The Glasgow Necropolis – Ministering Angels

Nurses’ headstone {Image courtesy GWSFHS]

Jane Mowat, nurse Died 3 July 1872

Margaret Whitecross, probationer Died 9 September 1883

Jane Banks, probationer Died 20 September 1884

Mary E. King, nurse Died 13 January 1887

Agnes Wightman Died 22 February 1874

Jane Ritchie, Died 22 July 1887

Over the past months we as a nation have had every reason to be grateful to the dedication and hard work of our nurses and doctors. To commemorate the organisation’s 15th year, The Friends of the Glasgow Necropolis are planning to restore the monuments to the nurses from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary who are buried in the cemetery.

Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary opened in 1794. Funded by wealthy patrons from the city’s mercantile, academic, medical and industrialist classes, civic leaders and landed gentry, the Infirmary’s purpose was to treat Glasgow’s growing population and at the same time train generations of future doctors. The first nurses to work at the Royal were little more than domestics, employed to clean the wards, bring food to the patients and to change their beds. The work of Florence Nightingale and her female volunteers during the Crimean War (1854-6), and her subsequent campaign for improved education for nurses did much for the status of the profession, but Dickens’s Sarah Gamp still reflected the poor calibre of part of the nursing sector.

The proximity of the Royal to the Necropolis resulted in several lairs being dedicated to the hospital nursing staff. Isabella McDiarmid (“Nurse Bella”) was interred in Sextus (Lair 069) in 1906, alongside three other nurses buried there between 1895 and 1897. A further six nurses were buried in Lair 185 between 1907 and 1937. Most of the women lived to a grand old age, with the oldest, Isabella Sutherland, dying in 1895 aged 82. These burials appear to have arranged and funded by the hospital.

Glasgow Royal Infirmary 1852 [Image courtesy Glasgow Archives]

An earlier headstone, (Eta 046), was probably also erected by the Royal, but a search of the Board of Management Minutes has failed to reveal any reference to the purchase of the lair. Of the six nurses (named above), five were in their twenties and came from places outside the Glasgow area. The exception to this was Agnes Wightman, a domestic servant at the Royal Infirmary, who had worked there since at least the 1860s. The daughter of a Wigtownshire farmer, she was about 60 when she died in 1874, the result of general debility and asthma, and her sister was the informant of her death.

Glasgow Royal Infirmary 1861 [Image courtesy Glasgow Archives]

The remaining burials are listed in chronological order. The first is Jane Mowat who died at the Royal aged 21 in 1872. Born in Cellardyke, Deerness, Orkney and the daughter of a crofter, Thomas Mowat, she succumbed to tuberculosis nine months after contracting the disease and died at the Royal in July, 1872.

The second name on the list is Maggie Whitecross, born in Peterhead and aged 22. A probationer nurse, Maggie fell ill with typhoid fever in August 1883 and was moved from the Royal to Belvidere Hospital where she died. Belvidere was a fever hospital opened in 1870 to accommodate patients with highly infectious diseases, which would present a threat to other patients and staff in a general hospital. In 1876, it was decided that all fever cases, except typhoid, should be referred to local authority hospitals, and in 1884 typhoid cases were also excluded.

The third nurse was Jane Banks, the illegitimate child of Elizabeth Banks and grand daughter of William Banks, a crofter from Canisbay, Caithness. Another probationer, Jane developed typhoid fever in 1884, and her death certificate records that she was removed from the Royal to Belvidere.

Belvidere Hospital [Image courtesy Glasgow Archives]

Mary Elizabeth King came from Lasswade in Midlothian, the daughter of a commercial clerk, John King and Elizabeth King or Gilbertson. Mary was 25 when she succumbed after seven days to pneumonia, dying at the Royal in January 1887.

The much earlier burial of Agnes Wightman appears next on the list, followed by the last name, Jane Ritchie. Jane was the daughter of Adam Ritchie, the manager of a brick making company in Greens Rora, Longside, Aberdeenshire. She had worked as a general domestic servant on a farm in Aberdeenshire and later moved to the Royal. There she contracted diphtheritic tonsillitis and died in July 1887. Her father was the informant of her death.

Leaving aside Agnes Wightman as non-typical, the other five share several features in common. They were all in their twenties, all came from outside the Glasgow area and all died from conditions to which they were exposed during their work. It is likely that the Royal took responsibility for the funerals and burials of nurses and domestics who had died in service and whose relatives, whether too poor or living too far away, were unable to make the arrangements.

The headstone of these nurses can be visited in the Eta compartment of the Glasgow Necropolis or viewed on the GWSFHS’s DVD of burials there.

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