Maria and the Bellasis Family 3
I so much enjoyed meeting Florence Nightingale. She is confined to bed, but was happy for me to sit next to her in her bedroom, and we conversed for an hour or so. She has asked me to come again in perhaps a month’s time, as she has so many visitors to fit into her busy schedule.
Her house is very opulant, which isn't surprising as she is very ricih, but her bedroom was very plainly furnished, but comfortable. No fripperies in sight. She was propped up in bed by a frame, which supported her back. There was a table which she could have moved in front of her when she was writing.
She was interested in the story of my life, so much of that hour was filled with telling about all our adventures and problems. But I did manage to find out a bit more about her life too.
I wanted to know about the time she spent in Scutiri and that I had heard that she had some of the Sisters of Mercy with her. I asked if she had ever met Mother Lydia Seddon.
She said, “Indeed I did. In response to a call for volunteer nurses during the Crimean War, Mother Lydia called on me. She had it in mind to accompany a party of eight Sisters to Scutari, but 'after a long conversation', it was decided that it would not be a good idea for Lydia, the indomitable Mother Superior, to be putting herself under my authority. We both would want to have the control, and I wasn’t prepared to share it. But we came to an accommodation.”
“Is she still alive? I asked.
“No, and like me she spent her last years as an invalid but her mind was sharp and she directed her convents from her bed. She died in 1868.”
“Thank you for telling me that. I’m sorry I interrupted your story.”
She had frowned a bit, as my disrupting her flow, so I felt I should let her take the lead on how the conversation went.
“Mother Lydia’s instructions to the Sisters on their departure for Constantinople were that they should adhere to their Rule and observe silence among themselves on the journey. At Scutari, they were to follow the instructions of the 'medical man' but not converse with him; when attending to the wounds of the soldiers, they were to think
of the wounds of Christ, and 'keep calm as before the foot of his Cross'.
"For their material needs they were each issued by a well-wisher with a voluminous railway rug, which they learnt to use as mattress, blanket, shawl, carpet, and screen —such were the exigencies of travel to the Levant in 1854.”
“So did you work well with them?”
“Yes and no. The first group was quite biddable to my instructions. However the second group that came were in charge of Mother Mary Francis Bridgeman, and she very much wanted things her way from the beginning. She wrote to the war office saying, 'Attendance on the sick is, as you are aware, is part of our Institute; and sad experience among the poor has convinced us that, even with the advantage of medical attendance, many valuable lives are lost for want of careful nursing.Their offer was accepted and Bridgeman and a party of 12 Sisters departed from London on 2 December 1854, travelling via Paris and Marseilles, where they boarded a ship for Constantinople in a second wave with the intention of assisting me at Scutari Hospital. However, on reaching Constantinople, the Sisters were shocked to receive a letter from me stating that 'it was a gross mistake on the part of the war office' to send more nurses as I 'had neither accommodation nor need for more nurses at Scutari'. Bridgeman and her party considered themselves to be independent of my control, unwilling and unable to give authority over her Sisters to me. I was correct when I stated in my letter that the medical officers in The Crimea had told her they did not require any more nurses, and indeed there was no accommodation for them at the Scutari hospitals. Also, I had already overspent my nursing budget and the military was not inclined to give me more at that time.”
She started laughing and I asked her what was so funny.
“I called her Reverend Mother Brickbat,” she said. “But eventually I overcame her annoyance about not being consulted and five days later I wrote the Sisters a letter welcoming them and inviting just five of the Sisters to join me at Scutari Hospital but not as nurses. Brickbat took the letter to mean that she and her Sisters were released from their agreement with the War Office to provide nursing services at Scutari and on arriving in the Crimea in late January 1855 she arranged for her party to nurse at the Koulali General and Barrack hospitals near to Scutari. When a cholera epidemic hit the Army in the Crimea that month Brickbat and her Sisters immediately set to work. Having already had experience of nursing cholera sufferers in their native Ireland the Sisters began treating the sick as well as tending the wounded and dying from the year-long Siege of Sebastopol, spending their last six months in the General and Hut hospitals at he front line.
"I made one very close friend from the first group of Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Clare Moore, and still correspond with her. Is hers a name you reconise from your time with them?"
"No," I replied, "but my memories of that six months are very vague."
"If you will excuse me," she said, "I think I will stop there, as I am getting tired, and need a rest before my next visitor. My maid will show you out. But I hope to see you again soon."
I thanked her for seeing me and wished her well feeling rather like I had been dismissed. On the way out I saw the Prime Minister in the drawing room, no doubt waiitng for his turn to talk to her about subjects much more important that my wish to know her better.