There can’t be many trade unions that have a Royal Seal of Approval, but one was founded a hundred years ago, and while it plays down the term, many of its early founders thought of the Royal College of Nursing as just that — a trades union.
Befitting its status as a Royal institution, and backed by co-founders of a most aristocratic leaning, it was gifted a plot of land just behind John Lewis by Lady Cowdray, and the building they constructed has been its home ever since.
In this its centenary year, there is an exhibition inside this imposing building which looks back at the founding of the College and how it has evolved over the subsequent years.
Until the outbreak of World War One, there was no formal organisation promoting the skill of nursing, but sensing an opportunity caused by a grateful nation to the nurses who served in the war, a group came together to found some sort of suitable organisation.
The College was founded to attract “the right sort of women” to the profession, and in fact was a women-only institute right up to the 1950s, which is somewhat ironic as its co-founder was a man, the Tory MP, Arthur Stanley.
In fact, the choice of a grand imposing building, right next to the heart of the medical establishment in Harley Street was a shrewd political decision designed to promote Nursing as a serious career with good management and official credentials. Appearances mattered to Edwardians, and a grand building would have helped immensely.
The exhibition itself is the glass cases and display boards sort — with various objects highlighting aspects of the early years of nursing, alongside text explaining the history of the College, and the sometimes difficult political situations they found themselves in during the early years.
The objects while being medical are also almost military in nature, showing up a tendency to impose strict order and control on people responsible for saving lives, and a hierarchical structure probably inherited from the time nurses served during the war.
By the 1930s some of the more Victorian aspects of teaching nursing were relaxed as it was found to be putting a lot of potential trainees off, although right up to the 1950s nurses were sometimes housed in the most rudimentary of conditions while learning their trade. Also softer in tone is the map of the UK made up from nursing badges showing each of the local areas and schools where nurses learnt their trade.
Although originally wary of being called a trade union, in 1976 it formally became one and the exhibition shows off some of the photos from campaigns for higher wages.
What’s slightly less obvious is that the display continues downstairs, through the library, which has a floor that seemed to cause my shoes to squeak most alarmingly in a quiet space — and a few more glass cases.
But also down here is the latest Royal Charter, sealed by our current Monarch granting the College its royal status.
A side issue, the building also contains a tiny branch of Costa coffee, or at least a franchise operation, which is also open to the public so almost qualifying for a Museum Meals article.
It’s a modest exhibition, but worth visiting, and makes for a pleasing diversion away from the hassle of Oxford Street.
The exhibition is free to visit and is open until the end of this year. The RCN headquarters is open for visits Mon-Sat, closed on Sundays.
Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre,
20 Cavendish Square,