Florence Nightingale in letters

Celebrating two hundred years since the birth of Florence Nightingale. Her revolutionary work pioneering nursing during the Victorian period transformed healthcare globally. Read never-before-seen letters to and from Florence.

By Leeds Museums & Galleries

Based on a current exhibition at Lotherton

Most people know Florence Nightingale for transforming healthcare systems worldwide, but she was also a huge social reformer. This exhibit lays claim to a collection of letters, the first of which are between Nightingale and her cousin Marianne Nicholson whose daughter, Gwendolen Gascoigne, lived at Lotherton Hall near Aberford in Leeds.

The first set of letters are from a young Nightingale and are an insight into her thoughts as a young woman and the formation of her values and ideas. Having come from a wealthy and well connected family she exercised her privilege to campaign to reform the poor law and wider social inequalities.

Marianne Nicholson’s pen set Marianne Nicholson’s pen set (c. 1800) by Samuel FisherLeeds Museums & Galleries

Marianne Nicholson’s pen set

This pen set belonged to Florence's cousin Marianne Nicholson. She would have used it to write all her letters to Florence when she was young.

Marianne Nicholson’s pen set - internal detailLeeds Museums & Galleries

The set contains a pen with nibs, ink, a pen wipe, a seal engraved with 'MN' and a stick for rubbing paper ready for a wax seal.  

Florence Nightingale's Vision letter Florence Nightingale's Vision letter (1837) by Florence NightingaleLeeds Museums & Galleries

A call to service

On February 7th 1837 Nightingale received her ‘call to service’ to do a work for God. The voice didn’t say what form the service would take, but it was from this point that Nightingale started to persue nursing with a greater conviction. She wrote to Marianne as soon as it happened. 

Florence Nightingale's Vision letter - page 7Leeds Museums & Galleries

These pages are excerpts from the description of the vision that Florence Nightingale received from God when she was sixteen years old. 

Florence Nightingale's Vision letter - page 8Leeds Museums & Galleries

Traditionally the story is that Nightingale had the vision sat on her seat in the garden under the cedars of Lebanon trees, but later she revealed to family it happened in her bedroom at her family home in Embley Park, Hampshire.  

Florence Nightingale's Vision letter - page 6Leeds Museums & Galleries

This experience was the reason and what gave her faith and strength to carry on regardless of opposition throughout her whole life.    

Painting of Marianne Nicholson (1849) by Hillary Bonham CarterLeeds Museums & Galleries

The Cousinhood

Florence Nightingale and Marianne Nicholson were first cousins and best friends. Both were members of a club they affectionately called 'the Cousinhood'. The members of this club were the Nicholsons, Nightingales and Bonham Carters, the grandchildren of William Smith, abolitionist.

Marianne Nicholson’s porcelain dolls (1800/1850)Leeds Museums & Galleries

When Florence and Marianne were children they often played with dolls. This assortment of little porcelain dolls belonged to Marianne Nicholson. She used to carry them around in a homemade purse in her pocket so that the cousins could play with them anywhere.

Florence Nightingale accompanying Laura Nicholson on the piano in the family drawing room at Embley Park (1835/1860) by Frances Parthenope NightingaleLeeds Museums & Galleries

This watercolour by Florence's sister Frances shows Florence accompanying Laura Nicholson on the piano in the Nightingale’s drawing room at Embley Park.

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Marianne Nicholson Letter from Florence Nightingale to Marianne Nicholson (1840) by Florence NightingaleLeeds Museums & Galleries

Florence wrote this letter to Marianne when she was 20 years old in 1840. "Many bulls have compassed me" refers to Psalm 22:12. King David was talking about being oppressed by his enemies. Florence felt that people, including her parents, did not understand her. Florence and Marianne had code names for their family because parents often read their letters.

"Yet in this perfect silence and serenity if we could sit under the tree together once more and finish Jocelyn together, I think we might be so happy again."

Bench at Embley Park (2015/2020) by Embley ParkLeeds Museums & Galleries

This is the bench at Embley Park where Marianne and Florence read Jocelyn , a story written in French verse about the life a young priest living in the late 1700s.    

Square Verses parlour game (1849) by George Henry NicholsonLeeds Museums & Galleries

Square Verses

'Square Verses' was a parlour game that Nightingale used to play with her cousins. Players were given a question and a word and had to answer the question in rhyme, using the given word. 

Question: How old are you?
Word: “Plaister”
I’m as old as the Hills
Thanks to the pills
Which for all my ills
I’ve taken
But I should not
Have lived so long
Unless my careful master
Had fed me up
And kept me strong
On peppered mustard plaister

The two examples pictured are by George Henry Nicholson, Marianne Nicholson’s elder brother and the darling of the ‘Cousinhood’ (This was the name Florence and her cousins gave themselves when they would get together at Waverley Abbey, the Nicholson’s home, during holidays).   

Bust of Sir Douglas Galton (1902) by Sir Thomas BrockLeeds Museums & Galleries

A creative partnership

Sir Douglas Galton and Marianne Nicholson (1850/1900)Leeds Museums & Galleries

On the 26 August 1851 Marianne Nicholson married Douglas Galton. Captain Douglas Galton was the father of Gwendolen Gascoigne of Lotherton Hall. He was a prestigious Victorian engineer, who from 1869 to 1875 was the Director of Public Works and Buildings.

Letter from Doctor John B. Hellier to Douglas Galton Letter from Doctor John B. Hellier to Douglas Galton (1898) by Doctor John B. HellierLeeds Museums & Galleries

Douglas Galton became Nightingale’s right-hand man on hospital design. He would consult her when designs and plans were submitted to him. Galton incorporated her recommendations to make sure that the buildings would be fit for both the sanitary needs of the patient and the need for nurses to work efficiently.

Letter from Doctor John B. Hellier to Douglas Galton - page 2Leeds Museums & Galleries

Prominent surgeons and doctors would often write to Sir Douglas. This letter was written by Dr John B. Hellier to Sir Douglas, expressing interest in the plans for a hospital for women in Leeds.

Florence Nightingale's letter to Sir Douglas Galton Florence Nightingale's letter to Sir Douglas Galton (1800/1900) by Florence NightingaleLeeds Museums & Galleries

The need for social distancing

Nightingale understood the need for social distancing a long time before it became a part of our daily lexicon. She went on to campaign for space between beds and spacious, well ventilated wards.      

Nightingale Florence PortraitsLIFE Photo Collection

When Nightingale was in the Crimea she learned the terrible truth that almost 80% of British deaths during the conflict were caused by infection rather than on the battlefield. Nightingale attributed this to poor ventilation and hygiene.  

Florence Nightingale's letter to Sir Douglas Galton - page 2Leeds Museums & Galleries

Nightingale saw that wounded men were sleeping in overcrowded, dirty rooms without any blankets. Wounded soldiers often arrived with diseases like typhus, cholera and dysentery. More men died from these diseases than from their injuries.

Florence Nightingale's letter to Sir Douglas Galton - page 3Leeds Museums & Galleries

Images of doctors with bloody aprons going from one patient straight to another without even washing their hands were common in Nightingales day. One of Florence Nightingale’s goals was to make hospitals clean and hygienic spaces with minimum risk of cross infection.

Florence Nightingale's letter to Sir Douglas Galton - page 4Leeds Museums & Galleries

Lacking in Nightingale's knowledge of the spread of infection, the Leeds surgeons were suggesting, in their cost effective planning, that the nurses could be accommodated in the same building with the patients in the maternity ward (Lying–in ward). Nightingale with her knowledge of cross contamination from experience in the Crimea, knew this was a bad idea.   

Reference ground plan of Leeds General Infirmary (1800/1900) by George Gilbert ScottLeeds Museums & Galleries

Leeds General Infirmary was eventually built using Nightingale's pavilion plan. Which was patterned on Sir Douglas Galton’s design of the Herbert military hospital at Woolwich and the planned St Thomas’s hospital on the embankment in London. Because of this, the new Leeds Infirmary would cost four times more than a traditional hospital built on the block plan. 

Digital recreation of Florence Nightingale's 'coxcomb' diagram on mortality in the army (1856) by Florence NightingaleLeeds Museums & Galleries

A lasting legacy

Despite the advances in medicine since Nightingale’s era, her common-sense approach continues to form a solid foundation for nursing, built on an understanding of the importance of hygiene, fresh air and water, cleanliness, proper drainage, and ample light as well as ongoing consideration for patients’ feelings. 

Digital recreation of Florence Nightingale's 'coxcomb' diagram on mortality in the army (1856) by Florence NightingaleLeeds Museums & Galleries

After the disasters of the Crimean war, Florence Nightingale returned to become a passionate campaigner for improvements in the health of the British army. She developed the visual presentation of information, including the pie chart, first developed by William Playfair in 1801. Nightingale also used statistical graphics in reports to Parliament, realising this was the most effective way of bringing data to life.  

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