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In April 1921 three probationery nurses were dismissed from West Middlesex Hospital, Isleworth for reasons described in one account as 'frivolous'. The Minister for Health became involved, prompting an inquiry, and the dismissals were confirmed. Then, two years later, all three former nurses sued for unfair dismissal.
Five reports in local newspapers give insights into the operation and make up of the Brentford Board of Guardians and Hospital Committee, also the life of a probationery nurse in the early 1920s.
There are notes after the newspaper accounts:
This first item is in full.
Daily Herald 21 April 1921
In the House of Commons, yesterday, Mr Thomas Griffiths asked the Minster of Health whether his attention had been drawn to the action of the Brentford Guardians in discharging a number of their staff with only a few hours' notice; and whether he was aware that several nurses, whose homes were in the North of Scotland and Ireland, and who are without friends in London, were dismissed at short notice without giving them time to make arrangements for their returns home?
These nurses, the question further asserted, had been discharged for reasons of a frivolous character, and discontent had been created amongst the remainder of the staff. A full inquiry was demanded, together with the reinstatement of these nurses, whose careers would otherwise be ruined.
Sir Alfred Mond replied that he was in communication with the Guardians and would communicate further on receipt of their reply, which he expects this week.
The remaining items have been summarised; original text is between double quotes.
Acton Gazette 22 April 1921
The Brentford Guardians met "to consider the circumstances in which three probationer nurses had been dismissed."
"Miss Cumberbatch (chairman of the Hospital Committee) gave an exhaustive review of all the facts, justifying each dismissal and showing that the breaches of discipline had been serious and deliberately repeated. Impertinent round-robins had been signed by a section of the junior nurses on behalf of the delinquents, with the result that the nurses had had to be assembled on two occasions and addressed by the Chairman of the Board and herself."
"One of the dismissed probationer nurses had alarmed the pupils at the training centre by untruthful, disparaging statements with regard to it."
(The Poor Law Workers' Trade Union intervened, but not helpfully, according to the newspaper account)
The Board approved and confirmed the dismissals.
Middlesex County Times 27 April 1921
"QUESTION OF DISCIPLINE
This lengthy piece adds detail, including the nurses' names - Nurses O'Dwyer, Slatter and Magee - and more about their offences:
This was not the end of it. The article continues to outline how a number of nurses, including O'Dwyer, had special privileges removed for six months for another misdemeanour, and this included the privilege of a lie in until 4pm after night duty.
'"... April 2, Nurse O'Dwyer got up at 4pm, went out, did not return until 8.10pm and she told the home sister that she did not care what the Matron said or about being taken before the committee."
Having openly defied the rules and admitting insubordination, her services were dispensed with.
"Defiance by Round Robin."
The nurses were called before the Chairman and "Miss Slatter, one of the signatories, who had previously been reprimanded by the Chairman for unbecoming conduct towards junior probationers, was informed that her services would be immediately dispensed with. At the same time Miss Magee, who had drawn special attention to her name by thrice underlining it, was warned by the Chariman that if she were guilty of any further misconduct she would be severely dealt with."
"The previous charge against Miss Slatter was that ... in the dining room ... she stated that the hospital was a wretched institution, and than no one who was trained in it had the chance of getting a decent post elsewhere."
A round robin on behalf of Nurse Slatter was signed by 32 nurses, and Miss Slatter apologised but later failed to present herself for duty at an agreed time after a dance and also signed the "insolent letter sent on behalf of Miss O'Dwyer."
"In all these cases pains were taken to ascertain that the dismissed nurses had friends to go to, and they were each provided with a month's salary - £3 10s."
The article then attacked the Poor Law Workers' Trade Union report, generating 'hear hear' and several outbreaks of applause. Tributes were paid to "Matron's efforts to brighten the lives of the nursing staff" and Mr Bradford noted "men who were kindly disposed as individuals, collectively did, in trade unions, many cruel and harsh things."
Not everyone was satisfied with the outcome: "Mr Payne expressed himself as 'quite satisfied to a certain extent.' Nurses, he contended, had a perfect right to join a trade union. Twelve months ago he had pointed to what was going on in the infirmary, and there should have been a public inquiry ... the Chairman had held a stick over the nurses' heads, and told them to clear out of the office."
The Chairman refuted this.
Mr Cohen complained that "two members who had called the meeting had prepared nothing in the way of a case. Neither of them knew anything of the subject, and one of them, a member of the Hospital Committee, had put in no attendances out of a possible 13." He also attacked "those trade union officials who were thriving on the pence of misguided girls. It was always the women who paid. The whole affair was another example of the failure of the Church."
"... he believed many of the girls had been intimidated into signing the petitions. One of the ringleaders was a girl whom they had kept on, notwithstanding ... she had scalded a child." and added "Sack the lot and damn the consequences."
The Board confirmed the dismissals, four voting against.
This was still not the end of it. A case was taken to the High Court.
Middlesex County Times 25 April 1923
"Three actions ... appeared in the King's Bench Division list last week... Slatter v. Guardians of the Brentford Union; O'Dwyer v. Same; Magee v. Same."
This gives more information about one of the nurses: Miss Mabel Slatter was of Filton, Bristol. "Plaintiff had been well educated. For three and a half years she did secretarial duty at the Bristol Docks Office, and she also saw service with a women's corps in France during the war. She was appointed in April 1920, to the Guardian's Service and was dismissed without notice in April, 1921 by Mr Greville Smith."
"There were a number of incidents so small, said counsel, that he felt he must apologise for mentioning them. In October 1920, five nurses were due to go on holiday together, and unexpectedly the holiday was cancelled. Miss Slatter was delegated to speak to the matron on the question, and it was suggested that Miss Slatter was rude ... On another occasion it was alleged that Miss Slatter said the Brentford Guardian's hospital was a third rate hospital, and she denied that she ever said so. Other nurses signed a petition protesting against the manner in which Miss Slatter was treated inasmuch as her private conversation had been wrongfully reported. Later Miss Slatter went before Miss Cumberbatch, and Miss Slatter told her that she knew that the nurses had signed the petition. Miss Cumberbatch said, 'You are a coward' because, he supposed, Miss Slatter got somebody else to act in the matter. That matter was ultimately dropped."
"On March 28 there was a dance at the hospital, and the plaintiff, who was on night duty, was under the impression, as were other nurses on night duty, that she need not go on duty until an hour and a half after the usual time. Consequently the nurses were eventually sent on duty without a meal because they were late. Later the matron said that dances at the hospital would be abolished. That was the only time Miss Slatter was late for duty, and then it was only under a misapprehension. Later a nurse was dismissed, and there was a petition signed by 41 nurses, including Miss Slatter, demanding an explanation of the dismissal. There followed a meeting at which Mr Greville Smith said 'the nurses are like a lot of office boys addressing ladies and gentlemen. I see Miss Slatter's name on the paper; is she here?' When Miss Slatter stepped forward, Mr Smith said to her, 'You are dismissed. Get out of the building before nine o'clock.' Plaintiff asked the reason, and Mr Smith answered: 'Insubordination. See that door, clear out.' That sort of thing could not be tolerated in England in 1923, said Sir Edward warmly ... Since then two years had elapsed, and Miss Slatter had tried without success to be taken on as a probationer."
Middlesex County Times 02 May 1923
This final piece summarises the outcome of the court case.
Damages of 40 shillings were paid to Nurse Slatter (who had claimed £203) and "the Guardians to pay the taxed costs of this action, and the cases of O'Dwyer and Magee to be withdrawn without the imposition of costs against the Guardians. It was further agreed that Nurse Slatter and Nurse Magee should be given a testimonial as to their capabilities and character".
(The basis for seeking £203 in damages is not clear: this amounts to 58 months' pay at £3 10s)
Overall, the reporting favoured the Board of Guardians over the nurses. The Board of Guardians would mostly be of an older generation and had expectations of behaviour and compliance pre-dating WW1. Things were changing but they may not have accepted it.
More about some of the people mentioned
Mr F C Greville Smith, then chairman of the Board
Miss A B M Cumberbatch, chairman of the Hospital Committee; Alice Beatrice Martha Cumberbatch, 1888-1971; a biography on Ancestry by Wendy McAlpine starts 'A physically small, eccentric woman. Engaged to be married for 20 years and who sued her fiance for breach of promise when he married someone else. She chain smoked, only wore navy blue and made her own clothes. She also wrote for the Middlesex Gazette, she started the Fisherman's Benevolent Fund for Cromer, Norfolk fishermen. She raised money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI). She was Chairman of the West Middlesex Hospital, honorary member of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators and was granted freedom of the City of London on 8 December 1960.'
Mr Harmsworth, clerk to the Board
Dr J B Cook, medical superintendent: Middlesex Chronicle 05 December 1914 has the first reference in the British Newspaper Archive to Dr Joseph Basil Cook, Medical Superintendent - a report of the suicide of a German, Rudolph Leopold Mibus, at the Infirmary; Dr JBC remained in post until at least 1939: Edinburgh Evening News 25 September 1939, reported the marriage of Miss Barbara Joan Cook, daughter of Dr J B Cook, Medical Superintendent at West Middlesex Hospital, to RAF hero Flight Lieutenant Thurston Smith, at Brentford
Miss E Huggins, matron of the hospital: London Metropolitan Archives has 13 items for 'West Middlesex University Hospital and associated hospitals' that mention Miss Huggins; they date from 1923 to 1957; quotes by her from Middlesex County Times 02 April 1932 follow later; Eva Huggins, Hospital matron, was recorded on the same page as Joseph B Cook in the 1939 Register, and presumably they lived in the same or nearby staff accommodation. She was born in 1880.
Events took place shortly after the end of WW1, a time of upheaval and change, both worldwide, nationally and locally:
The three nurses may have been personally impacted by the war: they will have known men who lost their lives, possibly family members or boyfriends.
The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and 1919 killed around 228,000 people in Britain and affected around a quarter of the population:
During WW1 women had opportunities to work and earn money: aspirations were higher than ten years previously.
A new trade union for nursing staff had been operating for three years in 1921.
The 1918 Act raised the school leaving age from 12 to 14; Nurse Slatter was described in 1923 as 'well-educated'.
The hospital they joined was to local people the Brentford Union Workhouse; it was renamed the West Middlesex Hospital in 1920.
Events of recent years must have had some influence on Slatter, Magee and O'Dwyer's choice of career.
The following gives more information about changes in the period 1900 to 1920 (Memories of Nursing website, see Sources):
The life of a probationery nurse in the early 1920s
From newspaper accounts, coupled with other sources (see list at end), it is concluded:
Probationers were typically 21 or older when they started. At University College Hospital, London, between 1923 and 1927, 7 probationers were 20; 29 were 21; 39 were 22; 36 were 23; 19 were 24; 11 were 25; 17 were 26; 30 were age 27 or over (Janet Likeman thesis,see below).
The probationery period was three years.
West Middlesex Hospital took in nurses from all over the UK; the three nurses who were dismissed were from Scotland, Ireland and Gloucestershire.
Probationers could leave during the first three months; Middlesex County Times 02 April 1932, carries a piece that provides more information about training:
Pay was £3 10s a month.
Nurses had dormitory accommodation, partitioned into cubicles to give some privacy.
Union representation was available: the Poor Law Workers' Trade Union was established in 1918 (Hospital and Welfare Services Union (HWSU) from 1943). However, the interventions by the union were not successful in this instance.
Discipline was strict.
Probationers worked shifts on the wards during their first year, including nights.
More about Mabel Slatter
Mabel Slatter is the only one of the three nurses who received a token amount of damages and we have her full name. Can we find out more about her? Newspaper accounts give a starting point:
Starting with her wartime service in France with a women's corps: there are no records of a 'Mabel Slatter' serving in WW1, but a Florence M Slatter joined the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps and was awarded the Victory and British Medals. She served in a theatre of war between 16 Jun 1917 and 18 Oct 1919. There is insufficient information on the medal card to be certain this is Mabel, but it seems likely.
Mabel should be recorded in the 1911 census. Searches for a Mabel Slatter, born between 1889 and 1899 and living in Gloucestershire, found two:
The 1911 census shows her birthplace was Withington, Gloucestershire, also in the 1901 census, when she was 6 and the family was at Frampton Cotterell, Gloucestershire, again in the Police Station.
Three family trees on Ancestry as at May 2021 include Florence Mabel Slatter, but none have a record of her marriage or death; this suggests the compilers are descended from a sibling of Florence Mabel rather than her. All three record her birth as being in Northleach Registration District, Gloucs, in the Jul-Sep quarter of 1894. Withington, her birthplace noted in both censuses, is within this registration district. So far, so good: the women's corps and war medal award records provide a link between Nurse Mabel Slatter and Florence Mabel Slatter; presumably she chose to use 'Mabel' when she joined West Middlesex Hospital in 1920.
There was one positive outcome from the 1923 case: it was ordered that 'Nurse Slatter and Nurse Magee should be given a testimonial as to their capabilities and character'. They needed this to start their nursing training at another hospital.
For Mabel Slatter, her hard-won testimonial enabled her to train at the Royal United Hospital Bath from 1924 to 1927. She was recorded in the Register of Nurses for 1928 as Florence Mabel Slatter of 4 Toronto Road, Horfield, Bristol, Gloucs, having registered as a nurse on 2 Dec 1927; she had qualified at Bath by examination.
Did she stay in nursing? Apparently so. In 1939 'Florence M Slatter' was a nursing sister at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, St James, Bristol. Her birth date however is different - 3 Aug 1896 - two years later than the birth in 1894. It is concluded that she pruned a couple of years off her age (perhaps compensation for the unfruitful years 1921-1923?). To be a little more certain, searches were made for any other Florence M Slatter born 1896, but the only contender, Florence Maud Slatter, born in West Ham , eliminates herself by marrying in Essex in 1916.
The 1946 Register of Nurses has an entry that matches that for 1928: Mabel was still working, in her early 50s.
Seeking later records of Mabel, the 1978, 1980 and 1982 Bristol telephone directories include 'C Slatter' at 4 Toronto Road, Horwood. Who was this? Searches of the British Newspaper Archive for '4 Toronto Road' found an obituary in 1924 for William Slatter. It mentions 'the cortege left the deceased's residence at 4 Toronto Road' and adds that he was an ex-sergeant of the Gloucestershire Constabulary who had been stationed at Filton for 15 years. He was mourned by his wife, three daughters and a son. So Mabel must have returned to her family home and lived with her widowed mother, Caroline, after leaving West Middlesex Hospital in 1921.
The 1921 census confirms a household in Filton included
The 1939 Register entry for 4 Toronto Road shows five residents; relationships (in brackets) are inferred from earlier censuses:
Eventually Mabel retired. In July 1990 the death of Florence Mabel Slatter was registered at Weston-Super-Mare, age 95 and the entry gives her birth date: 3 Aug 1894. The day/month match the 1939 Register birth date and 1894 matches the birth registration in Northleach. This convinces me she was the nurse dismissed in 1921.
Summing up, after her disastrous year at West Middlesex Hospital, Mabel achieved her ambition to become a nurse, and worked in this profession for over 20 years.
Sources and Links
Three subscription sites have been used. Janet Likeman's thesis, Memories of Nursing website and Workhouse websites are freely available.
Page published May 2021; updated April 2022