Volunteering: Motivation

That nurses were eager to volunteer for service in South Africa was evident from the reports in the media at the time. In their journals and letters some nurses gave their own reasons for serving in South Africa. Some were asked personally to volunteer. A group of nurses from the London Hospital were selected by the Matron and asked to go to South Africa on behalf of the Princess of Wales who had a close relationship with the hospital. Sisters Elizabeth Kelso-Hamilton, Ethel Maud McCarthy, Mary Elizabeth Greenham, Clara Evans, Chloe Stanley McGowan, and Ethel Hope Becher are pictured below in their military uniforms shortly before departing to South Africa.

Nurses from The London Hospital. The nurses in dark capes with armbands being those chosen to go to South Africa.(With kind permission of The London Hospital Archives)

The nurses from The London Hospital sailed from Southampton on the SS Dunotter Castle, on Saturday the 21st December 1899. This was the same voyage that Lord Roberts took as he went out to take over command in South Africa. Sadly, Clara Evans died at Bloemfontein on May 31st 1900, of dysentery1. Two of these nurses, Sister Becher and Sister McCarthy went on to be Matrons-in-Chief during WW1.

Kate Driver was a nurse who had trained and worked in Natal. She was asked by one of the surgeons if she would be his surgical nurse and she agreed. Later she recorded feeling that “if soldiers were going to war they needed good nursing care”2. Kate was deployed to Ladysmith and then to Intombi hospital where she remained until the siege was lifted.

Sister Kate Driver

Sir Frederick Treves also asked and took his two surgical nurses with him3. It was understandable that surgeons preferred to have nurses working for them whom they knew and trusted. Many of the civilian surgeons who went out to South Africa to augment the military doctors had little experience of military surgery and deployed military hospitals.

Some of the nurses caring for the sick and wounded were caught up in the war. Bella Craw was another lady involved in nursing the sick and wounded during the siege of Ladysmith, although she was not a trained nurse. In her account of the siege she described that when Joubert (Commandant of the Boer forces surrounding Ladysmith) agreed that the sick and civilians could be moved to Intombi, they had a meeting and decided to go and help the nurses by “doing their bit”4. Bella Craw saw caring for the sick and wounded in Ladysmith as an extension of what was expected of young women at that time. She opted to stay in Ladysmith and care for the sick and wounded there whilst the majority of the trained nurses moved to Intombi.

Many nurses simply volunteered for service. For most there is no reliable evidence as to why they chose to go to South Africa. Katherine Hill was already in South Africa working as a nurse; “Seeing war was imminent, I volunteered my service for the front on Aug 9th 1899, and received a reply telling me that in case of hostilities, to report at once to Fort Napier, Maritzburg …the third morning after my arrival, Col. Johnstone came in the ward and said that nurses were wanted at once at the front. I, with several others, said we wanted to go…”5.

Some nurses saw providing a service to the sick and wounded in South Africa as an extension of work they were already undertaking. Alice Bron (who nursed on both sides of the conflict) was a nurse and a philanthropist who went to South Africa with the ambulance sent out by the Dutch and Belgian Red Cross Associations, seeing it as an extension to the hospital work she had been doing at home. After returning home when her husband died unexpectedly, she returned to South Africa as a nurse in British service6. Melina Rorke had set up and run a private hospital in Bulawayo when she was approached to go to Mochudi by Sir John Nicholson (at that time Commandant General of the British South African Police) and Sir Arthur Lawley (at that time administrator of Matabeleland) to open up a Base Hospital in support of Col Plumer’s force setting out from Rhodesia and this drew her into the conflict7. Sister Henrietta Stockdale (Sister of Mercy) had been active in South African nursing for some time and had been Matron of a hospital at Newcastle during the 1st Boer War. She volunteered to do the same in Kimberley at the start of the 2nd Boer War seeing this as part of her duty8.

There were others whose journals suggested they wanted to see South Africa and have a chance to do something that would otherwise not have been possible. Emily Jane Wood9 was one of these. She was a keen photographer and her journal describes many of her photography exploits as well as the journeys in and around South Africa. Sadly her photographs did not survive. Florence Suttaby also saw nursing as a way of seeing South Africa. She made her own way there and volunteered her services. Her journals record her moving from hospital to hospital so that she could see as much as possible.

Eleanor Constance Laurence wrote in her journal that she had wanted to be an Army nurse since she was a very small girl and that even as a small girl she had wanted to get the RRC (and in the end she achieved both these ambitions). She described why she volunteered for service, “I couldn’t stand it any longer; all my friends were going off to the front; and though many people said that the war would be over before they landed, we kept hearing accounts of how bad the enteric was, and that the nurses were being overworked, so I felt I must at least offer to lend a hand. I was afraid that if I sent in my papers in the ordinary way I might get sent to a home station to free some Army Sister to go out, and that would not have suited me at all, so I thought I would go down to the War Office and see for myself if I could get sent to the front”10. Laurence was successful in her bid and became the Superintendent of the Princess Christian Hospital near Durban.

Georgina Fane Pope, like Eleanor Laurence, had wanted to be a military nurse from a young age, “Reading as a young girl a most interesting account of Miss Florence Nightingale’s noble work during the Crimean War, I became filled with the desire to become an “army nursing sister”11. Miss Pope went on to lead the Canadian nursing contingent sent to South Africa.

These few examples demonstrated the range of motivations for nurses wishing to go to South Africa, as well as a range of strategies to achieve their ambitions. These examples with the exception of Bella Craw, are from trained nurses who clearly had a genuine desire to nurse the sick and wounded, as well as enjoying the adventure that a trip to South Africa would bring. The general and nursing press of the time also highlighted “Sister Frivol” These were nurses seen by their colleagues as “impatient of control, as they were keen in the pursuit of amusement and flirtation”12. One of the issues for the nurses who were commenting on their colleagues was that there was no nursing structure to enforce discipline and this allowed those who were the subject of these commentaries to have had the aim of “Gadding, junketing, riding, driving, racing, dancing, picnics, and high old times”13.

Summers14 summed motivation up by saying:

It was through nursing rather than any other paid occupation that girls of moderate means might find opportunities to escape the confines of the roles allotted them in late 19th century Britain. War nursing certainly provided the most exciting and even the most romantic option.

Accepting that the nurses who went to South Africa were human and with a wide range of life and nursing experience, as my research showed, then it was not altogether surprising to see a variety of responses to their arrival in the operational setting of South Africa. The prosopography shows that the majority were young and single and it was evident that some did find romance during their time as military nurses in the Boer War. Sister Alice Higgs met Captain Richard de Winton in South Africa. They had both been in South Africa for over 2 years and had become engaged to be married before their return to England where they married in September 190215. The motivations of the ladies that went to South Africa were not necessarily the same of those of the trained nurses.


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  2. Driver, K. (1994) Experience of a Siege: A Nurse looks back on Ladysmith. South Africa: Ladysmith Historical Society []
  3. Treves, Sir F (1912) The Tale of a Field Hospital. London: Cassell & Co. []
  4. Craw, B. (1970) A Diary of the Siege of Ladysmith. Ladysmith: The Ladysmith Historical Society []
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  6. Bron, A. (1901) translated by Raper, GA. Diary of a nurse in South Africa: Being a narrative of experiences in the Boer and English Hospital Service. London: Chapman and Hall []
  7. Rorke, M. (1939) Melina Rorke: Told by herself. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd. []
  8. Sweet, H. (2005) Putting South African professional nursing on the world map: Sister Henrietta Stockdale, 1847-1911. Journal of the South African Theatre Nurse Organisation. Special Anniversary Issue December 2005 pp.50-54 []
  9. Wood, EJ. (1900) Personal Journal held at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London. Accession 333131; MS. 6034 []
  10. Laurence, EC. (1912) A Nurse’s Life in War and Peace. London: Smith, Elder []
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  12. Daily Express (1902) Sister “Frivol”: The nurse who necessitates reform. Daily Express. January 9, 1902 p.5c []
  13. Daily Express (1902) Sister “Frivol”: The nurse who necessitates reform. Daily Express. January 9, 1902 p.5e []
  14. Summers, A. (1984) Images of the Nineteenth-Century Nurse. History Today, 34 (12), pp.40-42. []
  15. Daily Express (19024) From camp to Altar: Captain and Nursing Sister’s Romantic
    Wedding. Daily Express. September 19th, 1902 p.5e []