I think it gives an indication about how death was so close to a lot of these individuals really. So it simply states: “Yesterday morning, the 21st of August, the enemy began to shell the railway alongside the camp and the third or fourth shell killed nurse N. Spindler. She was hit in the chest and died in about five minutes. The shelling was continued all day with intervals of about half an hour between each group of three or four shots. During the shelling yesterday, all ranks with the exception of four sisters who were injured by the shell that killed Ms. Spindler behaved splendidly. The sisters and men in the wards work quietly and calmly through it all. And there was not the least evidence of panic or even alarm”.

Matt: The nurses and staff at Number 44 Casualty Clearing Station faced death and destruction on a daily basis. But through it all they focused on the task at hand, continuing their steady life-saving work even as their own lives were in danger on that hard day of the 21st of August.
But Nellie was more than a line entry in the war diary to those she served with, and she was not alone in her final minutes. She died in the arms of another nurse, Minnie Wood, who was in charge of the Casualty Clearing Station. Nellie was buried in Belgium– one of only two British female casualties from the First World War who were.

Nellie was given a full military funeral, which was attended by both the Director of Medical Services and the commanding officer of the British Fifth Army.

Will: And that’s really an indication of just how rare it was for a nurse to lose their life. In early September, 1917, her death was even reported at quite length in the British Journal of Nursing.

What we’re saying here is that Nellie doesn’t necessarily conduct one act of heroism. But again, if you look at what, somewhere like the casualty clearing station in which she’s working is going through in this point in time, it shows in general how her, as well as the individuals that she’s working with, are performing these acts more generally of heroism that don’t necessarily get recognised. They’re not necessarily recognised specifically in the documents, but we can sort of build a picture of that.

So it sort of states in the war diary that by the end of October, 1917, nearly 7,000 British soldiers had been admitted to Number 44 Casualty Clearing Station in that month alone. So just in October. Over a thousand of those had been operated on and about 340 of them had died, and figures in the months prior to October, so again, particularly in July and August, when Nellie is serving there, aren’t much different. And again, they provide insight at the sort of destruction, the daily destruction that is being witnessed by her and her fellow nurses.

There are lots of nurses, there are lots of individuals acting and working there who are performing acts of heroism constantly that aren’t necessarily being recognised. But are just generally heroic.

So Nellie is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, which is situated on the Ypres Salient, so not very far at all from, from where she was killed. And she’s the only woman buried alongside around about 10,000 men, lots of those individuals from casualty clearing stations in that vicinity. And the inscription on her headstone reads “A noble type of good heroic womanhood”. And this inscription was likely written by her family who would have been asked by what was the Imperial War Graves Commission then, and now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, if they wanted a specific inscription on her headstone. And you see if you, if you have a visit to cemeteries on the Western Front in particular, but also all over the world, there are often quite personal and specific inscriptions on individual gravestones, but I think it gives an insight into also how Nellie’s family saw her sacrifice as well.

Her service records set out for some of the correspondence received by her family when, when she was killed. So, we have her will in the records, also information about her personal effects, and the letter of condolence that was actually sent to her mother, but much like the war diary entry, these are quite prescribed, you know they’re emotionless, if you like, in lots and lots of ways, there are lots of administrative things that are happening and being demonstrated in the records.

I’d like to think in some ways that her family, at least, and others who perhaps have learned of Nellie’s story over the last century thought that her acts were both noble and heroic. And I think that shouldn’t be forgotten really.

Sarah: Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.

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