When war broke out 100 years ago, the owner of Morden Hall Park, Gilliat Edward Hatfeild, offered the Hall to the War Office for use as a military hospital. This year, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Attic Theatre Company brings the untold stories of the men and women who lived, worked and nursed at Morden Hall Park to life in Fields Unsown, a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Nurses Registration Bill

The Nurses Registration Bill

Before the war, no formal qualification was required for nurses, and there was no central register of nurses. The London Hospital, which trained most nurses (and made a considerable sum out of hiring third year trainees out to other hospitals for significantly higher fees than the salary paid to the trainee) strongly opposed the proposal that nurses be formally trained and registered. Florence Nightingale had opposed the idea on the grounds that the character traits of a good nurse should be valued over formal qualifications, and Eva Luckes, the war-time Matron of the London, agreed with her. But the war – which brought an urgent need to distinguish between the trained and the untrained, as well as a new respect for the nursing profession – was a turning point for the campaign for the formal training and registration of nurses, and the Nurses Registration Act was finally passed in 1919.

Dr William Chapple, the New Zealand born MP for Stirlingshire, was instrumental in the passing of the Act. His daughter, Ella Chapple, nursed at Morden Hall during the war, and her sister Nelca nursed at another property owned by Hatfeild, Morden Grange. A third sister, Louisa, nursed in Brighton, while their youngest sister was still at school at Rodean, which all the girls had attended on their immigration from New Zealand.

On the 24th October 1914, the British Journal of Nursing recorded with approval that William Chapple, MP had“Kindly consented to introduce the nurses registration bill into the House of Commons in the coming session.”

The bill was thoroughly supported by some professional nurses, primarily because of their complaint that there was an “utter lack of effective organisation in the nursing profession, resulting in all and sundry going to the from to nurse the sick and wounded” whether or not their training was efficient, sufficient or appropriate.

Those professional nurses believed that it was only right and appropriate that those fighting for their country deserved no less than recognised professional care, with proper training, theory and examined practice being the marker of a good nurse.

The Matron of the London, Eva Luckes, and her predecessor, Florence Nightingale (who died in 1910) had consistently opposed such a law, on the basis that exams were no proof of a good nurse and that character mattered above all else. Luckes (in whose hospital many of the matrons who supervised the VAD hospitals had trained) continued to protest strongly against the proposed law.

The bill was put forward in late 1914, and passed in 1918, in large part because of the manner in which the war had changed the nursing profession. Women could not again be expected to face up to the horrors of war, with men with such severe and shocking injuries, without the proper training and understanding of their responsibilities.

Chapple argued that it was most appropriate to have a nursing council working toward a curriculum and certificates for those who pass the nursing bill, given that as the war had gone on, some hospitals were making comment that the standard of incoming nurses was lower than usual or expected. The House of Commons agreed, and in December 1919, the General Nursing Council for England and Wales was created, overseeing the state of nurses and their training until the legislative changes in 1979.

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