Nursing, like school teaching, was seen as a respectable profession for an unmarried woman in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. But if a nurse chose to marry she did not always admit to having been working on her marriage certificate, perhaps for respectability purposes – which was the case for Emma M, who had held a prestigious nursing position during a long career but chose to erase this and appear as an unemployed spinster when she married.
She appears to have had an unusual upbringing. The daughter of a Devon-based architect and master builder, and one of four children, her parents were also master and matron of the local workhouse. This would have surrounded Emma with the poor and needy during her formative years in the 1850s, perhaps a contribution to her choice of career. By the time she was 15 her parents had placed her in charge of a property that they owned, while they resided down the street with her younger brother and an adopted foster child.
Rather than remain at home in Devon, Emma relocated to London and began a nursing career in the later part of the 1860s. This was initially at St George’s Hospital, a teaching institution at that time located in Hyde Park. Her mother died, and her father remarried, bringing his new wife and other family members up to London where he ran a boarding house.
Emma’s career grew. In her early 30s, she rose to become matron in charge at the Wandsworth Royal District Hospital for Incurables. This institution, now named the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability, specialised in care for patients with brain injuries and other neurological disorders. As matron in charge of the hospital Emma would have been highly respected and good at her job, and held a great deal of prestige in her workplace.
Later on, she moved to being in charge of a smaller medical institution in Marylebone. Of this she was lady superintendent, and had many nurses and a house full of domestic staff underneath her. Her patients on the 1891 census included an American lady, an Austrian merchant, a Canadian Presbyterian minister, and a South African Judge.
The fact that she chose to completely erase this high-flying career when she married in the early 1890s seems odd to modern eyes. However, Emma would have been highly unusual for the time in that she was a woman with a prestigious and perhaps unprecedented career, and the fact that she was entering the traditional institution of matrimony – with all the trappings and expectations put upon women at that time – may have had some bearing on her choosing not to register her work. She also would have had to resign her job to marry, as married women did not work.
She may not have ever expected to marry, since this occurred at the age of 45 and at that time she would have been viewed as a lifelong spinster. Her husband was a doctor, presumably someone who she had met at work, who had been recently widowed. He was also 15 years older than her, with several grown-up children.
They never had any children together, and nine years later Emma was widowed. He left her a considerable amount of money to live on. She remained in London, and on the 1911 census refers to herself as a retired nurse – an acknowledgement of the considerable career she had had throughout her life. She died at the tail end of the First World War.
To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.