A History of Nursing Pageant

Pageant type


This entry was compiled by Chandler Goddard

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Place: Scala Theatre, Tottenham Court Road (Camden Town) (Camden Town, Middlesex, England)

Year: 1937

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 3


22–23 July 1937

Thursday, 22 July, 5 pm and 9 pm; Friday 23 July, 2:30 pm

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Organiser [Pageant Master]: Hillyers, Miss
  • Produced by: The Sister Tutor Section, College of Nursing
  • Music Arranged by: Boyd Neel


The 'organiser' was Miss Hillyers of St Thomas's Hospital

Names of executive committee or equivalent


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

  • Willis, Irene Cooper


Author of Florence Nightingale, published by Messrs. Allen & Unwin.

Names of composers


Numbers of performers

Financial information

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

The Quadrennial International Congress of Nurses, London, 1937.

Audience information

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

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events

From 19–24 July 1937 many socials, meetings and functions were held as part of the Quadrennial International Congress of Nurses.

Pageant outline


The pageant opens as a young nurse opens the book A History of Nursing. She reads from it, revealing that there is much history to the profession that dates back long before Florence Nightingale. The Spirit of Nursing explains her purpose is to heal the sick.

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 the arrival of patients at the Gates of Apollo. The 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, the 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.

1914—1918. The Great War. 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. Soft music is played: ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.

Scene III. 1200 AD

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

Interlude. Middle Ages

1184 AD. 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.

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

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.

1937. 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, saying 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.

Scene V. Nursing in the New World

1642 AD. Arrival of De Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance at Montreal. Jeanne Mance, famous in the heroic annals of Canadian history, was the foundress of the Hotel Dieu of Montreal. With her noble heart, her sure judgement, her firm will and her pioneer spirit, she was a guide and friend to all. Every Canadian nurse still seeks inspiration from her life.

Scene VI. 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.

Interval (10 Minutes)

Scene VII. 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 VIII. The Crimea

1855 AD. Florence Nightingale at Scutari.

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 IX. Nursing in America

1873 AD. Arrival of Sister Helen of All Saints’ Sisterhood at Bellevue Hospital, New York, to establish a Nurse Training School. In 1857 the community of All Saints, Margaret Street, London, undertook the nursing duties at University College Hospital.

1874. Linda Richards, first trained nurse of America receives her charge as Night Superintendent of Bellevue Hospital from Sister Helen.

Scene X. Symbolic Representation of Founding of International Council of Nurses

1899 AD.

Central Figure—Ethel Gordon Fenwick, Founder and First President of the International Council of Nurses, inspiring all with her international message.

On her right—Isla Stewart, Matron, St Bartholomew’s Hospital London, depicting the wisdom of knowledge.

On her left—Margaret Huxley, Lady Superintendent, Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin, guarding the lamp lit by Florence Nightingale.

Nurses represented the many different international groups and members involved in ‘their Mother Council’.

Interlude. 1899–1937

With the passing of years, the countries hasten to join the International Council of Nurses.

Scene XI. The Fulfilment

1937 AD. The strength of the International Council of Nurses in its 29 affiliated national associations and its new children.

The inspiration of the Watchwords of the International Council of Nurses.

Scene XII. Final Tableau

1934 AD. The Florence Nightingale International Memorial Foundation, the living Memorial to Florence Nightingale.


Hymn: ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country.’

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Charaka (c.200BCE-200CE) Indian physician
  • 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

The Boyd Neel String Orchestra, conducted by Boyd Neel and led by Louis Willoughby.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Manchester Guardian
The Times

Book of words


Other primary published materials

  • A History of Nursing Pageant. London, 1937. Price: 6d.

There are two translated programmes in French and German, most probably due to the international members visiting for the Quadrennial International Congress of Nurses

References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • London Metropolitan Archive: programme and other material. H1/ST/NC 11/1–3.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



As historical pageants grew in popularity, so did the different topics and themes that they addressed. The History of Nursing Pageant from 1937 by Miss Hillyers of St Thomas’s Hospital was in many ways a re-staging of the previous 1932 pageant of the same name. Revitalised as part of the Quadrennial Congress of the International Council of Nurses that ran from 18 July to 24 July, the pageant added an international feel to many of the scenes in order to appeal to its attending members.1

The Scala Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London, was home to the pageant. Organised by Miss Hillyers, produced by The Sister Tutor Section of the College of Nursing and with words by fellow nurses, assisted by Miss Irene Cooper Willis, the pageant began with a statement from a young nurse suggesting that the majority of viewers are not aware of any nursing history aside from the highly respected Florence Nightingale. The pageant then continued through the ages, starting with Hygeia, the Goddess of Health, before moving on to Nightingale herself and finally ending with the current times, with nurses representing the international members who had attended the pageant as they paid homage to the Living Memorial of Florence Nightingale.

The decision to hold this pageant on the history of nursing can only suggest that its producers had a desire to educate local audiences. One may argue that 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 just how far it had progressed. This can be seen through a Daily Mail review of the 1911 ‘Pageant of Nursing’. As the Mail reported, this pageant focused on ‘representing the evolution of trained nurses’, an emphasis that supported the occasion it was linked to: the passage of the Act for the State Registration of Nurses.2 Many nursing pageants used scenes from Charles Dickens, such as the characters Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig, two unskilled nurses who did more harm than good to their patients, as well as warnings from the Spirit of Nursing to show the importance of skilled and qualified state registered nurses.3 This potential aim of giving legitimacy to the profession could also be linked to efforts to further gender equality. The Guardian newspaper acknowledged after a 1953 pageant on nursing that, apart from Nightingale, there has been ‘an emphasis on men in the history of medicine’.4 The focus on the goddess Hygeia and the progression through history with a strong focus on female nurses aiding fallen soldiers and the poor (for example, Queen Elizabeth of Hungary) helped to strengthen the argument that women were an equal part of society and have continuously provided equally necessary work and devotion.5

Although nursing pageants aimed to show more than just Florence Nightingale, she certainly took centre stage, particularly in that of 1937 where the final tableau shows modern nurses paying homage to the famous nurse in a scene titled ‘The Florence Nightingale International Memorial Foundation, the Living Memorial to Florence Nightingale’.6 As this suggests, Nightingale’s character and work was presented in heroic terms. Max Jones suggests that ‘heroes should be analysed as sites within which we can find evidence of the cultural beliefs, social practices, political structures and economic systems of the past’.7 This can be seen most effectively when we consider that Nightingale campaigned for many reforms to the nursing profession; in the pageant, modern nurses recited monologues praising her efforts.8 Jones points out that Lytton Strachey ‘challenged the sentimental public image of the “Lady of the Lamp” in 1918 by describing her “harsh and dangerous temper—something peevish, something mocking and yet something precise—in the small and delicate mouth’’’.9 Perhaps Nightingale is praised in such a light during these pageants in order to maintain her reputation in the light of the comments of Strachey and others, and to keep her aims and efforts solidified not only in the nursing profession but also the public eye.

This final point is perhaps the most crucial to the study of historical pageants and, in fact, all forms of historical entertainment. These nursing pageants were hugely successful, as were—and are—many forms of entertainment that use historical individuals and events such as film, television or even literature. However, we must remember that these performances brought audiences face to face with an example of how pageantry could be used for purposes of educational propaganda. As we look further into the use of entertainment as education, it is vital that we consider just what stories and ideas were being told. These may not be inaccurate, but we must be aware of the politics that underlined the portrayals.

[Entry written by Chandler Goddard]


  1. ^ 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, ‘The Quadrennial International Congress of Nurses’, Album 11, London Metropolitan Archives, H01/ST/NCPH/E/011.
  2. ^ Daily Mail, 19 January 1911, 3.
  3. ^ The 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. ^ Max Jones, ‘What Should Historians Do With Heroes? Reflections on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain’, History Compass (2007), 439–454.
  8. ^ 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’ script, London Metropolitan Archive, Album 11. H01/ST/NCPH/E/011.
  9. ^ Jones, What Should Historians Do With Heroes? 439–454.

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/1153/