Berkshire Family History Society had an enquiry from Marilyn Gendek in Australia, regarding the whereabouts of a grave of a famous nurse called Louisa Parsons. As the grave is in St. Mary’s churchyard annexe in Shinfield, I was asked to assist with the enquiry as I live nearby in Spencers Wood. 

I started my research with Shinfield and District Local History Society and work done by Clare Collins, a former member of the society, who, in 1983, had decided to research Louisa herself. This followed the discovery of her grave when the society was surveying the cemetery and recording inscriptions. Clare discovered through the American Embassy that Louisa was the director of the University of Maryland Nurses Training School and that they did not know where Louisa was buried in England. Naturally, I used Clare’s article to start with and through my research resolved some anomalies and added more information that I received from Marilyn, who is researching Dr Osler, a prominent physician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and who is linked to Louisa (more on him below). Margaret Bampton provided essential help in tracing Louisa’s war time life.

Louise Parsons headstoneI had heard a famous nurse once lived in the area but did not know anything about her, other than having seen her gravestone. According to the gravestone Louisa was the sister of Emma Rowe (née Parsons) of Three Mile Cross who was the wife of James Rowe. Through my research I have found that she was in fact the daughter of Emma.

She was known as Louisa, but according to her birth registration in June quarter 1855, she was Emma Amelia Louisa Parsons and baptised as that at Sidbury Devon, in 1856. She was born to Emma Parsons. The family can be found on the 1861 census, at Sidbury (part of Sidmouth), with head of the household William Parsons 58, who was a widower and agriculture labourer, Emma Parsons 27 daughter, Maria Parsons 25 daughter, Charles Parsons grandson aged 7, and Louisa granddaughter aged 5.

On the 1871 census at Fore Street Sidmouth, Louisa aged 17, was a servant to Henry Dawe, his wife Ann, and their 5 children. Henry was a wine merchant.

On the recommendations of a Miss Ross of London and Mrs Pattenhausen of Forest Hill, Louisa entered the Nightingale Nursing School, at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, March 19th 1879 aged 24. She trained and graduated from there in June 1883 and can be seen there on the 1881 census aged 26.

St Thomas’ Hospital was originally established in 1225 in Southwark, and transferred to Lambeth, opening there in 1871 with 600 beds. Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1868. Some parts of the hospital in Southwark still remain, with the old operating theatre existing as a museum there. The old school at Lambeth is also a museum and, in 2020, was to be the site for celebrating the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale. It was not celebrated due to the ongoing problems with the Covid-19 virus. The school/museum now needs extensive renovations.

The school was established from public subscription, in St. Thomas’ Hospital in Southwark, by Florence after the Crimean War. Twenty to thirty students were taken on for a year each year. On graduation they were called Nightingales. They could also visit Florence in her apartment in South Street. Florence kept extensive notes on all the students, including their character. In fact, in the Aldershot Army Museum, a letter from Florence can be found asking after Louisa’s progress. Between 1860, when the school was founded, and 1903, the school certified 1907 nurses. Many went on to be matrons or superintendents of nursing, as did Louisa.

Louise Parsons medalsShortly after graduating, Louisa became a Sister in the British Army. One of her first missions was in Egypt under General Wolseley’s campaign, to the fever-stricken and wounded who filled the hospitals. It was for service in these campaigns under Her Majesty’s warrant she and others were decorated with the Royal Red Cross and the Egyptian Service Medal. The latter was a silver medal, which bears the veiled head of Victoria suspended from a distinctive blue and white ribbon.

Image courtesy of Marilyn Gendek

The war in Egypt was started by France, Britain, India and Egypt trying to relieve Cairo and the Suez Canal from the Sudanese. The canal was an important thoroughfare to India. Britain and India secured Cairo from the Sudanese in the battle of Tel-el-Kebir and returned the capital and canal to the Egyptian ruler, the Khedive. They pushed the Dervishes (Sudanese) south using the Nile and gunboats in battle. It was the Khedive who presented Louisa with her campaign medals. The military hospitals were on the banks of the Nile with the guns on the boats protecting the banks. Before securing Cairo, the infantry would fight in a square formation protected by the numerous thorn bushes which were plentiful in the desert. In the centre of the square were the big guns and the hospital wagons where the wounded would be attended, perhaps by Louisa. 

In 1885, Louisa returned to England suffering from typhoid, for two years rest and recovery. The Egyptian war continued until 1898 when Winston Churchill was involved and he wrote of his adventures in a book called The River War.

On September 10th 1887 Louisa sailed to Boston, America, from Liverpool, as the nurse and companion of an American woman, Louisa P Loring, who was also accompanied by her sister, Katherine Loring. She stayed for the next two years, in California and the Carolinas. Louisa Putnam Loring is mentioned as an executor to administer the American side the will of Louisa (Parsons), along with Augustus Peabody Loring, a lawyer. These siblings are both of Boston, Massachusetts, but of different addresses. Augustus was a contemporary of Henry James, the writer. Another famous name which is associated with the Peabody family name is George Peabody whose name is attached to many buildings in London and the bank of J P Morgan in the city. George was a great philanthropist; the Loring family were also. There were four siblings and two had the Peabody name as a second one taken from their mother’s side.  

In 1889, the Johns Hopkins Hospital was about to open its wards as the first training school for nurses in America. Louisa was appointed head nurse and interim superintendent, until the appointed candidate, Isabel Hampton, could take up the post three months later. Louisa was one of four candidates chosen for the superintendent’s job. It was here that Louisa first met Professor William Osler, physician-in-chief. During this time, she demonstrated such a capacity for leadership, organisation, and knowledge of nursing that her services were sought by the University of Maryland when its training school for nurses was inaugurated. This training school has a continuing interest in Louisa and actually houses her medals, earned in three wars, in its museum as per Louisa’s will. 

Dr Osler, a Canadian, was a remarkable man, who with 3 other professors of medicine inaugurated the Johns Hopkins Training school in America, which, with its organisation and training, became the most famous hospital school in the world at that time. He wrote a textbook for the use of students and advocated the clinical approach and science to medicine. He told his students that the patient would diagnose his illness and that students were to listen to the patient. 

Johns Hopkins was another remarkable man and his biography is interesting.

Louisa left the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in December 1889 to become the first superintendent of nurses at the University of Maryland Hospital Training School for Nurses. This was a very important time for her and had she ended her career here would have been a major achievement. She resigned from the Maryland Hospital after 22 months. The school still remembers Louisa as they have named a department after her. For a short period of time she was superintendent of nurses in a hospital in St. Paul Minnesota. Of this we know very little. Next, in August 1893, Louisa was sent by Miss Clara Barton, as the chief Red Cross representative, to the tidal flood, after the disastrous force 3 hurricane at Beaufort, South Carolina. Clara had fought in the American Civil War, had founded the American Red Cross as a self-taught nurse and was their president. This must have been a dreadful time as 2000 were drowned and more hurricanes came and devastated the East Coast up as far as New York. Beaufort was an area of aqua phosphate mining which was ruined. The Red Cross established a warehouse of food and clothing, and the area took nearly a year to return to normal. The damages totalled $1 million at least.

Louisa was called home shortly after, owing to the illness of her mother Emma Rowe, but was soon to return to her friends the Lorings in Boston, staying there from 1895 to 1897. Then came the Spanish-American War, and Louisa was sent as a Red Cross representative, to take nursing charge of the hospital at Fort McPherson, Mississippi, as part of the USA Army hospital. The fort was established in 1867 as a Union troop fort following the 1861-65 American Civil War and played a major role as a hospital in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Cuba struggled to gain independence from Spain and there were riots in Havana. America was drawn into war with Spain because of her significant investment interests there. In 1898, the USA sent a battleship called the Maine, to protect their interests, and this was blown up losing 260 members of the crew. In April, Spain declared war on the USA and by July the war was over because of the USA’s supremacy at sea. The Philippines was also involved as part of Spain and the USA took over the 7000 islands there. The Philippines eventually became a republic. Cuba is still a poor country.

 Another medal was awarded to Louisa for service in the Spanish-American War and is held at the University of Maryland Hospital with the other medals.

A year later came the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and Louisa was recalled to England for duty in South Africa, at Bloemfontein, her last service as a military nurse. She was with Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service (Reserve) at No. 9 General Hospital there. She was awarded the Queen’s medal of the South African war. 

In 1866 provision was made for the appointment of nurses to all Military General Hospitals but it wasn’t until 1881 that an Army Nursing Service was formed. In 1902, Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service was established by Royal Warrant under the control of Queen Alexandra who was president until her death. The service performed in World War I, in every campaign from 1939, as the Army Nursing Service and in 1949 was renamed as a corps called QARANC (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps), currently under the patronage of the Countess of Wessex.

After the Boer War, Louisa returned to America for a time to stay with friends, until about 1910. Due to her mother’s continued illness, she returned home once again to Great Lea Farm, Three Mile Cross. She can be found there on the 1911 census. 

Louisa’s mother, Emma, died October 18th 1912. Due to her own failing health, Louisa was unable to take an active part in nursing but during the next four years took an active interest in the local hospitals, visiting to comfort and cheer the wounded in them. Louisa helped raise funds on behalf of the refreshment buffet at Reading Station for the soldiers by holding a local Primrose Day celebration, according to the Reading Mercury. Primrose Day, April 19th, commemorates Benjamin Disraeli’s death. One of the nurses at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Janet Wallace, was a witness to Louisa’s will. 

No longer in good health, living on the farm in Three Mile Cross near Reading, and knowing her time was near, Louisa wrote to her American friends. She was under the care of local doctors George Halpin and Dr Morris, as she was not well enough to travel to Oxford to be seen by Sir William Osler, now a Baronet and Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. He learnt that Louisa was living nearby and came to visit her several times at Great Lea farm. She had been such a highly regarded nurse of fine character. It was a great comfort to Louisa also that he came to visit her. He consulted with her doctors Halpin and Morris, for her continuing care confirming there was little he could do for her, but felt she was in good hands with them. 

So it was that Louisa died on November 2nd 1916, from stomach cancer. She was given a military funeral being a member of the Reserve Nursing Staff of the Army. The coffin, draped with the Union Jack and many beautiful flowers, was drawn to St. Mary’s Church Shinfield on a gun carriage in charge of a firing party, under the command of Captain Fielding Clarke. Maybe the gun carriage had been loaned by the Duke of Wellington. A company of soldiers, buglers and a firing party present, rifles were fired over the grave and the Last Post sounded by the buglers. So, this famous nurse was laid to rest with her mother Emma Rowe.

Many notable people attended including Sir William Osler, Dr. H.P. Gilbert, who Louisa first trained under, and Lieutenant, J.G. Moran. The service was conducted by Rev. H.L Rice, vicar of Shinfield, and Rev. F T. Lewarne, vicar of Spencers Wood.

One of Louisa’s last bequests was that her service medals be left to the Maryland Hospital training School, America, of which she was the founder, also a legacy of $10,000. The Maryland continues to be one of the largest nurses training schools in America, and maintains its connections with Louisa Parsons, as the nurses still wear the fluted lace cap presented to Louisa by Florence Nightingale. In 1922, a hall of residence for the nurses was named after Louisa and in 1964, the nurses Alumnae Association honoured her memory by commissioning a portrait for the School’s 75th anniversary. 

In 1989, a delegation of the School alumni toured England and visited Louisa Parsons’ grave site, meeting with members of Shinfield and District Local History Society and a Mr and Mrs Adams, descendants of Emma and James Rowe. James and Emma had a son and daughter. Their daughter Minnie, married Austin Adams. Austin and Minnie had 7 sons so Mr and Mrs Adams would be descended from their family. The Shinfield and District Local History Society was presented with a commemorative medal by the nurses of the School of Nursing, University of Maryland during their visit to the grave in 1989.

In 2020, a group of nurses were due to visit England as part of the celebrations of Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday and planning to visit the grave of Louisa. Due to Covid-19 this never happened although the person I have corresponded with said they still hope it will eventually happen.

In 2020, a local care home was named in honour of Louisa – Parsons Grange.

So, from very humble beginnings Louisa Parsons became a very famous nurse and the tributes paid to her affirm this. 

References:

  • Shinfield and District Local History Society
  • Spencers Wood Local History Group
  • Marilyn Gendek
  • The Maryland University School of Nursing Living Museum and Dean Krimmel Creative Museum Service/Qm2
  • Find My Past
  • Reading Mercury
  • St Thomas’ Hospital
  • Nightingale Museum
  • Britannica online
  • Selected writings of Dr Osler 1849-1919 OUP 1951 Osler Club of London
  • Spanish World of 1898 (Library of Congress)
  • Nurses on the Veldt – medal rolls
  • Commando, A Boer Journal by Deneys Reitz. 1929 
  • Galveston Flood Biography.com
  • Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing.  (This was instituted with the help of Florence Nightingale)
  • Peabody Trust.org.uk
  • Historic Beverley. Loring family papers (extensive) 
  • Wikipedia
  • Princess Christian’s Army Nurses Service
  • Red Cross UK
  • American Red Cross
Berkshire Family History Society

Berkshire Family History Society