Royal Charter

The Royal College of Nursing and its Royal Charter 1928-1980

The College of Nursing Ltd was established in March 1916. The founders chose the model of the royal medical colleges because it suggested education and social status but they were informed the new College would not be eligible for a Royal Charter at such an early stage. In order to hold property the College required legal status and therefore had to become a registered company. 

The Memorandum and Articles of Association describe the objectives of the College as:

  • promoting better education and training of nurses
  • promoting educational standards with recognised and approved training schools
  • providing training and examinations for nurses and granting certificates
  • maintaining a register of proficient trained nurses
  • promoting the advancement of nursing as a profession in all or any of its branches
  • establishing and printing a journal and other publications
  • promoting bills in parliament connected with the interests of the nursing profession
  • provision to petition for a Royal Charter at a later date.

After 10 years as the College of Nursing Ltd, a proposal by the Bradford branch that the College apply for a Royal Charter was carried at the Annual General Meeting in June 1926. A draft charter, based on the existing Memorandum and Articles of Association, was prepared and sent to the Home Office. The College was informed that in its present stage of development the government could not recommend to His Majesty that the prefix ‘Royal’ be granted. The College Council agreed that the petition should go forward to the Privy Council omitting the prefix ‘Royal’.

The College’s application was opposed by many of the rival nursing associations, several of which were led by Mrs Bedford Fenwick, an implacable enemy of the College, and a hearing took place. The case for the College was based on its achievements, particularly its educational programme and its welfare work in the field of salaries, pensions and legal advice. The Privy Council found in favour of the College and on 28 July 1928 the charter was granted and sealed by King George V.

The College of Nursing Ltd was wound up and the first Ordinary General Meeting of the College of Nursing (incorporated by Royal Charter) was held on 19 June 1929.  Byelaws drawn up by Council were accepted by the membership and by the Privy Council. 

The charter

The preamble of the charter reiterates the claims put forward in the petition of the College:

“...the incorporation under (our) Royal Charter of the proposed corporation will be for the public advantage and will tend to the advancement of the science and art of nursing and further to improve the education of nurses in the said science and art.”

The main differences between the charter and the Articles of Association were:

  • the charter gave the College power to grant diplomas as well as certificates
  • provided for Her Majesty Queen Mary to become the first royal patron of the College
  • restricted membership to nurses on the general part of the State Register and persons exceptionally admitted on the grounds of professional distinction or status in nursing.

As a chartered society the Council could make or obtain loans without sanction of a general meeting. The number of Council members was reduced from 45 to 36 and these members became personally responsible if they acted outside the provisions of the charter. To alter the provisions of the Charter required the approval of the Privy Council, and the amendments had first to be passed at two Council meetings and confirmed by the College membership at a general meeting.

The title ‘Royal’ (1939)

In February 1939 Council decided to petition for permission to add the prefix ‘Royal’ to the title of the College, stating their case as follows:

Grant of Arms and President's Chain of Office “...The College is today the leading organisation of its kind with membership of over 29,000 trained nurses and a student nurse association of nearly 8,000 nurses in training... it is recognised as an institution of national character, connected with the International Council of Nurses and the International Hospital Association and its educational work with the Florence Nightingale International Foundation gives it universal recognition.”

The petition recorded the role the College had played in responding to the international crises preceding the Second World War. The College had offered the use of its membership organisation to the Ministry of Health and took on the task of recruiting trained nursing volunteers until the government’s Central Emergency Committee for the Nursing Profession was established.

On 30 June 1939 Council was informed that the petition had been successful. The new title was granted by King George VI in July and required an amendment to the Charter and a redesign of the College badge.

Grant of Arms

In 1946 the College was granted a coat of arms by the College of Heralds. The heraldic design is shown here, with the Latin motto Tradimus Lampada, meaning ‘we hand on the torch’.

The College was the first organisation of women to receive a shield rather than a lozenge shape to emblazon its arms, paying tribute to the wartime service of the College and its members. The shield shows the sun and stars denoting the day and night service that nurses provide. This is surmounted by the open book of learning and a Roman oil lamp which is the authorized heraldic symbol of nursing, as decided by the College of Heralds.

Extension of membership

Originally the College membership was restricted to nurses with three years’ general training and, after the introduction of state registration in 1920, to nurses registered on the general part of the register maintained by the statutory General Nursing Councils of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. By the 1950s a significant number of members wanted membership of the College to be opened to all registered nurses, not just general trained nurses. This would include male nurses, mental nurses, sick children’s nurses and fever nurses. Following the recommendations of a working party, Council agreed to the extension of the membership and the necessary amendments to the Charter were approved and given royal assent in September 1960. From 1 November 1960 membership of the College was open to all registered nurses, male or female.

A separate Roll of Assistant Nurses had been set up under the 1943 Nurses Act. The title of these nurses was later changed to State Enrolled Assistant Nurses (SEAN) and then State Enrolled Nurses (SEN). They were not eligible to join the College as they were not registered nurses. At the AGM in July 1967 resolutions were carried to extend the membership to enrolled nurses and student nurses. The National Association of State Enrolled Nurses (NASEN) was opposed to a College take-over, however, after several years of negotiations the Enrolled Nurses Section of the College was established in October 1970 and NASEN merged with the College. 

The RCN Student Nurses Section was set up in October 1968 replacing the independent Student Nurses Association which had been established by the College in 1925. 

At first student members had restricted voting rights. The Privy Council considered that full voting rights should be restricted to full members who should be professionally qualified. However, in February 1980 Council put forward the case that students should have full voting rights but could not be nominated for or elect Council members, other than the one student Council member. The amendment was approved.

Revision of the charter

The review of the charter during the 1958-1960 changes revealed that a total revision was necessary. A revised charter and by-laws were drawn up and put to the membership at an Extraordinary General Meeting on 28 June 1962. The opportunity was taken to include amendments to allow the amalgamation of the College with the National Council of Nurses (NCN). The constitution of the new organisation was based on the Royal Charter as it was considered that the charter was of great significance to the nursing profession.

  • The title became ‘The Royal College of Nursing and National Council of Nurses of the United Kingdom’
  • Participation in international affairs became a specific objective.
  • Provision was made for associate membership as agreed with the NCN.
  • The Welsh Board was established and Council was increased from 36 to 40 to give additional seats to England and Wales.
  • The President was designated an ex-officio member of Council; the period of office was extended from one to two years with eligibility for re-election for a further two years.
  • Provision was made for two deputy presidents.

More detailed by-laws dealt with organisational matters leaving a shorter and clearer Charter covering the constitution. The resolutions were adopted at the June 1962 Extraordinary General Meeting. Council was advised to petition for the grant of a Supplemental Charter, which was subsequently granted in May 1963.
At the November 1974 AGM, four resolutions were adopted to allow charter alterations:

  • removing the words ‘and National Council of Nurses’ from the title which became ‘The Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom’ 
  • changing the membership subscription, which the Privy Council did not approve
  • giving Council the power to elect fellows. This already existed (1940) but by making specific provision it would add status and prestige to such fellowships 
  • Making it an essential qualification for the Secretary to the Council to be a nurse.

These alterations were approved by the Queen and the Privy Council in May 1975.

Trade union status

In July 1976, Council voted unanimously that the College should seek certification as a trade union. This required two charter alterations which were put to the membership at the annual general meeting in November 1976.

  • The first added a new purpose ‘to promote the professional standing and interests of members of the nursing profession’.
  • The second confirmed the charitable status of the College.

Both were adopted and received Royal approval in February 1977.

Between 1973 and 1976, the membership structure of the College was reorganised, increasing local autonomy and introducing a system of stewards. The final phase of the reorganisation was the reconstitution of Council, requiring major changes to the charter and by-laws. Council was advised to petition for a new Supplemental Charter rather than make extensive amendments to the existing charter.

With the approval of the membership, at the 1977 annual general meeting, Council petitioned for a new Supplemental Charter. The revised charter incorporated amendments made since the grant of the previous Supplemental Charter (1963) and several new alterations. Council became smaller, minimum 26 and maximum 30 and rules were drawn up for the first time to comply with the requirements placed on trade unions. The new Supplemental Charter received Royal approval in December 1978 and was granted and sealed in February 1979.

In 1985 and 1986 amendments to the charter were required following a further review of the structure of Council and its committees and new regulations introduced by the 1984 Trade Union Act.

Exhibition created by the RCN Archives, Information and Knowledge Management,
RCN Learning and Development Institute, October 2008.

For further information contact archives@rcn.org.uk