The life of Ethel Bedford Fenwick, written by Jenny Main, is a biography of one of the Nineteenth Century’s major reformers to whom the nursing profession owes an eternal debt of gratitude.
Ethel was born Ethel Gordon Manson in the Morayshire town of Elgin in 1857. Unusually for someone of that era, Ethel had an early ambition to become a nurse, when nursing was not high on the list of preferred occupations for young ladies. At the age of 21, Ethel commenced training in Nottingham as a paying probationer nurse. Her expertise was soon noted and it was not long before she left for London, where she worked in hospitals in Whitechapel, and Richmond.
In 1881, aged 24, Ethel was appointed Matron of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a post she held for the next six years. One of the oldest hospitals in the world, ‘Barts ‘ tended the poor and its traditions and working practises were entrenched to say the least. In the eyes of one observer, Miss Manson ” swept through the hospital like a whirlwind” and soon instituted reforms that were to change the course and status of nursing for ever.
Ethel Manson resigned her post in 1887 to marry a doctor Bedford Fenwick, since it was unthinkable that a married woman could also be a matron. Her career, however, did not end with marriage and she devoted her life to fighting for the improvement of the status of the nursing profession. That she succeeded is proved by her name being the first to appear on the list of State Registered Nurses. Ethel was also instrumental in founding the International Congress of Nurses and was its president for the first five years .
It is clear that Ethel Bedford Fenwick did not suffer fools gladly, if at all, and her fiery character was more than a challenge to the establishment. As Lord Inman recalled in his autobiography: “Mrs Bedford Fenwick was a woman with whom it was possible to do business on terms of complete subservience.”