A History of Nursing Pageant

Pageant type


This entry was written by Chandler Goddard

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Place: Portland Street Extension Hall, the Polytechnic Institution (London) (London, Middlesex, England)

Year: 1932

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 2


29 April 1932 at 5.30 pm and 8.30 pm.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Organiser [Pageant Master]: Hillyers, Miss
  • Produced: The Sister Tutor Section
  • Scenery Painted by: Student Nurses of Nightingale School, St Thomas’s Hospital

Names of executive committee or equivalent

St Thomas Pageant Committee:

  • Victoria Reid
  • G.V. Hillyers
  • W.E. Russell
  • J.C. Bridges
  • Margaret C. Broatch

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Willis, Irene Cooper


With the help of a number of nurses.

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


Nurses from the following hospitals took part: Guy’s Hospital; King’s College Hospital; Willesden General Hospital; Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital; Saint Mary’s Hospital, Paddington; Saint Thomas’s Hospital; The Royal Sussex Hospital, Brighton.

Financial information

Total received recorded as: £22. 9s. 2d.

Total spent recorded as: £25. 5s. 2d.

The Pageant thus made a small loss of £3 4s

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


‘The Hall was full to capacity at every [sic] performance.’There were only two performances.Afternoon

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

2s.–1s. 3d.

Some complimentary tickets were given out.

Associated events

Pageant outline


The pageant opens with orchestral music and choral singing before a modern nurse enters and picks up A History of Nursing. The nurse then declares that, other that Florence Nightingale, ‘this book must contain more history than that’, which leads to the start of the pageant. Enter the Spirit of Nursing, the pageant narrator, who declares she was ‘born of love and pity for the sick and old and weak’, followed by the introduction of Chakara.

Interlude. India, 320 BC

Students welcome Charaka, a most distinguished physician. The wisdom of the serpent-god with the thousand heads—the depository of all the sciences and especially medicine—was supposed to be incarnated in Charaka. Chakara explains that there are four requirements for curing disease: the physician, the drugs, the nurse and the patient. When all work together, with good experience from the physician and the nurse, then healing is achieved

Scene I. Greece, Temple of Æsculapius at Epidauros, 1134 BC

Æsculapius and Hygeia preside over healing ceremonies. Runners announce arrival of patients at Gates of Apollo. Patients present their offerings and proceed to couches, so that they may sleep and be told their modes of cure in dreams. The Spirit of Nursing introduces Æsculapius, son of Apollo, and his daughter Hygeia. Hygeia begins with a monologue praising the beauty of Earth and health before she and her priestesses together perform a sacrificial ceremony. Hygeia declares that the sacrifice has been ‘approved’ and that the Gods will appear in a vision to reveal cures for all those ‘who come to the Temple this day’. Hygeia is praised and evening merges into night.

Interlude. Greece, 460 BC

Students of Hippocrates on their way to School at Cos. Hippocrates openly recognised Nature and taught that disease was not the work of the spirit of demons or deities but resulted from disobedience to natural laws. He called Nature ‘the Just’ and showed that the true art of the physician was to assist her in bringing about a cure. He is still called the ‘Father of Medicine’ and the Spirit of the Hippocratic Oath inspires the medical profession of to-day. The Hippocratic Oath is spoken which ensures that all who swear by it will ‘use treatment to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgement’.

Interlude. Women Workers of Early Church

60 AD. Phœbe—the first appointed Deaconess.

350. Olympias—once wife of the Prefect of Constantinople, then ordained Deaconess, who devoted her life and her wealth to improving the lot of the poor and sick, under the direction of St Chrysostom.

390. Fabiola—one of the patrician Fabian family, who turned Christian and built the first General Public Hospital, which St Jerome speaks of as a ‘Noscomium,’ a place for the sick as distinguished from one that gives relief to the poor.

Scene II. Military Nursing Order of St John of Jerusalem, 1134 AD

A Hospitaller welcomes pilgrims, accompanied by a Brother of the Order.

Nursing sisters tend Crusaders.

Plainsong singing is heard without. A Brother enters, carrying the white, eight-pointed cross and is followed by pilgrims who are given rest and refreshment. Two wounded crusaders then enter and are treated by Sisters.

Interlude. The Great War, 1914–1918

A tableau dedicated to the Great War is displayed as the Spirit of Nursing speaks of the importance of valuing the white, eight-pointed cross and what it symbolises to others.

Scene III. 1200 AD

Incident from the life of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis of Assisi renounced a life of ease and wealth and became the most gallant nursing missionary to the lepers.

Interlude. Middle Ages

1226 AD. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, one of the most beloved saints and nurses of the Middle Ages.

1184. A Béguine—the Béguines of Flanders, the earliest of the secular communities, founded by Lambert le Bégue, still exists to-day. The Béguines proved that it was possible to live a pious life and do good works outside strict Church Rule.

Scene III and the Interlude are combined as the Spirit of Nursing describes the actions of both St Francis and Elizabeth of Hungary who would regularly attend the sick and ‘afflicted brethren’.

Scene IV. St Vincent de Paul

1617 AD. St Vincent de Paul and the Ladies of Charity (Dames de Charité). St Vincent de Paul saw that charity was noble but ‘ill-regulated’ and organised the Ladies of Charity. He said: ‘To send money is good, but we have not really begun to serve the poor until we visit them.’

1629. St Vincent de Paul, with the help of Mlle. Le Gras, later instituted the ‘Sisters of Charity’ who carry on their nursing work to this day.

1932. Two Modern Sisters of St Vincent de Paul. The Spirit of Nursing states St Paul’s belief that charity was good but ill-regulated, and therefore women can be seen carrying out his instructions as he reads his rules. St Paul is specific and says that a woman should care for patients ‘as if dealing with her own child.’ As Mlle. Le Gras enters, the Spirit of Nursing tells how the Sisters of Charity were formed as St Paul realised young girls could be trained to help the poor.

Interlude. A Famous English Hospital

1123 AD. Rahere receiving the Royal Charter. Rahere—the royal jester at the court of Henry I; having turned monk, commanded in a vision by St Bartholomew, he built St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

1549. Rose Fyssher—‘the first Matron and the first to wear watchett blue.’

1647. Margaret Whittaker—‘the first nurse to be promoted to Sister.’—Qualifications—‘to show fitness in washing the buckets’ (linen).

1750. Mary Bisbee—Sister of Treasurer’s Ward, which was made from the Matron’s late beer shop.

1835. Sister Rahere—‘Stout, ruddy and positive. Noted for teaching the House Surgeon how and where to compress the popliteal artery.’

Scene V. Nursing as Depicted by Charles Dickens

1844 AD. Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig in charge of a patient.

1856. The St John’s Sisters accept the call to take over the nursing at King’s College Hospital. The Community of St John’s House, founded in 1848, was the first purely nursing order in the Anglican Church. The nurses were sent for instructions to King’s College Hospital. The Spirit of Nursing states that the profession did not make progress during the 17th and 18th centuries, and that by early Victorian times it had fallen to a level that merited Dickens’s characters of Sairey (Sarah) Gamp and Betsy Prig. The scene is used to highlight the dangers of unqualified and unskilled nurses, which is achieved through Prig and Gamp’s clumsiness and excessive drinking. The scene ends as the Community of St John’s House Nursing Order takes over from Prig and Gamp, symbolising the Order taking over the nursing at King’s College Hospital.

Scene VI. Nursing in Germany

1850 AD. Florence Nightingale at Kaiserswerth.
In the middle, Pastor Fliedner instructing Deaconesses.
To his left, peasants being taught sewing.
On the left, children helping to pack baskets for district visiting.
In the front, Frau Fliedner with child.

Pastor Fliedner, inspired by the work of Elisabeth Fry in England, opened a refuge for women prisoners. Later, with the help of his wife, Frederica, he formed it into a hospital, reviving the Apostolic Order of Deaconesses to serve the sick. At this hospital Florence Nightingale studied nursing. The torch was lit at Kaiserswerth, which helped her to defeat the ignorance and horrors of Scutari!

Interlude. The Lady of the Lamp

Scene VII. The Crimea

1855 AD. Florence Nightingale at Scutari.

Nightingale is referred to as ‘making of chaos, order; bringing to misery, relief.’

Interlude. The Nightingale Training School for Nurses

Symbolic representation of the founding of the School and three famous pioneers.

1860 AD. Mrs. Wardroper—Matron of St Thomas’s Hospital and first Lady Superintendent of the Nightingale Training School.

1862. Agnes Jones—Most beloved of the Nightingale nurses, whose name is closely linked with reforms carried out at Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary.

1866. Florence Lees, later Mrs Dacre Craven—Pioneer of District Nursing in London.

1875. Alice Fisher—who crossed the ocean and achieved a complete reformation in the nursing of Blockley Hospital, Philadelphia, USA.

Scene VIII. Final Tableau

Florence Nightingale hands the Red Cross Flag into the safe keeping of the Spirit of Nursing.

1932 AD. Student Nurses pay their homage.


Key historical figures mentioned

  • Henry I (1068/9–1135) king of England and lord of Normandy
  • Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226) Roman Catholic friar and saint
  • Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) queen and Catholic saint
  • Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) French priest and saint
  • Rahere [Rayer] (d. 1143x5) founder of St Bartholomew's Hospital and priory, London
  • Nightingale, Florence (1820–1910) reformer of Army Medical Services and of nursing organization
  • Jones, Agnes Elizabeth (1832–1868) nurse
  • Lees [married name Craven], Florence Sarah (1840–1922) nurse
  • Fisher, Alice (1839–1888) nurse

Musical production

  • Music arranged by Victoria Reid.
  • Orchestra conducted by Imogen Holst.
  • Singing by member of St Martin’s Choral Society and conducted by Arnold Goldsbrough.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

The Times

Book of words

Programme. ‘A History of Nursing Pageant’. London, 1932.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • London Metropolitan Archive: programme, financial information and scripts. H01/ST/NCPH/E/011 and H01/ST/NTS/Y/08/1-3, 6-12.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



Nursing is an ancient and valued profession. And yet it has encountered a shocking degree of stigma and gendered stereotypes, which often presented it as a role of secondary importance to that of (male) doctors. As Florence Nightingale remarked, it was a profession often left for: ‘those who were too old, too weak, too drunken, too dirty, too stupid or too bad to do anything else.’2 Nursing pageants of the twentieth century were used to provide a stronger sense of legitimacy to the profession by showing where it had come from and how far it had progressed. Many nursing pageants used scenes from the work of Charles Dickens, including the characters of Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig, two unskilled nurses who did more harm than good to their patients. They also included warnings from the Spirit of Nursing to show the importance of skilled and qualified state registered nurses.3 This aim of legitimacy can also be linked to campaigns to progress gender equality. The Guardian newspaper acknowledged after another 1953 pageant of nursing that, apart from Nightingale, there has been ‘an emphasis on men in the history of medicine’.4 As for the 1932 pageant, its focus on the goddess Hygeia and the role of female nurses throughout history in aiding fallen soldiers and the poor helped to strengthen the argument that women were an equal part of society and have continuously provided equally necessary work.5

In many nursing pageants, Florence Nightingale takes centre stage, and the 1932 pageant was no exception, the final tableau showing modern nurses paying homage to her.6 This heroic treatment stood in contrast to contemporaneous revisionism. Nightingale had become a target of the acerbic pen of Lytton Strachey in his famous and hugely influential Eminent Victorians (1918), which ‘challenged the sentimental public image of the “Lady of the Lamp”, by describing her “harsh and dangerous temper—something peevish, something mocking and yet something precise—in the small and delicate mouth”’.7 Perhaps Nightingale is praised in such a light during these pageants in order to maintain her reputation in the light of Strachey’s comments and to keep her aims and efforts solidified not only in the nursing profession but also the public eye.

The pageant seems to have achieved its aim, with the Times praising its ‘admirable simplicity and clarity’, remarking, with a slight tone of condescension, that ‘the Producers have not been over-ambitious and have not tried for too spectacular effects, and it was evident that every scene has been carefully planned out.’8 Further praise was given to the colours and the grouping, which ‘showed a keen sense of composition and design,’ though the newspaper was less favourable about the diction of the performers who ‘in their endeavour to make themselves audible, speak their words with such slow and self-conscious clarity that both meaning and rhythm are lost.’9 The British Journal of Nursing was predictably more effusive: ‘How fascinating is Pageantry! How entrancingly it portrays history—its personalities, fashions, romance, virtues and vices’.10 The journal, like the Times, singled out Nightingale’s scenes for its greatest praise: they ‘filled the stage with life’ together offering a ‘truly brilliant presentation’ and marking ‘one of the epoch making events in the history of humanity.’11 The journal saw the experiment in nursing pageantry as a resounding success, and expressed a hope that the Pageant might soon be repeated: ‘How stimulating in these times of uniformity. We foresee how inspiration can be visualised and used in the teaching of Nursing History in our Nursing Schools, and in awakening the community to the spiritual significance and beauty of a profession worthy of its highest scene.’12

The British Journal of Nursing was not to be disappointed. As it turned out, the pageant would be restaged almost identically for the benefit of the International Congress of Nursing in 1937, with great success (see entry for 1937 Pageant of Nursing). While a single pageant was unlikely to undo the irrational neglect which the profession faced (at least until the creation of the NHS, when the advent of mass healthcare made inescapably clear the importance of nurses), the event likely gave a great morale boost to both the audience and performers, acting to confirm as esteemed the history of their profession.

Entry written by Chandler Goddard


  1. ^ ‘A History of Nursing Pageant’, British Journal of Nursing (May 1932): 122.
  2. ^ Letter from Florence Nightingale to Sir Thomas Watson, Bart, London, 19 January 1867, in R. Gaffney, ‘Women as Doctors and Nurses’, in Health Care as Social History, ed. O. Checkland and M. Lamb (Aberdeen, 1982), 139.
  3. ^ Daily Telegraph, 20 February 1911, 6.
  4. ^ Guardian, 7 October 1953, 4.
  5. ^ Record of the History of Nursing Pageant produced by the College of Nursing on 29 April 1932 and record of the History of Nursing Pageant performed as part of the International Congress of Nurses in London 1937, ‘History of Nursing’ programme, London Metropolitan Archive, Album 11. H01/ST/NCPH/E/011.
  6. ^ Record of the History of Nursing Pageant produced by the College of Nursing on 29 April 1932 and record of the History of Nursing Pageant performed as part of the International Congress of Nurses in London 1937, ‘History of Nursing’ programme, London Metropolitan Archive, Album 11. H01/ST/NCPH/E/011.
  7. ^ Jones, What Should Historians Do With Heroes? 439–454.
  8. ^ Times, 30 April 1932, 10.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ ‘A History of Nursing Pageant’, British Journal of Nursing (May 1932): 122.
  11. ^ Ibid, 123.
  12. ^ Ibid, 123.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘A History of Nursing Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1225/