Museum Launches Appeal To Find Identity Of Mystery Nurses

By David Prudames | 24 May 2005
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Shows a black and white portrait of a black nurse with a serious expression.

Courtesy Florence Nightingale Museum/ Lambeth Archives.

Staff at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London are trying to establish the identities of three black nurses whose pictures were taken by a south London photographer between the 1950s and 1970s.

The photographs come from Lambeth Archives and were brought to light when an exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of Mary Seacole’s birth was being put together at the museum.

A contemporary of Florence Nightingale, Seacole paid her own way as she headed over to the battlefields of the Crimea to tend wounded and dying soldiers. Unlike Nightingale she was, until recently, more or less forgotten by history.

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, learning and access officer Zoe Gilbert explained how the lack of acknowledgement for Seacole’s deeds inspired staff to try and track down the identities of the mystery nurses.

"We’ve got all these unknown women who were making such a great contribution to the health service," she said, "and yet their names have been lost to history like Mary Seacole’s."

Shows a bright photo of a black nurse with a dried flower arrangement in front of a lush painted scene.

Courtesy Florence Nightingale Museum/ Lambeth Archives.

The photographs were taken by local photographer Harry Jacobs who ran a studio on Landor Road in Stockwell, south London. Unfortunately Harry didn’t write any names on his photos, so when they were given to Lambeth Archives there were no records to go with these unique documents of the past.

It is thought that the women were working in the south London area between the 1950s and 1970s, but other than that nothing is known of them.

For Zoe Gilbert, finding out who they are is an important way of completing publicly held knowledge of the past: "It’s filling in the gaps," she said, "because often these facts are missing from the records, from the histories."

A potential breakthrough has already been made for one of the women. As staff put the finishing touches to the Mary Seacole exhibition, an electrician came over from St Thomas’ Hospital next door. Spotting the photographs, he explained that his grandmother was a nurse and one of them looked just like one of her friends.

Shows a black and white photo of a smiling nurse.

Courtesy Florence Nightingale Museum/ Lambeth Archives.

However, Zoe is keen to hear from anyone who might be related to one of the women, or who might be a friend or who might even have been cared for by one of them in the past.

"As well as family members and friends they would have reached so many people as nurses," she said, adding that former nurses who volunteer at the museum get spotted all the time: "People come in and say ‘I recognise you, you nursed me in 1974’!"

Anyone with any information about the identities of the three women can contact the Florence Nightingale Museum by email: info@florence-nightingale.co.uk, post: Florence Nightingale Museum, 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7EW, or phone: 020 7620 0374.

Or get in touch with Gabrielle Bourn at Lambeth Archives on 020 7926 6079 or at 52 Knatchbull Road, London SE5 9QY.

Read our article about the Mary Seacole Bicentenary Exhibition, which is on show until April 2006.

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