The idea of an Order of nursing Sisters originated with Robert Bentley Todd, Professor at Kings College Medical School, London, in response to the poor standard of hospital nursing with poor hygiene and the low status of the work. He believed that the solution would be the introduction of religious discipline but Sisters were associated with Roman Catholicism and he was a protestant. He sought advice from the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, and a meeting was convened in July 1848 in Hanover Square with the Duke of Cambridge and other parties interested in forming such a Community of nursing Sisters. The plan was that the Community would comprise educated women of means who would each contribute £50 per year to the work. In December 1848 work began at 36 Fitzroy Square in the Parish of St. John the Evangelist from whom the Community acquired its name.
The Sisters soon began to introduce new standards for nursing, gaining a good reputation and an income from private work. In 1852 they moved to Westminster where they remained until 1859. During this time they nursed victims of the 1853 cholera epidemic. The Sisters also worked to create a stable religious community and in 1853 the £50 requirement was dropped because it had proved discouraging. By 1854 the only Sister was Mary Jones and a Master, Rev CP Shepherd was appointed. They were determined to continue the work even when a decision was made to St. John’s House wind up St. John’s House due to a lack of funds. That year saw the start of the Crimean War and Florence Nightingale accepted an offer from St. John’s to recruit and train women as Sisters and nurses. By 1857 a recognised training institute had been established which had sole responsibility for Kings College Hospital. Tsar Alexander II of Russia visited the Community and was inspired to establish similar nursing Sisterhoods within the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1862 the Community had grown to 30 Sisters which worked in different parts of London and for 10 years ran a hospital in Paris.
St. John’s House moved to the Strand in 1859 and a uniform adopted consisting of a blue robe with bib and apron together with a cap tied in a large bow. The Sisters were meeting the challenge of nursing but the Religious aspect of the Community was not doing so well. The Sisters were mainly Catholic Anglicans who wanted the Community to go deeper in adherence to the Religious Life. In 1862 the Bishop of London allowed them special prayers and a promise of obedience during their induction. In 1865 Sr. Mary was elected the first Superior.
The Sisters continued to push for independence from the supervision of a Council but permission was refused. In 1868 Sr. Mary and the majority of Sisters left. Only two Sisters remained, led by Sr. Elizabeth (1868-1870) and Sr. Caroline (1870-1888) the Community survived and attracted new vocations, numbering 36 by 1878. Difficulty with the Council remained and in 1883 Sr. Caroline and the whole Community withdrew.
Real independence had now been achieved, albeit through considerable difficulty. The Sisters named themselves the Nursing Sisters of St. John the Divine (NSSJD) and became self-governing, overseen by an elected Chapter. A Mother House was established in Kensington and work obtained in Chelsea, Lewisham and elsewhere in London. The Community continued to flourish under Sr. Caroline’s successors
The Sisters were further challenged by the extension of State Registered Nurse (SRN) training to women in 1920 which led to a drop in new vocations. In addition, the Sisters began to face competition from new private nursing agencies which resulted in a drop in income. In 1923 Sr. Ada resigned as Superior and the Community was reduced again to just five. They were required to leave St. John’s Hospital and the future again looked bleak with only the District work in Poplar and Deptford remaining.
The new Superior, Sister Martha, although already in her seventies, was determined to carry on. Good fortune arrived in the form of Mrs Frances Turner, a senior midwife, who joined the Community in 1928. She became the Superior in 1930 with the vision of deepening the Sisters’ religious life. Sr. Frances sought guidance from the Cowley Fathers (SSJE) and the Community’s constitution was amended to include the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, with Sr. Frances assuming the title of ‘Mother’. This process led to more vocations and the Community began to thrive again, taking on more District work and establishing Midwifery Schools.
The Sisters tirelessly continued their work during the Second World War, including helping bombing victims during the London blitz. Tragedy struck, however, and the Poplar Home was bombed and one Sister lost her life in what was the last V2 attack of the Blitz. St. Frideswide’s church at the junction of Lodore and Follet Streets escaped however, and the Sisters relocated to the Deptford House. St Frideswide’s Parish was united with All Saints, East India Dock Road (the impressive Church featured in the TV Series) and All Hallows, East India Dock Road, in July 1952, to form a single parish.
In the years following the war the Sisters relocated to Sydenham Hill, South London, to establish a new Mother House and the Community switched its focus the Nursing Home it ran in Hastings. The District Nursing had to adapt to the needs of the National Health Service (1948) and the increased Government control. In Lewisham, for example, the Sisters’ continued their midwifery work on an agency basis.
By 1966 the Local Authority in Lewisham had taken on full responsibility for nursing in its borough and the midwifery school was closed. Work in Poplar continued until 1978 when similar changes plus a rent increase from the Diocese, led to a cessation of work there. Some Sisters continued their vocations in London on an individual basis and a group of three Sisters worked in Malawi for four years.
In 1976 Mother Margaret Faith (1962-77) moved the Community to Alum Rock in Birmingham, where it remains today, facing new issues. For many years the Sisters provided facilities and guidance for visitors on rest, prayer and individual practice as well as group quiet days. A message on the Community website suggests, however, that not all is well:
‘We are currently Downsizing due to a major change in our lives. In preparation our House is currently closed for individual and group quiet days. Please check back for further updates’.
Following roof repairs costing nearly £20,000 it became clear that the Nuns could not afford the upkeep of their 20 room, Grade II listed house in Alum Rock, Birmingham. Having long since retired from nursing and midwifery, the Nuns, who have taken vows of poverty, have been living off their pensions and a modest income from participants in their retreats and prayer days etc. If you are in a position to assist the Sisters financially, whatever the amount, you may do so by visiting their online donations page.
The ever-sensible Community has made the decision to sell St. John’s House and move to a smaller house in the Marston Green area of Birmingham, in the hope that the sale of St. John’s House (valued at about £800,000) will provide them with a financial cushion and that the new house will be easier and cheaper to maintain. My understanding is that following a search, the Sisters have acquired a suitable property in Marston Green and plan to re-engage with their mission of prayer and hospitality. The nuns have now moved into their new home – see their soon to be upgraded website for details. The property was formerly a guesthouse and may be seen here.