Bodleian Libraries launches online exhibition alongside BBC Radio 4's 'Writing the Century' drama

13 November 2014

Image of Hong Kong postcardLast week the BBC Radio 4 Women's Hour drama focused on the experiences of colonial nurses in the late 19th and 20th centuries in 'Writing the Century: Passages from Empire'. The drama draws from the archive of the Colonial Nursing Association held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The drama's writer Vanessa Rosenthal discovered some of their correspondence housed in the Bodleian during her time as writer in residence at King's College London.

The online exhibition, Colonial Nursing: Travel and Travail, has been launched to coincide with the broadcast of the drama. The exhibition has been put together by academics at King's College London, led by Professor Anne Marie Rafferty, and the Bodleian Library's Lucy McCann. It is based on research by Dr Jessica Howell, Professor Anne Marie Rafferty, Dr Rosemary Wall and Dr Anna Snaith completed within the Centre for the Humanities and Health and the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery at King's College London and supported by the Wellcome Trust.

The exhibition was initially released to coincide with the broadcast of 'Writing the Century: Passages from Empire'; however, further content from the Bodleian Library's archives will be added by the end of 2014.

Black and white image of nurses with children in playground

The Colonial Nursing Association (CAN) was proposed by Mabel Piggott (18541949) in 1895 and was subsequently founded in 1896. The Association provided a means of supplying Britain's colonies with trained professional nurses to attend to the health of colonial officials and to train local nurses. Between 1896 and the Association's end in 1966, over 8,400 nurses were sent to work abroad.

The online exhibition follows the CNA through from its founding in 1896 up until the 1960s. It includes photos of nurses in the colonies, their letters home, the material they collected in scrapbooks, the exams they took and the pamphlets they were given, as well as information their employer produced. Also included are audio recordings of a first-hand testimony about one nurse's marriage abroad, as told by her husband.

Black and white image of nurses with children in school

The materials from these nurses' lives tells a story which gives insight into British imperialism. The nurses taught 'hygiene', delivered nursing care to European and indigenous populations, practiced midwifery and undertook a wide range of public health activities, often in remote and isolated locales. They also taught local nurses, inculcating them into Western techniques of nursing practice.

Most of the nurses' letters available in the Bodleian Library's archive were written to their employers. Therefore, the nurses crafted these letters with care, and were selective in what they included. However, other material, such as scrapbooks and images, give an even more complex vision of nurses' time abroad.

Gem of the Pacific Hong Kong postcard

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