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RCN History

Our history

From 1916 to the present

Since 1916, we’ve been supporting nursing staff and promoting the vital importance of their work. 

We began as the College of Nursing, a professional organisation with just 34 members. Since then, we've evolved into the largest professional association and union for nursing staff in the world with over half a million members.

Important dates in RCN history


We’re founded as the College of Nursing Ltd on 27 March 1916 with just 34 members. By the end of our first year, we’ve grown to 2,553 members.


Following a pioneering campaign of ours, the Nurses' Act is passed, establishing a register for nurses for the first time. The public can now be confident that their newly registered nurses are trained to a professional standard.


Our College of Nursing badge is introduced. The design, following in a tradition of nursing badges, features the initials 'C' and 'N' interlocked on a blue background. Symbols represent the four nations of the United Kingdom.


Rules stipulate that membership should comprise 55% nurses, 35% women professionals and 10% 'suitable' women.


Queen Mary, wife of King George V, becomes our official patron. She has a keen interest in nursing. Until her death in 1953, she continues to be a great supporter of our work and a regular visitor to our Cavendish Square HQ.


We’re granted our Royal Charter in June 1928. Because of opposition to our application from other nursing organisations, we’re not allowed to use 'Royal' in our title until 1939.


George VI grants us the title 'Royal'. We now have 30,000 members and play a vital role in ensuring the supply of nurses through the World War Two Emergency Committee.


Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) accepts the position of President of the Student Nurses' Association.


We’re granted our coat of arms, recognising our role during the war. We’re the first women's organisation to be allowed to use a shield, which represents military service. The motto ‘tradimus lampada’ means 'we carry the torch'.


Queen Mary passes away, having served as our patron for over 30 years. Queen Elizabeth II agrees to become our new patron, supporting our work until her death in 2022.


We open our membership to all registered nurses, including men.


We launch our first public pay campaign, following a fall in nurses' wages to 60% of the national average salary and a freeze on public sector salaries. The campaign is focused on writing letters to MPs.


We join the National Council of Nurses to become the Royal College of Nursing and the National Council of Nurses of the UK (RCN). Our International Department is established.


We open our membership to nursing students, allowing them to become full members for the first time as part of the Student Nurses' Section. Princess Margaret, patron of the Student Nurses' Association, becomes our joint patron.


The first meeting of our annual Congress and Exhibition takes place in Harrogate. The event combines the separate meetings of our specialist nursing sections, Council and representative body.


We establish our Welfare Advisory Service and launch our Raise the Roof campaign to increase nurses' pay.


We register as a trade union.


Our 'linked hands' logo is introduced. The logo is designed by David Hillman, who had designed the influential lifestyle magazine Nova in the 1960s and also worked on a new title design for the Nursing Times.


We establish our archive, with an archivist appointed to safeguard and provide access to institutional records and objects given to the College.


We offer our first degrees through the RCN Institute for Advanced Nursing Education. The initial educational programmes are validated by the University of London and later by the University of Manchester.


Nurse prescribing becomes law following our successful campaign.


We change our rules to allow industrial action.


We launch RCN Direct on 1 March 1998. Running from a call centre on the outskirts of Cardiff, the service takes 2,000 calls in its first week alone.


We welcome Health Care Assistants (HCAs) with higher level vocational qualifications into associate membership, following a vote by members in 2000. In the 1990s, research found that HCAs were contributing to a higher standard of care and greater patient satisfaction.


We cease to be a charity, with the independent RCN Foundation charity being set up to support nursing and improve the health and wellbeing of the public. The Frontline First campaign is launched to highlight cuts to nursing posts.


We admit Health Care Assistants (HCAs) into full membership following a vote at the Annual General Meeting, with 81% of members voting in favour. HCAs gain full voting rights in elections and two extra seats are created on Council to represent them.


We celebrate our centenary as the voice of nursing.


We launch our Scrap the Cap campaign, with the government lifting the 1% cap on public sector spending.


We launch our Ask for More campaign in Scotland.


We launch our Staffing for Safe and Effective Care and Fund Our Future campaigns.

The Scottish government pass the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill. This is the first legislation in the UK to set out requirements for safe staffing across both health and social care services.

Strike action for fair pay and safe staffing takes place in Northern Ireland.


We launch our Fair Pay For Nursing campaign.

We support and campaign for our members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Fair Pay For Nursing campaign continues with consultative and indicative ballots conducted on pay awards in England, Wales and Scotland.

In Wales, we launch our For the Full Team public campaign on safe staffing levels.

We launch our Nursing Workforce Standards. These are the first standards of their kind in the UK to be written by nursing professionals, for nursing professionals.

We continue campaigning for Staffing for Safe and Effective Care. We influence the Health and Care Bill as it moves through Parliament thanks to direct lobbying and member action.