Friday, 20 November, was a special day. Every Tuesday for the past seven months, myself and another volunteer have been entering some of the information contained on QNIS nurse record cards onto spreadsheets, part of the digitisation process which should make searching the cards much easier. We’re now at the (far) end – the last few cards in the V-Z and S folders, and the previously unknown number of ‘alphabetti spaghetti,’ are all done. Neasa Roughan, the archivist in charge of the digitisation process, thinks there are approximately 4500 cards in all. This is by no means the total number of Queen’s Nurses, and readers need not worry that their date of birth is about to appear online – if you can read this, you don’t qualify, as the cards are almost certainly those of deceased nurses only.
The cards themselves are an exercise in packing a great deal of information in a little space. Although they are now opened out, and have lost their plastic clips and occasional staples, appropriately enough they are kardexes. Unfolded, the front page records the nurse’s name, the address from which she applied to the QNIS (sometimes plus later addresses), her school, her father’s occupation, and any job she may have had prior to nursing. Language skills are recorded here – unsurprisingly, Gaelic is by far the most common (I have the occasional regret that this is not part of the database), but the arrival of refugees in the 30s and 40s is marked by German-speaking nurses, and, on one occasion, by one whose mother tongue was Lithuanian. The former governess who spoke fluent French takes us back to another era.
A reference from the nurse’s training hospital was always sought, and also appears on the front page. For those who followed a direct progression of general nursing, midwifery, and application to the Institute, the referee’s task was easy – for mature nurses (sometimes very senior) who applied, the reference could suggest that maturing was exactly the process, as the madcap ‘flighty’ pupil who ‘answers back’ of matron’s records became, through the passage of time and often the army, a Nurse Tutor looking for a new challenge, or the respected matron of a mission hospital now needing to find work in Britain.
Underneath this is a final report from the Institute itself, often a brief recognition of years of devoted service. For many, these were nevertheless not sufficient years – also on this page is a summary of the nurse’s pension and superannuation. I have not looked into this in any detail, but I do find it shocking when failure to qualify and a pension of £30 is recorded – especially so as it is immediately followed by details of postings, and length of service can be seen. Every move (even sick leave) and the reason for it, was recorded. Some nurses seem to have been employed principally as ‘relief’ in a variety of areas, often over many years; some, particularly in the early days of the QNIS, have only one posting recorded, retiring from it some 35 years later.
Yet if the ‘postings’ section can be almost empty, over the page the inspection reports can be full. Typically, all is well – records, bags, instruments, professional relationships all shipshape – occasionally though, the inspector can rub the nurse up the wrong way, and ‘pleasant and popular’ become ‘aggressive manner’ overnight, to revert to normal with the arrival of a different inspector next time. This page also records the all-important QNIS number and date of appointment, the award of long service silver badges (small, then large), training hospitals and other nursing employment. Reports of the nurse’s district training from both tutor and Home sister follow, and include a recommendation of type of district for which the nurse would be best suited. These were not always acted upon – for example, sometimes a native Gaelic speaker could spend years nursing a central belt community. This should serve as a reminder that while the cards seem to be a rich source of information, nonetheless, a great deal is missing – they do not record, so we cannot know from them, what personal reasons led to choosing a particular post, nor what demands were placed on the Institute as a whole to supply nurses to a specific area.
Only a subset of the information recorded in the cards is entered on the database – forename, surname, maiden name and date of birth are the personal identifiers. ‘Home town’ is usually taken as the address from which application was made, although sometimes the school suggests a different place of origin. The QNIS number and date of appointment are recorded, along with the name of the hospital where the nurse completed her general training (some having done other certificates first). The introduction of Part I and Part II midwifery training has caused us some angst, but both hospitals are given; health visitor training is also recorded. Place of Queen’s Nurse training is also entered – the vast majority trained at Castle Terrace (‘Edinburgh’), but there were also centres in Glasgow and Aberdeen. A final official column records the existence (or not) of an obituary in the newsletter – the unofficial final column next to it records very unusual details we were afraid of losing – that ‘bona fide’ midwives could become Queen’s Nurses (my particular hot topic), pairs of sisters (less obvious without the full address), male nurses.
Entering the data has never been dull, but always thought-provoking, even if the quality of the thoughts can be lacking. I trained at Stobhill in the mid-70s, and we were always told that until Ninewells opened it was the biggest hospital in Scotland – I can well believe it, as a substantial number of Queen’s Nurses also trained there. The numbering system remains a mystery – my lowest number (‘oldest’ Queen’s Nurse) was in the 4000s – so presumably it began as a four-digit system. There seems to have been an increase in nurses trained in the 50s and 60s who stayed for a couple of years and then left for other jobs in nursing – was Queen’s training, like Part I midwifery, something you did then to qualify for eventual senior posts, rather than a vocation? Alternatively, was there such pressure on hospital beds then that there was an emphasis on district care, which, again like domiciliary midwifery, disappeared after the end of the tripartite system of health care? The records show the vulnerability of women’s employment – starting late after ‘home duties’, resigning due to ‘home reasons’, as well as resigning on marriage, or, later, first pregnancy – how much has this changed, and at what cost? Above all, the cards bring home the kindness and high quality of the care given to Scotland for so long by so many dedicated Queen’s Nurses.