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History of Nursing in the United Kingdom facts for kids

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The History of Nursing in the United Kingdom tells of the development of the profession of Nursing in the United Kingdom since the 1850s. The history of nursing itself dates back to ancient times, where the sick could be cared for in temples and houses of worship. In the early Christian era nursing duties were undertaken by certain women in the Church, their services being extended to patients in their homes. These women had no real training by today's standards, but experience taught them valuable skills, especially in the use of herbs and folk drugs, and some gained fame as the physicians of their era. Remnants of the religious nature of nurses remains in Britain today, especially with the retention of the term "Sister" for a senior female nurse.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is regarded as the founder of modern nursing profession. There was no hospital training school for nurses until one was established in Kaiserwerth, Germany, in 1846. There, Nightingale received the training that later enabled her to establish, at St Thomas' Hospital in London, the first school designed primarily to train nurses rather than to provide nursing service for the hospital.

In the Crimean War against Russia, Nightingale was appointed by Sir Sidney Herbert to oversee the introduction of female nurses into the military hospitals in Turkey. In November 1854, Nightingale arrived at the Barrack Hospital at Scutari, with a party of ten nurses and ten nuns. Initially the doctors did not want the nurses there and did not ask for their help, but within ten days fresh casualties arrived from the Battle of Inkermann and the nurses were fully stretched.Nightingale was horrified at what she found in the makeshift hospital: doctors reusing infected rags, the used rags just remaining in a pile, soldiers left unwashed and bleeding. She introduced sanitary protocols and reduced the casualty rate by fifty percent.

When Nightingale returned from the Crimean War in August 1856, she hid herself away from the public's attention. For her contribution to Army statistics and comparative hospital statistics in 1860, Nightingale became the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Statistical Society.



When state registration of the medical profession had begun in 1858, many observers pointed to the need for a similar system for nursing. That year, the Nursing Record (renamed the The British Journal of Nursing in 1902), a nursing journal, called for "... the whole question of the Registration of trained nurses to be set forth in a succinct form before the profession and the public". Support for the regulation of nursing began to become more widespread following the establishment of organised nurse training in 1860.

By the 1880s, the Hospitals Association (an early version of the NHS Confederation) was committed to the principle of registration for nurses. The Matrons' Committee, comprising the matrons of the leading hospitals, agreed with registration, but differed in their views of the required length of training, arguing for three years as opposed to the one supported by the Hospitals Association. In 1887, the Hospitals Association over-ruled the matrons and established a non-statutory voluntary register. At this the Matrons' Committee split between one group which supported the Hospitals Association and another faction, led by Ethel Gordon Fenwick, which opposed the new register and sought to align themselves more closely with the medical profession. Florence Nightingale, incidentally, supported neither group and was opposed to any form of regulation for nursing, believing that the essential qualities of the nurse could neither be taught, examined nor regulated.

In 1887, the group of nurses associated with Ethel Gordon Fenwick formed the British Nurses' Association (BNA), which sought "... to unite all British nurses in membership of a recognised profession and to provide for their registration on terms, satisfactory to physicians and surgeons, as evidence of their having received systematic training".

Therefore, two separate voluntary registers now existed. Whereas that maintained by the Hospitals Association was purely an administrative list, the register established by the BNA had a more explicit public protection remit.

Princess Helena and The Royal British Nurses' Association

Princess Helena, the daughter of Queen Victoria, played a central role in sponsoring and legitimizing the profession. Helena had a firm interest in nursing, and became President of the British Nurses' Association upon its foundation in 1887. In 1891, it received the prefix "Royal", and received the Royal Charter the following year. She was a strong supporter of nurse registration, an issue that was opposed by both Florence Nightingale and leading public figures. In a speech Helena made in 1893, she made clear that the RBNA was working towards "improving the education and status of those devoted and self-sacrificing women whose whole lives have been devoted to tending the sick, the suffering, and the dying". In the same speech, she warned about opposition and misrepresentation they had encountered. Although the RBNA was in favour of registration as a means of enhancing and guaranteeing the professional status of trained nurses, its incorporation with the Privy Council allowed it to maintain a list rather than a formal register of nurses.

Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the new Queen, Alexandra, insisted on replacing Helena as President of the Army Nursing Service. In accordance with rank, Helena agreed to resign in Alexandra's favour, and she retained presidency of the Army Nursing Reserve. Though thought to be merely an artefact created by society ladies, Helena exercised an efficient and autocratic regime—"if anyone ventures to disagree with Her Royal Highness she has simply said, 'It is my wish, that is sufficient.'"

The RBNA gradually went into decline following the Nurses Registration Act 1919; after six failed attempts between 1904 and 1918, the British parliament passed the bill allowing formal nurse registration. What resulted was the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), and the RBNA lost membership and dominance. Helena supported the proposed amalgamation of the RBNA with the new RCN, but that proved unsuccessful when the RBNA pulled out of the negotiations. However, Princess Helena remained active in other nursing organisations.

Military nursing

Nightingale laid the foundations of professional nursing with the principles summarised in the book Notes on Nursing. Her highly publicized exposure of the abysmal care afforded sick and wounded soldiers energized reformers. Queen Victoria in 1860 ordered a hospital to be built to train Army nurses and surgeons, the Royal Victoria Hospital. The hospital opened in 1863 in Netley and admitted and cared for military patients. Beginning in 1866, nurses were formally appointed to Military General Hospitals.

The Army Nursing Service (ANS) oversaw the work of the nurses starting in 1881. These military nurses were sent overseas beginning with the First Boer War (often called Zulu War) from 1879 to 1881. They were also dispatched to serve during the Egyptian Campaign in 1882 and the Sudan War of 1883 to 1884. During the Sudan War members of the Army Nursing Service nursed in hospital ships on the Nile as well as the Citadel in Cairo. Almost 2000 nurses served during the second Boer War, the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902, alongside nurses who were part of the colonial armies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. They served in tented field hospitals. 23 Army Nursing sisters from Britain lost their lives from disease outbreaks.

Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.

In March 1902, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) was established and was named after Queen Alexandra, who became its President. In 1949, the QAIMNS became a corps in the British Army and was renamed as the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps. Since 1950 the organisation has trained nurses, and in 1992 men were allowed to join.

The associated Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps Association is a registered charity. Queen Alexandra was President from 1902 until her death in 1925. The following year she was succeeded by Queen Mary.

In 2009 Healthcare Assistants (HCAs) were entitled to commission.

First World War

By the beginning of the First World War in 1914, military nursing still had only a small role for women in Britain; 10,500 nurses enrolled in Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and the Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service. These services dated to 1902 and 1918, and enjoyed royal sponsorship. There also were Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses who had been enrolled by the Red Cross. The ranks that were created for the new nursing services were Matron-in-Chief, Principal Matron, Sister and Staff Nurses. Women joined steadily throughout the War. At the end of 1914, there were 2,223 regular and reserve members of the QAIMNS and when the war ended there were 10,404 trained nurses in the QAIMNS.

Grace McDougall (1887–1963) was the energetic commandant of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), which had formed in 1907 as an auxiliary to the home guard in Britain. McDougall at one point was captured by the Germans but escaped. The British army wanted nothing to do with them so they drove ambulances and ran hospitals and casualty clearing stations for the Belgian and French armies.

Second World War 1939-45

During the war nurses belonged to Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), as they had during World War I, and as they remain today. (Nurses belonging to the QAIMNS are informally called "QA"s.) Members of the Army Nursing Service served in every overseas British military campaign during World War II, as well as at military hospitals in Britain. At the beginning of World War II, nurses held officer status with equivalent rank, but were not commissioned officers. In 1941, emergency commissions and a rank structure were created, conforming with the structure used in the rest of the British Army. Nurses were given rank badges and were now able to be promoted to ranks from Lieutenant through to Brigadier. Nurses were exposed to all dangers during the War, and some were captured and became prisoners of war.

Twentieth century timetable


  • National Council of Nurses formed.
  • The First World War results in large numbers of unmarried women, many of whom devote their lives to nursing.
  • College of Nursing founded in 1915. (See entries on Cooper Perry and Royal College of Nursing)
  • 1919 sees the Nurses Registration Act and the establishment of the Ministry of Health.

The pressure for state registration grew throughout the 1890s but was undermined by disagreements within the profession over the desired form and purpose of the regulatory system. In 1902, the Midwives Registration Act established the state regulation of midwives and, two years later, a House of Commons Select Committee was established to consider the registration of nurses.

The committee reported in 1904 and set out a detailed and persuasive case for registration. However, the government sat on the report and took no action. Over the next decade, a number of Private Member's Bills to establish regulation were introduced but all failed to achieve significant support in Parliament.

The First World War provided the final impetus to the establishment of nursing regulation, partly because of the specific contribution made by nurses to the war effort and also as a reflection of the increased contribution of women more generally in society. The College of Nursing (later the Royal College of Nursing) was established in 1916 and three years later persuaded a backbench Member of Parliament (MP), Major Richard Barnett, to introduce a private members bill to establish a regulatory system. The bill was finally passed in December 1919 and separate Nurses Registration Acts were passed for England/Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which was still part of the United Kingdom at the time. These acts established the General Nursing Council for England and Wales and the other bodies which survived intact until the legislative changes in 1979 which were to create the UKCC and the National Boards of Nursing. Ethel Gordon Fenwick was the first nurse on the English register.


  • Foundation of the National Society of Male Nurses.
  • The Royal College of Nursing gains its royal charter.


  • Role of state enrolled nurse formally recognised, with two years' training instead of three.
  • Horder Committee recommends fewer nursing schools and the introduction of inspection.
  • Penicillin becomes available for civilian use.
  • Numbers of male nurses increase as demobilised service men with medical experience join the profession.
  • The National Health Service (NHS) is launched, offering comprehensive health care for all, free at the point of delivery, but paid for through taxation.


  • Large influx of Caribbean entrants into British nurse training.
  • Introduction of tranquillisers transforms mental health nursing.
  • Male nurses join the main nursing register in 1951.
  • University of Edinburgh runs the first course for clinical nurse teachers.
  • The Mental Health Act 1958 abolishes the legal separation of psychiatric hospitals, allowing those patients to be admitted to any hospital.



  • Nurses march to Downing Street demanding better pay, and win increases of up to 58 per cent.
  • Manchester University appoints the first professor of nursing.
  • The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) becomes a trade union.
  • The Nursing Process establishes an ethos based on assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation.
  • Reform of shift patterns begins

The Briggs Committee was established in 1970 due to pressure from the RCN to consider issues around the quality and nature of nurse training and the place of nursing within the NHS, rather than regulation per se. It reported in 1972 and recommended a number of changes to professional education. Almost as an afterthought, Briggs also recommended the replacement of the existing regulatory structure (involving nine separate bodies across the United Kingdom) with a unified central council and separate boards in each of the four countries with specific responsibility for education. Six years of debate and delay followed before the modified Briggs proposals formed the basis of the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act 1979. This was due to the need to take account of devolution, Treasury misgivings, lack of consensus within the professions (especially from midwives), and a lack of government will to find the parliamentary time to enact the legislation.


  • Mass meetings are held over pay, the state of the NHS, clinical grading and the abolition of the enrolled nurse.
  • United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting (UKCC) becomes the profession's new regulatory body in 1983.

In 1983, the UKCC was set up. Its core functions were to maintain a register of UK nurses, midwives and health visitors, provide guidance to registrants, and handle professional misconduct complaints. At the same time, National Boards were created for each of the UK countries. Their main functions were to monitor the quality of nursing and midwifery education courses, and to maintain the training records of students on these courses.

This structure survived with minor modifications until April 2002, when the UKCC ceased to exist and its functions were taken over by a new Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). The English National Board was also abolished and its quality assurance function was taken on board by the NMC. The other National Boards were also abolished, but new bodies were created in each country to take over their functions, for example, NES in Scotland.


  • Reforms to training under Project 2000 begin to be implemented.
  • Post-registration education is introduced.
  • Nurse-led helpline NHS Direct is founded.

Since 2000

  • Health care reforms set out in The NHS Plan.
  • The Nursing and Midwifery Council takes over from the UKCC in 2002.
  • Agenda for Change paves the way for a new pay structure for nurses.
  • Nurse employers inspected for staff-friendly policies under Improving Working Lives and Investors in People.
  • In 2005 nurse numbers hit 397,500 – an all-time high.
  • Nursing students are given supernumary status throughout their three years of training.
  • Thanks to increased funding, in 2006 383,000 qualified nurses and midwives were employed by the NHS, a 24% gain over 1997.
  • By 2001, nearly half of the newly registered nurses were immigrants, especially from the Philippines, India, South Africa, Australia and Nigeria, as compared to 10% in 1990,
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