Dame Sarah Swift
The life of Dame Sarah Swift, 1854-1937
Sarah Ann Swift, Matron-in-Chief of the British Red Cross Society and co-founder of the Royal College of Nursing, was born on 22 November 1854 at Kirton Skeldyke, near Boston, Lincolnshire, the second of the three children of Robert Swift, a landowner and independent farmer, and his wife Mary Ann Lamb.
She attended school in Donington, near Boston, and at the age of 22 went to the Dundee Royal Infirmary to train as a nurse. The matron of the infirmary at the time was Rebecca Strong who had reorganised the nurse training in line with the latest developments. On completing her training, her first job was as sister-in-charge of the home for incurables in Dundee where she remained for six years. She then worked briefly at the City Hospital North, Liverpool, and at the London Fever Hospital.
In 1889 she went to America to study nursing practices in New York and later travelled to Constantinople, where she worked in the British Seamen's Hospital. On her return to England in 1890, she went to Guy's Hospital, London, and after completing the one year course for paying probationers, she was appointed an assistant matron. The following year she was appointed Lady Superintendent of the Private Staff and in 1900, she was appointed matron.
Matron of Guy’s Hospital
Her years as matron of Guy's Hospital, 1900 to 1909, were a period of achievement both for herself and for the hospital. Sarah Swift's administrative abilities and financial acumen served Guy's well at a time of great development in medicine and nursing and when the hospital was expanding rapidly. She believed that nursing was a profession with great potential for women and she worked to improve the status and working conditions of the nurses. One of her main concerns was the lack of pensions for nurses and she became involved in several schemes to provide financial relief and retirement homes for nurses, including the Royal National Pension Fund for Nurses and the Nurses' Memorial to King Edward VII. She also established sports clubs and recreational facilities for the nurses and a Past and Present Nurses' League, which she used to develop professional awareness among Guy's nurses.
A large leather bound album was presented to Sarah Swift by Guy's Hospital Past and Present Nurses’ League on her retirement from Guy's Hospital as an expression of their appreciation. Each page contains the signatures of the subscribers. Miss Swift also received a decorative scroll featuring an extract from the minutes of the Court of Committees held at Guy's Hospital on 2 July 1909 expressing the hospital’s gratitude and appreciation of her work.
World War One
Although she had retired in 1909, when World War One started Miss Swift offered her services and within a few months was appointed Matron-in-Chief of the Joint War Committee of the St John Ambulance Association and the British Red Cross Society (BRCS). During the war her department was responsible for more than 6,000 trained nurses, overseeing their selection and dispatch to hospitals at home and abroad, and also for interviewing VADs (members of Voluntary Aid Detachments who were employed as assistant nurses). Swift personally inspected the 1,500 auxiliary hospitals administered by the Red Cross and the hostels and hotels used by the nurses in transit. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross (RRC), first class, in 1916; and in 1919 she was created Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) and made a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
Some of Dame Sarah’s medals are shown in the images on this page, including the Médaille de la Reine Elisabeth avec Croix Rouge presented by the Belgian government in 1919 in gratitude for her work with wounded Belgian soldiers, the British War Medal 1914-1918 awarded by King George V, the Royal Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem medals.
State registration and the College of Nursing
Although she supported the professional associations which were founded before World War One, Dame Sarah had not taken an active part in the campaign for state registration of nurses. Her character avoided publicity. However by the end of 1915 her war work had convinced her that something would have to be done about the chaotic state of nurses' training.
Knowing that the leaders of the campaign for state registration, particularly Mrs Bedford Fenwick, would oppose any attempt to introduce a voluntary system of registration, she approached Sir Arthur Stanley, Chairman of the BRCS and Treasurer of St Thomas' Hospital, and asked him to help her organise a College of Nursing. Stanley agreed and they enlisted the support of Sir Cooper Perry, Medical Superintendent of Guy's, and several matrons of leading London teaching hospitals. The aims of the founders of the College were to standardise the training of nurses with a uniform curriculum, examination, and a register of the names of those nurses who had passed the examination. Despite the irreconcilable opposition of the ardent state registration campaigners, the new initiative was well received by the majority of matrons and managers of the large training schools and hospitals in the country, and the College of Nursing was established in April 1916.
In 1919 the Nurses' Registration Acts established three new statutory bodies which became responsible for the registration of trained nurses. Thanks to the foresight of the College founders, it became a successful professional organisation, responding to the educational needs of nurses and providing leadership to the new profession. The achievements of the College were recognised in 1928 when it was granted a royal charter. However, it was not until two years after the death of its founder that it was given permission to use the prefix 'royal' and became the Royal College of Nursing.
Peacetime and the British Red Cross
At the end of the war Dame Sarah stayed on at the Joint War Committee to help with the demobilisation of nurses. The British Red Cross Society (BRCS) extended its charter to include peace-time health problems and Dame Sarah, a member of the council and executive committee, became very involved in this work.
A League of Red Cross Societies was formed to carry out the peacetime work and she was appointed the nursing representative of the British Society. She participated in numerous committees and international conferences throughout the 1920s and played an important part in setting up the first public health nursing course in London for the league. This course attracted nurses from developing countries who then undertook pioneer work in public health nursing in their home countries. The course was very successful and she took on the role of 'mother' to a generation of international students. In 1929 she was awarded the International Florence Nightingale Medal for her distinguished contribution to international nursing. She also made significant contributions to developments which were taking place in nursing in this country at the time, particularly in the care of the chronic sick and prison nursing.
Dame Sarah said she was happiest when she was organising and she never really retired from her work. In 1935, when she retired from the post of Matron-in-Chief of the BRCS, and was presented with a scroll acknowledging her years of service by the future George VI. She remained a member of the council of the society and on several of its committees. She was also a member of the council of the College of Nursing from 1916 until her death, was twice elected its president, then a vice-president, and an honorary treasurer.
Her last public appearance was at the coronation of King George VI. She died a few weeks later, after a short illness, on 27 June 1937, at her London home in Marylebone. Her funeral took place at St Mark's Church, Marylebone, followed by a cremation service at Golders Green, and a memorial service was held at Guy's Hospital chapel.
Dame Sarah was a very small determined woman, about four feet ten inches tall. Her whole life was devoted to nursing and her motivation was a genuine love of humanity. Her nurses knew her as a strict disciplinarian but were grateful to her for teaching them to accept responsibility. She was intensely private and disliked fuss. The many honours she received she accepted as tributes to her profession. She left instructions that on her death nothing was to be written about her.
In June 1969, Kirton Church held a memorial service and rededicated their newly restored Lady Chapel to Dame Sarah Swift, establishing a memorial fund in her honour.
Exhibition created by the RCN Archives,
Information and Knowledge Management,
RCN Learning annd Development Institute, 2005.
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