Queen Victoria (Browne)

CHAPTER VIII: Ministering Women

Honour to those whose words or deeds
Thus help us in our daily needs;
    And by their overflow
    Raise us from what is low!

No account of the reign of Queen Victoria would be complete without some reference to the achievements of women, more especially when their work has had for its chief end and aim the alleviation of suffering. Woman has taken a leading part in the campaign which has been and is now being ceaselessly carried on against the forces of sin, ignorance, and want.

In the early years of Victoria's reign the art of sick-nursing was scarcely known at all. The worst type of nurse is vividly pictured for us by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit:

"She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye, which she had a remarkable power of turning up, and only showing the white of it. Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. She wore a very rusty black gown, rather the worse for snuff, and a shawl and bonnet to correspond. In these dilapidated articles of dress she had, on principle, arrayed herself, time out of mind on such occasions as the present; . . . The face of Mrs Gamp—the nose in particular—was somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits."

For a long time, though it had been recognized that the care of the sick was woman's work, no special training was required from those undertaking it. Florence Nightingale did away with all such wrong ideas. In a letter on the subject of training she wrote: "I would say also to all young ladies who are called to any particular vocation, qualify yourselves for it, as a man does for his work. Don't think you can undertake it otherwise. . . . If you are called to man's work, do not exact a woman's privileges—the privilege of inaccuracy, of weakness, ye muddle-heads. Submit yourselves to the rules of business, as men do, by which alone you can make God's business succeed; for He has never said that He will give His success and His blessing to inefficiency, to sketchy and unfinished work."

She prepared herself for her life's work by years of hard study and ten years' training, visiting all the best institutions in Germany, France, and Italy. She gave up a life of ease and comfort in order to develop her natural gift to the utmost.

Her opportunity was not long in coming. In 1854 the Crimean War broke out. Most of the generals in the English army were old men whose experience of actual warfare dated back to the early days of the century. Everything was hopelessly mismanaged from the beginning. In August the English and French allied forces moved against the fortress of Sebastopol, from which Russia was threatening an attack on Constantinople. Troops were landed in a hostile country without the means of moving them away again; there was little or no provision made to transport food, baggage, or medical stores.

After the victory of Alma Lord Raglan marched on to Balaclava, and here the transport utterly broke down. The soldiers, in addition to undertaking hard fighting, were forced to turn themselves into pack-mules and tramp fourteen miles through the mud in the depth of winter in order to obtain food and warm blankets for their comrades and themselves. Their condition rapidly became terrible. Their clothing wore to rags, their boots—mostly of poor quality—gave out entirely. Their food—such as it was—consisted of biscuit, salt beef or pork, and rum.

No vegetables could be obtained, and for want of green food scurvy broke out among the troops. Stores were left decaying in the holds of transports, and the doctors were forced to see men dying before their eyes without the means of helping them. The loss of life from the actual fighting was considerable, but more particularly so from the insanitary condition of the camp and the wretched hospital arrangements.

The actual figures of our losses in the war speak for themselves. Out of a total loss of 20,656, only 2598 fell in battle; 18,058 died from other causes in hospital. Several regiments lost nearly all their men, and during the first seven months of the siege men died so fast that in a year and a half no army would have been left at all.

William Russell, the special correspondent of The Times, first brought this appalling state of affairs to the notice of the public, and the nation at last woke up. A universal outburst of indignation forced ministers to act, and to act quickly.

Stores were hurried to the front; fresh troops were sent out to relieve the almost exhausted remnants of the army, and on the 21st October Florence Nightingale, with a band of nurses, set sail; she arrived on the very eve of the Battle of Inkerman.

Within a few months of her arrival it is estimated that she had no fewer than ten thousand sick men in her charge, and the rows of beds in one hospital alone measured two and one-third miles in length.

Her influence over the rough soldiers was extraordinary; one of them said of her: "She would speak to one and another, and nod and smile to many more; but she could not do it to all, you know—we lay there in hundreds—but we could kiss her shadow as it fell, and lay our heads on the pillow again, content."

Out of chaos she made order, and there were no more complaints of waste and inefficiency. She never quitted her post until the war was at an end, and on her return to England she received a national welcome. She was received by the Queen and presented with a jewel in commemoration of her work, and no less than fifty thousand pounds was subscribed by the nation, a sum which was presented by Miss Nightingale to the hospitals to defray the expenses of training nurses.

[Illustration: Florence Nightingale]

Since this time no war between civilized peoples has taken place without trained nurses being found in the ranks of both armies, and at the Convention of Geneva, some years later, it was agreed that in time of war all ambulances, military hospitals, etc., should be regarded as neutral, and that doctors and nurses should be considered as non-combatants. Nursing rapidly became a profession, and from the military it spread to the civil hospitals, which were used as training schools for all who took up the work.

Florence Nightingale's advice was sought by the Government and freely given upon every matter which affected the health of the people, and it is entirely owing to her influence and example that speedy reforms were carried out, especially in the army.

Her noble work was celebrated by Longfellow, in his poem "Santa Filomena," often better known as "The Lady with the Lamp":

Thus thought I, as by night I read
Of the great army of the dead,
        The trenches cold and damp,
        The starved and frozen camp,

The wounded from the battle-plain,
In dreary hospitals of pain,
        The cheerless corridors,
        The cold and stony floors.

Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
        Pass through the glimmering gloom,
        And flit from room to room.

And slow, as in a dream of bliss,
The speechless sufferer turns to kiss
        Her shadow, as it falls
        Upon the darkening walls.

The Queen followed the course of the war with painful interest. "This is a terrible season of mourning and sorrow," she wrote; "how many mothers, wives, sisters, and children are bereaved at this moment. Alas! It is that awful accompaniment of war, disease, which is so much more to be dreaded than the fighting itself." And again, after a visit to Chatham: "Four hundred and fifty of my dear, brave, noble heroes I saw, and, thank God, upon the whole, all in a very satisfactory state of recovery. Such patience and resignation, courage, and anxiety to return to their service. Such fine men!"

Many acts had been passed in previous reigns to improve the disgraceful state of the prisons in this country, but it was left to a band of workers, mostly Quakers, led by Elizabeth Fry, to bring about any real improvement. Any one who wishes to read what dens of filth and hotbeds of infection prisons were at this time need only read the account of the Fleet prison in the Pickwick Papers and of the Marshalsea in Little Dorrit.

Reform proved at first to be a very slow and difficult matter. New laws passed in 1823 and 1824 insisted upon cleanliness and regular labour for all prisoners; chaplains and matrons for female prisoners were appointed. The public, however, got the idea—as in the case of workhouses—that things were being made too comfortable for the inmates, and the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline was bitterly attacked.

Mrs Fry had started work in Newgate Prison, then justly considered to be the worst of all the bad prisons in the country. The condition of the women and children was too dreadful to describe, and she felt that the only way to introduce law and decency into this 'hell upon earth' was by influencing the children.

She founded a school in the prison, and it was not long before there was a marked improvement in the appearance and behaviour of both the children and the women.

The success of her work attracted public attention, and a Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to inquire into the condition of the London prisons. Mrs Fry was called upon to give evidence, and she recommended several improvements, e.g. that prisoners should be given some useful work to do, that rewards should be given for good behaviour, and that female warders should be appointed.

She visited other countries in order to study foreign prison systems, and her work in the prisons led her to consider what could be done to improve the condition of the unfortunate women who were transported as convicts. She succeeded in improving matters so much that female warders were provided on board ship, and proper accommodation and care on their arrival at their destination.

Even such a tender-hearted man and friend of the poor as Thomas Hood, author of "Song of the Shirt," misunderstood Mrs Fry's aims, for in a poem called "A Friendly Address to Mrs Fry," he wrote:

No—I will be your friend—and, like a friend,
Point out your very worst defect—Nay, never
Start at that word! But I must ask you why
You keep your school in Newgate, Mrs Fry?

Your classes may increase, but I must grieve
Over your pupils at their bread and waters!
Oh, though it cost you rent—(and rooms run high)—
Keep your school out of Newgate, Mrs Fry!

In the face of domestic sorrows and misfortunes, Mrs Fry persevered until the day of her death in 1845 in working for the good of others.

The work in this direction was continued by Mary Carpenter, whose father was the headmaster of a Bristol school. She began her life's work after a severe outbreak of cholera in Bristol in 1832. At this time there were practically no reformatory or industrial schools in the country, and Mary Carpenter set to work with some friends to found an institution near Bristol. She worked to save children—especially those whose lives were spent in the midst of sin and wickedness—from becoming criminals, and in order to bring this about she aimed at making their surroundings as homelike and cheerful as possible.

She even helped to teach the children herself, as she found great difficulty in finding good assistants. She wished to convince the Government that her methods were right, and so persuade them to set up schools of a similar kind throughout the country.

The great Lord Shaftesbury was her chief supporter, but it was not until the year 1854 that Mary Carpenter succeeded in her desire, when a Bill was passed establishing reformatory schools. From this time her influence rapidly increased, and it is mainly owing to her efforts that at the present day such precautions are taken to reform young criminals on the sound principle of "prevention is better than cure."

Mary Carpenter also visited India no fewer than four times in order to arouse public opinion there to the need for the better education of women, and at a later date she went to America, where she had many warm friends and admirers. She had, as was only natural, been keenly interested in the abolition of negro slavery.

One of the most distinguished women in literature during the Victorian Age was Harriet Martineau. At an early age it was evident that she was gifted beyond the ordinary, and at seven years old she had read Milton's "Paradise Lost" and learnt long portions of it by heart.

Her health was extremely poor; she suffered as a child from imaginary terrors which she describes in her Autobiography, and she gradually became deaf. She bore this affliction with the greatest courage and cheerfulness, but misfortunes followed one another in rapid succession. Her elder brother died of consumption, her father lost large sums of money in business, and the grief and anxiety so preyed upon his mind that he died, leaving his family very badly off.

This, and the loss later on of the little money they had left, only served to strengthen Miss Martineau's purpose. She studied and wrote until late in the night, and after her first success in literature, when she won all three prizes offered by the Unitarian body for an essay, she set to work on a series of stories which were to illustrate such subjects as the effect of machinery upon wages, free trade, etc.

After the manuscript had been refused by numerous publishers, she succeeded in getting it accepted, and the book proved an extraordinary success.

She moved to London, and her house soon became the centre where the best of literature and politics could always be discussed. She was consulted even by Cabinet Ministers, but in spite of all the praise and adulation she remained quite unspoiled.

The idea of women taking part in public movements was still not altogether pleasing to the majority of people, who were apt to look upon 'learned' women as 'Blue-stockings,' a name first used in England in the previous century in rather a contemptuous way.

Come, let us touch the string,
And try a song to sing,
    Though this is somewhat difficult at starting, O!
And in our case more than ever,
When a desperate endeavour,
    Is made to sing the praise of Harry Martineau!

Of bacon, eggs, and butter,
Rare philosophy she'll utter;
    Not a thing about your house but she'll take part in, O!
As to mine, with all my soul,
She might take (and pay) the whole—
    But that is all my eye and Harry Martineau!

Her political economy
Is as true as Deuteronomy;
    And the monster of Distress she sticks a dart in, O!
Yet still he stalks about,
And makes a mighty rout,
    But that we hope's my eye and Harry Martineau!

In 1835 she visited the United States, and here she was able to study the question of slavery. She joined the body of the 'Abolitionists,' and as a result was attacked from all sides with the utmost fury, for the Northern States stood solid against abolition. But she remained unmoved in her opinion, and when in 1862 the great Civil War broke out, her writings were the means of educating public opinion. It was largely due to her that this country did not foolishly support the secession of the Southern States from the Union.

During a period of five years she was a complete invalid, and some of her best books, including her well-known stories for children, Feats on the Fiord and The Crofton Boys, were written in that time.

After her recovery her life was busier than ever. She wrote articles for the daily papers, but her chief pleasure lay in devising schemes for improving the lot of her poorer neighbours. She organized evening lectures for the people, and founded a Mechanics' Institute and a building society.

During her life-time she was the acknowledged leader on all moral questions, especially those which affected the lives of women.

"It has always been esteemed our special function as women," she said, "to mount guard over society and social life—the spring of national existence."

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