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100 years since the first person signed the nursing register

Dr Denise Chaffer and Tracey Budding 30 Sep 2021 RCN President

RCN President Denise Chaffer and Deputy President Tracey Budding celebrate the centenary of the first person to sign the Nursing Register.

100 years ago today, Ethel Gordon Fenwick became the first person to sign the nursing register, becoming ‘state registered nurse number one’. This pivotal moment came after decades of campaigning from nurses across the UK who were demanding a compulsory register to standardise training, improve patient safety and advance the profession. 

This was a watershed moment for nursing. It helped pave the way for millions of clinical professionals to be awarded the recognition they work hard to achieve, and that they deserve.

Registered nurses are a cornerstone in the delivery of safe and effective care, working in partnership with other skilled nursing partners who together, deliver care to millions of people every day. A century since Ethel made her mark, registered nurses continue to support the health and wellbeing of our population, both in primary care settings and across communities. 

But the way we deliver this care has evolved.

Today’s registered nurses are leaders who manage the complete clinical care for patients and make autonomous decisions for which they are accountable. 

We are highly educated, skilled professionals working in a safety critical profession who continuously seek out opportunities to develop professionally to retain our NMC PIN.

We are the profession most trusted by the public. When the right numbers of registered nurses are in place, patient mortality rates reduce and health outcomes improve. 

But despite this, we find ourselves in a position, 100 years on from the first registered nurse, still fighting for the recognition we deserve. 

We know that nurse registration gives employers the peace of mind that their staff are qualified and safe to practice across nursing specialisms. This reassures the public that they are being assessed and treated by those meeting the highest safety standards.

Right now, there are two main challenges facing registered nurses – chronic staff shortages, and unfair pay levels.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 50,000 vacancies across the UK in the NHS alone – and thousands more vacancies across social care too. We know that if the government committed to robust workforce planning, a fair pay increase for nursing and funding for recruitment and retention, it would begin to address the nursing workforce crisis.

That’s why we are campaigning for safe staffing and fair pay for nursing, and why we are calling for the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to have full accountability and responsibility, not just for the assessment of workforce planning, but for ensuring the delivery of the workforce as well.   

We owe it to Ethel, every registered nurse who followed in her footsteps, and to our patients and the public to protect the profession our predecessors fought for.

We must continue to work together to influence the changes nursing needs, to ensure the role of the registered nurse can continue to evolve over the next 100 years and beyond. 


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Dr Denise Chaffer and Tracey Budding - RCN President and Deputy President

Dr Denise Chaffer and Tracey Budding

RCN President and Deputy President

Page last updated - 27/02/2022