By Jackie Blow
In 2019 Berkshire Family History Society received an enquiry from Marilyn Gendek in Australia, regarding the whereabouts of the grave of a famous nurse named Louisa Parsons. As the grave is in St. Mary’s churchyard annexe in Shinfield, Jackie Blow, a Group member, was asked to assist with the enquiry as she lives nearby in Spencers Wood. Margaret Bampton, another Group member, provided essential help in tracing Louisa’s war time life.
Below Jackie writes about her research and findings….
Right: The gravestone of Louisa, her mother, Emma, and Emma’s husband, James Rowe
I started my research with Shinfield and District Local History Society and work done by Clare Collins, a former member of the society, who, in 1983, had decided to research Louisa. This followed the discovery of Louisa’s grave when the Society was surveying the cemetery and recording inscriptions. Clare discovered through the American Embassy that Louisa was the director of the University of Maryland Nurses Training School and that they did not know where in England Louisa was buried. Naturally, I used Clare’s article as a starting point and through my research resolved some anomalies and added more information that I received from Marilyn Gendek, who is researching Dr Osler, a prominent physician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and who is linked to Louisa (more on him below).
I had heard a famous nurse once lived in the area but did not know anything about her, other than having seen her gravestone. According to the gravestone Louisa was the sister of Emma Rowe (née Parsons) of Three Mile Cross who was the wife of James Rowe. Through my research I have found that she was in fact the daughter of Emma. She was known as Louisa, but according to her birth registration in June quarter 1855, she was Emma Amelia Louisa Parsons and was baptised as that in Sidbury, Devon in 1856. She was born to Emma Parsons. The family are recorded in the 1861 census as living in Sidbury, part of Sidmouth, with head of the household William Parsons, 58, who was a widower and agricultural labourer, Emma Parsons, 27 daughter, Maria Parsons, 25, daughter, Charles Parsons, grandson, aged 7, and Louisa, granddaughter, aged 5.
In the 1871 census, Louisa, aged 17, was living at Fore Street, Sidmouth, a servant to Henry Dawe, with his wife Ann and their five children. Henry was a wine merchant. On the recommendations of a Miss Ross of London and Mrs Pattenhausen of Forest Hill, Louisa entered the Nightingale Nursing School, at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, on March 19th 1879, aged 24. She trained and graduated from there in June 1883 and can be seen there on the 1881 census, aged 26.
St Thomas’ Hospital was originally established in 1225 in Southwark, and transferred to Lambeth, opening there in 1871 with 600 beds. Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1868. Some parts of the hospital in Southwark still remain, with the old operating theatre existing as a museum there. The old school at Lambeth is also a museum and, in 2020, was to be the site for celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. It was not celebrated due to the ongoing problems with the Covid-19 virus. The school/museum now needs extensive renovations.
The school was established from public subscription, in St. Thomas’ Hospital in Southwark, by Florence Nightingale after the Crimean War. Twenty to thirty students were taken on for a year each year. On graduation they were called Nightingales. They could also visit Florence in her apartment in South Street. Florence kept extensive notes on all the students, including their character. In fact, in the Aldershot Army Museum, a letter from Florence can be found asking after Louisa’s progress. Between 1860, when the school was founded, and 1903, the school certified 1907 nurses. Many went on to be matrons or superintendents of nursing, as did Louisa.
Shortly after graduating, Louisa became a Sister in the British Army. One of her first missions was in Egypt during General Wolseley’s campaign in 1884-85, nursing the fever-stricken and wounded soldiers who filled the hospitals. It was for service in these campaigns under Her Majesty’s warrant she and others were decorated with the Royal Red Cross and the Egyptian Service Medal. The latter was a silver medal, which bears the veiled head of Victoria suspended from a distinctive blue and white ribbon.
The war in Egypt was started by France, Britain, India and Egypt trying to relieve Cairo and the Suez Canal from the Sudanese. The canal was an important thoroughfare to India. Britain and India secured Cairo from the Sudanese in the battle of Tel-el-Kebir and returned the capital and canal to the Egyptian ruler, the Khedive. They pushed the Dervishes (Sudanese) south using the Nile and gunboats in battle. It was the Khedive who presented Louisa with her campaign medals. The military hospitals were on the banks of the Nile with the guns on the boats protecting the banks. Before securing Cairo, the infantry would fight in a square formation protected by the numerous thorn bushes which were plentiful in the desert. In the centre of the square were the big guns and the hospital waggons where the wounded would be attended, perhaps by Louisa.
In 1885, Louisa returned to England suffering from typhoid, for two years rest and recovery. The Egyptian war continued until 1898 when Winston Churchill was involved. He subsequently wrote of his adventures in a book called The River War.
On September 10th 1887 Louisa sailed to Boston, America, from Liverpool, as the nurse and companion of an American woman, Louisa P. Loring, who was also accompanied by her sister, Katherine Loring. She stayed for the next two years, in California and the Carolinas. Louisa Putnam Loring is mentioned as an executor to administer the American side of the will of Louisa (Parsons), along with Augustus Peabody Loring, a lawyer. These siblings are both of Boston, Massachusetts, but of different addresses. Augustus was a contemporary of the author, Henry James.
Another famous name which is associated with the Peabody family name is George Peabody whose name is attached to many buildings in London and the bank of J P Morgan in the City. George was a great philanthropist as were the Loring family. There were four siblings and two had the Peabody name as a second one taken from their mother’s side.
In 1889, the Johns Hopkins Hospital was about to open its wards as the first training school for nurses in America. Louisa was appointed head nurse and interim superintendent, until the appointed candidate, Isabel Hampton, could take up the post three months later. Louisa was one of four candidates chosen for the superintendent’s job. It was here that Louisa first met Professor William Osler, physician-in-chief. During this time, she demonstrated such a capacity for leadership, organisation and knowledge of nursing that her services were sought by the University of Maryland when its training school for nurses was inaugurated. This training school has a continuing interest in Louisa and actually houses her medals, earned in three wars, in its museum as per Louisa’s will.
Dr Osler, a Canadian, was a remarkable man, who, with three other professors of medicine, inaugurated the Johns Hopkins Training school in America, which, with its organisation and training, became the most famous hospital school in the world at that time. He wrote a textbook for the use of students and advocated the clinical approach and science to medicine. He told his students that the patient would diagnose his illness and that students were to listen to the patient. Johns Hopkins was another remarkable man and his biography is interesting.
Louisa left the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in December 1889 to become the first superintendent of nurses at the University of Maryland Hospital Training School for Nurses. This was a very important time for her and had she ended her career there, would have been a major achievement. The School still remembers Louisa and has named a department after her. She resigned from the Maryland Hospital after only twenty two months. For a short period she was superintendent of nurses in a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, of which we know very little. Next, in August 1893, Louisa was sent by Miss Clara Barton, as the chief Red Cross representative, to the tidal flood, after the disastrous force 3 hurricane at Beaufort, South Carolina. Clara had fought in the American Civil War, had founded the American Red Cross as a self-taught nurse and was their president. This must have been a dreadful time as 2000 were drowned and more hurricanes came and devastated the East Coast up as far as NewYork. Beaufort was an area of aqua phosphate mining which was ruined. The Red Cross established a warehouse of food and clothing, and the area took nearly a year to return to normal. The damage totalled $1 million at least.
Louisa was called home shortly after, due to the illness of her mother Emma Rowe, but was soon to return to her friends the Lorings in Boston, staying there from 1895 to 1897. Then came the Spanish-American War, and Louisa was sent as a Red Cross representative, to take charge of nursing at the hospital at Fort McPherson, Mississippi, as part of the USA Army hospital. The fort was established in 1867 as a fort for Union troops during the 1861-65 American Civil War and played a major role as a hospital in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Cuba struggled to gain independence from Spain and there were riots in Havana. America was drawn into war with Spain because of her significant investment interests there. In 1898, the USA sent a battleship called the Maine, to protect their interests, and this was blown up with the loss of 260 members of the crew. In April, Spain declared war on the USA and by July the war was over because of the USA’s supremacy at sea. The Philippines was also involved as part of Spain and the USA took over the 7000 islands there. The Philippines eventually became a republic. Cuba is still a poor country.
Another medal was awarded to Louisa for service in the Spanish-American War and is held at the University of Maryland Hospital with her other medals. A year later the Second Boer War (1889-1902) broke out and Louisa was recalled to England for duty in South Africa, at Bloemfontein, her last service as a military nurse. She was with Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service (Reserve) at No.9 General Hospital there. She was awarded the Queen’s medal of the South African war.
In 1866 provision was made for the appointment of nurses to all Military General Hospitals but it wasn’t until 1881 that an Army Nursing Service was formed. In 1902, Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service was established by Royal Warrant under the control of Queen Alexandra who was president until her death. The service performed in World War I, in every campaign from 1939, as the Army Nursing Service and in 1949 was renamed as a corps called QARANC (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps), currently under the patronage of the Countess of Wessex.
After the Boer War, Louisa returned to America for a time to stay with friends, until about 1910. Due to her mother’s continued illness, she returned home once again to Great Lea Farm, Three Mile Cross. She can be found there on the 1911 census.
Left: Great Lea Farmouse
Louisa’s mother, Emma, died October 18th 1912. Due to her own failing health, Louisa was unable to take an active part in nursing but during the next four years took an active interest in the local hospitals, visiting to comfort and cheer the wounded in them. During the Great War Louisa helped raise funds on behalf of the refreshment buffet for the soldiers at Reading Station by holding a local Primrose Day celebration, according to the Reading Mercury. Primrose Day, April 19th, commemorates Benjamin Disraeli’s death. One of the nurses at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Janet Wallace, was a witness to Louisa’s will.
No longer in good health, living on the farm in Three Mile Cross near Reading, and knowing her time was near, Louisa wrote to her American friends. She was under the care of local doctors George Halpin and Dr Morris, as she was not well enough to travel to Oxford to be seen by Sir William Osler, now a Baronet and Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. He learnt that Louisa was living nearby and came to visit her several times at Great Lea farm. She had been such a highly regarded nurse of fine character. It was a great comfort to Louisa also that he came to visit her. He consulted with her doctors Halpin and Morris, for her continuing care confirming there was little he could do for her, but felt she was in good hands with them.
So it was that Louisa died on November 2nd 1916 from stomach cancer. She was given a military funeral being a member of the Reserve Nursing Staff of the Army. The coffin, draped with the Union Jack and many beautiful flowers, was drawn to St. Mary’s Church, Shinfield on a gun carriage in the charge of a firing party, under the command of Captain Fielding Clarke. Maybe the gun carriage had been loaned by the Duke of Wellington. A company of soldiers, buglers and a firing party were present. Rifles were fired over the grave and the Last Post sounded by the buglers. So, this famous nurse was laid to rest with her mother Emma Rowe.
Many notable people attended including Sir William Osler, Dr. H.P. Gilbert, who Louisa first trained under, and Lieutenant, J.G. Moran. The service was conducted by Rev. H.L Rice, vicar of Shinfield, and Rev. F T. Lewarne, vicar of Spencers Wood.
One of Louisa’s last bequests was that her service medals be Ieft to the Maryland Hospital Training School, USA of which she was the founder, also a legacy of $10,000. The Maryland continues to be one of the largest nurses training schools in America, and maintains its connections with Louisa Parsons, as the nurses still wear the fluted lace cap presented to Louisa by Florence Nightingale. In 1922, a hall of residence for the nurses was named after Louisa and in 1964, the nurses Alumnae Association honoured her memory by commissioning a portrait for the School’s 75th anniversary.
In 1989, a delegation of the School alumni toured England and visited Louisa Parsons’ grave, meeting with members of Shinfield and District Local History Society and a Mr. and Mrs. Adams, descendants of Emma and James Rowe. James and Emma had a son and daughter. Their daughter Minnie, married Austin Adams. Austin and Minnie had 2 sons so Mr and Mrs. Adams would be descended from their family. The Shinfield and District Local History Society was presented with a commemorative medal by the nurses of the School of Nursing, University of Maryland during their visit to the grave.
In 2020, a group of nurses were due to visit England as part of the celebrations of Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday and planning to visit the grave of Louisa. Due to Covid-19 this never happened although the person I have corresponded with said they still hope it will eventually happen. In 2020, a local care home was named in honour of Louisa – Parsons Grange. So, from very humble beginnings Louisa Parsons became a very famous nurse and the tributes paid to her affirm this.
Notes on the Medals by Jeremy Saunders
Egypt Medal with Suakin Clasp 1885 awarded with the Khedive’s Star, inscribed 1884
Both medals were awarded to participants in the Suakin Expeditions in the Sudan in spring of 1884 and 1885, part of the wars following the uprising led by the Mahdi against Egyptian and British occupation 1881-1899.
Service bar[Bottom row, left to right]
Queen’s South Africa Medal awarded to all participants serving in the Boer War 1899-1902. It was awarded to nurses who served during the Boer War (and some others) without a clasp.
Spanish American War, Nurses Pin 1895-97
Royal Red Cross Medal with letter from War Office notifying Louisa of her decoration dated 29 October 1885. The award was established in 1883 at the instigation of Queen Victoria to recognise women who showed exceptional service and dedication in nursing sick and wounded servicemen, whether at home or abroad.
Acknowledgements – photographs of gravestone, medals and the 1989 celebration
The Maryland University School of Nursing Living Museum and Dean Krimmel, Creative Museum Services/Qm2
Clare Collins/Shinfield and District Local History Society
Spencers Wood Local History Group
Find My Past
St Thomas’ Hospital
Selected writings of Dr Osler 1849-1919 OUP, 1951 Osler Club of London
Spanish War of 1898 (Library of Congress)
Nurses on the Veldt – medal rolls
Commando, A Boer Journal by Deneys Reitz, 1929
Galveston Flood Biography.com
Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing.
Historic Beverley. Loring family papers (extensive)
Princess Christien’s Army Nurses Service
Red Cross UK
American Red Cross
This piece is reproduced from an article first published in the Berkshire Family Historian, vol.44 June 2021 p.4ff